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Fax democracy? Norway has more clout than you know

Jonathan Lindsell, 12 August 2013

Norway is in the news thanks to Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s publicity stunt. The Labour leader is campaigning for re-election in September, and decided to mirror Henry V at Agincourt by going incognito to get the public’s real views – in this case moonlighting as a taxi driver rather than a soldier.

PM Jens Stoltenberg
PM Jens Stoltenberg

The conversations Stoltenberg has in his cab (care of the Guardian) are revealing: the European Union isn’t mentioned. Why? Because Norway is not a member. Instead, Norway is part of a free trade association, ‘EFTA’ with Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Together with the first two EFTA states, Norway enjoys access to the Single Market via a 1992 agreement signed in 1994, the European Economic Area (EEA). EEA members are not bound by the common agricultural or common fisheries policies, nor the EU’s ‘common external tariff’ so can make free trade agreements independently, an advantage Iceland recently highlighted with China.

As such, Norway is held up as a model of the prosperity Britain could enjoy with independence. However, Norway’s position is typically criticised as a ‘fax democracy’ because Norway has to comply with most regulation and law agreed by the European Union, but has no formal representation in EU institutions such as the Council of Ministers, European Parliament, Commission (Barroso et al) or European Council (at which heads of state meet). The argument runs that Norway has no say in its own government, and pays for this privilege roughly 2/3 Britain’s per capita membership cost.

This is gross oversimplification. The reality is complicated but important – bear with me.

Firstly, EEA states do have a role in the early stages of drafting EU proposals. A committee consisting of the EEA-EFTA members and the European Commission meets biannually, and the EEA is headquartered in Brussels, with a ‘finger on the pulse’. Norwegian and Icelandic representatives contribute to the powerful sector-specific committees that scrutinise and amend regulation (’comitology’). An EEA Council meets biannually, and EFTA maintains a Surveillance Authority and Court.

Secondly, much of what we think of as ‘EU legislation’ is actually ‘international agreements rubber-stamped by the EU’. For example the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) controls plant seed standards internationally. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) controls many international vehicle standards through the World Forum for harmonization of Vehicle Regulations. The ‘Codex Alimentarius’ presides over foodstuffs, including labelling, additives, pesticides/contaminants and meat/fish quality.  The World Trade Organisation (WTO) monitors sanitary/phytosanitary standards. It also maintains international trading conditions (as recently demonstrated by Iceland’s refusal to back down before Barosso’s threats of fishing sanctions).

Norway, Iceland and indeed the USA and UK have input to all these bodies. For some, though, independence influence is greater: UK representation at the WTO is limited to our small part of the EU’s seat. It’s pretty amazing to think that the Principality of Liechtenstein (population 36,000) has a greater say on the early formation of WTO rules than does the UK.

Influence is a tricky business – Stoltenberg knows it.

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