Europe in transition – Norway and Europe in an age of global shifts

Oslo, 8. oktober 2015

Minister of EEA and EU Affairs Vidar Helgesen's speech at the Nupi conference "Europe in transition – Small states and Europe in an age of global shifts", 8 October 2015.

Thank you for inviting me to this conference. I am glad that Nupi gives such high priority to European affairs. For we need research-based knowledge and debate about Europe.

Many people are pessimistic about Europe's place in the world. They fear a shift in global power. They see China emerging as a major economic player. They worry about the US pivoting towards Asia. They think Europe will lose out.

I do not support this view. Economic growth in China will not in itself harm Europe. Neither do I consider President Obama's closer attention to his Asian neighbours to be a threat. The world economy is not a zero-sum game. We should not fear countries that embrace globalisation and succeed. I am more concerned about those that fail, or refuse, to take part in global exchange. They pose a bigger threat to Europe.

In my view, the main question is not what global shifts and currents are doing to Europe, but rather what Europe is doing to itself.

Faced with instability in our neighbourhood, economic downturn and extremism, are we reacting in a way that strengthens Europe? Or are we contributing to its decline?

Complex challenges

Europe has certainly been put to the test lately.

The economic downturn has created a protracted social crisis in many countries and political crises in some. The destructive effects of high unemployment will be with us for many years to come. Xenophobic forces are on the rise in several European states. Parties that contest the benefits of European integration have gained support.

In addition, we see radicalisation and violent extremism. The attacks in Paris and Copenhagen earlier this year illustrated in a shocking way that not all of our citizens support the values on which Europe is built.

Europe is also facing challenges in its borderlands and beyond. Russia is violating international law and Ukraine's territorial integrity. The devastating effects of wars and failed states in the Middle East and North Africa are coming closer to Europe by the day. A humanitarian disaster is unfolding in the Mediterranean. Thousands of refugees are in need of protection.

The situation is complex and demanding, for several reasons.

First, Europe has to tackle many crises simultaneously. The geopolitical and humanitarian crises currently dominating, have to be tackled while Europe is still struggling in the aftermath of the economic crisis.

Second, the crises are interlinked, or even mutually reinforcing. For instance, Russia has created foreign policy challenges for us: It has destabilised Ukraine and weakened international resolve in Syria. At the same time, it is seeking to influence political development in other European states, by fuelling the rise of extremist parties and forces. Another example: Radicalised youth are finding inspiration outside Europe, but their transition towards violent extremism may also be triggered by inadequate integration into societies within Europe.

Thirdly, the integration miracle which has served Europe so well in dealing with borderline issues over the recent decades, does not work when dealing with countries or regions that do not want to be part of Europe, such as Russia, in a political sense, or are not part of Europe, like the Middle east or North Africa.

Fourthly, there is a challenge in that dealing with external threats of aggression, there is an old truth in that external threats can create internal unity. But when external threats are playing right to the heart of domestic politics in European countries, it gets more difficult.

It is also noteworthy that the main challenges facing Europe in recent years are in areas where intergovernmental mentality dies hard: economic policy, foreign and security policy, fundamental rights, asylum and migration policy. This shapes the EU's ability to act. And for our part, it shapes the way Norway cooperates with its European partners.

Two imperatives

Many say that we need more Europe. Others advocate a transfer of power back to the national level – a renationalisation. Both views have merits. But none of them has merits if given as sweeping statements meant to be valid for each and every issue.

Across all issues, the way I see it, Europe's future and its position globally will depend on our ability to:

  1. respect fundamental principles and values, and
  2. deliver at the promise of these principles and values.

Allow me to elaborate a bit on these two imperatives.

Europe's success for over half a century has been due to the fact that we have based our societies and cooperation on the rule of law and the values and principles of liberal democracy. And been able to make democracy deliver for its citizens.

We will be in deep trouble if individual countries or the EU itself compromise on our values. This is a matter of survival for European integration as we know it. Without the rule of law, neither the internal market nor the area of freedom, security and justice will function. If we cannot trust the legal systems in other European states, our advanced structures of mutual recognition will collapse.

Besides, we cannot credibly project our values and policies outside Europe unless our own house is in order. To put it simply, I am convinced that Europe can handle economic crises, social crises and political crises, but it will not survive a rule-of-law crisis. Taking action against those who promote illiberal and anti-democratic development, both externally and internally, is an existential necessity.

Let me turn to the second imperative: to make Europe deliver. The legitimacy of European democracies and of integration depends to a large extent on the results it produces. Since the very beginning, the aim – and the promise – has been to deliver peace and well-being to the citizens of Europe. If Europe fails to deliver on this, it will be very hard to muster popular and political support for the integration process. In this perspective, economic recovery is the first, second and third priority.

If we are to achieve these two imperatives, we must stick together. We must defend our values and principles collectively internally and externally. That is why Norway seeks close cooperation with our European partners.

Norway and Europe

I have deliberately been talking about Europe rather than the EU. Norway is part of the European integration process, albeit in an unusual way. Our European policy is based on the two imperatives I mentioned earlier. Let me illustrate this point with reference to some of the main topics on the European agenda.

Many refugees are now seeking protection in Europe. Some people are responding to this situation with fear. They believe that the influx of refugees is threatening our values and welfare. I think historian Geert Mak made a valid point recently, when he said that we should not fear the refugees; rather we should fear our inability to welcome them.

We have a moral and legal obligation to help. And we have an obligation to deliver the goods – peace and prosperity – to our citizens. We must welcome the refugees in an orderly and decent manner; we must help them become part of our societies; and we must address the root causes that are forcing people to flee their homes. Norway will do its share.

  • We are prepared to receive 8000 asylum seekers in the period 2015–2017.
  • We are joining, on a voluntary basis, the EU's scheme to relocate refugees from countries like Italy and Greece.
  • We have increased our humanitarian assistance to Syria and neighbouring areas (EUR 135 million in 2015).
  • We will host a donor conference in London together with the UK and Germany, and in cooperation with the UN.
  • We have pledged extra funds to support the reception of refugees in Serbia and Macedonia.
  • We are taking part in the operations in the Mediterranean to strengthen external border control and save lives.
  • We will prioritise capacity-building in the field of asylum policy in the forthcoming negotiations on how the EEA and Norway Grants are to be spent.
  • Just as we are part of the coordinated European response to the refugee crisis, so too we will stand together to tackle the challenges in the east.
  • We have aligned ourselves with the EU's restrictive measures against Russia. This is costly, but the alternative – doing nothing – would be more costly, and is not an option. International law is our first line of defence, and we must protect our common rules.

Contrary to most of our European partners, we share a common border with Russia.

We have chosen to continue our cooperation with Russia in areas that are of particular importance to us: fisheries management, environment, nuclear safety, regional cooperation, search and rescue, and people-to-people contact. It is not in anyone's interest to isolate Russia, but Moscow's aggression in Ukraine makes it impossible to normalise our relations.

At the same time, we have stepped up our political and economic support to Ukraine, as well as to Moldova and Georgia. Few European countries contribute more.

We would like to establish a more systematic dialogue with the EU on the European neighbourhood policy and the Eastern partnership, not the least to make sure that our efforts complement each other's.

Economic recovery is vital to give Europe the necessary strength and stamina to meet external challenges.

Norway has steered clear of the worst repercussions of the financial and economic crisis. But we too must reform our economy to stay competitive and prepare for a situation where oil and gas are less prominent components of our economy. The internal market will become increasingly important for us as we make this transition. Europe is our home market. Our main trading partners are here. This is where most of our investments go.

It is in our national interest to protect free movement and the integrity of the internal market.

Coming back to my main message, I believe Europe can tackle the many challenges we are facing, but only if we stick together, uphold our values, and deliver for citizens. Unfortunately, the recent discussions about the reception of refugees in Europe has shown that we are not all on the same page. Some countries are questioning the need for solidarity at European level. Even worse, some are stepping out of the European community of values, by refusing to help refugees who are not Christian.

Norway is determined to speak up when European values are threatened. Our reaction to the clampdown on civil society in Hungary is one example. I have said it before, but I remain puzzled and disappointed that there has been so little response from EU institutions. For decades, the EU has been a driving force for democratic change and respect for human rights in Europe.

If the EU is unable to deal with breaches of fundamental rights and freedoms in one of its member states, the whole integration process – and Europe's identity – will suffer.

I understand that the Eunor research project will cover many of these issues, and that you will be looking at the situation of small states in particular. In some ways, Norway fits the description of small states: We are keen to promote international law and order; we are among the greatest beneficiaries of European integration; and we share the concerns that many small states have about sovereignty.

However, I think we should be careful not to attach too much importance to size. In some policy areas, Norway is not a small country – energy issues being a case in point.

We also see that not all small states in Europe follow traditional small state strategies. Some see cooperation as a threat rather than a necessity, and are developing their own brand of risky small-state nationalism.

For Norway, the main challenge is not our size, but the particular way we are linked to the European integration process. The crisis in Ukraine is a good example. It changed the security landscape in Europe, and the EU became a crucial forum for discussing how to tackle this (together with Nato). Norway, however, was not at the table. We face a similar challenge in connection with the TTIP negotiations.

To remedy this situation, we are engaged in active diplomacy in European capitals. This is even more important now that our European partners are furthering their cooperation in traditionally intergovernmental spheres.

Europe is – as always – in transition. I am glad that Nupi has organised this conference, which is a timely opportunity to develop our knowledge and analyses of where Europe is heading. One thing is sure, Norway is taking part in this journey. And along the way, we will do our best to make sure that Europe doesn't lose sight of its fundamental principles and values, and that it deliver on democracy to European citizens.

Thank you.