Minister: Norway’s EU membership ‘not on political agenda’

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Norway is unlikely to join the EU in the near future, but will seek increased cooperation on energy and climate goals and closer alignment of its currency with the euro in the years to come, Norwegian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Elisabeth Walaas told EURACTIV.cz in an interview.

Elisabeth Walaas is Norway’s deputy minister of foreign affairs.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Has there been any shift in public opinion towards Norway’s EU membership since the last (failed) referendum in 1994? 

No, basically the situation has been stable. I think one can say that for a long time, sometimes it has been in favour and sometimes it has been against. We couldn’t sort out any particular opinion. We have seen some changes to that but I think the picture is more or less quite stable. And the issue of membership is not on the political agenda. So it has not been put forward by any political parties to try to race towards a campaign for a new bid for membership of the European Union. 

Is there any public debate on possible Norwegian membership of the EU? If yes, which topics dominate the debate? What is the position of your government towards EU membership? 

Well, there is a debate on Norway’s relations with the EU and what is going on in the EU and how the EU develops, but it does not always lead to the question of whether Norway should join or not. There aren’t driving forces in public opinion that suggest the issue of membership should be pushed again now. 

I think most people in Norway believe we can afford to stay as a close working partner of the EU. We are closely associated as we are part of the EU internal market through the European Economic Agreement. 

So the situation is such that I don’t think either politicians or the public see it is particularly necessary for Norway to join the EU tomorrow. But of course, some people would like to see us there and some would not like to see us as a member. Basically there is no campaign on this and I don’t think there will be in the coming years either. 

Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) gives your country the right to participate in the EU internal market – but not the voice to change the legislation. Is there any discussion in your country on possible changes to this arrangement in favour of other types of cooperation with the EU? 

Well, I think there is a debate on the kind of connection that we have. Some people of course don’t consider it very democratic not to have any impact or influence on the legal acts that we are supposed to incorporate into Norwegian legislation, and others say: “OK, that’s the way this cooperation works and of course we have to live in a framework”. 

It seems that this connection with the EEA agreement is broadly supported by all political parties. It is accepted as the present contractual relationship between the EU and Norway. This doesn’t mean that everyone applauds it, because there are obviously some weaknesses. 

But on the other hand, it is an issue of very, very fundamental interest for Norway in that it allows Norwegian companies to compete on the same grounds as Czech companies or German companies and the others around. We know all its weaknesses in democratic terms, but we do cooperate and we cooperate very closely. 

As the Norwegian krone’s steady appreciation compared to the euro continues to hamper your economy, a discussion in Norway has emerged on possible entry of the euro zone regardless of EU membership. What are the recent developments in this debate? What is the position of your government? 

I think the state’s financial situation is very sound and what is actually considered necessary is for us to connect our currency to a kind of an agreement with the common currency. 

Norway is very exposed to euro-dependent economies and developments in the US dollar and other currencies. The Norwegian economic conjunctures are not always in line with the main pattern that we see in Europe. So it would be problematic if we were to elaborate it. I think we would also perhaps see some disadvantages if we joined without being a member of the EU. 

Having said that, if we were a member of the EU, I think Norway also would join the common currency. But not being a member, not being a part of the euro-zone group and the policies elaborated regarding the monetary union, that it is not a viable prospect. And it is actually not on the political agenda and I can’t remember it having been in recent years either. 

The relationship between the two currencies is pretty stable. The Norwegian crown doesn’t appreciate much compared to the euro. We don’t need to align ourselves completely with the euro. But this could…we never know what the economic situation will turn out to be in the longer term. 

Norway, as a country high in the north, can potentially be dramatically affected by global warming and climate change poses high risks for local ecosystems. What is the response of your country to these risks and what do you consider as the optimal response from the global community (especially in the context of a new post-Kyoto agreement)? 

That’s absolutely right that we are high in the north. We see it more clearly in the Arctic areas that there are definitely changes which back the argument that something serious is going to happen if we do not try to change course. 

The Norwegian government and the whole political environment have had broad consensus in Norway that it is one of the biggest, perhaps the biggest, challenges of our time to cope with climate change. We need to get a broad consensus that we should not accept a rise in temperature of more than two degrees. We know it is very ambitious, but we all need to achieve that goal. 

Norway has programmed several objectives of which many are in line with the European Union. Firstly by 2012, we will overfill our Kyoto protocol commitments by more than ten percent. Secondly by 2020 we will reduce our emissions by thirty percent, and finally we aim to be carbon neutral by 2030. 

We also see three areas where Norway can contribute to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Firstly, by investing in technology for the capture and storage of CO2. We are counting on very close cooperation with the European Union in this field to develop this technology. 

Secondly, in Bali we committed ourselves to a huge contribution to [fighting] deforestation. We have committed ourselves to spending more than five billion Norwegian crowns in the coming years, cooperating closely with countries like Brazil in order to combat the use of forests. 

The third area is to work for a global – as global as possible – regime for CO2 trading. The most promising instrument we see is the EU trade scheme for CO2 quotas. We think that developing these quota systems could contribute substantially to reducing emissions. 

So that is basically the three points we see and we strongly hope that the summit in Copenhagen in 2009 will aim to achieve broader consensus on a post-2012 regime. In order to achieve that, we need to have the Americans with us and we need to have the new strong economies like China, India and Brazil with us. It cannot be for Europe alone. 

Regarding climate change, the EU has adopted ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020 and Norway went even further committing to cut emissions by 30% by 2020. However, in the EU there are growing concerns over the potential impacts on the competitiveness of the bloc. Has Norway seen similar concerns? If yes, what is the reaction of the government? 

Of course you will always have this debate. You will have it internally at the national level, between different types of industry. At the present moment there are connections to the EU trade system, which covers 40% of Norwegian industry and of course among these 40% there are some different views. 

You will always have such a kind of debate in the global context too. The developing countries all have the same argument: that they feel it prevents them from competing at a fair level if we ask them for technological standards that they don’t have. We have to overcome this. 

It is a question of building confidence on both local and national level towards industry and stakeholders and we should try not to see these measures aimed at climate change and reducing emissions as obstacles. We should see it as a benefit and also viable as an economic benefit for the companies. 

Norway was the first country to introduce CO2 taxation on industry. It was quite a controversial theme fifteen years ago, but it means, for example, that our petrol industry has adapted to that and they invest more in developing thinner technologies.

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