Biannual address to the Storting on important EU and EEA matters

The Storting, 19 May 2016

Minister of EEA and EU Affairs Elisabeth Aspaker's biannual address to the Storting on important EU and EEA matters - 19 May 2016.

Mr President,

Let me start by quoting the Government's political platform: 'The European countries are Norway's close neighbours, friends and most important trading partners.' For this reason, 'Norwegian foreign policy must start in Europe.' These words illustrate the importance of Europe and the EU to Norway – politically, economically, and indeed in most areas of society.

The Government's strategy for cooperation with the EU 2014-2017 reflects this. It sets out the priorities of the Government's European policy – increased competitiveness and greater value creation, higher quality education and research, an ambitious climate and energy policy, enhanced security, and a global approach to migration – and illustrates the breadth of Norway's cooperation with the EU.

This breadth is also clearly evident in the Government's work programme for cooperation with the EU in 2016. The work programme shows that our pledges to pursue a proactive European policy have not just been empty words. The work programme addresses key challenges for Norway and the EU in a systematic way. Several of these areas will be discussed later on in this address.

Here, I would like to highlight the particular importance of the EEA Agreement for our access to, and our work vis-à-vis, the EU. This Government has taken a number of specific steps to ensure the homogeneity of the internal market throughout the EEA. I am therefore very pleased to be able to say that we are the first Norwegian Government that has managed to reduce to zero the backlog of legislation already incorporated into the EEA Agreement but awaiting implementation in Norwegian law – i.e. the part of the work that Norway can deal with alone.

As the minister responsible for both EEA/EU cooperation and Nordic cooperation, I consider it important to make use of the opportunities available to promote a more active Nordic European policy. We need to be better at viewing the Nordic region in a European context, in both political and economic terms. The Nordic countries are well placed to exert an influence. We need to focus more on the Nordic countries' collective role in Europe.

In 2017, Norway will hold the presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers, the official body for intergovernmental cooperation in the Nordic region. The Government will make strategic use of its presidency to strengthen the competitiveness of the Nordic region and to promote Nordic cooperation on European policy.

Europe and the EU are facing many challenges. Five of these are particularly critical:

  • The refugee and migration crisis;
  • A more demanding security situation;
  • The UK's future relationship with the EU;
  • The need to achieve more sustainable growth, adapt our economiesand strengthen Europe's global competitiveness;
  • and challenges relating toclimate change and energy.

Mr President,

Last year, some one million people came to Europe: around 50 % of them from Syria, 15 % from African countries and 21 % from Afghanistan. In the first few months of this year many more people came than in the same period last year, and we cannot rule out the possibility that many people will also come in the rest of 2016.

The refugee and migration challenge

Above all, it is vital for Europe to address the reasons why people are forced to flee.

High priority must also be given to efforts to reduce migratory pressure on the EU's external borders, to combat human smuggling, to gain control over who enters the Schengen area and to establish a proper division of responsibility between the European countries. We all need to contribute to this work, and do our utmost to ensure that our efforts are successful. This will not be possible unless there is effective cooperation between the European countries.

In this respect, the agreement reached between the EU and Turkey in March could be a positive development. The agreement is now being implemented, and the key issue of visa liberalisation is being discussed. It is hoped that the agreement will be a step towards finding a common European solution to the current situation. The EU has emphasised the fact that the agreement is in line with its international obligations and EU law. For Norway, this is also vitally important.

Turkey is doing a great deal to help Syrian refugees, and needs Europe's support. Norway is already making a significant contribution, in the areas of resettlement and relocation of refugees, rescue operations and efforts in 'hotspot' areas.

We are also providing funding under the EEA and Norway Grants scheme, as well as humanitarian assistance to Greece to help the many refugees and migrants there.

When it comes to the question of visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens, it is crucial that Turkey fulfils all the requirements that have been set. It is encouraging that Turkey acknowledges the need to do so. It is important to the Government that visa liberalisation does not lead to an increase in the number of unfounded asylum applications from Turkish citizens.

As a result of the refugee and migration crisis, the Nordic countries have introduced temporary border control measures at their borders for the first time since the creation of the Nordic Passport Union in 1954. Although these temporary measures have been necessary, they represent border obstacles that in the long term will promote neither the free movement of people nor competitiveness in the Nordic region. It is therefore vital that we cooperate even more closely to help find effective common European solutions to the refugee and migration crisis.

In our view, it is essential that countries of origin, transit and destination work together to find long-term solutions. At the European level, we need to find solutions that ensure that all those entering the Schengen area are registered properly, and that people who are not in need of protection are returned quickly to their respective countries.

But common solutions depend on all countries taking their share of the responsibility so that there is a fair distribution of asylum-seekers in Europe. Unfortunately, in certain member states the political will and ability to find common solutions have proved to be weak. At the same time, the large number of migrants who are not in need of protection have placed the institution of asylum under severe strain. By ensuring that asylum seekers are dealt with in a more structured and effective way and focusing more on people who are in genuine need of protection, we may be able to prevent the institution of asylum from being eroded.

Mr President,

The second main challenge that Europe and the EU are facing is the more demanding and complex security situation in and around Europe. The terrorist attacks in Paris in November last year, and the attacks in Brussels – the city that epitomises peaceful cooperation between European countries – in March this year, were a reminder of this.

A more challenging security situation

We are seeing worrying developments in Europe's neighbouring areas. Conflicts and instability in the Sahel, North Africa and the Middle East are affecting Europe. To the east, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for the separatists in eastern Ukraine have created a new, more uncertain security situation. I refer you here to the Foreign Minister's foreign policy address to the Storting on 1 March this year.

The need for close cooperation with the EU and our other European partners in the area of foreign and security policy is becoming increasingly important now that we are facing a more challenging security situation.

Nordic and Nordic–Baltic cooperation on foreign and security policy have become more important; they serve as a regional supplement to the European security structure, and provide forums for cooperation between countries with different affiliations to the EU and NATO. Purely national solutions are not sufficient to combat the threat of terrorism, or to defend international law and international rules when these have been violated.

Norway and the EU share a common set of values based on the principles of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Moreover, to a large extent, our interests often coincide. The Government therefore attaches importance to coordinating our policy and efforts with the EU and with other European partners, when this is in our own interests. By cooperating more closely, we can increase the impact of our common international efforts. The support we are providing for reforms in the countries that have entered into association agreements and free trade agreements with the EU is a good example here.

For Norway, it is vital to ensure that Europe remains united in its response to Russia's violations of international law and unacceptable actions in Ukraine. Norway has contributed to maintaining European unity on this issue by aligning itself with the EU's restrictive measures.

It is in Norway's interest that the EU succeeds in strengthening its security and defence cooperation. Norway's input to the new EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy was submitted to High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in March. It contained four main points. Firstly, the EU should develop its foreign and security policy in close cooperation with good partners like Norway, particularly when it comes to relations with Russia. Secondly, the Law of the Sea should form the basis for the EU's Arctic policy. Thirdly, the EU and NATO should coordinate their policies even more closely, and concrete steps should be taken to achieve this.

And fourthly, close cooperation with Norway – as a major energy supplier to the EU and participant in the internal energy market – is crucial for ensuring energy security in Europe.

Mr President,

At the end of April, High Representative Mogherini and the Commission presented a communication on a new integrated EU policy for the Arctic. The communication states that the EU should attach particular importance to research, science and innovation in three priority areas: climate change and the environment, sustainable development, and international cooperation. Priority is also given to the need to stimulate investments and enhance coordination between different EU funding programmes. The communication provides a good basis for continuing a constructive dialogue with the EU in areas of mutual interest, with a view to promoting sustainable development in the north.

Mr President,

The third challenge the EU is facing is the issue of the UK's future relationship with the Union. The UK referendum on EU membership to be held on 23 June will be important for the EU and Europe, and therefore also for Norway. The result will affect the EU's future direction and level of influence.

UK's relationship to Europe

The debate surrounding the referendum is part of a broader debate in the EU about the EU's future development. And it reflects internal divisions between the member states on important policy areas.

I am not going to talk in any detail now about the EU debate in the UK or about the debate on UK membership in the EU, but I would like to highlight a few main points that Norway considers important. It is in Norway's interest that the UK continues to be a member of the EU. The UK is an important partner, both for the rest of the EU and for Norway.

If the UK leaves the EU, the EU will lose its second most populated country and its second largest economy. According to the OECD, leaving the EU could reduce the UK's GDP by 3.3 % by 2020, while the loss to the other EU member states is estimated to be around 1 % of GDP.

Norway and the UK share many views on economic issues and the internal market. The UK is an important driver behind the development of the internal market, and this is something that also benefits Norway. Given the huge challenges Europe is facing in terms of ensuring its global competitiveness, there is a need for actors such as the UK that push for economic reform in the EU.

The UK is a major defence power and an important actor in the area of foreign and security policy, both in Europe and globally. The country therefore plays an important role in developing and determining the direction of EU foreign and security policy, and in the EU's cooperation with NATO, which also affects Norway.

The agreement reached on 19 February on a new settlement for the UK in the EU seems balanced. Norway will consider the implications it may have for the EEA Agreement, including for legislation relating to the export of child benefits.

Norway will be affected whatever the outcome of the UK referendum. It is therefore important that we take a proactive approach to safeguarding Norwegian interests once the referendum has been held. However, I would like to stress that the UK will continue to be a close partner and ally for Norway in the future, whatever the result of the referendum on 23 June.

Mr President,

Labour-related immigration to Norway has decreased in the past few years, and has fallen by about a third since its peak in 2013. There are fewer labour immigrants to the country and more people are leaving. This must be seen in the context of the somewhat improved job market in Europe and the somewhat weaker job market in Norway.

It is important to emphasise that the free movement of labour from other EEA countries to Norway has had a positive impact on the Norwegian economy in that it has helped Norwegian employers to meet their labour needs. At the same time it is important to assess the consequences of labour mobility for national social security systems and employment conditions.

The European Commission has announced its intention to present a package of measures to promote labour mobility in Europe, including measures to safeguard the rights of posted workers and to improve coordination of social security systems. The labour mobility package has been delayed several times, most recently because of the negotiations between the EU and the UK. The Commission has indicated that the package of measures will be presented in several stages rather than all at once.

The agreement between the EU and the UK has implications for the labour mobility package, in particular the proposal to allow member states to index child benefits to the conditions in the country where the child is living. The Commission has made a commitment to put forward a proposal to amend EU legislation in this area if the UK remains in the EU after the referendum. Norway has called for greater flexibility with regard to legislation relating to social security coordination and the export of welfare benefits. We will draw our final conclusions regarding Norwegian legislation in this area once the issue has been clarified by the EU.

We are continuing our efforts to strengthen international cooperation to combat crime and unscrupulous practices in the labour market. Norway will participate in the new European platform to enhance cooperation to prevent and combat undeclared work, in line with Norway's strategy for combating work-related crime, which was presented in January 2015. Strengthening cooperation in this area with other European countries is one of the measures set out in the strategy.

The Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and I have contacted countries that send large numbers of workers to Norway with a view to strengthening cooperation with labour inspection agencies and other enforcement authorities there. So far, the response we have had has been positive, and the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs is following this matter up. The EEA and Norway Grants could also be used in this area.

Mr President,

The fourth challenge Europe is facing relates to the European economy and the need for restructuring and growth creation. The fall in oil prices, an expansionary monetary policy and the weakening of the euro have led to an increase in economic growth, but this remains fragile. There are big differences between countries.

Sustainable growth, transition and global competitiveness

In order to stimulate the economy and reduce the risk of deflation, the European Central Bank is keeping the key interest rate at a record-low level and buying large amounts of shares in the market.

It is hoped that the weakening of the euro exchange rate, credit growth in the euro area, and less far-reaching public austerity policies in certain countries will help revitalise the economy in the eurozone. The EU is also seeking to stimulate renewed economic growth by means of reforms and greater investments. The effects of these measures are not likely to be seen until the somewhat longer term.

Developments in China and other emerging economies are a key risk factor for the European economy, as is the impact of the refugee and migration crisis.

There is still uncertainty surrounding the situation in Greece. The most politically contentious of the reform and budgetary measures that Greece had undertaken to implement in 2015 have been postponed until 2016. This includes tax and pension reforms. As a result, the creditor institutions' review of the first phase of the third economic adjustment programme for Greece has also been delayed.

In the wake of the financial crisis, the EU has implemented a series of reforms to improve coordination of economic policy and strengthen the financial sector. Completing the banking and capital markets union and improving coordination and management of economic policy are two key items on the economic agenda. But the member states have differing views on how far integration within the euro area should go.

Norway welcomes the fact that the EU is taking action to ensure sustainable growth and the transition to a green economy, and to strengthen the region's global competitiveness. And all the good initiatives to boost the European economy that are set out in the European Commission's work programme for 2016 give grounds for optimism.

Mr President,

Norway's cooperation with the EU is vital for Norwegian exports, Norwegian investments, Norwegian jobs abroad, and for gathering knowledge and experience from other countries. Exports to other European countries account for three quarters of Norway's total exports. We are now taking steps to make our diplomatic and consular missions better equipped to promote the Norwegian business sector in Europe. Our aim is to improve the overall effectiveness of the missions' work in this area and strengthen our efforts to support the Norwegian business sector. We are seeking to pursue a differentiated approach, and will improve the way we use the various tools at our disposal in different countries.

The Government is also giving high priority to cooperation with the EU in the area of research and education, through participation in Horizon 2020, the EU's major research and innovation initiative, and Erasmus+, the EU's funding programme for education, training, youth and sport. We will work to ensure our future competitiveness by promoting research, innovation and education.

Ensuring extensive Norwegian participation in European cooperation in the fields of research, innovation and education is an important part of our efforts in this area.

We are working to increase the share of EU funding that is returned to Norway in the form of allocations to Norwegian research, innovation and education communities. Norway's diplomatic and consular missions are to be more closely involved in the work of encouraging Norwegian research communities to apply for funding under the Horizon 2020 initiative .

The major countries in Europe that already have well-developed innovation markets, such as Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain, are crucial for Norwegian value creation. The missions have an important role to play in building strong and lasting links between research groups, clusters and companies in Norway and in other countries in Europe.

Our common economic challenges are also creating renewed interest in closer Nordic cooperation. It is not only Norway that is undergoing a difficult period of restructuring.

Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland are making targeted efforts to strengthen their competitiveness through an increased focus on education and research, innovation, and the transition to a green economy. Through our adherence to common European rules and our participation in the internal market and in EU research programmes, the Nordic economies complement each other within a European framework. Targeted cooperation will put us in an even stronger position to further develop the Nordic region as one of the most competitive regions in Europe.

Mr President,

A Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement between the EU and the US could have far-reaching implications for the European economy and for Norway. According to the parties, progress has been made on a number of areas. The parties are, for example, reported to have reached agreement on the elimination of most import tariffs.

Negotiations on the most sensitive import tariffs have yet to be conducted, and these are not due to be completed until towards the end of the process. It has been announced that a further round of negotiations will take place before the summer.

The parties have a stated aim to conclude the TTIP negotiations by the end of this year, but this time frame is uncertain. The current US administration must first secure approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – currently being negotiated between a number of countries on both sides of the Pacific – by the US Congress, where it is expected to face considerable opposition. If the parties do not succeed in concluding a TTIP agreement by the end of 2016, the entire process is likely to be delayed for a long time, as it will be some time before a new US administration is in place and ready to consider the issue of further negotiations.

In the joint statement following the US–Nordic Leaders' Summit in Washington on 13 May the importance of the TTIP was highlighted, as was the need to strengthen trade and investment between the US, Norway and Iceland.

The Government has decided to commission an external report on the possible consequences for Norway of a TTIP, and of Norway's possible options. The report is to be prepared by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), in cooperation with other research institutions. It is planned to be completed in the autumn.

Mr President,

The European system of financial supervision was established in the wake of the financial crisis. It has been important to Norway to find a way to be able to participate in the work of the European financial supervisory authorities, in order to ensure homogeneity in this area of the internal market too.

The work of formulating the EEA adaptations to the EU's financial supervisory sytem has been difficult, technically complex and time-consuming. On 15 April, the Government presented a proposition to the Storting requesting its consent to to approve the EEA Joint Committee Decisions relating to the legal acts establishing the European system of financial supervision and certain other legal acts. The draft Joint Committee Decisions contain specific adaptations to these legal acts in line with the principles agreed in 2014. The adoption of the Joint Committee Decisions will mean that the EU legislation establishing the EU system of financial supervision is incorporated into the EEA Agreement.

Since the establishment of the European system of financial supervision, the EU has, as of 15 March 2016, adopted around 180 EEA-relevant legal acts relating to the financial markets.

Most of these new legal acts contain provisions that build on the regulations establishing the European supervisory authorities and the European Systemic Risk Board.

The incorporation into the EEA Agreement of legislation relating to the financial markets has therefore been on hold pending clarification of the EEA adaptations to the EU's financial supervisory system. One of the main purposes of incorporating the financial supervisory legislation contained in the draft Joint Committee Decisions is to pave the way for the incorporation into the EEA Agreement of new EEA-relevant EU legal acts relating to the financial markets. This is important for safeguarding the principle of the free movement of services set out in the EEA Agreement, and for making it possible to maintain a system of financial regulation in Norway that is comparable to those in the EU member states.

This will also help to ensure that the Norwegian financial sector has access to the whole EEA market and that financial services providers in other EEA states have access to the Norwegian market. The incorporation of the legal acts establishing the European system of financial supervision will also make it possible for the Financial Supervisory Authority of Norway (Finanstilsynet)to participate in EU cooperation on financial supervision along with the financial supervisory authorities in EU member states.

Mr President,

Last year the Commission presented its Digital Single Market Strategy. Its aim is to ensure that the business sector and private individuals are able to buy and sell goods online – and not just physical goods – easily and efficiently across borders.

The Government shares the belief that a a well-functioning digital single market will promote growth and employment.

Norway is already at the forefront in this area and we are giving high priority to furthering the process of digitisation. We are following up the 16 initiatives set out in the EU's Digital Market Strategy and have submitted input to consultations in a number of areas, including cross-border parcel delivery and audiovisual media services. We have also provided extensive input to the consultation on the use of online platforms and helped draw up joint Nordic input to the the public consultation on the regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services.

We are also following the efforts to modernise the copyright rules and the work being done under the new EU e-government action plan. We have also started the preparatory work for the incorporation into the EEA Agreement and implementation in Norwegian law of the new EU regulation on data protection, which was adopted in April.

The EU's Digital Market Strategy is an important topic in the white paper on a digital agenda for Norway, which was presented in April. In addition, the digital society of the future was the theme of the Prime Minister's conference on 10 May on the transition to a green and low-carbon economy.

Mr President,

Restructuring is not just a question of achieving economic growth; it is a question of achieving green growth. Both Norway and the EU are seeking to play a leading role in this area. The EU has therefore welcomed Norway's intention to participate in the joint fulfilment of the climate commitments.

Climate and energy

Through the EEA Agreement, Norway has participated in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) since 2008.

An agreement between Norway and the EU on joint fulfilment of the climate commitments will mean that Norway will also have to address questions concerning its compliance with the rules for non-ETS sectors, including the Effort Sharing Decision and the rules for land use, land-use change and forestry. In practice, much of the substance of the agreement with the EU on joint fulfilment will concern how Norway complies with these rules.

The European Commission's proposed implementing legislation is due to be presented in July. This will also include the EU member states' national targets for the non-ETS sectors. The Government is working to ensure that Norway's target is set on the same basis as the targets for EU member states, and that it is in line with these targets as far as possible. I would like to stress that it is not the dialogue between the EU and Norway that is taking time, it is the EU's internal processes. We expect an agreement between Norway and the EU to be in place in 2017/2018, once the EU's implementing legislation has finally been adopted and we know the content of the rules we will have to follow.

The Government participates actively in the development of EU legislation, and attaches importance to becoming involved at an early stage of the process. There is unlikely to be much scope for altering the substance of the rules for Norway once they have been adopted by the EU. Norway participates in the expert groups under the European Commission and in the Green Growth Group, which brings together the EU countries that are advocating an ambitious climate policy. Our work in the Green Growth Group has given us an extra opportunity to exert an influence, together with EU member states.

All the Nordic countries have high ambitions in the area of climate policy, and they have many similarities in economic and geographical terms. We have cooperated on global issues, such as climate financing, and we are also benefiting greatly from closer Nordic cooperation on joint fulfilment of the climate commitments.

Mr President,

The year 2016 is being referred to as 'the year of delivery' for the EU's Energy Union. The Energy Union has implications for us. Several of the initiatives will have an impact on legislation, and the EEA-relevant legal acts will affect us directly through the EEA Agreement. The Energy Union will also affect us as it will involve the development of the European energy market, which is our largest export market for energy. The Government is therefore following the development of the Energy Union closely, and conveying Norway's views on an ongoing basis.

We are therefore pleased that we have been given the opportunity to second a Norwegian climate and energy expert to the Slovak presidency of the Council of the EU this autumn. This is likely to give us unique access to the EU's work on developing the Energy Union, and it shows that the EU is interested in having Norway's input in this process.

In February, the Commission presented its Winter Package for the 2016 European Semester, which sets out a number of different action points relating to energy security, and in particular to security of gas supply. The Winter Package could have significant implications for Norwegian gas exports. It is therefore positive that the Commission has emphasised the continued importance of gas in Europe's energy mix. The Government is also seeking to ensure that investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is a key priority for the EU in its work to develop the Energy Union.

New initiatives are expected in the time ahead, including relating to renewable energy, energy efficiency, the development of a new governance system for the Energy Union, and energy use in the transport sector. Norway has provided input to a number of Commission consultations on the development of the Energy Union, most recently at the end of April, when we gave our views on the new governance system.

The development of the Energy Union will have an impact on the whole of our energy sector. The message that the Government has conveyed to the EU is that Norway is seeking close cooperation and partnership with the EU in the area of energy. At the same time, we need to bear in mind that Norway may have different energy policy interests from the EU member states.

The Government is carrying out the work needed to incorporate the EU's third energy package into the EEA Agreement. The EEA EFTA states have been engaged in close dialogue with the European Commission on the necessary EEA adaptations and on drafting a Joint Committee Decision for the incorporation of the package into the EEA Agreement. Work is under way to draw up an adaptation text that secures the participation of the EEA EFTA states in the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER). A proposition will be presented to the Storting requesting its consent to the incorporation of the third energy package into the EEA Agreement and to the necessary legislative amendments.

In the field of climate and energy, too, the Government is seeking to make the most of the opportunities for closer Nordic cooperation in its work vis-à-vis the EU. This was made plain in the white paper on energy policy that the Government presented in April. At the EU's informal meeting of energy ministers in Amsterdam on 11 April, the Minister of Petroleum and Energy and his counterparts from the other Nordic countries presented a detailed joint position paper on the further development of the European electricity market. Presented together, the views of the Nordic countries carry more weight.

Mr President,

Last summer, we secured a good agreement on market access for fish. The agreement entails new tariff-free quotas for filleted and processed products such as frozen mackerel and fresh herring, and allows for more processing to be done in Norway. The quota for different types of spiced and/or vinegar-cured herring has been increased by 50 %, and the extension of the agreement period to seven years provides greater predictability for the fisheries sector. Quotas that would have been available between 1 May 2014 and the provisional application of the agreement will not be withdrawn, but will be proportionally allocated and made available during the rest of the agreement period.

The negotiations with the EU on the new funding period for the EEA and Norway Grants took time, but we are pleased that the agreements were finally signed on 3 May. A proposition on consent to ratification of the negotiated agreements was presented to the Storting on 11 May, and the Government hopes that the Storting will be able to consider the proposition before the summer holiday.

The EEA and Norway Grants are a unique tool for promoting cooperation between Norway and the beneficiary countries in the EU, and they are a key element of the Government's European policy. We are now working intensively to get the Grants up and running for the period 2014-2021.

As previously outlined to the Storting, the Government has identified five focus areas for the EEA and Norway Grants, three of which are to be given particular priority:

  • Innovation, research, education and competitiveness;
  • The environment, energy, climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy; and
  • Justice and home affairs, including measures to address the refugee and migration crisis.

Support will also be provided for projects in the areas of:

  • Social inclusion, youth employment and poverty reduction; and
  • Culture, civil society, good governance and protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.

A total of 23 programme areas have been identified across the five focus areas, in cooperation with relevant ministries. Two new funds will also be established: one for efforts to reduce youth unemployment, the other for regional cooperation. A total of EUR 100 million will be allocated to these funds.

Separate funds will be earmarked to strengthen bilateral cooperation between Norway and all the beneficiary countries. The Global Fund for Decent Work and Tripartite Dialogue will be maintained in its current form.

The consultation process on the priority sectors and programme areas will begin at the end of May. We have had informal contact with the beneficiary countries, and are ready to start formal negotiations with them now that the agreements on the new funding period have been signed. I will keep the Storting informed about the process and the results of the negotiations.

Negotiations on trade in agricultural products, known as the Article 19 negotiations, began in February last year. So far, two rounds of negotiations have been completed; the second round was held in April this year. The EU is now consulting its member states. No date has yet been set for the next round of negotiations.

As they are still ongoing, I cannot elaborate on the substance of the negotiations here, but the Storting will be kept informed as the negotiation process continues, and any agreement reached will be subject to the consent of the Storting.

Mr President,

In the Government's view, it is important that Norway is able to participate fully in the networks that enable the EEA to function effectively. The Government is therefore working to ensure that cooperation between national competition authorities in the EU is expanded to allow the full participation of the EEA EFTA states.

As things stand, for example, the Norwegian Competition Authority cannot cooperate with its Swedish counterpart on investigating transnational cartels in the way the Swedish and Danish authorities can. The Government is therefore seeking to eliminate the differences in the way the competition rules are enforced in the EU and in EFTA. It is important to make progress on this issue now, since the EU is in the process of further developing cooperation between national competition authorities.

Mr President,

We have clear aims for our relations with Europe. The Government's European policy priorities correspond closely with the priorities of the EU. They also correspond closely with our priorities for Nordic cooperation. This provides a good starting point for our efforts.

The need for cooperation and cohesion in Europe is obvious.

Purely national responses are inadequate when it comes to dealing with the increased number of refugees and migrants, addressing the threat of terrorism, defending established foreign and security policy norms and rules, and making the transition to a green economy.

A united Europe is a strong Europe. Cooperation is what makes Europe effective. That is why the growing divisions that we are seeing between European countries pose a major challenge.

I believe that we can reverse this trend, but only if we all pull together and implement measures that yield results. Our efforts must be guided by our shared democratic values and the principles of the rule of law and fundamental human rights. Cooperation with other European countries and institutions is our most important tool, and Nordic cooperation has a unique role to play in this context.