Reportage | Norway

The energy kingdom

Country Insight by Emilio Fabio Torsello

An outsider in the European Union

Norway has always restrained from entering the EU yet it’s one of the 28 member states’ major economic partners. As the top continental oil producer, Norway “monitors” the Arctic

Even though it meets all the requirements for applying to join the European Union, Norway is among the few countries to remain opposed to integration, along with Iceland. In a referendum held in 1994, 52% of Norwegians who took part voted “No,” and so Oslo opted not to join the Union, considering the integration process harmful to its strategic national interests, in terms of both its economy and its energy system. This was the same position that the country had held since 1972, when another referendum had also decided against joining a united Europe.

Europe according to Oslo: economic agreements, but not political ones

However, Norway’s avoidance of political integration with the rest of Europe has not prevented it from maintaining strong economic ties with the EU, to the point that it has joined the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). These agreements do not affect strategic assets, such as the nation’s gas and oil deposits, offshore platforms and fishing.

Furthermore, although Norway is not an EU member, it has signed the Schengen Agreement on the free movement of people and goods within the Schengen area, as well as common security agreements. Norway takes part in EU peacekeeping missions and sends its troops wherever needed.

This outsider position, with one foot in the EU, has enabled the country to coordinate with some EU policies and not with others. In 2012, for example, Norway did not adhere to certain framework agreements on a number of food imports, imposing higher tariffs than those stipulated by the EU. Oslo made a similar decision when EU member states agreed on measures to deregulate the postal sector in 2011. Such decisions pitted Oslo against Brussels, with “retaliation” in the form of threats to impose restrictions on salmon exports, one of Norway’s most recognizable national products.

The crucial issue of the Arctic and relations with neighbors

Geopolitically, Norway has good relations with all member states of the Nordic Council, a cooperative forum that also includes Denmark, Iceland, Finland and Sweden. By contrast, Norway has never gotten along well with Russia, both during the time of the Soviet Union and now with current President Vladimir Putin, especially since the crisis in Ukraine and in light of Norway’s NATO membership (the country was a founding member at its inception in 1949). Also at play are Norway’s strategic and energy interests in the Arctic. The tensions between the 2 countries in this area have been mitigated since Norway signed a historic agreement with Moscow in 2010, defining the maritime boundary between the 2 states in the Barents Sea. The Barents Sea is a strategic region for cod fishing. However, melting glaciers may mean that the Arctic reemerges as a cause for territorial disputes, both in terms of commercial routes and of energy extraction. Oslo has also recently expressed its support for allowing China to join the Arctic Council, which was established in Ottawa in 1996.

Oslo was the site of the historic 1993 accords attempting to normalize the Israel/Palestine conflict. Norway also played an essential role in the long and strained diplomatic process to reach a peaceful agreement between the Sri Lankan state and Tamil separatists, which took nearly 10 years (2000-2009).

The Rise of Rightwing Politics

Norway is a constitutional monarchy. Its parliament, which has been unicameral since 2009, is reelected every 4 years. The Labour Party has long dominated, having formed a government for almost the entirety of the post-war period. However, in recent years, parties to the right, focused on measures to curtail immigration, have held majorities. Norway also experienced, on July 22, 2011, one of the worst terrorist attacks ever recorded in Europe: Anders Breivik, a young Norwegian, declaring himself anti-multiculturalist, anti-Marxist and anti-Islamist, who had been active in the Progress Party between 1996 and 2006, killed 77 people and wounded another 96 with bombs and shootings between Oslo and the island of Utøya.