EXCLUSIVE / The UK debate about leaving the European Union has overlooked its consequences in terms of security, foreign policy and transatlantic relations, says Vidar Helgesen in an exclusive interview with EurActiv.
Norway’s minister for EEA and EU Affairs, Vidar Helgesen, issued a strong warning to Britain against leaving the EU.
The topic is high on the British election campaign agenda, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising Britons, an in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership if he is re-elected.
But Helgesen says there are some important aspects of EU membership that have been left out of the British debate so far.
For example, a British exist – or ‘Brexit’ – could leave the UK out of the comprehensive trade agreement being negotiated with the United States.
‘Brexit’ would also leave the UK out of important EU foreign ministers meetings addressing the standoff with Russia over Ukraine.
“Leaving that position of influence… I have a hard time seeing that. I don’t think it would serve Europe, but ultimately that is the British people who should determine that,” he said.
Norway is not a member of the EU, but is closely associated with the Union via its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA). This means Oslo has had to implement more than 10,000 EU legal acts without the country being present at the table when the rules were being adopted.
This would probably be hard to accept for Britain, he said, telling EurActiv: “I’m not sure the ‘accept all without the right to vote’ really matches British self-perception.”
Britain is at risk of losing influence on trade and global issues if it leaves the EU, a topic which has been high on the agenda ahead of the general elections which take place today (7 May).
No new Norwegian referendum
Helgesen’s own Conservartive party is pro-EU, but the current coalition government has no intention of holding a new referendum on EU membership, because public opinion is still strongly opposed to the idea, he said.
Norway has a strong voice in foreign policy thanks to its NATO membership and its involvement in development aid. But when it comes to EU affairs, the Scandinavian country has to be active much earlier on, making its voice heard at initial discussions at expert level, as it doesen’t sit at the table when decisions are being made.
“There is very clearly a paradox in that the single international actor that influences the Norwegian society and our daily life the most – the EU – is the only big international organisation that we are not a member of,” the Norwegian minister said.
Norway has been criticised by the European Commission for its slow or incomplete implementation of EU single market rules. The country’s previous government introduced punitive taxes on some EU imported products, bringing the price of imported EU cheese and meat up by 277%, and the price of imported hydrangea flowers by 72%.
Norway has no intention of becoming an EU member, although being part of the EEA costs the country almost as much as being a full EU member, says Vidar Helgesen.
Even though Helgesen said his government opposes these “protectionist measures”, he says the taxes cannot be withdrawn as there is currently no majority in the Norwegian parliament to do so.
In what could be interpreted as an act of retaliation, the Commission has asked Norway to increase its EEA contribution over the next five years by a substantial but undisclosed amount, potentially double the current contribution.
As a result, Norway’s EEA membership contribution is now “more or less on par” with what the country would pay if it joined the EU, he said.
“We’re not a country in a deep economic crisis. We want to contribute, but we do think it has to be a reasonable contribution,” Helgesen said.
Norway last had a referendum on EU membership on 16 October 1994, but the country decided only to join the European Economic Area (EEA). Today, Norway's trade is dominated by the EU and Norway is the EU’s 4th most important partner.
Norway to EU trade amounted to €91.85 billion in 2008, primarily energy supplies (only 14.1% is manufactured products). EU exports to Norway were worth €43.58 billion, and primarily constituted manufactured products.
- 7 May 2015: British general elections.