Life outside the EU: What can Britain learn from the Norway model?

If you spend enough time talking to Norwegians about the pros and cons of life outside European Union, you start to get a strange feeling that something’s not quite right. Because in many ways Norway feels closer to Brussels than we are. Many of the things that we opt out of, they enthusiastically embrace, and yet we’re in and they’re out. Curious.

Of course the big exceptions are the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agriculture Policy (about which more later), but they are members of Schengen, they fully accept rules on free movement, are fully signed up to the single market, and pay pretty much the same as we do to Europe in return for the benefits they get.

Norway was going to join what was then the Common Market at the same time as the UK, but in 1972 held a last minute referendum, voted ‘No’ and backed out. They had another try in the early ‘90s, with the same result, so instead signed up to something called the European Economic Area (EEA) that gives them many of the rights and obligations of membership.

EEA membership is just one of the options touted as a model for post-Brexit Britain by those who want to leave the EU, though the fact it would tackle neither immigration nor our EU contributions means this option has lost much if its lustre.

But the Norwegians like it. All the polls suggest it enjoys wide public support, while the popularity of full EU membership continues to fall. The big downside is that they must swallow Brussels’ laws and regulations without having a vote in either the European Council or Parliament.

By one estimate more than 80% of the laws passed by the Oslo parliament and 70% in the municipalities have their origin in Brussels. The country’s ‘No to EU’ campaigners dispute these figures, but the point is clear - in Norway as much as in Britain, a great deal of national legislation has its origins in Brussels.

In Britain some describe this as the ‘democratic deficit’. That deficit is much worse here, where the Norwegian electorate send no MEPs to the European Parliament, their government cannot send a commissioner to Brussels, and their elected ministers get no vote around the EU Council table.

We spoke to a civil servant who represents Norway’s railway industry in meetings on common standards and practices across the continent. He can take part in discussions. His views are politely listened to. But when it comes to taking a vote, he is required to leave the room.

In return for all this, the Norwegians are obliged to contribute money to improving the economies of Eastern Europe - more or less what they would pay into the EU budget if they were members - and to allow the free movement of workers. This is not too controversial in Norway because their successful economy needs more labour, but even if that wasn’t the case, single-market access would require open borders.

They are members of Schengen, and participate in the Dublin rules on asylum seekers. When the European Union required members of the common asylum system to take a share of the refugees arriving last summer, Norway agreed to take 1500, roughly proportionate to those taken by west European states.

So you can see why travelling to Oslo doesn’t exactly feel as if one has left the EU.

James Mates meets a farmer and his herd in Norway. Credit: ITV News

The big difference here is that they have nothing to do with the EU’s Common Fisheries or Agriculture Policies. With salmon their second biggest export after oil, they didn’t want the rest of Europe’s fishermen plundering their waters. And their farmers are bitterly opposed to the European system of supports and subsidies.

The mountains and snow mean that only 3% of Norway’s land can be cultivated, so they consume what they produce and import the rest. There is no need for a structure of price supports or export subsidies here - indeed farmers here get paid a lot more than others in Europe. Most Norwegians think that their farmers and fishermen are the reason they stayed out, and will never join.

Their foreign policy is closely tied to the EU’s common foreign policy, although they complain they still have no say in it. Yes, they are members of NATO, but they see policy on Russia, sanctions, Ukraine, Turkey and the Middle East increasingly being decided not in NATO but by EU foreign ministers in Brussels. They have no real option but to live with the results.

Rules governing Norway's railways are written and agreed in Brussels. Credit: ITV News

The anti-EU lobby point out that Norway could be a lot more independent of Brussels if it wanted to. Most politicians, trade unions and newspapers in Oslo really wish they were members, and so choose to align policy with the EU whenever possible. And there is quite a lot of truth in this.

But would post-Brexit Britain be much different? Certainly looking at the forces lined up trying to persuade us to ‘remain’, with the exception of some newspapers, it is pretty much the same picture in the UK.

Norway is a wealthy economy, buoyed by oil money, a highly educated workforce and low unemployment. They rub along pretty well in their half-way house between being members and non-members. But few I have met here suggest that - if we do vote to leave - the UK tries to emulate the Norway model.