Seafood from the High North - sustaining and enhancing the EU market

Statssekretær Elsbeth Tronstads innledning på et seminar i regi av Nord-Norges europakontor i Brussel.

(Check against delivery)

Minister, your excellences, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends. Thank you for the invitation to speak here today.

There is a certain smell of fish is in the air in Brussels these days. I love that smell. It is the smell of a product that is helping to prepare us all for the future, developing the blue bio-economy. Norway and the Faeroe Islands are key players in that respect. And the EU is the key market for our excellent products. Our seafood contribute to employment and value creation in the rest of Europe, and it provides European consumers with a wide choice of healthy seafood products all year round.

A sound regulatory framework is essential

As you know, parts of the Norwegian economy are facing challenging times. Few of us could have predicted the sudden fall in oil prices that we have seen the last years.

The oil and gas sector will be important for many decades yet. But, to secure our long-term welfare, we need to base our economy on several pillars – one of which is the seafood industry.

To illustrate the changes that have taken place, I would like to mention that three years ago, the market value of the ten largest oil-related companies on the Norwegian Stock Exchange totalled NOK 280 billion. The ten largest seafood-related companies were worth about NOK 50 billion. One year ago, the two sectors changed places, and the ten biggest seafood companies have been worth more than the ten biggest oil-related companies ever since. This demonstrates that Norway has more strings to its bow than oil and gas.

Seafood is closely linked to the Norwegian culture at both local and national level. No other industry in Norway combines the cultural and economic pillars of sustainability in quite the same way. And no other industry demonstrates quite so clearly that national interests do not need to stand in the way of open borders and international cooperation.

A sound regulatory framework is essential, both in Europe and globally. We depend on a system of global trade rules. Common rules make the situation predictable for everyone. At a time when there is growing protectionism and growth in world trade is weak, it is of crucial importance to safeguard existing institutions, particularly the World Trade Organization. The multilateral trading system has served us well. We must seek to ensure that it continues to do so.

Unfortunately, there is growing opposition to trade agreements worldwide. As I said, protectionism is gaining ground, and there is every reason to keep a close watch on the signals from Washington and elsewhere.

The EEA Agreement

We also need to follow developments relating to international agreements, and show that we support these agreements. Here, I would like to highlight the importance of the EEA Agreement for Norway. This is our most important and most extensive international agreement, and it gives Norwegian citizens and companies predictability and access to the European market.

Eighty per cent of all Norwegian exports go to the EU, and 60 % of our imports come from there. Of all the seafood that is imported into the European Union each year, around 25 % comes from Norway.

There is a widespread impression that seafood is not included in the EEA Agreement, but this is only partially true. Trade in seafood is not part of the internal market, but Norway has implemented the EU's food and veterinary legislation, which in fact makes up the largest share of the EEA Agreement measured by the number of legal acts. This legislation regulates important areas such as fish health, feed and hygiene.

A number of the general provisions of the EEA Agreement on matters such as freedom of establishment and free movement of capital are important too. Many individuals and companies would be affected if we suddenly no longer had the agreement:

For instance: The veterinary legislation would no longer apply, and it would be necessary to reintroduce border controls for 170 trailers carrying seafood every day. This could result in an impossible situation for sales of fresh fish. To quote something my colleague Vidar Helgesen said when he was Minister of EEA and EU Affairs: Nobody is in such a rush to get to a dinner table as a dead salmon.

Improved market access

But as we know, the general rules of the EEA Agreement do not apply to seafood. Norwegian seafood is therefore subject to import duties and other barriers to trade. Trade in fish and fisheries products is regulated under Protocol 9 of the EEA Agreement, the Free Trade Agreement from 1973, and by a series of bilateral agreements.

It is against this backdrop that Norway has been working continuously to improve market access for seafood ever since the EEA Agreement entered into force in 1994. Although we have achieved improvements over the years, market access in the EU is still not good enough.

The Government's long-term goal is clear. We are working towards free trade in seafood, on the same lines as for trade in manufactured goods. The Government will continue its efforts to improve market access. We made progress in 1995, in 2004, in 2007, in 2009, in 2013, and most recently in 2015 when we completed the negotiations with the EU on the new funding period for the EEA and Norway Grants and tariff-free quotas. The negotiations were protracted and difficult, and it took more than a year longer than originally planned to reach a result.

I am very pleased that we achieved further improvements in market access for some important seafood products, and that tariff-free quotas for species such as herring, mackerel and shrimps were retained.

The current agreement is better adapted to the needs of the industry and to demand in the EU than was previously the case.

The previous agreements ran for a period of five years. The new agreement is for seven years, which gives more stable and predictable conditions for the industry.

Despite this agreement, Norwegian seafood still faces tariffs upon import to the EU, this is especially the case for processed products. The Government will continue its efforts to expand the scope of free trade with the EU.

The EEA Agreement provides us with a stable regulatory framework even though it only partly applies to seafood. There are other important markets for seafood as well, but they do not offer the same level of predictability as the EU market does due to the EEA Agreement. We have vivid memories of how the Chinese and Russian seafood markets vanished overnight for political reasons.

Because of the rights and obligations set out in the EEA Agreement, this kind of situation could never arise in relation to the EU. The EU – through the EEA Agreement – represents predictability and stability.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Just now, it is more important than ever to safeguard international cooperation and international agreements, both globally and at European level. Just now it is more important than ever to continue to provide the EU-market with our excellent seafood products and to continue the efforts to improve market access.

To repeat myself, seafood from both Norway and the Faeroe Islands contribute to employment, and value creation in the rest of Europe, and it provides European consumers with healthy and delicious products all year round.

Personally, I am looking forward to taste some of these products at the seafood expo later today.

Thank you for your attention.