NORWAY'S decision to resume commercial whaling next year despite an international ban is likely to create difficulties for the Scandinavian country's expected bid for European Community membership.
With fundamental questions of economic impact, market access, and foreign policy dominating any country's negotiations on EC membership, whaling might seem an issue of secondary importance. But the alacrity with which some EC officials have warned Norway of the possible consequences of its decision indicates the international sensitivity to whale hunting in particular and the growing weight of environmental issues in general.
Norway's whaling decision could also show how far the EC is willing to go to force conformity with its positions and standards - or overlook a member's disregard for them. Denmark's "no" vote in June on the EC's Maastricht Treaty - the agreement that provides for comprehensive European integration - jolted the Community's interventionist spirit and prompted promises of greater respect for national norms and cultural differences.
Norway's announcement last month of its intention to resume whaling for "scientific research" immediately and commercial purposes next year was internationally condemned. Still, it seems at first an unlikely issue of contention with the EC.
Norway is not a member of the Community, and unlike Sweden and Finland it has not applied. At the same time the EC is not a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which agreed on a whale-hunting moratorium in 1985, although individual EC countries are.
But Norway, whose government favors joining the EC, is expected to apply for membership this fall. That expectation was enough to prompt the European Parliament to cite the whale-hunting decision as a potential obstacle to membership.
The Community's commissioner for cooperation, development, and fisheries, Manuel Marin, also reacted quickly, condemning Norway's decision as "shocking." The EC executive Commission, he said, considers the decision "deeply regrettable, notably following as it does the Rio summit where the challenges and importance of environmental problems were exposed at the planetary level."
Mr. Marin then convinced the EC Commission to seek membership in the IWC to allow the Community to make "a more active contribution to the conservation of whales." EC membership in the IWC would instantly make respect for the whaling ban a matter of EC business and thus an issue in EC membership negotiations.
Norwegian officials, eager to minimize the potential for confrontation with the EC, are quick to point out that Marin's opinion is not an official EC position.
"Mr. Marin has not expressed himself on behalf of the European Community," says Inguard Havnen, spokesman for Norway's Foreign Ministry. "We have not received any official indication from the EC that this [decision] could present a problem."
At the same time, Norway can be expected to play to its advantage the commission's reputation, at least among the EC's least federalist members, as overly meddlesome in members' internal affairs. Buttressing his dismissal of Marin's actions, Mr. Havnen adds, "We don't consider his view representative of the Community. During a recent visit [to Norway], German Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl said he did not accept Mr. Marin's point of view."
German officials say they fully support the IWC's whaling ban, but they also favor Norway's joining the EC. Suggesting the difficulty a single issue can create, one German Foreign Ministry official says, "This has the potential for being very tricky. It's not only up to the Commission to approve a membership application, the members themselves finally decide. Admittedly this whaling, if carried out, could become an issue in Germany."
Norway says its resumption of whaling is both legal and scientifically based. "Our defense is two-fold," says the country's whaling commissioner, Jan Arvesen. "We have the legal right, because we filed our formal reservation on the moratorium from the beginning."
Norway also formally objected to the protective classification of the Minke whale, the species it is now hunting.
"Our studies show the ecological basis is there for modest harvesting of the Minke whale to occur in the northeast Atlantic," he adds. In a victory for Norway, the IWC accepted its estimates of Minke whales in the zone where it plans to hunt. Mr. Arveson admits his country is "not necessarily" planning to wait for the IWC to set a quota, a position that has earned Norway further criticism.
But Norway's defense does not explain why the country is so eager to resume the hunt. Officials cite a desire to preserve a "cultural heritage."
But Greenpeace France ocean ecologist Marjolaine Souquet observes that "hunting whales as they do it, with large-capacity boats and grenade-tipped harpoons that explode inside the whale, has nothing traditional about it."
Some observers in Norway say local politics is the overriding reason. Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland already finds herself at the helm of a minority government, and her plans to apply for EC membership, perhaps in November, are unpopular in fishing communities.
Yet standing tough on whaling - against international opinion and at the risk of clouding EC-Norway relations - still may not win the government the broad public support it seeks for the EC application.
The fishermen are unlikely to forget that EC membership would mean Community-mandated fishing quotas. And opinion polls show that the general public, which narrowly rejected membership in a 1972 vote, is if anything less drawn today to Norway's European neighbors to the south.