8 December 2014

How Norway beats the EU


It is a fixed rule of public debate that, when you draw a parallel with another country, however narrow and technical, you are guaranteed – guaranteed – to be told an unrelated fact about that country. You think that we could learn from Singapore’s system of transferable healthcare accounts? “Ah, but Singapore is an autocracy!” You like Switzerland’s referendum-based democracy? “Ah, but the Swiss took Nazi gold!”

These replies are often nonsense. Even when they’re true, they’re almost never germane.

So it is with Norway, a handy example of how a country can prosper by having a free-trade relationship with the EU instead of joining the Brussels political institutions. Norway’s success annoys Euro-enthusiasts, who often tie themselves in knots explaining that Norway is a special case, that it’s not doing nearly as well as you’d think and that, in any case, it’s not properly sovereign.

You can see why they’re disconcerted. Norway is, on most measures, the most successful country in the world. I don’t make that claim lightly. It has consistently ranked first (ahead of Switzerland and Australia) in the UN’s Human Development Index, which measures quality of life, literacy, longevity and the like. It also tops the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index (again pulling just ahead of Switzerland – spot the connection).

So out come the irrelevant and false assertions. “Norway has oil! Three quarters of its laws come from the EU! It’s governed by fax from Brussels!” There are so many responses to these sneering and misleading claims that it’s hard to know where to start. But I’ll have a go. Here are a few of the more obvious retorts.

  1. Norwegian opposition to EU membership is settled and solid.

It has been more than a decade since any poll showed support for the EU even getting close to the halfway mark. The latest survey, published last week, showed an anti-EU majority among supporters of every single political party. Only 25 per cent of Norwegians want to start talks on membership, with 63 per cent opposed. This is worth stressing, because EU supporters, including the BBC, like to trot out the odd Norwegian politician who is in that 25 per cent and treat his views as authoritative. It’s rather as if the Norwegian media were to treat Peter Mandelson as representative of British opinion.

  1. Norway participates fully in the European single market.

According to the EU’s own website: “The EEA Agreement is concerned principally with the four fundamental pillars of the Internal Market, ‘the four freedoms’, i.e. freedom of movement of goods, persons, services and capital. It does not cover agriculture and fisheries.” Nor foreign policy, defence, immigration, criminal justice, regional policy or human rights. Not a bad deal, eh? Small wonder that, whatever its imperfections, Norwegians prefer it to EU membership.

  1. Norway applies only 9 per cent of EU regulations and directives.

This can’t be stressed too often. Supporters of EU membership, including Nick Clegg, Open Europe and the BBC, have all airily averred that “three quarters of Norway’s laws” come from Brussels. That claim is – I’m afraid there is no way of putting this gently – a lie. The data are published by EUR lex and the EFTA Secretariat: they show Norway actually adopted only 9.05 per cent of EU directives and regulations. Between 2000 and 2013, Norway had to adopt 4,724 EU legal acts – almost all of them on minor, technical questions, which required no legislation in the Storting, and often on questions where it made sense for Norway to harmonise for reasons of economy of scale. Those who regard these 4,724 acts as an erosion of Norwegian sovereignty seem strangely unfussed about 52,183 directives and regulations that the United Kingdom and other EU states had to adopt over the same period.

  1. In any case, no one is proposing precisely to copy Norway.

The reason Norway, unlike Switzerland, has to apply any EU legal acts at all is, frankly, that its pro-EU leaders have never accepted the result of the 1994 referendum, and continue to hanker after membership. The European Economic Area was only ever intended as a transitory stage, a preparation for full membership. The automatic adoption of EU laws made sense as a speedy way of taking on the full acquis communautaire in advance of accession; but no one imagined, in the early 1990s, that Norway would reject EU membership and still be bound by EEA rules more than 20 years later. Swiss politicians accepted their voters’ verdict; Norwegian politicians didn’t – and haven’t. In consequence, while Norway unquestionably has a better deal than Britain, Switzerland has a better deal than either, and is the preferred option of most British Eurosceptics. (For a full explanation of the difference between the Norwegian and Swiss models, see here.)

  1. Norway has influence in the world.

Its diplomats were active in negotiating the peace deal in Sri Lanka and the terms of separation for South Sudan, as well as in South East Asia. They also, of course, organised what became the Oslo Accords between Israelis and Palestinians. Norway, to remind, you, has a population of five million. Britain’s is 63 million.

  1. Who uses faxes these days?

The “fax diplomacy” jibe is more revealing than Europhiles intend. They call their opponents backward-looking, then they start blathering about fax machines. Get with the beat, daddio! In the twenty-first century, what matters isn’t size, but flexibility. If size were all that counted, China would be wealthier than Hong Kong, Indonesia than Singapore – and the EU than Norway. The EU is a child of its time, reflecting the corporatist assumptions of the 1950s, when the future was thought to lie with large conglomerates. In the Internet age, geographical proximity barely matters. Euro-scepticism is in tune with the spirit of the age. Look upon Norway, all you Euro-nostalgics, and see what you might be if only you would embrace the modern world.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative Member of the European Parliament and blogs at www.hannan.co.uk. His other CapX articles can be found here.