Half in, half out of Europe – that’s great if you’re Norway

Jens Stoltenberg, the recently re-elected Prime Minister of Norway, could not have been more frank. Asked if entry into the European Union was on his government’s agenda, he replied — almost with pride — that Norway was the only country that had twice rejected Brussels’ embrace. There were, he said, no plans to hold a third referendum. “I was there the last time it was defeated . . . and I don’t seek new defeats.”

He might have added that half of his “coalition of workers, farmers and dreamers” was against membership in principle and that, since Norway benefits from an agreement with the EU that provides the benefits of free trade without the threat of federalism, only diehards want to argue about going right in or staying right out. That is certainly the view of Hallvard Bakke, who left the Oslo Government to lead the successful “no” campaign in 1994. Yet the argument persists. In 1905 the union with Sweden was ended by a referendum that recorded 368,208 votes in favour of separation and 184 against. Norway believes it does better on its own.

Since then almost everything except the landscape has changed. Even the passion for independence has altered character. A hundred years ago it was the product of Norway’s romantic isolation. Now it is built around a popular determination neither to risk nor to share its prosperity — an annual national income of £60,000 per head — with its neighbours.

Iceland once felt the same, but its banks and self-confidence collapsed. If Reykjavik decides to wrap itself in the security of full EU membership, powerful voices in industry and the Foreign Ministry will argue that it would be folly not to follow suit. Liechtenstein will still share the privileges of special access to the single market. That, say devotees of union, is irrelevant. Liechtenstein is Ruritania. Norway — cloudless blue skies, piercing sunlight and snow- capped mountains — is Shangri-La with gas and oil reserves. Both blessings inhibit rational argument.

Nothing in any EU treaty, from Medina to Lisbon, limits Norway’s control of its natural resources. But access to oil and gas has a strange effect on the national psyche. And Norway has another national asset that encourages the belief that there is nothing to gain from amalgamation with less successful economies. Its Sovereign Wealth Fund, in effect the country’s collective investment portfolio, is valued at about £260 billion. That too is beyond the reach of Brussels.

A country that prudently husbands its earnings — contributing only 4 per cent of the income to subsidising the annual budget and spending the rest on national infrastructure, long-term pension provision and international good causes — does not think it has much to gain from a closer alliance with the profligate states of the European Union. Indeed, there are still people who argue against the economic access agreement. And they are beginning to make a fuss again.

Torunn Kanutte Husvik, the 26-year-old vice-president of the 30,000-strong Nei til EU, fears that the people, complacent in their prosperity, will allow what she quaintly calls “the power elite” to surrender Norway’s sovereignty by stealth. So she campaigns against “creeping integration as illustrated by the incorporation of European directives into Norwegian law”.

The current battle is over the proposal to share security data with the Union. Stein Ornhoi, a retired Socialist Party MP, describes the idea as more appropriate to a police state than to a democracy. For the longer term, Ola Elvevold, of Young Friends of the Earth, says Norway plans to reduce carbon gas emissions at a faster rate than the EU will even contemplate, and that, freed from continental entanglements, it will become an international influence for good. If the Norwegian public do demand that their government take a more detached view of Europe, their decision will be based on more material considerations than those advanced by Nei til EU.

The cry “It’s our gas and our oil”, combined with the implication that envious foreigners want to steal it, has a remarkably powerful effect on normally moderate people. And critics of cohabitation with the EU can also appeal to visceral nationalism with arguments that, although equally emotional, have more practical substance.

Highly subsidised farmers and fishermen swung the vote against membership in 1994. Discussions of a closer alliance, even if they ended short of full membership, are bound to reopen the question of the relationship with the Common Fisheries Policy. That is anathema both to old-style Norwegian patriots and progressive environmentalists. Norway’s conservation regime is superior to the European alternative.

Other comparisons confirm that Norway often does best alone. British trade unions want the Government to sign up to the full Maastricht social chapter in the hope that it will improve employment practices. Norwegian trade unions fear that to implement its provisions would drag their memberships’ terms and conditions down to EU levels.

To the rational observer, half in and half out seems exactly the right place to be — for Norway. Its economic agreement with Europe does come with strings attached, but none of them binds Oslo to policies that damage its national interests. Its relationship with the EU is exactly that which, 30 years ago, stickers in thousands of British motor-car rear windows were demanding: free trade without political union.

For Norway, Edward Heath’s promise has been kept. There has been “no unacceptable loss of sovereignty”. But as Norwegians will happily agree, Norway is special. An à la carte Europe is not available to Britain, although in Bergen and Oslo last week I dared not say why. Half in and half out of Europe is a status for small countries happy to remain on the margin of big decisions.

Roy Hattersley, the author of In Search of England.