EU-Norway relations

Statssekretær Elsbeth Tronstads innlegg på konferansen "ARENA/COMOS conference: Towards a differentiated Europe" arrangeret i samarbeid med ARENA i Oslo 18. mai.

Thank you for inviting me. It is a privilege to speak to such a distinguished audience. There must be an almost insatiable demand for your expertise these days.

I am pleased that you have taken the time to come to Oslo.

For debating the future of Europe should not be a Brussels-based exercise, nor be reserved for EU member states only. European integration extends beyond the geographical borders of the EU. EU governance reaches beyond the institutional boundaries of the Union. Allow me therefore to congratulate the organisers with the choice of topic and venue!

Europe is changing rapidly. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish political fluctuations from long-term structural transformation. Our theories and strategies of European integration are being put to a test.

We need arenas like this, where researchers and practitioners can come together  and look beyond the headlines of the morning papers.

Two concepts keep reoccurring when we contemplate the future of European integration. One is unity. The other is differentiation.

Unity is Europe’s strongest asset. By unity I do not mean uniformity.

To me, unity is about standing together to defend common values.

It is about standing together to promote common interests. It is about sticking to commitments made.

Unity is Europe’s best strategy in a world where power shifts, economic competition is fierce and fundamental principles and values are under pressure. It is our best answer to address international and global challenges, such as terrorism, migration and climate change.

We have seen the importance of standing together in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea. We have experienced that unity has strengthened our position during international climate change negotiations. Conversely, we have collectively suffered the consequences of division. Remember the chaos and disorder following the sudden rise in migration to Europe in 2015.

We do not have to agree on everything. But we must maintain a spirit of cooperation and solidarity. Those who want to weaken Europe, know very well what to do.

They know that the best recipe is to aggravate divisions in and between European countries. We must continue to withstand such tactics. At the same time, we must address the root causes of polarisation in our societies.

I often remind my colleagues in other European countries that the quest for unity transcends EU membership. Although Norway is not a member of the EU, my government consistently seeks European solutions and promotes European solidarity. For we are a part of the broader integration process. We take our share of the responsibility in order to reap the benefits of a stable and prosperous Europe.

Together with our European partners, Norway strives to realise a three-fold vision for the future of our continent:

We want a democratic Europe, which guarantees human rights, democratic institutions and respect for the rule of law.

We want a secure Europe, able to prevent and handle threats to our territories, political system and citizens.

We want an economically strong and sustainable Europe, which protects the environment and improves the human condition.  

To succeed we need unity, not only within the EU but across its institutional boundaries and geographic borders.

How should we foster such unity? This question has occupied scholars and practitioners for more than 60 years. It has become even more acute following successive enlargements of the Union, the British decision to leave the EU, and in view of isolationist and nationalistic tendencies in Europe - and elsewhere.

There is a multitude of policy preferences and national interests in Europe.

European integration has helped us reconcile and even move beyond these differences. The backbone of integration is the common institutional framework, the existence of common rules and uniform interpretation of these rules.

Nonetheless, many consider that we have reached a point where differentiation is the best way forward. They prescribe internal differentiation, whereby some EU members can reinforce their cooperation without obliging everyone to take part in their efforts. They foresee external differentiation, whereby the EU grants outsiders access to cooperation, as a function of their ambitions and commitments to European integration.

The way I see it, we are not heading towards a differentiated Europe.

We are already there.

Some EU members have had opt-outs from key policy areas for decades.

Others have deepened their relations based on the provisions on enhanced cooperation, notably in the fields of divorce law, the European patent and the financial transactions tax.

Moreover, the EU has already established differentiated integration with non-member states. Norway is a case in point.

We have extensive experience from participating in different circles of cooperation in Europe.

We participate in the internal market through the EEA agreement.

We manage parts of the Schengen external border in the north.

We complement the EU structural funds through the EEA and Norway grants.

We contribute to joint European action to meet common challenges,  including in the field of foreign and security policy.

Norwegian experts, civil servants and politicians at national and local levels are part of European networks alongside their EU colleagues.

Interdependence is strong.

Professor Wessels would perhaps say that some degree of fusion is at work here as well…

The challenge is to manage differentiation and to develop it further in a manner which preserves and promotes European unity.

This raises a host of legal, institutional and political questions, which I hope will be further explored during this conference.

In particular, how will the EU draw the line between inside and outside? At what point does differentiation risk turning into disintegration?

The UK decision to leave the EU can be a catalyst for change in the way we cooperate in Europe. It can go both ways. Maybe the future relationship between the EU and the UK will contribute to blurring existing limits between inside and outside. Or perhaps the withdrawal process will have the opposite effect, and encourage a clearer demarcation between members and non-members. Time will tell. 

In any event, Norway will follow these developments closely.

We want to preserve our existing agreements with the EU. But we are always keen to develop our relations further, not the least in the field of foreign and security policy.

Should improved and more inclusive forms of cooperation arise in the wake of UK withdrawal from the EU, we believe it is in everyone’s interest to extend these arrangements to Norway and other close partners as well.

Such changes in the system of EU external relations will affect Norway.

But internal developments in the EU also have a direct impact on us.  

For Norway is not a regular third country. We are the most integrated outsider. We are part of key policies of the Union, be that the four freedoms or the management of our common external border. So when the member states contemplate changes in these areas they must take Norway and other partners into account to preserve a well-functioning system.

Differentiated integration must respect the integrity of the internal market and other cooperative regimes that already exist, such as Schengen and Dublin. This is important to Norway, given our deep involvement in these regimes.

Moreover, if we reach a point where differentiation becomes a strategy of European integration and not only a technique to handle deadlocks in the system, I think we should explore ways to integrate outsiders into that strategy.

For example, being a part of the EEA and Schengen, one could envisage that it would be in both the Norwegian and European interest to associate Norway to initiatives of enhanced cooperation having a bearing on the internal market or the management of the external border. Such association would require political will and legal innovation. We need creative thinking on such issues in the years to come.

As a politician, I am interested in finding solutions that works to the benefit of our citizens. European integration, both inside and outside the EUs borders, must produce answers to the challenges they face. If differentiated integration can provide that, then it should be welcome.

But my pragmatism has limits. I have already mentioned one of them.

Differentiation must not undermine existing cooperation.

I also have difficulties seeing that Europe could and should allow differentiation when it comes to our fundamental values and principles, such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

Differentiated integration does create controversy and is challenging for insiders and outsiders alike. But given that certain limitations are respected,

I am less worried about the initiative of some states to deepen their cooperation than I am about the tendency to shy away from cooperation altogether. The quest for unity should always guide our policies.

We must not become inward-looking at national level, nor at European level.

The future stability of our continent depends on our ability to promote democracy, security and prosperity for all the peoples of Europe.

And it depends on our ability to engage with the rest of the world, politically and economically. Protectionism and isolationism are not the answers to the challenges we face. Europe has tried that before. We do not want to go there again.

Thank you.



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