The Anniversary Year 1814 – 1989 – 1994 – 2014

The ARENA Lecture, Oslo, 4 March 2014

"As minister responsible for EEA and EU affairs, my basic starting point is that the EEA Agreement and all our other 73 agreements with the EU allow Norway to take part in the European cooperation and to provide input in key policy areas", Vidar Helgesen said in his ARENA Lecture in Oslo on 4 March 2014.

Thank you for inviting me to give this year’s ARENA Lecture. The ARENA Centre for European Studies is an important forum – particularly for a minister responsible for EEA and EU affairs. For anyone engaged in European affairs, it is vital to understand not only what is happening in Europe, but also why it is happening. And what’s more, we need to understand developments as they are happening. ARENA’s work is important in this respect. And part of the reason for having a separate minister for EEA and EU Affairs was precisely to promote discussion and debate on Europe.

The year 2014 is an anniversary year. The Norwegian Constitution is 200 years old. The EEA Agreement is 20 years old. It is 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And here I would like to mention one more anniversary: ARENA is also 20 years old, just like the EEA Agreement. I have great respect for this research community and not least for Johan P. Olsen, who understood early on – earlier than most – that more knowledge was needed on Europe and its significance for Norway. He helped make “Europeanisation” a concept both in academia and in the Norwegian public debate. From what I can gather, he hasn’t let his pensioner status prevent him from continuing his work on the processes of political change in Europe. I – along with many others – am very thankful for this.   

Developments in Europe over the past few days give us reason to recall another anniversary: this year it will be 100 years since shots were fired in Sarajevo, triggering the outbreak of the First World War. Although history never repeats itself, we can always learn from it. Even in today’s Europe we see evidence of classic great power manoeuvring, nationalism with ethnic undertones and the notion that force may be used as a last resort. One of the main reasons for developing the EU was to prevent displays of classic great power politics and their unfortunate consequences; countries were willing to surrender sovereignty in the interests of furthering cooperation to promote freedom and peace. At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, we hoped that this would become a pan-European way of thinking. Today we have to acknowledge that these hopes were not realistic. While continuing to base our policy on a pan-European spirit of cooperation and partnership, we must also recognise that it takes two to tango. What we are now seeing in Europe is not only the most serious crisis between East and West since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is also a stark meeting of two world views, of two different approaches to international cooperation. Faced with a choice between a zero-sum game and cooperation, there should be no doubt as to where we stand.    

In this lecture I would like to focus on the first two anniversaries I mentioned: those of the adoption of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814 and the EEA Agreement in 1994. Why? Because both these events, each in their own way, have set the framework for Norway’s place in Europe – and for our European policy in 2014. An anniversary is an opportunity to pause and reflect on where we are, where we have come from and, perhaps most importantly, where we are headed.  

So let me turn first to the Constitution of 1814. One of the oldest constitutions in the world – the second oldest still in force – and radical for its time. It was and continues to be the cornerstone of Norway as an independent nation, and a symbol of national liberation and national identity. It was also inspired by the European Age of Enlightenment, and the principles of the rule of law, the balance of power, tolerance, freedom of belief and expression. This was not a given then, nor is it now. But for me this is precisely what European cooperation is about: common rules for the protection of the individual, for protection against the abuse of power. Equal treatment.

This anniversary is therefore also a celebration of fundamental European values and a celebration of the best that Europe has to offer. Principles and rights we can be proud of, and that have inspired the development of constitutions in other countries. But the development of the Norwegian Constitution in 1814 was not just a process involving ideas and ideals. It was also a response to the political realities, the great power politics of the time, which resulted in the union with Sweden.

In a recent interview in Aftenposten, one of our leading contemporary artists, Håkon Bleken, suggested that Europeans tend to proceed cautiously as if “feeling their way”. I think it is a good description. Europe can often appear cautious on the global stage. But this reflects the importance Europe gives to democracy – and the fact that a democratic approach to international cooperation is a new development. Our own Constitution is itself a guarantor of our right to exercise caution, to ask questions, to have different opinions from our neighbours, and to change our minds.

The Constitution is a custodian of universal principles, something to hold on to, during times of change and shifting trends. At the same time, any constitution is drawn up and developed in its own political and historical context – both national and international. This can pose dilemmas. How to address increasing globalisation and European integration, for example. These issues are discussed in ARENA’s most recent book, Det norske paradox (“The Norwegian paradox” – Norwegian only).

The book points out the inherent tension that lies in the fact that the Constitution is a framework for the state, a national symbol, while at the same time a custodian of universal individual rights. A tension that has become apparent in our age of European integration and that is giving new relevance to certain questions: How is European integration affecting the status of the constitution? Should our individual rights only be realised within national borders? How can the rights of individuals be protected at national and supranational level? Is democratic governance inextricably linked to the nation state, or is it also possible to have democracy at the European level?    

Several of these issues are raised and discussed in ARENA’s book. And this discussion enhances our understanding, even though no definitive answers are given, or maybe precisely for that reason. What is important is that these issues are raised, that the dilemmas, paradoxes and questions are formulated and discussed in both the Norwegian and the European public debate. And this is precisely where Europe’s strength lies – in its ability to ask questions, critical questions if necessary, and at the same time accept that there may be more than one answer. Its ability to tolerate differences of opinion. To take a democratic approach to the realities of the present day.

In my view, it is this democratic approach that is the foundation of Europe’s political edifice today. Since the Second World War, Europe has built up institutions that make it possible to resolve conflicts through peaceful means, to overcome differences and find solutions. The underlying idea is that cooperation benefits everyone in the long run, even though it may not benefit absolutely everyone at any one time. One of the key features of many European institutions is that while they have majority decision-making mechanisms in place, their dynamics favour consensus. At the heart of this is the recognition of the need to work to resolve differences and reach agreement through discussion and debate. We have the OSCE, which addresses pan-European challenges; we have the Council of Europe, which has gained an increasingly strong voice; we have the sub-regional institutions; and we have the EU – the most extensive and closest cooperation of them all.  

And our particular gateway into the EU is the EEA Agreement, which is also celebrating its anniversary this year. This agreement gives us access to the very foundation of stability in Europe today: common rules. And like the Constitution, it includes rules for the protection of the individual and rules for protection against abuse of power. The EEA Agreement is a guarantor of equal treatment. Thus – like the Constitution – it is part of a broader European legal tradition.

The EEA is 20 years old this year. But it was originally conceived in 1989. That was the year when Jacques Delors launched the idea of establishing a large European Economic Area with common rules. And it was also the year when courageous people took to the streets in the autumn darkness and tore down the Wall. Twenty-five years ago. Another anniversary worth celebrating. It was about choosing the path for the future. It was about becoming part of the European family. And today when we look to Ukraine and the tensions between East and West that are evident there, we are reminded of the importance of belonging to this family. 

The EEA Agreement is our gateway into the European family. Conceived in the 1980s, born at the beginning of the 1990s, it was a child of its time. I’ll come back to this. But first I would like to stress that the EEA Agreement has worked well for Norway and continues to do so. One of Norway’s objectives when negotiating the Agreement was to be able to continue on a course that we had followed through much of the 20th century – close integration into European affairs, an open economy, and acceptance for the principle of free trade. And we have succeeded in this. The gains have been greater than many had hoped, and the losses lower than many had feared. The Government will build further on this.

Why will the Government continue to build on the EEA Agreement? Because the EEA Agreement has allowed Norway to fulfil its main objective, namely to ensure that Norway can participate in the internal market, and benefit from the free movement of goods, services, capital and persons. We see the results of this every day in our daily lives, in our work and in our business activities. I would like to mention three areas in particular.

Firstly, Norway is part of the internal market on an equal footing with the EU member states. Norwegian companies, organisations, the labour market and consumers reap great benefits from this every day. Much of our export industry is located in rural districts, and the EEA Agreement has helped to maintain the industrial base in these areas. Despite the emergence of hungry tiger economies in the East, the EU is our largest trading partner by far. More than 80 % of our exports go to the EU, and 70 % of our imports come from there.  

Secondly, it is not just the business sector that has benefited from the EEA Agreement. Since the beginning of the 1990s, thousands of Norwegians have taken part in research and education exchanges and a wide range of cooperation projects. The new EU programme for Education, Training, Youth, and Sport (Erasmus+) will enable even more people to take part. Our participation in EU research programmes allows Norwegian research groups – such as ARENA – to develop partnerships with outstanding research groups both in and outside Europe. The EU’s latest research programme, Horizon 2020, is the biggest research and innovation programme in the world, and represents an excellent opportunity for Norwegian companies and research groups. 

Thirdly, Labour immigration. Since the eastward enlargement of the EU – and hence the EEA – in 2004, Norway has been one of the countries in the EEA that has received most labour immigrants from Central Europe in relation to its population. Labour immigration to Norway from the EU has enhanced business activity and profitability and benefited industries in rural districts such as agriculture, fisheries and shipbuilding. Labour migration is a natural result of perhaps the most important of the four freedoms of the internal market: the free movement of persons – the fact that each and every one of us has the freedom to seek employment in a community of 31 countries and 500 million people, all with equal rights.     

The free movement of persons in Europe makes it possible to even out disparities and create growth and prosperity – for individuals and for society as a whole. Some 100 000 Polish people are currently resident in Norway. As are 50 000 Lithuanians – out of a total Lithuanian population of 3 million. These people have come to Norway because of the job opportunities on offer here. Tomorrow, it could be Norwegians who need – or wish – to look for work in other countries. The free movement of persons allows individuals, rather than people like me who are part of the Government, to decide where they work and live. This is how it should be. Again, what this is about is the principle of equal treatment. Let me add this point: the principle of equal treatment also applies to our welfare state. We cannot differentiate between people who do the same work and pay tax along the same lines in the same country. The extent and scope of the welfare state should, and will be discussed, but the principle of equal treatment should be at its core.   

The EEA Agreement has been robust enough to weather major changes in Europe, including EU enlargement, and it has been flexible enough to allow cooperation between Norway and the EU to grow. The EEA Agreement is dynamic in that new rules are steadily incorporated. It does not allow us to participate in all emerging aspects of EU cooperation. But it has nevertheless served as a springboard for our cooperation with the EU – for example in the field of justice and home affairs, as well as in the areas of defence, foreign and security policy. In this way, Norway has cooperated more and more closely with the EU in an increasing number of areas. We have chosen cooperation rather than isolation, so that we can promote Norwegian views and play a part in solving transnational challenges that concern us all.

That said, the EEA Agreement is not perfect. As I mentioned earlier, it was developed in response to plans to establish the internal market in the mid-1980s. The Agreement we speak so positively about today – in 2014 –was therefore largely designed to address the challenges of the 1980s. Since then we have seen major upheavals in Europe.  

The EC has become the EU. Cooperation has been extended into new areas, and the old pillar structure has gone. EU policy increasingly cuts across different policy areas and sectors. The German and the Finnish mark, for example, have been replaced by the euro. The EU, originally 12 countries solely in Western Europe, has expanded to include 28 countries across the whole continent. With so many different voices at the table, it is harder for us to make our voice heard, and fewer countries are able draw on a collective EEA memory. Because we are out of sight, we are often out of mind. That is the nature of the EEA. And, in my view, it is our job to find ways to compensate for that. If we are to make ourselves heard, we need to take part in the arenas open to us under the EEA Agreement. And we also need to have good arguments that win the support of others. To exert an influence, we need to get involved.  

I would like to add, however, that, as a general rule, we participate in the internal market on an equal footing with the other countries. This is one of Norway’s overriding interests and one that we need to actively defend. We do not need to be equally involved in all matters in order to exert an influence. More often than not, our interests coincide with those of the EU. EU policy is usually good for Norway too. And when 28 countries in Europe agree, we usually agree too. But not always, and this is why we need to think and act strategically. We need to identify what is important to us. Let’s take one of the most obvious areas – climate and energy policy – where significant developments are already under way. 

This spring the EU will finalise its policy framework for climate and energy for the period up to 2030. This touches on core Norwegian interests. That is why the Government submitted input to the EU last autumn on what we believe the main elements of this policy should be. The European Commission presented its proposal in January, and this is now being considered by the European Council and the European Parliament. The aim is for the heads of state or government to reach agreement in March. 

The feedback we have received from Brussels is that the Commission is interested in hearing about Norway’s experience and appreciates being able to draw on our expertise. Many of the points in the Commission’s proposal are in line with our recommendations. A key element of the proposed framework is an ambitious target for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, with a more robust and effective emissions trading system as the most important tool for achieving this. Greater priority is also given to ensuring that energy markets are integrated and function smoothly.

Cooperation in the EU has developed considerably since 1994, in both breadth and depth. In periods of growth and optimism in Europe, this process of integration has tended to be expanded to include more countries. Periods of economic stagnation in Europe have tended to bring deeper integration. We are seeing this now, in the wake of the biggest crisis Europe has undergone since the Second World War. Predictions that the euro cooperation would collapse did not come true. But the financial crisis uncovered major weaknesses in the European financial system and has led to closer cooperation and the development of supranational solutions in this area. Several of these solutions affect the internal market and as such go straight to the heart of our cooperation with the EU. Three new financial supervisory authorities have been established, and this has implications for Norwegian financial institutions. We want to be involved, but Norwegian participation in these bodies is in principle incompatible with the Norwegian Constitution because they have the power to make decisions that are directly applicable to private entities. This is an example of a European policy dilemma with no fixed answer – at the interface between law and politics. The EFTA states need to work with the EU to find a solution we can live with. I can honestly say that this will be no easy task but I am confident that we will succeed. And we will succeed without compromising the principles of the Constitution or Norwegian companies’ need for homogeneous legislation.

There are indeed challenges connected with the EEA Agreement, as I have mentioned. And there are democratic weaknesses in our form of association with the EU, as ARENA and many others have pointed out. Primarily because we are not at the table where the decisions are being made. And some of us think that we should be. But the fact is that we are not, and as a result we have to make the best of the situation as it is. Some researchers at ARENA have described the EEA Agreement as a form of democratic self-harm. I think this is going too far. Let me explain why.  

Firstly, the EEA Agreement was approved by a three-quarters majority of members of the Storting (Norwegian parliament). And when a small majority voted against EU membership in the referendum in 1994, it was in the knowledge that the EEA Agreement would be an alternative to EU membership. Since then all six parliaments and all seven governments – regardless of their political colours – have supported the EEA Agreement and Norway’s other agreements with the EU, and governed on the basis of them. This was by no means a given in an area that has at times been at the centre of severe political storms.

Secondly, the EEA Agreement and Norway’s other agreements with the EU offer opportunities. And the formalities are important here. The EEA Agreement gives us an opportunity to participate in the development of EU legislation at an early stage of the process, although there is no guarantee that we will be able to exert an influence. But this goes for the EU member states too. We have channels open to us and opportunities to participate. And I would like to stress – and all of you here today are more aware of this then anyone – that the EU is a vast communication and negotiating machine. If you can get involved at an early stage and have sensible arguments, you will be listened to.

My point is that we mustn’t be blinded by the limitations to European cooperation. Nor should we be blinded by Norway’s form of association with the EU. Many countries involved have exceptions and special arrangements and do not participate in all aspects of the cooperation. Take for example our neighbouring countries Sweden and Denmark, which have remained outside the eurozone, or the UK and Ireland, which have opted not to participate in the Schengen cooperation. I am not saying that the distinction between members and non-members is irrelevant – quite the contrary. But my point is that the European cooperation has always had and continues to have different groupings and configurations. And it is just this, the fact that the EU has managed to strike a balance between diversity and homogeneity that has enabled the process of European integration to move forward. Maybe not as effectively as we would sometimes wish, but forward all the same. On the whole, solutions have been found that ultimately benefit most of those involved.  

As minister responsible for EEA and EU affairs, my basic starting point is that the EEA Agreement and all our other 73 agreements with the EU allow Norway to take part in the European cooperation and to provide input in key policy areas. When I or other members of the Government meet colleagues from EU institutions and EU member states, it is to discuss specific issues. What we should do to combat global warming, what we can do to increase Europe’s competitiveness, what we can do to prevent accidents like the one off the coast of Lampedusa last autumn, how we can best regulate air traffic – to mention a few areas. This is European policy. But, above all, it is politics. And politics, as we know, is the art of the possible. 


We are in an anniversary year. And as I mentioned at the beginning of this lecture, anniversary celebrations are an opportunity to pause and reflect on where we are now and where we are headed, to take a wider perspective, and not least to discuss what we see before us. In the discussion on Norway and Europe, on the EU, the Constitution and the EEA, different views and voices can be heard. This makes for a lively discussion. I am pleased that ARENA and the University of Oslo are involved, that they are taking part in the debate and helping to ensure that we are well informed about what is happening and that we have the keys to understanding how and why it is happening.  

This is vital if we are to have an open debate that takes us forward and makes us wiser and better able to make good decisions. I hope the discussion about the opportunities, paradoxes, dilemmas and issues in Norway’s relationship with the EU is kept alive long after this anniversary year ends.  It is in the best interests of Norwegian democracy.

Thank you.