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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OPINION: Pre-Brexit Brits in Europe should be given EU long-term residency

The EU has drawn up plans to make it easier for non-EU citizens to gain longterm EU residency so they can move more easily around the bloc, but Italy-based citizens' rights campaigner Clarissa Killwick says Brits who moved to the EU before Brexit are already losing out.

OPINION: Pre-Brexit Brits in Europe should be given EU long-term residency

With all the talk about the EU long-term residency permit and the proposed improvements there is no mention that UK citizens who are Withdrawal Agreement “beneficiaries” are currently being left out in the cold.

The European Commission has stated that we can hold multiple statuses including the EU long-term permit (Under a little-known EU law, third-country nationals can in theory acquire EU-wide long-term resident status if they have lived ‘legally’ in an EU country for at least five years) but in reality it is just not happening.

This effectively leaves Brits locked into their host countries while other third country nationals can enjoy some mobility rights. As yet, in Italy, it is literally a question of the computer saying no if someone tries to apply.

The lack of access to the EU long-term permit to pre-Brexit Brits is an EU-wide issue and has been flagged up to the European Commission but progress is very slow.

READ ALSO: EU government settle on rules for how non-EU citizens could move around Europe

My guess is that few UK nationals who already have permanent residency status under the Withdrawal Agreement are even aware of the extra mobility rights they could have with the EU long-term residency permit – or do not even realise they are two different things.

Perhaps there won’t be very large numbers clamouring for it but it is nothing short of discrimination not to make it accessible to British people who’ve built their lives in the EU.

They may have lost their status as EU citizens but nothing has changed concerning the contributions they make, both economically and socially.

An example of how Withdrawal Agreement Brits in Italy are losing out

My son, who has lived almost his whole life here, wanted to study in the Netherlands to improve his employment prospects.

Dutch universities grant home fees rather than international fees to holders of an EU long-term permit. The difference in fees for a Master’s, for example, is an eye-watering €18,000. He went through the application process, collecting the requisite documents, making the payments and waited many months for an appointment at the “questura”, (local immigration office).

On the day, it took some persuading before they agreed he should be able to apply but then the whole thing was stymied because the national computer system would not accept a UK national. I am in no doubt, incidentally, that had he been successful he would have had to hand in his WA  “carta di soggiorno”.

This was back in February 2022 and nothing has budged since then. In the meantime, it is a question of pay up or give up for any students in the same boat as my son. There is, in fact, a very high take up of the EU long-term permit in Italy so my son’s non-EU contemporaries do not face this barrier.

Long-term permit: The EU’s plan to make freedom of movement easier for non- EU nationals 

Completing his studies was stalled by a year until finally his Italian citizenship came through after waiting over 5 years.  I also meet working adults in Italy with the EU long-term permit who use it for work purposes, such as in Belgium and Germany, and for family reunification.  

Withdrawal agreement card should double up as EU long-term residency permit

A statement that Withdrawal Agreement beneficiaries should be able to hold multiple statuses is not that easy to find. You have to scroll quite far down the page on the European Commission’s website to find a link to an explanatory document. It has been languishing there since March 2022 but so far not proved very useful.

It has been pointed out to the Commission that the document needs to be multilingual not just in English and “branded” as an official communication from the Commission so it can be used as a stand-alone. But having an official document you can wave at the immigration authorities is going to get you nowhere if Member State governments haven’t acknowledged that WA beneficiaries can hold multiple statuses and issue clear guidance and make sure systems are modified accordingly.

I can appreciate this is no mean feat in countries where they do not usually allow multiple statuses or, even if they do, issue more than one residency card. Of course, other statuses we should be able to hold are not confined to EU long-term residency, they should include the EU Blue Card, dual nationality, family member of an EU citizen…

Personally, I do think people should be up in arms about this. The UK and EU negotiated an agreement which not only removed our freedom of movement as EU citizens, it also failed to automatically give us equal mobility rights to other third country nationals. We are now neither one thing nor the other.

It would seem the only favour the Withdrawal Agreement did us was we didn’t have to go out and come back in again! Brits who follow us, fortunate enough to get a visa, may well pip us at the post being able to apply for EU long-term residency as clearly defined non-EU citizens.

I have been bringing this issue to the attention of the embassy in Rome, FCDO and the European Commission for three years now. I hope we will see some movement soon.

Finally, there should be no dragging of heels assuming we will all take citizenship of our host countries. Actually, we shouldn’t have to, my son was fortunate, even though it took a long time. Others may not meet the requirements or wish to give up their UK citizenship in countries which do not permit dual nationality.  

Bureaucratic challenges may seem almost insurmountable but why not simply allow our Withdrawal Agreement permanent card to double up as the EU long-term residency permit.

Clarissa Killwick,

Since 2016, Clarissa has been a citizens’ rights campaigner and advocate with the pan-European group, Brexpats – Hear Our Voice.
She is co-founder and co-admin of the FB group in Italy, Beyond Brexit – UK citizens in Italy.