Norway, EU and Democracy

Oslo, 7. november 2014

- Thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference. The theme you have chosen is highly topical and close to my political and European heart. A united Europe based on peace, democracy, freedom, solidarity and respect for basic human rights, sa Vidar Helgesen da han innledet på Europabevegelsens årskonferanse.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this conference. The theme you have chosen is highly topical and close to my political and European heart.  A united Europe based on peace, democracy, freedom, solidarity and respect for basic human rights.

This was the vision of the founders of the European Movement back in the late 1940s. Their ideas led to the establishment of the Council of Europe and the EU, and they should continue to inspire new generations of Europeans. 

Democracy is essentially about two principles: popular control over public decision-making, and the equality of those who exercise that control. These principles define what democrats at all times and in all places have struggled for:

  • Making popular control over public decision making more effective and more inclusive
  • Removing elite monopoly over decision making and its benefits
  • Overcoming obstacles to the equal exercise of citizenship rights, such as those of gender, ethnicity, religion, language, class and wealth. 

When the Berlin Wall came down, the vision of democratic progress through integration became tangible for the entire European continent. 

The door to European integration was opened to countries that had been trapped behind the Iron Curtain for decades. The EU became a powerful force for democratic transformation in the post-Communist states.  

At the same time, the EU itself, and its own governance system has remained, will remain, and in my view must remain, a continuous balancing act between interests of citizens, governments and European institutions. An effort to fully democratize EU institutions vis-à-vis citizens would not necessarily, strengthen the quality of democracy in Europe. On the contrary, I believe strengthening democratic accountability at the national level will also give more legitimacy to European-level decision-making. 

Hence the EU should continue its important historical role as a driver for democracy-building in member states as well as – through the power of attraction – for countries in its neighbourhood. 

The European Dream

The belief in the EUs transformative power reached a peak in 2004, when ten central and eastern European states acceded to the Union, after having met the political, economic and institutional criteria for EU membership. 

The same year, Jeremy Rifkin wrote his much-quoted book about "The European Dream". A dream where individuals find security through connectivity and respect for human rights. A dream of a postmodern community and the triumph of Europe as a soft power. A Europe where zero-sum perspectives are outdated. 

Today we know better. 

The European Dream is still just a dream for many. Yet again, in 2014, violence has silenced Europeans standing up for their rights. Yet again, armies are crossing internationally recognized borders in Europe. 

The Russian annexation of Crimea and the military operations in in Eastern Ukraine have put the very idea of European integration and cooperation to the test. Its putting the EU to the test. 

Where does Norway stand in Europe’s changing democratic landscapes?

We have chosen through democratic procedures not to be member of the EU. We have no voting rights in the Council, we have no representatives in the European Parliament. We are not at the table when decisions are being made. 

We have also chosen through democratic procedures to be part of the EEA, Schengen and our other agreements with the EU. Over 20 years all six parliaments have supported and all seven governments have governed on the basis of these agreements. 

Public decision-making and political discretion are limited in many ways. By the Constitution. By human rights instruments. By rights extended to groups or individuals through political decisions. And by the EEA agreement. Fundamentally, the principle of rule of law places limitations on political discretion. 

What is so special about the EEA Agreement therefore, is not the principle of placing constraints on political decision-making authority.

Norway is part of the broader European democracy

What is special about the EEA, is the scope and depth of penetration of this agreement into every aspect of Norwegian society.

So although I personally am convinced that it is in Norway’s interest to be a member of all important international organisations that we can be a member of, I would argue that the democratic shortcomings of the EEA agreement are rather pale compared to the democratic challenges facing Europe at the moment. 

And when democracy is challenged elsewhere in Europe, it affects us, even though we are not part of the formal participatory democracy at EU-level. For we are deeply committed to the values that underpin European integration.

We are part of the broader European democracy, and we must stand up to defend it. 

Democracy in Europe is challenged in many ways. 

Firstly, strongman politics is back in Europe in a way not seen for many decades.

Russia. Extreme nationalists in rest of Europe. Hungary. The risk of spreading.

Secondly, weak political institutions and processes: failure to deliver.

Weak political parties. 

Thirdly, organised crime and corruption. 

Fourthly, failure to manage diversity.

Discrimination of minorities. Immigrants. Political islam. 

Let me give three examples of our engagement: 

First, we have been consistent in our support for EU restrictive measures against Russia in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. We cannot accept that the democratic will of people is overturned by military means.

We cannot accept that authoritarian forces try to stop the spread of fundamental rights and values at the heart of Europe. 

Second, we are strengthening our political dialogue with Ukraine. Later this month I will accompany Prime Minister Solberg on meetings in Kiev, where we will express our solidarity and our intention to help in the transition that lies ahead. This will be a key test case for European democracy building in the coming years. It will take time. 

We will signal that we are in it for the long haul, both politically and financially. We are increasing our support to Ukraine almost fourfold this year, and we plan a further increase in 2015, reaching total of EUR 25 million. 

Third, we have reacted strongly against Hungary’s unacceptable crackdown on civil society and fundamental rights. Our reaction is based on a conviction that democracy is about more than free and fair elections. Liberal democracy is also about curbing the negative consequences of majority rule, through the protection of the rule of law and individual rights – civil rights, political rights, minority rights. 

Hungary’s actions are clearly in breach with this broad and deep conception of democracy, to which it has committed itself as member of the EU. 

That is why I am all the more disappointed by the EUs inability so far to take measures against the Orban regime.  

Pleased with the new Commission  

The cost of inaction is high. If EU member states are allowed to undermine the rule of law and the respect of fundamental values, the whole European construction risks falling apart. 

The internal market cannot operate without the rule of law. And the credibility of the EU as an international actor will be damaged. This is not in Europe’s interest. And it is not in Norway’s interest. 

I am therefore pleased that the new Commission, led by Jean Claude Juncker, appears to upgrade the work on fundamental rights by giving the portfolio to first vice-president Frans Timmermans. 

In his written answer to the European Parliament during the hearings of the new commissioners, Timmermans was adamant that he would not hesitate to use the new rule of law-mechanism and other infringement procedures if necessary.

He also declared that he was ready to initiate article 7 of the Treat as a last resort if so required, which ultimately opens for the suspension of membership rights should there be a clear risk of a serious breach of European values. 

In my previous function as secretary general of IDEA, I often gave speeches where I stressed that democracy cannot be imposed from outside, but that it must be built from the inside. This does not mean that we should disengage. Especially in a European context, where the level of integration between countries is so high, upholding democratic values is a common responsibility.

We must demonstrate that democratic political systems can be strong economic performers. That, contrary to Orban’s beliefs, liberal democratic states can remain globally competitive. Political competition spurs economic competition. We must show that European integration can bring solutions to people’s problems. 

Norway do that through an active participation in policy debates at European level. We do it through targeted contributions to reducing social and economic disparities in Europe and beyond. In that way, we help keeping the European Dream alive, both in the EU and its neigbourhood.  

Thank you!