Work for a better EU as you see it, or suffer a worse one

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The 'Norwegian model' is often presented as an alternative to EU membership for the UK. [Statsministerens kontor/Flickr]

A Brexit with hopes for a Norway-inspired EU relationship would in fact leave Britain with a true democratic deficit and, certainly from a UK perspective, a far less attractive EU to deal with, writes Jonas Helseth.

Jonas Helseth is the director of Bellona Europa, the EU policy office of the Bellona Foundation.

Although David Cameron already ruled it out in October last year, the ‘Norway option’ keeps being spun by the UK Leave camp as an attractive alternative to EU membership. Having worked as advisor at the Mission of Norway to the EU, I feel obliged to point out that such a move by the UK would not only be acting against the British interest, but against all who desire a more flexible and open Europe.

Norway, an EU Member without a vote – the true democratic deficit.

True, Norway is wealthy, and is doing quite well for itself – as such it is no wonder that the country’s EU relationship model might appear attractive to others. My countryman and former colleague Paal Frisvold has recently explained why Norway’s success is not related to its being outside the EU – quite on the contrary. I will focus here on the democratic case.

In Britain, as in Norway, we often hear about the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EU. Indeed things ought to be improved in that respect, but the ‘Norway solution’ is outright anti-democratic. Norway does have EU Single Market access, but at a huge democratic cost.

I would name Norway’s non-membership of the EU an illusion: it is a member without a vote. Even Norway’s own EU minister admitted as much, followed last week by the prime minister herself. Ironically, non-member Norway is among the most diligent countries in adopting EU directives – in most cases without debate. The Norwegian parliament has grown humiliatingly used to rubber-stamping EU laws over more than two decades. When debate does arise, it generally takes place far too late to seek any changes. This delay is largely down the complete lack of Norwegian representatives in the European Parliament and Council, where decisions are made.

So why is there no outrage? Again, not without irony, it seems that although Norway twice rejected EU membership, Norwegians appear to suffer very little from all this EU regulation imposed on them.

Tipping the scales in a post-Brexit Europe

The UK has nearly 13 times Norway’s population. Many Norwegians seem to assume that our vote would seldom tip the scales in EU decision-making. But given the horse-trading nature of EU politics, as a member Norway might more often have punched above its weight than its people assumes. Finland, with a similar population size, has regularly proven that possible.

But indeed, unlike Britain, Norway would rarely be setting the agenda. Its absence from EU decision-making should therefore matter mainly to Norwegians, and less so to others. But should the UK decide to leave, the scales would tip for real. A European Union without the UK would, without doubt, be a European Union far less attractive to the British, as British influence disappears. But that would be the very EU with which the UK would need to negotiate Single Market access following a Brexit.

Like Norway, the UK would be obliged to rubber-stamp EU regulations to keep that market access: regulations dominated by the politics of its neighbours, without any British influence, regulations with which the UK would certainly be less comfortable. The Dutch, the Nordics and other flexibility-seeking EU countries would perhaps at times feel increasingly isolated. But more than any, the British would suffer.

Time to look into the Great British mirror

British influence in EU politics is critical in retaining a balanced EU that can secure our welfare and progress. It is in Britain’s interest to refine and widen that influence, rather than leaving the playing field entirely to other EU powers. Perhaps it is worthwhile taking a look into the mirror:

If you assume that Great Britain, ‘unshackled’ from its EU chains, can make a real difference on the world stage, why can you not believe it can provide that same leadership in Brussels?

The choice you are now facing is this: work for a better EU as you see it, or suffer a worse one.

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