Speech/statement | Date: 2017-04-18 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs
By Minister of EEA and EU Affairs Frank Bakke-Jensen (the Storting, 18 April)
'Our European policy is a collective national effort. Cooperation in Europe is about the values we believe in and the value creation we depend on. These are things we must safeguard, not jeopardise' Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said in his biannual address to the Storting 18 April.
The EU and European countries are our most important partners. No other international actor has a greater impact on Norway than the EU. A whole generation has grown up with the opportunity to study, work and settle anywhere in the EEA. We have had the right to social security benefits and healthcare throughout the EEA. We have come to take these opportunities for granted in Norway. The British people now risk losing them.
Despite this, some people argue that we should follow the UK's example: that we should leave the European cooperation and abandon the EEA Agreement in favour of a free trade agreement.
The EEA Agreement gives us equal conditions of competition in a common, homogeneous market, and it gives us the right to participate in developing legislation for this market. In the Government's view, being part of this community is extremely important for the Norwegian business sector and for a range of other actors in Norwegian society.
When opponents of the EEA claim that we could get a better agreement, this raises many questions. Not least, it is important to remember that the ratio between the number of EU members and the number of EEA EFTA states is quite different today from when the EEA Agreement was negotiated. There is little reason to believe that Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland would be able to negotiate a better agreement with the EU's 28 member states today than the six EFTA states managed to negotiate with the 12 EU member states in the early 1990s.
Moreover, the EEA Agreement is about so much more than just tariffs and trade barriers. It is about opportunities and rights for us all. To study, to conduct research, and to work. It is about safe food, economic growth and employment, and cooperation to protect the environment. All made possible through common rules and common rights. And it is about solidarity and cooperation with our neighbouring countries.
However, it is also important for us to ensure that the free movement of people does not undermine the sustainability of our welfare state. Labour immigration has resulted in the export of social security benefits to other EEA countries. And there are challenges relating to irresponsible business practices and unacceptable pay and working conditions. I will return to the Government's efforts to address these challenges later in this address.
Since 1994, six parliaments and seven governments have governed Norway on the basis of the EEA Agreement. Over the last 23 years, successive governments and parliaments have resolutely upheld Norway's cooperation with the EU. Because it has served our national interests well. And because it has served Norwegians well.
The result of Turkey's referendum on constitutional amendments was very close.It is up to international election observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the Council of Europe to assess how the referendum was conducted.
The constitutional amendments that have been proposed are far-reaching. It is therefore vital that the Turkish authorities seek to secure as broad national agreement as possible on the follow-up of the referendum and implementation of the proposed amendments. And in doing so, they must take into account the internationally recognised principles of freedom of expression and the rule of law that Turkey has undertaken to uphold.
It remains to be seen whether or not the constitutional amendments will affect Turkey's relations with the EU. Given the result of the referendum, it is already clear that international and European cooperation on democracy-building will need to be high on the EU's political agenda.
On 29 March, the UK formally notified the EU of its intention to leave the Union. The EU has responded by saying that the special European Council (in an EU 27 format) will adopt the guidelines for the Brexit negotiations at a summit on 29 April. A withdrawal agreement is to be negotiated first, before negotiations begin on an agreement to regulate future relations between the UK and the EU. It is the latter agreement that is of greatest importance to Norway.
Norway will not be a party to the forthcoming withdrawal negotiations with the UK. Our task is to secure the closest possible trade policy cooperation with the UK, while safeguarding Norway's agreements with the EU.
Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear that the UK will no longer be part of the internal market. In the British Government's view, membership of the internal market is not compatible with the political aim of curbing labour immigration from EU countries.
Moreover, the UK does not wish to be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Instead, it will seek to negotiate a trade agreement that gives it the best possible access to the EU's internal market.
Because Norway is so closely integrated into the internal market, it is not just an ordinary third party to the withdrawal negotiations. It is important that the negotiated solutions are also in keeping with the EEA cooperation, where relevant. Norway would like to have the opportunity to be included in any arrangements agreed between the EU and the UK in areas that affect the internal market. This applies to both permanent and transitional arrangements.
In the withdrawal negotiations, the EU will attach particular importance to the UK's financial commitments, border-related issues, and not least the rights of EU and EEA citizens in the UK. This last question is of key importance for Norway, because it will have an impact on EEA/EFTA nationals living in the UK, and British nationals living in Norway.
Norway's aim is to negotiate some form of comprehensive bilateral trade agreement with the UK – alone, or as part of the EEA, the EFTA-3 or the EFTA-4. At the same time, it is essential that we maintain the EEA Agreement and Norway's other agreements with the EU.
It is true that the UK is a major trade partner for Norway, but the remaining EU member states are an even bigger market for Norwegian goods and services.
It is in Norway's interests to maintain the best possible relations with both the EU and the UK, and that the EU and the UK succeed in negotiating a sustainable agreement.
Hardly any countries have had more government-level meetings with the UK since the Brexit referendum than Norway. We are engaged in a constructive dialogue on trade policy issues, because we are seeking to maintain as close cooperation with the UK as possible after Brexit.
At the same time, the Government has engaged actively with the EU institutions in Brussels and with the EU 27. And when we have stated that we would like to have a close dialogue, this has been welcomed. Ensuring that the EEA cooperation continues to function well after Brexit is important for the EU. This was also the clear message conveyed by Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, when he visited Oslo earlier this year. Since then we have also had follow-up meetings with Mr Barnier's team at senior official level.
The internal market is based on common rules, not just for the trade in goods, but also for services and for the movement of capital and people. Under the EEA Agreement, Norwegian companies have full access to the EU internal market, precisely because we follow the same rules as the EU countries.
The debate since the Brexit referendum has shown quite clearly that it is difficult to gain full access to the internal market without being a member of the EU or the EEA. Full participation in the internal market is dependent on countries accepting the four freedoms and an independent dispute settlement system, like the one we have in the EEA with the EFTA Surveillance Authority and the EFTA Court.
The EEA and Norway Grants are one of the Government's most important European policy instruments. Under the slogan 'Working together for a green, competitive and inclusive Europe', we are negotiating new MoUs for the period up to 2021. A total of EUR 2.8 billion will be made available for projects in the beneficiary countries.
The annual allocation has increased by 11 % compared with the previous programme period. This increase is more or less in line with inflation in the EU during the 2009-2014 period. At the same time, we are extending the programme period from five to seven years. This partly explains why the total allocation is higher, and it gives us more time to prepare and implement programmes, which in turn will help us to achieve better results.
So far, we have signed MoUs with four beneficiary countries: Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Malta. Negotiations with the remaining 11 beneficiary countries are now well under way. The aim is to complete the negotiations by the end of 2017.
We are giving priority to areas of cooperation that are important for European competitiveness, for example through special programmes for business development and innovation, education, and research.
We will also use the Grants to strengthen civil society, defend freedom of expression and protect human rights defenders and other vulnerable groups. We are intensifying our cooperation with beneficiary states in the criminal justice sector.
Strengthening Norway's bilateral relations with the beneficiary countries is also an important part of the negotiations. In this way, Norway benefits from the EEA and Norway Grants too. Norwegian public agencies will continue to act as technical advisers for the beneficiary countries in a range of thematic areas.
The Government and the European Commission have concluded a new agreement under Article 19 of the EEA Agreement on trade in agricultural products. The agreement will soon be presented to the Storting for consideration. In the negotiations, the Government has sought to find solutions that facilitate trade while safeguarding Norway's agricultural interests. The result of the negotiations is fully consistent with Norwegian agricultural policy.
Let me mention some of the main points in the agreement. For Norway, the agreement means that there will be tariff-free quotas or tariff exemptions for exports to the EU of a range of products we already export today or that the food industry has concrete plans to export in the future. Basically, Norway has granted the EU concessions for agricultural products which are already imported subject to normal duties, or for which there is a long-term need for imports. The agreement in itself will therefore not lead to an increase in imports of these products to any significant degree.
For cheese and curd, the tariff-free import quota will be increased by 1 200 tonnes, to 8 400 tonnes. In 2016, Norway imported over 11 300 tonnes of cheese and curd from the EU, which means that a large amount of these products were imported over the quota, subject to normal duties. In the previous agreement on trade in agricultural products under Article 19, which was entered into by the Stoltenberg II Government, the import quota for cheese and curd was increased by 2 700 tonnes.
The EU's quota for beef will be increased by 1 600 tonnes, to 2 500 tonnes.
In recent years, the import duty on beef has been reduced for long periods of time, due to a market shortage in Norway. In 2016, 15 600 tonnes of beef were imported following a reduction in the import duty. The increase in the tariff-free import quota to 2 550 tonnes is therefore modest compared to existing imports and expected import needs in the coming years.
The EU has not been given concessions for mutton or lamb, as the current market situation for these products in Norway is difficult.
The quota for flowering pot-plants will be increased by NOK 12 million, to NOK 20 million. Here too, the size of the quota is within the existing level of imports. For some agricultural products that do not need tariff protection, zero tariffs have been introduced on a reciprocal basis.
The EU regulations on organic production and labelling of organic products, which made it difficult to export Norwegian seafood, have now been incorporated into the EEA Agreement. This is a positive development. The seafood industry can now resume exports of Norwegian organic salmon to the EU market.
Following the legislative decisions made by the Storting on 13 June 2016, the main legal acts establishing the European system of financial supervision were incorporated into the EEA Agreement. This important breakthrough was the result of several years' work.
However, we still have a considerable backlog of secondary legal acts on the financial markets that have not yet been incorporated into the EEA Agreement. These relate to banking, insurance and trade in securities. Together with our partners, we are giving this work high priority. Without homogenous legislation, the internal market cannot function as intended.
Europe is facing major challenges relating to migration and the refugee situation. These challenges have not been resolved, although the situation is not as dramatic as it was in 2015 and early 2016. There are still a large number of people who are willing to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in the hope of a better future. It is vital to find solutions that reduce people smuggling and the loss of life, while easing the migratory pressure on Europe.
Effective control and registration of people crossing the common external border is essential for ensuring that the Schengen cooperation functions well and for maintaining freedom of movement within Europe. Norway is participating in European efforts to in this area by contributing to border control activities and efforts to save lives. The two Norwegian vessels Siem Pilot and Peter Henry von Koss have picked up over 33 000 people since their deployment to the Mediterranean.
We are providing assistance in and around Syria, contributing to relocation efforts, and saving lives in the Mediterranean. In addition, we are seeking to strengthen the capacity of Greece, Italy and Serbia to deal with the situation, for example by relocating asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy.
In the current funding period of the EEA and Norway Grants, Norway has allocated over NOK 200 million to strengthening Greece's capacity to address the challenges relating to refugees and migrants.
There were fewer irregular crossings of the Schengen external borders by asylum-seekers and other migrants last year than the year before. However, the situation could change rapidly as a result of developments both within and outside Europe.
It is in Norway's interests that agreement is reached on a fairer distribution of asylum seekers in Europe. This is now being discussed in connection with the revision of the Dublin Regulation. We will help to find predictable and sustainable solutions. In the period 2016-2017, we will have relocated 1500 asylum-seekers from Italy and Greece. And this year Norway has offered to resettle 3 000 Syrian refugees.
The EU is giving high priority to the area of justice and home affairs. Norway will be directly affected by the outcome of the discussions, which will also cover measures to address the threats posed by terrorism and organised crime. These are complex problems that can only be addressed by common European action.
Norway's security and the security of Europe are inextricably linked. Changes in the security landscape in and around Europe mean that cooperation with the EU and the EU member states is becoming more and more important for Norway.
The importance of this cooperation is highlighted in the Government's white paper on the future course of Norwegian security policy, which will be presented in a few days' time.
In 2016, key EU member states took the initiative to intensify EU security and defence cooperation. Security and defence is also a priority area in the EU Global Strategy. Norway will follow developments in this area closely.
At the same time, Norway considers it important to ensure that EU security and defence cooperation does not detract focus or channel resources away from NATO. Any competition with NATO or duplication of NATO's structures will only weaken both organisations and could also undermine solidarity within the Alliance. There is broad agreement on this. It is vital for us that there is close and effective cooperation between NATO and the EU.
This year, the Government will therefore further develop cooperation with EU institutions and key member states in areas of common interest. In 2016, Norway contributed to the Commission's work to map, analyse and further develop the European market for defence-related products. The Government will follow the Commission's work in this area closely, including its ongoing efforts to promote the implementation of the Defence Procurement Directive.
Today's complex and demanding security situation has also had the effect of strengthening Nordic dialogue and practical Nordic cooperation.
In the past, financial arguments were what drove closer Nordic defence cooperation. Now, developments in the security situation have become the main driver of this cooperation.
The Nordic countries discuss security policy issues regularly, at both ministerial and senior official level. By sharing information and assessments, we can enhance our shared situational awareness and ensure a coordinated response, even in situations of crisis.
The Government aims to make North Norway one of the most innovative and sustainable regions in the country. Economic growth and future-oriented jobs must be created in the north in a way that takes account of environmental and social considerations. In three days' time, on 21 April, the Government will launch its updated Arctic strategy.
International interest in the Arctic is growing. The impacts of climate change are particularly pronounced in the north and this may have an impact on current business activities and communities in the region. At the same time, as increasingly large sea areas become ice-free, opportunities for new transport routes and new business activity are opening up. Globally, there is a growing need for food, energy and raw materials.
There are abundant fish and energy resources in the Arctic, and also minerals, which the world is going to need more of. Many actors are naturally keen to take advantage of the new economic opportunities to be found in the region.
International interest in the Arctic is creating new opportunities for cooperation for Norway, but it also brings challenges. A greater number of actors is seeking to influence the Arctic's future development.
Norway has maintained a dialogue on the Arctic with EU institutions for years. This continuity and our steadfastness have been noticed. Since 2014, our dialogue with the EU has been intensified, in connection with the development of the EU's Joint Communication on a new integrated EU policy for the Arctic.
We have welcomed the Joint Communication, which was presented by the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in April 2016. We made a number of contributions to this work along the way. I am pleased that the Joint Communication strikes a good balance between sustainable use of natural resources and environmental protection.
Following the publication of the Joint Communication, the European Parliament has also adopted a resolution on the Arctic. This resolution does not set out the EU's Arctic policy. Nor is it binding on EU member states or EU institutions. It could, however, be used politically by actors that are seeking to influence the EU's or EU member states' Arctic policy. It has therefore been important for us to follow this process closely too.
We have worked systematically through political and diplomatic channels to ensure that the European Parliament's resolution is as far as possible in line with Norway's interests.
Our main message has been that the sustainable use of resources is not incompatible with steps to address climate change and protect the environment. Another important point that Norway has emphasised is that issues of jurisdiction in the Arctic are regulated under the Law of the Sea.
We agree with many of the recommendations in the European Parliament's resolution. Of particular importance to us is the fact that it underlines the importance of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as the legal framework for the Arctic. However, it also contains some recommendations on marine management, relating for example to fishing and marine protected areas, that in our view do not take proper account of the rights and responsibilities of coastal states under the Law of the Sea.
The EU's ocean policy is of great interest to Norway, and we share many similar interests in this area. In November 2016, the Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy presented a Joint Communication on international ocean governance. On 21 February this year, we presented our ocean strategy, and a white paper on the place of the oceans in Norway's foreign and development policy was presented on 24 March. These two documents will be important in our ongoing cooperation with the EU on blue growth and other ocean issues.
The EU has set ambitious targets for its climate and energy policy. Action to secure energy supplies, mitigate climate change and ensure affordable energy for people and industry is high on the European agenda.
The EU's policy is being implemented through the development of the Energy Union, which will be the most comprehensive revision of EU energy legislation to date. Norway has vital national interests in this area.
Most of this work affects us, through the EEA Agreement, because of our role as an energy exporter, or through our intention to fulfil our climate commitment jointly with the EU. The Government will seek to safeguard Norwegian energy interests and will continue to communicate Norway's views to the EU when new EU legislation is being developed.
Norway is a stable supplier of gas to the EU, and this will continue to be the case for a long time to come. We also supply renewable energy to all our neighbouring countries. It is in Norway's interests that the energy markets function well and that the gas and electricity infrastructure in the EU is improved. Natural gas has an important role to play in ensuring the EU's energy security. It can provide balancing power in a system with an increasing share of intermittent renewable energy. It can also reduce emissions when used to replace coal.
An agreement between Norway and the EU on joint fulfilment of the climate commitment for 2030 can be concluded once the EU has adopted its implementing legislation, probably in the first half of 2018. The Government has indicated that the agreement could be incorporated into Protocol 31 to the EEA Agreement on cooperation outside the four freedoms.
Norway is actively contributing to the process of developing the implementing legislation. The revision of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is a priority.
In February, both the Parliament and the Council agreed on their positions regarding the revision of the ETS, and can thus start negotiations on a final text.
Norway supports action to promote a higher carbon price. A tighter cap will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase the price of carbon and encourage innovation in ETS sectors. Our policy in this area is in line with that of the majority of EU member states.
At the same time, we must prevent unintended negative effects for companies that use emission-free hydropower and compete in the global market.
The rules on CO2 compensation under the EEA Agreement remain unchanged and will apply until 2020. The aim of Norway's scheme is to compensate industry for an increase in electricity prices as a result of the EU ETS system, in order to discourage companies from moving to countries where regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is less stringent.
In our contact with the EU, we have stressed that it must be up to each country to decide the level of compensation to be allocated within the agreed framework. The proposals currently being discussed in the EU support this.
I would also like to mention the work being done to develop new rules for non-ETS sectors. This will be at the core of a joint fulfilment agreement with the EU. The EU's proposed target for Norway, a 40 % cut in emissions from non-ETS sectors, indicates that Norway will be assessed on the same basis as the member states, which we welcome. The proposed regulation on the inclusion of greenhouse gas emissions and removals from land use, land use change and forestry into the 2030 climate and energy framework will also be important for Norway given its strong interests in this area.
Nordic cooperation encompasses most sectors of society. The key strengths of this cooperation are its breadth, depth and the widespread support it enjoys. Our common Nordic identity and the high level of trust between our countries have been built up gradually over a long period of time. At the same time, it is vital that cooperation between Nordic authorities is regarded as relevant and pertinent today. The ambition of the Nordic prime ministers is crystal clear: the Nordic region is to be the most integrated region in the world.
This is the starting point for the Norwegian Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers this year. The Norwegian Presidency is focusing on three main pillars: the Nordic region in transition; the Nordic region in Europe; and the Nordic region in the world. The common denominator is that we are strengthening Nordic cooperation in areas that affect the everyday lives of those of us who live in the Nordic region.
Close cooperation with the rest of Europe is essential for the Nordic countries.
By making the Nordic region in Europe one of the three pillars of our Presidency programme, we are following up Finland's effort to achieve 'more Nordic synergy in the EU' and enhance the influence of the Nordic countries in the EU, which was on the agenda of the Finnish Presidency in 2016. We want our cooperation to be a source of inspiration for Europe.
At a meeting of the ministers responsible for Nordic cooperation that I hosted in February, we agreed to improve the organisation of our work on European policy issues under the Nordic Council of Ministers. Energy, climate change and the environment, and digitisation have been identified as key focus areas. Our efforts will be based on our common interests and strengths.
We see that the Energy Union is being developed with inspiration drawn from the Nordic electricity market. In the environmental field, we are making use of our Presidency to promote important areas such as the circular economy, with an emphasis addressing the problems of plastic waste and marine litter, and efforts to promote a greener transport sector. The latter will also be a topic for discussion at the meeting of Nordic environment ministers in Oslo in May.
Next week, on 24 and 25 April, we will be hosting the Digital North conference in Oslo, which will bring together the Nordic and Baltic ministers responsible for digitisation. Digital integration will be a key issue in Europe and in the Nordic-Baltic region in the years to come. Digitisation is an area where the restructuring agenda and the European policy agenda truly converge. As individual countries, we are at the forefront when it comes to digitisation. Through close regional cooperation we can further develop our competitiveness and set the tone for European cooperation in this field.
I also look forward to cooperating closely with the upcoming Estonian Presidency of the Council of the EU, which is giving priority to many of the same issues as the Norwegian Presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Nordic cooperation is realpolitik. Some 20 % of exports from Norway's mainland economy go to other Nordic countries. There are strong indications that the Nordic region will become even more important for the Norwegian economy in the future. That is why I am giving priority to efforts to remove border barriers.
The Freedom of Movement Council was set up in 2014. In its first three years of work, the Council has eliminated 27 border barriers. The Government has taken the initiative to commission an external evaluation of the Council's work, with a view to improving its effectiveness.
The Government considers it vital to maintain the EEA Agreement. This means securing growth and development. It means securing jobs and welfare for the future. Let me mention three examples:
Firstly, the EEA Agreement ensures that there are common rules for Norwegian and European companies operating in a market consisting of 31 countries and with a total population of 500 million. There are common rules in most areas of significance to the Norwegian business sector: environmental standards, veterinary legislation, consumer protection, standardisation of products, and approval of state subsidies.
Differential treatment in areas such as these would effectively block exports to the rest of Europe. The EEA Agreement ensures equal treatment.
When fish processing plants in places like Nordkapp, Båtsfjord and Vardø send fish to buyers in the EU, it is not only market access that is essential. Common veterinary rules also ensure that local companies can deliver fresh fish to European consumers quickly. And these consumers have the same protection whether they are in Nordkapp in the far north of Norway or on the southern tip of Spain. Moreover, Spanish and Norwegian companies compete on the same terms.
My second example concerns labour immigration. The EEA Agreement allows us to be fully integrated into the internal labour market, which today accounts for more than 250 million workers.
Since the eastward enlargement of the EU in 2004, Norway has been one of the countries in Europe that has received most labour immigrants in relation to its population. Norway needs these people. They fill jobs in areas where there is a shortage of Norwegian workers, and they breathe new life into Norwegian regions and local communities.
At the same time, the Government considers it important to ensure that the free movement of labour does not undermine the sustainability of the Norwegian welfare state. The Government will therefore consider introducing measures that restrict the export of social security benefits, and will present a white paper to the Storting on this issue during the current parliamentary period.
This is also a topic of discussion in the EU. Most recently at the meeting of the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council in March, where a proposal for a revised regulation on the coordination of social security systems was discussed. At the meeting, countries such as Germany, Ireland, Denmark and Austria advocated the indexing of child benefits to the conditions in the country where the child resides.
Work-related crime is a challenge that has serious consequences for employees, enterprises and society as a whole. The Government wants to make it more difficult to run businesses irresponsibly, whilst making sure not to place extra burdens on enterprises that are run responsibly in line with rules and regulations.
The Government will therefore maintain and strengthen cooperation with the social partners in branches that are more vulnerable to this type of crime, with a view to promoting decent and fair working conditions, and combat the black economy and criminal activity.
The European platform to enhance cooperation in tackling undeclared work seeks to strengthen cooperation between labour inspectorates and other enforcement authorities. The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority participates on behalf of Norway, and coordinates follow-up efforts with the police, the Norwegian Tax Administration and the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV).
On the initiative of the Government, operational cooperation between the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority and labour inspectorates in countries such as Lithuania, Poland and Bulgaria is being strengthened. Funding provided to countries in Central and Eastern Europe under the EEA and Norway Grants may also be used to support the implementation of more cooperation projects in this area.
The Storting has just approved the implementation in Norwegian law of the EU's Posting of Workers Enforcement Directive (Directive 2014/67/EU). This will strengthen our efforts to combat work-related crime.
From 1 July 2017, new provisions will be added to the Working Environment Act on closer cooperation with the authorities in other EEA states. These include provisions relating to mutual assistance in collecting fines for violations of national rules, and expansion of the labour inspectorates' authority to impose fines.
Workers' rights have been strengthened in a number of areas as a result of rules incorporated into the EEA Agreement. This applies for example to employment protection, in particular the rules on collective dismissal, employees' rights when business ownership is transferred, written employment contracts, and information and consultation of employees at national and transnational levels. It also applies to some of the provisions on working time, and to working environment rules.
In March 2016, the European Commission launched a proposal for a European Pillar of Social Rights, which is to reflect new trends in work patterns and societies in Europe.
The Nordic Council of Ministers for Labour issued a joint declaration, emphasising their view that the Pillar should respect the national labour market models and the key role of the social partners and their right to bargain collectively in the Nordic labour markets.
The declaration draws attention to the fact that the Nordic model, in which the social partners have a key role, may encourage flexible labour markets and ensure a high level of adaptability in times of economic transition. It makes it clear that the Nordic countries do not support a legally binding Pillar of Social Rights, but rather are of the view that the Pillar should set out a common vision and principles to improve the social rights of EU citizens. The Commission is expected to announce specific proposals for the Pillar on 26 April.
Last year, the Commission proposed a revision of the Posting of Workers Directive aimed at establishing the principle of equal pay for equal work at the same place. Norway has submitted comments in connection with this, together with the other Nordic countries.
The Government also welcomes the Commission's effort to ensure the right balance between the free movement of services, protection of workers and fair competition between local and foreign enterprises. Norway has, however, pointed out that the right of individual countries to determine salaries and other forms of remuneration must not be restricted. The Government will follow this process closely, and will make active use of the opportunities available to us to influence the EU's work in this area.
The EEA and Norway Grants also help to strengthen social rights in the beneficiary countries. Trade unions play an important role in tripartite cooperation under the Grants.
My third example concerns EU research and education programmes. Since the beginning of the 1990s, thousands of Norwegians have taken part in research and education exchanges and cooperation projects.
Participation in EU research and innovation programmes enhances the quality of Norwegian research, and promotes innovation.
At the beginning of February, I visited the company Borregaard in Sarpsborg. After ten years of research, they have now developed a new green product called Exilva, with funding from the Research Council of Norway and Innovation Norway. The product is made from microfibrillated cellulose from spruce and can be used in adhesives, cleaning products and cosmetics. The company is now receiving more than NOK 230 million from the EU's Horizon 2020 programme to commercialise the product. Norwegian participation in European research and innovation cooperation is thus securing our future competitiveness.
The Government wants Norway to take full advantage of its participation in Horizon 2020, and has published a strategy for Norway's participation in the programme.
We need to make sure that teachers, students, researchers and companies across the country are aware of the opportunities for project funding that are available from the EU, and help them to succeed in the competition for funding.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of EU cooperation in the area of higher education, the Erasmus programme. Norway joined the programme in 1992. Since then, more than 34 000 Norwegian students and 12 000 Norwegian pupils have participated in higher education mobility activities under the programme. Three years ago, Charlottenlund upper secondary school in Trondheim succeeded in reducing the dropout rate from its building and construction programme by half. Now the school is leading a cooperation project, through the Erasmus+ programme, which involves schools in several countries working systematically to reduce school dropout rates.
With our degree of economic integration, high standards of education, and strong research and innovation communities, Norway is well placed to maintain a high standard of welfare provision.
Europe is our most important market. Around 3/4 of our foreign trade is with the EU. Around 2/3 of Norwegian investments go to the EU, while 2/3 of foreign investments in Norway come from the EU.
The EEA Agreement is in many ways high politics put into practice. We are connected to other European countries through our everyday activities. We introduce the same rules. We do business with one another. We travel to other European countries – on holiday, to study, to do research or to work. And just as importantly, people from other parts of Europe come to Norway. Ten per cent of all employees in Norway are labour immigrants from EU/EEA countries – most of them from the new member states. This is to our advantage, and theirs. Rural Norway in particular has benefited from this source of labour.
No agreement is perfect, and that goes for the EEA Agreement too. Like all agreements, it is a matter of give and take. But it gives us all some very important fundamental rights and opportunities – which we often take for granted.
The Government will seek to ensure the best possible management of the EEA Agreement and better understanding of Norwegian views in the EU. We view the EEA cooperation as a platform for promoting Norwegian interests. It is important that we do not simply wait to see what comes out of the EU, but that we make active use of the EEA cooperation to promote political solutions at European level that are better for Norway.
In our policy platform, we stated our intention to pursue a more active policy to safeguard Norwegian interests vis-à-vis the EU. A ministerial position was created with specific responsibility for EEA and EU Affairs. In addition, the Government adopted a four-year strategy for our cooperation with the EU and established the European policy coordination committee.
These measures have put Norway in a better position to participate in the development of legislation at the European level. They have strengthened the management of our agreements with the EU, and have enabled us to make use of the opportunities available to seek to influence the EU on EEA matters in a more constructive, systematic, coherent and professional way than before. To the benefit of Norwegian citizens and companies alike.
Our European policy is a collective national effort. Cooperation in Europe is about the values we believe in and the value creation we depend on. These are things we must safeguard, not jeopardise.