View Full Version : Why did Norway not join the European Union?

Friday, May 27th, 2005, 08:18 AM
Why did Norway not join the European Union?
by Nathan Johnson

There are several important reasons why Norway has not joined the European Union. The Scandinavian country has applied twice to join the community, but has failed in its bid due to two national referendums, held in 1972, and again in 1994. It is true that "history and geography had combined to make no a natural reaction for many Norwegians." Norway is a nation which has been dominated by foreign powers for centuries, and holds its independence as of primary importance. Thus, the Norwegian people have shown to be very defensive in such matters. Further, Norway's geographical position at the northern extreme of Europe has had a large impact on their reluctance to join the European Economic Community (EEC). The Norwegians have always been in closer contact with the other Scandinavian countries and Great Britain, and as such have been more likely to cooperate with those nations as opposed to continental Europe. Historical and geographical reasons have not been the only factors, however, which led Norway to oppose membership. Issues such as North Sea oil, the fishing industry and the incapability of the Norwegian government to present the EEC debate effectively have all played a role. As the EU has expanded and more nations have become members, Norway has twice bidded to join and twice failed in national referendums; choosing to remain outside of the European Union.

The idea of a united Europe is not a new one, but became popular after the end of the Second World War. The people of Europe did not want to see another international war fought on their soil, and it was clear that some form of cooperation was needed. Norway spent much of the Second World War occupied by Nazi Germany, and was keen to regain its independence. As early as May 1949, Norway became a founding member of the Council of Europe, which was designed to "foster political cooperation" between European states without going so far as creating any "union". The first real breakthrough that was made in Europe was in 1951, however, when the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was founded. This form of economic cooperation between two traditional rivals in France and Germany was significant in the path towards eventual European Union. Economic cooperation became even more solid when the EEC was signed by Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, West Germany and Italy on January 1, 1958. The EEC was designed to encourage further economic unity between member states, as well as lay the foundations for future political and social cooperation in Europe.

Norway, however, instead joined EFTA, which was a rival free trade zone proposed by Great Britain in 1960. EFTA was made up of the Scandinavian countries, as well as Britain, Austria, Portugal and Switzerland. It became largely unsuccessful for two main reasons. First, the member states were not all geographically close together, which often made free trade slightly more difficult. Second, and most importantly, EFTA was structured on an economic base, whereas the EEC encouraged both economic and political cooperation. The rival free trade area soon proved to be unsuccessful (although it remained in place), and Norway followed Britain's path by applying for EEC membership in both 1961 (an application which was stalled by French President Charles de Gaulle) and again in 1967.

Thus, the main issue in Norwegian politics in 1970 was the question of EEC membership. The Labour government seemed to push the idea that entry into the community would be of benefit to the Nordic nation, although it was still wary of joining such a foreign Organisation. The Norwegian people, however, had some very different views. "The farmers feared competition in an industry where Norway is naturally weak, the fishermen in an industry where its natural resources are the richest in Europe." The older generation, also, did not like the idea of Norway losing its independence. People in Oslo and other urban areas, however, appeared to favour the proposed unity with the rest of Europe. Movements resisting foreign influences, and potential threats to the Norwegian environment and industries, emerged. The slogan "Norway is not for sale" became popular amongst many people. Indeed, it was crucial that "as a very small people, they [the Norwegians] have learnt to consider national independence to be..." of most importance.

The Labour government left the ultimate decision to the people, and a national referendum on the issue was held in September 1972. In the end, a slight majority of 53.5 percent to 46.5 per cent voted against membership of the EEC. There were many factors which attributed to this result, largely relating to Norway's geography. Indeed, "support for membership increased with urbanisation and decreased the smaller the community ..." The capital, Oslo, was in fact the only area which produced an actual edge in favour of membership. People residing in the far north however, voted strongly against it, arguing that decisions would be made on their behalf in Brussels - further away still than Oslo, which was already remote enough. People involved in the fishing and agricultural industries also voted no, as did many of the nation's young people. "Both [farmers and fishermen] were convinced that the EEC's common policies would damage their interests..."

Norway's history also seemed to have an impact on the outcome of the referendum. Traditionally, Norway had international links with their fellow Scandinavian countries, as well as Great Britain and the United States - much more so than continental Europe. The Norwegian people often considered themselves to very different from other Europeans, and Union with the rest of Europe was almost unnatural. Even so, whilst Great Britain planned to join the EEC at the same time, ties between these two nations was lessening and Norway no longer felt obliged to follow Britainís lead. Further, Norway had been ruled by Sweden from 1814 until 1905, and occupied by Denmark before that. Sovereign independence was thus not taken lightly by the Norwegian people, with such a history of foreign rule:

"Their recent independence, intense patriotism, small numbers, and peripheral location had... injected a proud, touchy defensiveness into many Norwegians' reactions to anything ... which might possibly infringe this independence."

In the end, only seventy-nine per cent of the voting public actually voted in the referendum. The turnout was greater in remote areas, however, with a majority of strong no votes being issued. Further, a high proportion of Norwegians believed oddly that the government should have made the decision on the EEC, feeling that the referendum need not have even taken place. Still, the government campaign in favour of membership was inadequate, and showed a high degree of over-confidence that the people would agree. The fact that the EEC were contemplating radical changes such as monetary union and further political cooperation in the early 1970s may have had an impact on the result. These changes may have influenced the people further as they strived to maintain their independence.

Having chosen to avoid membership to the EEC, Norway continued alone as an independent state during the 1970s. This period was one of significant economic growth for Norway, largely as a result of important oil and gas reserves in the adjacent North Sea. The world was hit by an Oil Shock in 1973 as a result of war in the Middle East. Norway's discovery of Ekofisk oil, however, led to the development of the Norwegian oil industry and cushioned the economy from the shock. "Self-sufficiency in oil supplies gave the Norwegians flexibility in their foreign policy ..." (Nearby Sweden was not so fortunate and was hit strongly, whilst Denmark was covered by the EEC and Finland was able to buy oil from Russia.) With little industry to speak of, Norway established an industrialisation programme which was based around oil. The nation was aware, however, that the oil supply was finite, and could not be relied upon forever. Norwegian politics throughout the period was stable, and unemployment was kept low. Norway's strong position in the 1970s led to a belief that the state was better off independent, and did not require close cooperation with the rest of Europe.

In April 1984, the European Union tried to encourage EFTA nations to combine together to form a united European Economic Area (EEA). It was an attempt to create a purely single European market, and had the potential to act as a transition to full EU membership. This was finally agreed to in May 1992 in Oporto. In 1985, Norway decided to join EUREKA (European Research Coordination Agency) with the EU states as well as Switzerland, Turkey and Iceland. This was important as it was "created to promote cross-frontier technological research" , but more importantly for Norway, showed a small degree of cooperation with Europe. A year later, in 1986, Norway's concern towards its oil industry surfaced with collapsing global prices. This showed Norway's reliance on its oil and its vulnerability to economic disaster. The government was forced to make sacrifices which had an effect on the people. Even so, Norway managed to overcome its problems and the economy has recovered during the 1990s.

The period between 1989 and 1991 was significant for European and world politics. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, and ultimately Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, led to a further push for economic and political cooperation in Europe. Norway decided again to apply for membership in March 1992, at a similar time to both Finland and Sweden. Once again, the Norwegian government decided to give the vote on EU membership to the people. The people of Norway thus went to the polls in November 1994 to determine if Norway was going to join the Union. In a similarly close result, Norway again rejected membership to the EU, whilst the other Scandinavian nations were successful in their bid.

To a large extent it seems that history and geography are the main reasons why Norway has so far rejected entry into the European Union. Certainly, centuries of foreign rule and control has had a marked impact on the people of Norway and their attitudes to independence. Also, the significant geographical extent of the country means that a centralised government in Oslo controls a nation with vast differences from region to region. Clearly, governing from Brussels would be difficult for the needs of the people in the extreme north to be served adequately and in their best interests. One factor of interest, however, is the relatively significant changes that the Union was proposing immediately before each referendum. In the 1970s it was a proposal for monetary union and political cooperation, whereas the incredible events of the early 1990s sparked a move for even greater change before the 1994 vote. These occurrences must have been fresh in the mind of voters in Norway, and may have had a detrimental impact on the government's application for membership. So, whilst the European Union has now expanded to fifteen members with other nations (particularly in eastern Europe) likely to join in the near future, Norway remains, by the choice of its people, outside of a united Europe.