Speech/statement | Date: 2016-11-28 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs
State Secretary Elsbeth Tronstad's statement at NHO's and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Fisherie's single market conference in Oslo 28 November.
Thank you for the invitation to give some concluding remarks and thus an opportunity to share with you some reflections on how Norway will be affected by brexit and how we work to meet the challenges that lie ahead of us.
Let me just start by underlining one important point. Norway's relationship with the EU is not in itself directly affected by the British referendum. The EEA Agreement provides a stable and predictable framework for Norway's economic relations with the EU member states, to the benefit of businesses, consumers and citizens in general.
The cornerstone of our relations with the EU is the EEA-agreement, but we are also an associated member of Schengen in addition to a range of other cooperation arrangements with the EU in various fields. All these remain unchanged and will continue to serve us well.
The United Kingdom and Norway enjoy longstanding and wide-ranging cooperation. I am confident that the UK will remain one of Norway's closest partners and allies. Our trade relationship with the UK is currently regulated through the EEA and our bilateral agreements with the EU on trade in fish and agricultural products.
As with the EU, we will also need to redefine this relationship with a bilateral agreement with the UK. Entering such an agreement will however have to wait until the UK has withdrawn from the EU and the EEA.
Looking ahead, it is vital that the future framework for relations between the EU and UK will enable Norway to maintain our trade and cooperation with our UK partners at the same level as today. Because the EEA/Efta countries are so closely integrated in the single market through the EEA Agreement, we are not an ordinary third party, and we have a legitimate need to be involved in negotiations that affect the single market.
It is especially important that any transitional or permanent arrangements for the continued participation by the UK in the single market can apply throughout the European Economic Area.
The minister for EU and EEA affairs Elisabeth Vik Aspaker underlined this point in a meeting with Michel Barnier recently. His response was that a well-functioning European economic area post-brexit was also important to the EU, and that there should be a close dialogue with the EEA/Efta countries to ensure this.
Prime Minister Theresa May made it clear that the EEA is not an alternative and she is seeking a bespoke agreement with the EU. She has also said Britain wants to restrict free movement, even though the consequence of this will be that the UK will not be able to participate fully in the single market.
If this should change, we will keep an open mind on the question of possible UK membership of the EEA. The interests of the EEA/Efta countries will be our key concern when considering this issue.
On the future of the EEA
After the British referendum, there are those in Norway who want to follow the British example and replace the EEA with a loser free-trade agreement with the EU. Their reasoning is that it should be possible to maintain access to the EU market whilst taking back control over matters which are currently decided within the framework of the EEA. In my view, this argument is based on an outdated conception of market access being about tariffs on the trade in goods. As all of you here today know well, the single market is about more than tariff barriers.
Non-tariff barriers to trade in the form of divergent national rules, have been replaced by common rules not only for goods, but also for services, capital and people. Market access depends on following the same rules and is the basic principle of the EEA.
On the importance of the EEA for citizens
I would also like to emphasize that the EEA is not only about market access for business. It is also about opportunities and rights for ordinary citizens.
An entire generation of Norwegians have grown up with the opportunity to study, work, and live - with the right to health care and social security benefits - across the entire European Economic Area, which today consists of 31 countries. These are rights that many people in Norway today take for granted but they would not have been there without the EEA.
If we want to maintain a high level of consensus in favour of the EEA, we need to emphasize the benefits, not only to business, but also to people in general - especially to the young generation who have opportunities that my generation who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s did not have.
Ladies and gentlemen, the EEA agreement is the most comprehensive and wide-reaching international agreement that Norway has entered into. It is also a national political compromise between those who are for and those who are against Norwegian EU-membership. It is not perfect and gives less possibility to influence decisions than EU-membership, but it provides market access for business and some important rights to the rest of us. In my view, there is only one realistic alternative to the EEA, it is called EU membership and is not on the political agenda in Norway.