Norway reelects center-left government, dimming EU prospects

A hotly contested election campaign concluded with reconfirmation that Norway won't join the EU.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg talks during a press conference the day after the Norwegian general election, in Oslo on Tuesday.
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Norwegians returned Jens Stoltenberg's center-left government to power after a hotly contested race in which his opponents tried, but failed, to unseat the only left-leaning government in Scandinavia by capitalizing on public opposition to immigration.

Norway has been buoyed by its oil wealth through the global recession – probably a decisive factor in the narrow victory for the three-party coalition that Prime Minister Stoltenberg leads. The coalition won 86 seats in the 169 member parliament, according to results released on Tuesday.

The victory assures continuity in Norway, not least in its intention to remain the largest country in Western Europe outside the European Union.

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"We have no plans to seek membership," said Mr. Stoltenberg on Tuesday. "We are the only country in the world that has rejected it twice."

Norway is among the most euro-skeptical of European nations, and has voted twice against membership – in 1972 and 1994.

But proponents say Iceland's possible entry into the EU will force Norway to renegotiate its membership in the European Economic Area, a free-trade agreement that gives Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein the same free-trade access to European markets as that enjoyed by EU members. Norway and Liechtenstein will be the only remaining non-EU members if that happens, since Switzerland negotiated its own bilateral free trade deal with the EU.

"If Iceland becomes a member, then we must evaluate the situation," said Stoltenberg, who voted yes in 1994. "But I was there the last time when it was defeated in 1994 and I don't seek new defeats. I'm concerned with winning."

The Norwegian "No to EU" movement, meanwhile, argues that the EU is undemocratic and that the EEA agreement has become more extensive than what people envisaged when the agreement was signed 15 years ago. The movement wants instead to replace the EEA agreement with a separate free-trade agreement. Denmark's potential adoption of the euro would not be a problem because the Norwegian economy is so different from other euro countries, according to Inge Matland, a spokesman for Norway's "No to EU" campaign.

If Iceland joins EU, Norway may revisit the idea

Labour's two other government partners, Center and Socialist Left, are dead-set against EU membership and have effectively quashed the debate in the last four years by putting in a clause against membership in their government pact, known as the Soria Moria declaration.

A recent poll found that 52.8 percent of Norwegians are opposed to EU membership. The "no" votes in the last two referendums were 53.5 percent and 52.2 percent. That has created pause among even pro-EU politicians who do not dare take up the fight for fear that the country could turn down membership a third time.

The only faction to make EU membership an issue at the polls, the Conservative Party, won 38 seats in the incoming parliament, 8 more than at the last election.

But there are some pro-EU sympathies within the country's two largest parties, Labour and Progress, and the country may revisit the issue if Iceland, one of the other holdouts, decides to join.

The campaign was largely focused on domestic issues like tax cuts, how to spend the country's oil wealth on better roads, hospitals and schools and whether to open the environmentally sensitive Lofoten region to oil drilling.

The only election outcomes that might have pushed the EU debate were a minority Labour government or a Conservative coalition. The Conservatives were even willing to risk a clash with the anti-EU Christian Democrats, its potential coalition partner.

"Elections come every four years," says Nikolai Astrup, leader of the Conservative party's EU committee. "EU membership is only once in a lifetime."

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