Why Norway’s model is not a model

Posted on 13. June 2014

by Tonje Olsrud

Tonje OlsrudIn general, the Norwegian coverage of EU affairs leaves a lot to be desired. We are not a member of the club, but of course decisions and developments in Brussels affect us. It’s possible to say – albeit with some hyperbole – that Norway’s EU-debate tends to focus on the following: the restrictions on the curvature of cucumbers, the amount of cinnamon allowed in cinnabuns, and on how the Schengen Agreement is bringing Norwegian society to its knees.

While the latter issue area merits an honest and thorough debate, the other two represents the tabloid manner in which EU directives are featured in Norwegian media, and is indicative of the general low level of interest in EU affairs. As of 2013, there is only one permanent Norwegian EU-correspondent in Brussels, and most important discussions and decisions are reported on after the fact, if at all. So how did the collective Norwegian media cover the recent European Parliamentary elections?

As it turns out, surprisingly well, given the tendencies sketched above. Of course, Norwegians were not eligible to vote. However, as Norway adopts roughly ¾ of all legislation that comes out of Brussels, the outcome of the election will have an impact domestically, and it would be in the Norwegian public’s best interest to be informed.

All national newspapers reported on the election, and it was featured prominently on the evening news. The more tabloid newspapers ran headlines along the lines of “Earthquake elections” and “Election win for the Euro-sceptics”; arguing that the triumph of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party and other protest parties represented the people’s victory over the federalist elite in Brussels. The election outcome allegedly illustrates an uprising of the discontent, suggesting that the Eurozone crisis and the high unemployment rate have led the common man to lose faith in the European project.

Although anticipated, the low voter turnout has also garnered a lot of comments, as it draws attention the EUs democratic deficit and brings into question the legitimacy of key EU institutions, notably the European Parliament and the President of the Commission. Despite reporting on the voter apathy, few journalists seem to reflect on their own role in this, or the efforts made by the EU to better communicate with its citizens. I have hardly seen anything written about the Spitzenkandidaten campaign, despite this being a clear attempt by the EU to make the elections more relatable.

The overall impression is that Norwegian coverage of the elections has exceeded expectation in terms of quantity, but fallen short in terms of quality. I have noted the absence of articles and opinion pieces that reflect on what the new parliamentary composition will signify for the daily workings of Brussels. While the symbolic effect of the elections has received plenty of attention, little column space has been dedicated to the EU’s decision-making processes; the distribution of power among factions, institutions and even member states; and the undemocratic tendencies inherent in the system.

Why are questions regarding the Norwegian coverage important on a larger scale? I believe two factors are relevant. The elections, properly covered in the Norwegian media, could have served as a wake-up call. Norway’s permanent relationship with the EU is governed by the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement, described by Erik O. Eriksen, Director of the ARENA Centre for European Studies at the University of Oslo, as a “dynamic framework agreement”. This means that it does not need to be renegotiated each time the EU adopts a new relevant legal act, but rather facilitates the continuous adoption of new directives and amendments in order to maintain the EEA countries’ conformity with the union as a whole.

Norway as a non-member has no vote or access to formal negotiations. Where full EU-member states have relinquished national sovereignty and in return gained co-determination over shared issues, Norway is outside of the decision-making process, and must accept what is passed down. There exists a formal right of reservation, but to date it has never been used. This represents one of Norway’s biggest current democratic challenges, but is badly under-communicated. The elections could have kick-started a conversation about the democratic deficit, benefiting both Oslo and Brussels in the long run.

Finally, Norway’s position as both inside and outside the system is drawing attention from Euro-sceptic factions looking for alternatives to full membership. During a recent trip to England to discuss current challenges to the European project, I was confronted with the special relationship between Norway and the EU: “You know, to UKIP the Norwegian model does seem like a rather attractive option. Participating in the single market, but without having to deal with the Brussels bureaucracy on a daily basis…? Perfect.”

The Norwegian approach is seen as a possible way out of current commitments. While it is true that the relationship between Norway and the EU is special, it is not a model that ought to be copied by other European countries, neither those on the inside wanting out nor those on the outside wanting in. It is paradoxical, but in my eyes the Norwegian model ends up jeopardising sovereignty, freedom and right to self-determination – the very principles that lead the Norwegian people to reject full EU-membership in the first place.

The fledgling European public space, as well as the various national debates, ought to be encouraging conversations about ways to work within the existing system, rather than promoting something the Norwegian model of association.

This article is a part of a series of reflections by young Europeans, prepared in cooperation between FutureLab and Süddeutsche Zeitung Online. To read the original click here.