Norwegian Liberal party moving towards a Yes to the EU
Lars Sponheim, the party leader of the Norwegian Liberal Party ‘Venstre‘ announced Thursday that his party is likely to change it’s opinion on Norwegian membership to the EU, before the Parliament/’Storting‘ elections next year. This happens at a time when the majority of the Norwegian people is opposed to membership and it can therefore contribute to a renewed debate on the membership issue.
The last time, in 1972, when Venstre decided on its feelings towards the EC, it divided it party in two. Sponheim is doing what he can to avoid a re-run of the 1972-division that has haunted the small party for more than 35 years. When he announced this week that Venstre likely to be in favour of Norway joining the EU, it represents an historic shift in Norwegian politics. Venstre can be the first party to change from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’ and represents a symbolic change in the European Debate.
Venstre was during the Union with Sweden in the 19th century the party that represented the independence movement. Its members fought for the introduction of parliamentarism and achieved it in 1884. It was later in the forefront in the fight for independence from Sweden, which Norway gained in 1905. This is one of the reasons why the No-movement find it so hard to swallow that one of its ‘independence’ partners might become in favour of joining the EU.
Another important aspect if Venstre changes its mind on Norwegian membership is the balance of power in the Storting. The Yes-side will once again regain the majority of seats, which is necessary to even consider an application for membership. It might also pave the way for governments without a so-called ‘suicide-clause’, a term used for an agreement between parties in government that debate on membership would tear the government apart (like it has been for the past 10 years). It is important to stress though, that Venstre’s shift alone, probably isn’t enough to raise a real membership debate. For that, history has shown, an external event must put it on the agenda (1972 it was Denmark and the UK joining, in 1994 Sweden, Finland and Austria joining, thus ‘pushing’ Norway to apply as well). This time around such an event could be an Icelandic membership application, economic downturn or a negative shift in the Norwegian relations to Russia.
One of the main reasons for Venstre’s change of attitude is due the ‘democratic deficit’ of the EEA-agreement. It grants Norway access to the internal market, but it gives it no democratic influence on the legislative process. Norway has since the EEA agreement was introduced in 1993 implemented more than 6000 directives and regulations, without having a say in the process. For the democracy-loving members of Venstre, this has been hard to swallow. Even when they were in government with only ‘No’-parties, they weren’t able to stop/change any of the controversial legislation that came from the EU. This one of the reasons why Venstre now are coming to the conclusion that Norway should join the EU: to have a democratic say and sit around the table and make the decisions. Just like in 1884.