Outside and inside: Norway's relations with the EU – Partners for Europe

Statssekretær Elsbeth Tronstads innlegg 22. mars på seminaret "Partnering the European Union".

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am truly honored to be able to speak here today at the venerable Finnish Institute of International Affairs. I am thankful to the organizers for giving me this opportunity. For any foreign policy maker, being given the task to speak about your core priorities is of course a dream situation. And relations to the European Union is truly a core priority for my government as well as my country. Moreover, I am grateful to all of you who have shown your interest by attending today.

Before I proceed to catalogue the advantages of Norway's relations with the European Union, I wish to make a declaration of interest: I personally, along with my party, believe that Norway's interests would be best served by membership of the Union. Therefore, my defence of our current status as an inside outsider is dictated by our domestic political reality.

Today Norwegian EU membership is politically not feasible (it's enough with one look at the polls on membership). So I believe our existing framework for cooperation with the EU is better than possibly anything else one might imagine. Specifically, I strongly disagree with those raising their voices in Norway to say that we should abrogate the EEA Agreement, instead renegotiating our EU relations based on Swiss-style bilateral, sectoral agreements.

Overview of agreements and arrangements

Many are surprised by the scale and scope of Norway's current agreements and arrangements with the EU. Firstly, therefore, allow me to give a brief overview of the most important components. Of these, the European Economic Area Agreement clearly takes precedence. This integrates us fully as a member of the Single Market, as you may know, alongside our friends in Iceland and Liechtenstein. It is called a dynamic agreement, since we continuously incorporate relevant EU law through formal procedures. These include mechanisms for adjustments to take into account specific national situations in the three EEA Efta states, but these have to be agreed with the EU, represented by the European External Action Service, in the EEA Committee.

Moreover, the EEA Agreement is very comprehensive, and has a very wide impact on Norwegian society. All in the interest of safeguarding a level playing field for market operators, of course, thereby ensuring that effective competition makes for efficient use of resources. From a Norwegian perspective, this secures market access to countries representing around 80 percent of the value of Norwegian exports.

Secondly, within justice affairs we are a member of the Schengen area, and related agreements. Our membership here was originally intended to save our open borders with you, our Nordic neighbors. Today I think it is fair to say that our citizens have benefitted from easy travel across European borders to an extent where our idea of open borders have come to encompass most of the continent. Schengen and its related instruments such as the Dublin regulation have certainly faced severe challenges over the past few years.

The temporary re-imposition of border controls aside, Schengen and Dublin still provides us with a framework to find Europe-wide solutions to one of the challenges of our time: how to manage migration in such a way that we uphold our own human values. Dignity and giving protection to people fleeing persecution is not only a part of who we are – it is also enshrined in our international obligations. Still, we need to do this in a way that both benefits our societies and takes into account that in Norway too, this society has become quite diverse, with many links to all parts of the world.

And let me underline: Norway strives to be a constructive and engaged partner in this area. We are positive towards the discussions on revising the Dublin Regulation. We continue to provide resources for joint efforts to police and control outer borders (for EU's Border Control Agency, its Asylum Office (EASO) etc.); we participate in the relocation scheme from Italy and Greece. Perhaps most importantly, we are a large contributor to stabilization efforts in the Middle East and North African countries, as well as in Sahel, the Horn of Africa and sub-Saharan countries.

This brings us to the third arena of our relations with the Union: we cooperate with the European Union within the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Here our relations with the EU are on one hand less formalized, while on the other hand our relations on some issues are very close and intensive. A good illustration here is when we aligned ourselves with EUs restrictive measures towards Russia after the annexation of Crimea and events in Eastern Ukraine; another example is when we participate in EU's crisis management operations.

Underlying the felt closeness in the foreign policy arena I think is the fact that in many respects, we share a value community with you and most of our EU partners. We not only share a stake in the future of our common continent, we realize that a stable and prosperous world at large will be to our benefit. Therefore, we do what we can to stabilize, and to foster inclusive growth.

Also - to get a leverage you need to be unified.

[There are also areas where we cooperate little with the EU, including the Economic and Monetary Union, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Fisheries Policy, the Customs Union. For Development Policy as well as Trade Policy we seek to be close partners, while still independent.]

Degree of integration and influence across various sectors

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me invite you to look at our EU relations also from a slightly different angle, shall we say inside out? If the EEA Agreement is the cornerstone in terms of its impact as well as the limited scope for avoiding regulations we may dislike, it still entails a few notable exceptions for our integration into the Single Market. While all the different aspects of the Single Market apply to us, some sectors are exempt. Among these, fisheries and agriculture are the most important ones. Indeed, the EEA Agreement does cover trade in agricultural goods, mandating regular negotiations, but outside the framework of the Single Market.

For the Schengen Area justice cooperation the relationship might be described differently. Here we sit at the table when discussions are held and decisions made, obliged to respect the outcomes . However, because of our Schengen membership, we have opted to also take on relevant legislation in related areas, even without any formal obligation. This freedom to chose is even more pronounced in the CSDP area, where we partake whenever it suits us and we are able to negotiate some sort of arrangement with the EU side.

As a general observation, however, if we look for instance at our rate of adhesion to restrictive measures, we have followed the EU on almost every account, with exceptions few and far between. Russia is certainly a case in point that deserves mentioning: EU's restrictive measures emphasized offshore oil and gas technology, clearly affecting Norwegian economic interests. Still, we instituted the very same measures. Also Russia's counter-sanctions had a particular impact on Norwegian interests, namely our fish export.

To many Norwegians, the fact that the EU singled out for restrictive measures against Russia a sector that has considerable importance for us, points to a crucial weakness of our EU relations: we often have limited influence on EU decisions that may have wide ramifications for us. I need not conceal that this has led successive Norwegian governments, including my own, to come up with various designs for "a more pro-active European Affairs policy". Usually this emphasizes close contact with our friends on the inside to keep abreast on policy initiatives framed by the EU. This way we hope to ensure early formulation of Norwegian policy, and seek meetings with relevant national and EU officials to promote Norwegian interests and points of view.

In this process, we observe that the European Commission, to its credit, works as any rational contemporary initiator of legislation: listening to inputs from sector interests as well as national authorities, the Commission generally welcomes contributions from all those who have substantial and relevant arguments. As a result, in particular in sectors where Norway enjoys a strong global position and where we have a key interest, we frequently benefit from the Commission's willingness to lend us an ear. Marine and maritime sectors spring to mind. Another boon for us is the Commission's willingness to taken on board seconded experts. Of course, this is a two-way relationship representing win-win.

Underlying principles of our EU relations

Now, I would like to offer a few observations on the nature of the duality between our inside-slash-outside position that may seem particularly relevant today.

First of all, the EEA Efta countries and the European Union have always agreed that the Single Market is one package: if you are in, you have to accept that all the four freedoms apply. Likewise, if on a sectoral basis you want to be out, say regarding fisheries, you must also accept that you cannot have full market access for this sector, no matter how much you would like to.

Secondly, Single Market access comes with a price. We "pay" through our adoption of EU legislation, relevant for the EEA. However, in my view, we should regard this not as payment but as a fair investment in securing a level playing field for Norwegian businesses.

There is also a strong sentiment of solidarity in the EEA area. Norway is contributing substantially to economic and social cohesion in the EU. With the EEA and Norway Grants, and together with our partners Iceland and Liechtenstein, we make substantial financial contributions to 15 EU member states. Combining the present and the new financial mechanisms, a total of 4.6 billion € will be used to reduce social and economic disparities and to further bilateral relations. I am convinced this is money well-spent: not only in view of the market access we gain, but also because in this way we get to contribute to the development in important countries in the East, in a way we think beneficial for the future of Europe. For the idea of Europe. In line with our values.

A value-based partnership

I already mentioned the underlying community of values which I think underpins our position inside Europe, even if outside the European Union. I believe we as Norwegians still share this attachment and commitment to being European, to belonging to this part of the world. There are innumerable reasons why we have rejected membership. But I believe this attachment to Europe alongside an appreciation of our obvious self-interest as an EEA-member, will safe-guard our current set-up and the EEA Agreement from opportunistic attacks. Moreover, I believe it also provides the foundation for why successive Norwegian governments have emphasized that we wish to be a very close partner for the EU. In Europe, as well as outside.

Please allow me to be crystal clear on this: the shared values and the shared priorities mean we generally share interests too, when we look around. Inside Europe, we need the EU to succeed. Outside Europe, in particular in the regions closest to Europe, it is in our common interest to see countries and regions stabilize and prosper to the extent possible. And we do have certain resources that we are willing to commit to this work, as does the EU. It seems to me a good match.

Let me end this tale of perhaps high-pitched partnership spirit and commitment to Europe with a little diplomatic joke: Around the time of the Nato Bucharest Summit in 2008 an American journalist was surprised to note that neutral Sweden was one of the strongest advocates for Georgia's Nato membership prospects. But when he learnt from the Norwegian ambassador that Norway was a strong supporter for Georgia's EU membership, it all made more sense...

Thank you for your attention.