Britain’s membership in the European Union is vital for the bloc’s foreign and security policies, but it would not be a safer place if it was to leave the EU altogether, warned Vidar Helgesen, Norway’s Minister for EU Affairs.
Mr Helgesen, who was speaking in London at the invitation of British Influence, a pro-EU think tank, said, “It is evident that without Britain in the EU, Europe will be far less effective and forceful in foreign relations.”
“Britain’s influence and resources are crucial for the future development of the EU’s foreign, development, security and defense policies…The EU will not be stronger without Britain,” said Helgesen.
The continent is facing the most serious threat to its security since the Second World War over the crisis in Ukraine, according to Helgesen who was impressed by the “remarkable resolve” shown by the EU towards Russia.
“Policy towards Russian and Ukraine are primarily taking place within the EU framework,” said Helgesen. “Never has the role of the EU in an international crisis been more important.”
Norway on the fringes
The growing importance of the EU in foreign relations has come at the expense of declining influence of NATO, the minister continued. This development has left Norway, a non-EU NATO member, on the fringes of decisions relating to European security.
“It is a dramatic development that we [Norway] are not at the table when policies so critical to our security are determined.”
Norway faces a similar dilemma regarding its membership of the European Economic Area. UK membership of the EEA has been one of the alternatives put forward by those who want the UK to leave the Union.
According to Helgesen, despite not being an EU member, Norway is more heavily integrated into the Union than the UK.
The EU accounts for a greater percentage of foreign trade in Norway, a member of the passport-free Schengen area. But as a result, Norway is unable to vote on legislation it would have to enact, a situation Helgesen referred to as “email democracy” with Norway “merely consulted” on EU decision making.
“I have a hard time seeing the UK, with your global ambition, dedication and contributions, being comfortable with such an arrangement,” Helgesen told the London audience.
“The single market is largely your achievement, and it will both widen and deepen in the coming years. New growth opportunities will emerge. New rules will be developed. I believe opportunities will be greater and regulations will be more sensible if the UK takes part in shaping them.”
British Influence Director Peter Wilding said, “No way does Norway offer a better alternative to our EU membership.”
The view was echoed by economist Vicky Pryce, who told EurActiv none of the potential alternatives offer the same level of benefits as continuing membership of the EU.
Britain's ruling Conservative party have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017 if they win May's general election.
The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, said he would campaign for the UK to stay in the EU, but only if was able to reform, saying “Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union.”
Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party has also considered an EU referendum but said it would only do so if there was a substantial further shift of powers from London to Brussels.
- 7 May 2015: UK general election
- 2017: Proposed year of referendum on UK membership of the EU