Vidar Helgesen: Our EEA contribution costs almost as much as EU membership

Vidar Helgesen

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.

Vidar Helgesen is Norway’s Minister for EU Affairs. He spoke to EURACTIV’s publisher and editor Frédéric Simon, and journalist Henriette Jacobsen, in Brussels.

You said recently that the EEA agreement has brought great benefits to Norway, resulting in the incorporation of “more than 10,000 EU legal acts” into Norwegian law. Yet, Norway has had no say on the adoption of these laws because Norway is not a member of the EU. How do you explain this to Norwegian citizens?

When Norway voted against joining the EU in 1994, the EEA agreement was already in place. So the EEA was an alternative to membership since before the referendum. It has been clear to people that the intention of the agreement is to ensure Norway’s participation in the single market, and with that comes the fact that we have to incorporate all legislation that is relevant to the single market.

But you have no say when the legislation is being adopted, so how do you make your voice heard when you’re not sitting at the table?

For us it is more important than for any member state to be active early on, before the decision or the proposals are tabled. So we do take part and we have the right to take part in committees under the Commission where Norwegian experts do participate.

As long as you have knowledge and expertise and bring that to the table, our voice is heard as much as EU member states. A lot of these discussions are technical. In some areas, we are globally leading in the technical expertise.

If and when there are bigger political issues our shortcomings are more evident because we are not at the table when the decisions are made.

The Commission recently asked Norway to almost double its financial contribution to the EEA for the coming five years. Why the increase, and why do you refuse it?

We don’t want to comment on the numbers that are on the table. Our contribution to the EEA goes to the countries that are eligible under the cohesion criteria. We contribute today generously. We are prepared to continue this.

At a time when the EU is not exactly increasing its own budgets, we don’t think it’s natural for Norway to…

What was the reason put forward to Norway to this increase?

You have to ask the Commission about that. In general, we sense that they see Norway as a country that has had an impressive development. We gain from being a member of the single market. That is correct and that is also why we are definitely prepared to contribute.

Are you ready to contribute more?

We are ready to contribute generously, but what we are now seeing is actually that if we want to pursue that argument, now this year Norway will have a slimmer economic growth than the euro area and that is the first year in a long time. We are facing a new economic reality as well. That’s another dimension. 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.

Would this contribution be higher or lower if Norway was a member of the European Union?

I think this contribution goes together with our participation in various programmes. For example, we are a major contributor to Horizon 2020 where we participate fully. We are more or less on par with where we would have been as a member state.

It’s a funny situation where you have all the taxation, and no representation. We have representation in certain ways. We just don’t have the right to vote.

When your government took office, it made a promise to withdraw the punitive taxes on imported cheese and meat from the EU, which are in breach of single market rules. When will the government make good on that promise?

We made one promise. The promise was that this government will not introduce similar protectionist measures. Then we also declared that it is our attention to reverse the decision of the previous government, but I also made clear in the EEA council when we announced this that we are a minority government, and these are parliamentary decisions. Currently, there is no majority in Parliament for the government’s position.

When do you think there could be a majority?

That remains to be seen. I just have to say for now that currently there is no majority.

It’s exactly 20 years since Norway last had a referendum on EU membership. When will the next referendum take place?

The situation in Norway is now and has been consistently that 70-80% opposes joining at this stage. I believe this has a lot to do with the situation the EU has been in since the financial crisis hit, and we don’t see any reason to start any discussion on the membership issue under this government. My party, which is the biggest party in government, is the only party that still has in its manifesto that we want Norway to become a member of the EU. That’s why before the next parliamentary election, this is certainly not an issue.

I don’t think it would be in any way because of where the opinion lies now. Our ambition as a government is to do whatever we can to promote Norway’s interests in the areas that matter the most to us and that is competitiveness, energy and climate policies, research, education and innovation. Obviously, it’s also the new security situation in Europe where we now see the EU playing a much bigger role. This is a new situation for Norway. NATO is not the only game in town. But EU membership is not on the agenda as of now.

Could it become one with more growth in the EU and continuing tensions with Russia?

I don’t see that on the horizon. It’s also a fact that popular opinion can change when there are big international shifts. We don’t see such patterns of shifts as of now. Generally, I think that the Norwegian political landscape consist of a very high degree of comfort with our situation.

Do Norwegians see themselves more as Norwegians and Scandinavian rather than Europeans?

Yes. I think that’s generally the case. Not that there is necessarily a contrast between being Norwegian, Scandinavian and European.

Norway is quite strong when it comes to diplomacy. You hand out the Nobel Peace prize. You are a founder of NATO, and the Secretary General is Norwegian. You are a champion of development aid. Why not further increase your influence on global politics via the EU? Is there a desire among political parties for Norway to punch above its weight?

I think there is a high degree of political consensus about Norway seeking an active foreign policy, an active development aid and humanitarian policy, but also an active policy on Europe, but from our position of not being a member state.

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. It’s a paradox that is rooted in the political history of the EU.

Can this be explained by a lack of awareness with the Norwegian population? Anyone, considering the situation, would probably say, ‘If we have all the disadvantages of EU membership, let’s get the advantages as well’…

I think for the average citizen, there is a high degree of awareness that we are part of the single market. We have strong support for the EEA agreement which is designed for us to accommodate decisions without having a vote.

The volume of EU regulations over the years I think would be surprising to many, but that hasn’t let to any desire to reopen the debate.

Contrary to the previous government, two of the three coalition partners were in principle opposed to the EEA agreement as well, but accepted it because they were part of the government. They were quite hesitant to talk openly about the dilemmas. This government is firmly supportive of the EEA agreement, and we want to pursue an active policy in Europe. We are also very open about the dilemmas. One of the dilemmas is of course that no single international actor has a deeper influence on the Norwegian society than the EU.

We are one of the most integrated countries in Europe in terms of trade. We trade more with the EU than almost all EU countries. In terms of labour immigration, we have more EU labour immigrants than any other EU country except for Luxembourg in proportional terms.

So we are deeply integrated, and we want to be deeply integrated.

Have Norwegians been thinking that Denmark, and Sweden, perhaps, would put forward Norwegian interests, because the countries are so similar in many ways?

This is certainly in line with what the government is pursuing: close contact with our closest neighbours, clearly the Scandinavian countries and Finland, but also Germany to a very large extent. We see Germany as the most influential country in the EU. It’s a country that takes an interest in Norway and what we bring to the table.

We have strengthened our bilateral relations with Poland and we attach great importance to that. For Norway, it is very important to develop those bilateral relations and not only see our bilateral relations as something in Brussels, but something that we do in Berlin, Warsaw, London, Stockholm and Paris.

Talking about important EU member states, Britain is one of them, and it has an important election coming up with one of the issues being leaving the EU. Do you think Britain would benefit or lose from leaving?

I was actually invited to give a speech in London some weeks back about this issue, and I was very careful to say that the Brits have to make up their minds about what will serve their interests.

From a Norwegian perspective, we think that we would be greatly served and we think that the EU would be served by Britain remaining in the EU. I also added that I have a hard time seeing Britain not being part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). I also have a hard time imagining that Britain should not be part of the foreign ministerial meetings in the EU. Last year, there were 20 foreign ministerial meetings in the EU and three in NATO. So where does the ongoing calibration of Russia policy and Ukraine policy develop? It’s in the EU.

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.

Have you shared some of Norway’s own experiences to try to convey that message?

Essentially, I have three messages. One is the new foreign and security policy. The EU is playing a stronger role. The fact that Norway is a member of NATO, but not the EU, means that we experience this. I don’t think that Britain necessarily thought a great deal of it because once you are involved in organisations, there is a natural flow of things. When I made that point, I noted that many hadn’t given that much thought and that security policy hasn’t really been part of the debate and it probably should be.

Secondly, our experience with the EEA agreement is that it serves us well. Whether it would serve Britain well is for the Brits to determine.

I’m not sure the ‘accept all without the right to vote’ really matches British self-perception.

Thirdly, in view of global competition, for TTIP and the need for Europe to gain competitiveness, continued British membership would be a great benefit for Europe.

You mentioned security aspects. Energy is increasingly being seen in that context, and the EU presented plans recently for an energy union, which came very much as a reaction to the situation with Russia. What do you think can be Norway’s contribution? Can Norway, for example, replace Russia as Europe’s primary supplier of gas?

Well, we are a big supplier of natural gas to Europe. We are also increasingly a supplier of hydro power. We are now building the water cables to Germany and Britain. In that we will play a key role in the greening of the power and energy mix in Europe.

We are very close to what we can deliver in terms of natural gas. There is space for some increase over the next few years, but not in a significant way.

We do emphasise that decisions in this field should be based on market principles. It should be commercial decisions. We support the idea and priority of building energy infrastructure, connecting Europe in a much better way.

There are no extra pipelines, for example, being envisaged in relation to the Netherlands?

There are several ideas floating about new pipelines. Again, those would be commercial decisions, but obviously part of the commercial calculous would be if there would be EU funding for such projects. We don’t engage as the government as such in those discussions. We support infrastructure development and we do believe that sound market based policies are the best way to give potential investors the long-term horizon in the EU.

That’s why we argue against a joint purchasing mechanism because it would interrupt the functioning of the market and send the wrong message to potential investors. Politicians shouldn’t add to the uncertainty.

You said EU funding could play a decisive role. Are you thinking of the Juncker Plan?

Yes, the Juncker investment plan, and the energy union. Both raise points for new infrastructure. There is this list of priorities and projects in energy and infrastructure, and obviously those are elements that would be important when commercial actors are to make decisions.

Isn’t it incredibly strange that the Commission is looking east to dictatorships, instead of a stable democracy to the north like Norway, for help?

Europe needs to diversify the energy sources and that’s a key element of the energy union. We need to look at energy where it exists. It exists in democracies, and also exists in non-democracies. I think building infrastructure is a good thing, regardless.

Norway can’t, in the short term, replace Russia.

Why is the Commission not coming to you?

I’m not suggesting that they are not coming to us. I’m not suggesting that there is not an interest in Norwegian gas. When we get signals from different countries. We direct them to our national oil company, or other actors in this field.

What has been the impact on the Norwegian economy of the Russian sanctions? What would be the right moment to stop them?

I think the key to the decision to stop them lies in Moscow. We stand united with the EU and the Americans in responding to the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

We are a neighbouring country to Russia. We have a maritime border. We have good relations with Russia, but we can’t accept in this event that land borders in Europe are changed by military means. This is why we don’t think it is up to the EU or the transatlantic community to determine when sanctions should be lifted.

In terms of the impact, have you quantified it?

Not really, but our estimates are that alongside Poland, Norway is the country that has been the hardest hit by the combination of EU sanctions and Russian countermeasures, giving that the EU sanctions also cover the energy area. Some Norwegian contracts have been hit by this. 70-80% of our sea food export, mainly salmon export, has been hit. 70% of (what we) export to Russia is salmon. That has been hit by the ban.

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