Why a future centre-left government could distance Norway from the EU

Unfazed by the UK's struggle through its EU departure, Eurosceptics in Norway have seen support rising for further distance to Brussels although the country isn't an EU member.

Why a future centre-left government could distance Norway from the EU
Norwegian Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. File photo: AFP

Currently in opposition, the centrist and traditionally agrarian Centre Party's agenda of limiting European influence is resonating with voters in the Scandinavian nation, which currently has close ties to the EU through trade and travel agreements but is not a member.

“Decisions that affect Norway and Norwegian resources must be taken in Norway,” Emilie Enger Mehl, a Centre Party lawmaker on the Norwegian parliament's committee on foreign affairs, told AFP.

Shockwaves ran through Norwegian politics in early December when a poll showed 22.1 percent of voters would back the Centre — catapulting them from their usual role as a junior coalition partner to potentially the country's largest party.

Like several other Eurosceptic movements across the continent, the party seeks a total reset of relations with the European Union.

Norwegians have rejected EU membership in two referendums, in 1972 and 1994, but the country is closely linked to Brussels through its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) and the open border Schengen agreement.

While the EEA gives Norway access to the EU's single market, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports, membership also requires Norway to obey European regulations — without having a say over them.

“Too much power is being transferred to the EU via the EEA agreement,” Enger Mehl told AFP.

“We should replace it with a free trade agreement involving a bilateral relationship that does not involve the transfer of so much power,” she added.

For a time the party was confident it would be able to tear up existing treaties and renegotiate a new agreement as easily as once promised by Brexiteers.

But years of arduous talks between London and Brussels have prompted the Centre Party to soften its stance.

Even so, its prospects of joining or even leading a new coalition government mean it is still determined to explore alternatives to the EEA.

Analyst Svein Tore Marthinsen said the Centre Party's pushing back against Europe is likely not the only or even the main reason for its spike in popularity.

In fact, most Norwegians — including Centre Party voters — see staying in the EEA as “a compromise, a satisfactory intermediate solution”, he said, even if they remain strongly opposed to full EU membership.

Rather, “the Centre Party's popularity is part of a broader trend that sees political leaders agitating for putting the interests of their countries first, whether it be Trump and his 'America First' or Brexit… together with disavowing liberal and global elites,” Marthinsen added.

The party also owes its recent success to its defence of rural communities against centralisation under Oslo and its leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, a jovial farmer known for his wild laughs and his ability to insert “Norway” and “Norwegian” into almost every sentence.

The 42-year-old has challenged the rules of political communication, for instance by dressing up as a scarecrow and singing on a TV game show.

Some see him as a potential prime minister — or at least a political heavyweight likely to impose many of his views on the Labour Party, the traditionally dominant force seen as the Centre's most likely coalition ally.

The Labour Party has long had a pro-EU stance, but cracks in the consensus have appeared and its voter base is eroding.

As for the right-wing coalition currently in power, touching the EEA is off the table.

“I believe that as time goes on, we will see even more clearly how complicated it is to leave the European Economic Community,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at a press conference last week.

“Political parties in Norway that think it is a good idea to leave the EEA because we can negotiate new, better agreements should look more closely across the North Sea,” she said, sounding a word of warning in reference to the current chaos around Brexit in the UK.

READ ALSO: Brexit: European nationals warned of change in travel rules when visiting UK in future

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KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Claims over the weekend that the EU planned to bring in a new tax which will nearly double the price of Swedish 'snus' tobacco led to the hashtag #Swexit trending over the weekend. But a commission spokesman stressed on Monday that the story was inaccurate.

KEY POINTS: Is the EU really planning to double the price of Swedish snus?

Where does the claim come from? 

The Aftonbladet newspaper on Sunday ran a story based around a “secret, leaked” proposal from the European Commission for a new excise tax on tobacco which the newspaper claimed would be presented at the start of next month, with discussion then taking place between various EU member states. 

The article does not name a source or quote from or show any parts of the document, but it quotes Patrik Hildingsson, the head of communications at the snus producer Swedish Match, who it says has “received the coming report”. 

What was the reaction? 

The story generated a near viral response on Swedish Twitter. The Sweden Democrats party jumped on the story, with the Twitter account for the party’s EU MEPs tweeting using the hashtag #Swexit, which then started to trend. 

According to Charlie Weimers, one of the Sweden Democrats’ MEPs, the commission is proposing a 12.5 percent increase in tax on cigarettes, a 200 percent increase in taxes on snus, and 500 percent increase in taxes on tobacco-free snus.

In a way, this is unsurprising as snus is used by about 17 percent of people in Sweden. The tobacco product is made by grinding up tobacco with flavourings and other ingredients and placing it in small bags which are pushed under the upper lip. It has been linked to a higher incidence of mouth cancer, but is much less dangerous than smoking. 

Why is snus sensitive for Sweden? 

When Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, it was granted an exemption from the ban on oral tobacco products the European Union had brought in back in 1992. Companies are allowed to manufacture snus in Sweden and sell it to their citizens, but they are not allowed to sell snus in other EU counties.  

Is it true that the European Commission plans to force higher tax on snus? 

Dan Ferrie, a European spokesperson on tax issues, told the EU’s daily press briefing on Monday that the commission’s coming proposals on tobacco taxation would not affect Sweden’s freedom to tax the product. 

“Sweden has had an exemption since it entered the EU when it comes to the sale of snus,” he said. “The proposal that we are working on right now is not going to change that situation because the sale of snus is not permitted outside Sweden. Sweden ill as a result continue to have full freedom to set its own tax rate and tariffs for snus.” 

Already on Sunday, Sweden’s EU commissioner Ylva Johansson said that she had stressed to the commission developing the new proposals the “unreasonable consequences for Swedish snus” if it were to force a higher tax rate. 

“My judgement is that this proposal has not yet been developed to the level where it can be proposed,” she said in an sms to Swedish state TV broadcaster SVT. “Tax questions require unanimity within the Ministerial Council.”