Iceland's anti-EU election puts Norway's Europe plans on hold

Erna Solberg, leader of Norway's pro-EU Conservatives and likely next prime minister, says that after Iceland's electoral results, Europe is not in the cards for Norway over the next few years.

Sigtryggur Johannsson/Reuters
Officials count ballot papers during Iceland's general elections in Reykjavik City Hall Sunday. Icelandic voters opted for an anti-European Union coalition government – a reversal that has Norway's pro-Europe Conservatives, expected to lead the country's next government, putting their plans to join the EU on hold.

When Norway’s Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg won reelection in 2009, Iceland was on the brink of joining the European Union and observers wondered if Norway would follow suit.

Four years and an Icelandic financial crisis later, EU membership now looks highly unlikely for Iceland and Norway, as a new anti-EU party takes the reins in Reykjavik – and makes ripples in Oslo.

Icelandic voters this week gave the majority of votes to anti-EU parties, Independence and Progressive, which campaigned on helping indebted households and dropping accession talks. The ruling Social Democrats, which filed for EU membership in 2009, were cast down to third place amid polls showing the majority of Icelanders are against joining.

“The Icelandic Social Democratic party exploited a moment of despair in the Icelandic population after the [2008] bank crash, where the public in some few months were in favor of EU membership,” says Heming Olaussen, chairman of Norway’s No to EU organization. “The Social Democrats paid the price in this election.

Iceland’s euroskepticism reinforces the Norwegian Conservative party’s stance that EU membership is not in the cards for the next four years, says Erna Solberg, leader of the pro-EU party. She is the top candidate tipped to become Norway’s next prime minister this September.

“I think if the Icelandic voters had voted more in favor of parties who would like to become members of the EU, it would have affected the Norwegian view more,” Ms. Solberg says. “We will not go into the next election asking for membership into the EU.”

Norwegian public support for EU membership is among historical lows, with only 20 percent for joining and nearly 70 percent against, according to polls this week by Sentio for Norwegian newspapers Nationen and Klassekampen. This is the highest support for membership since May 2011, but it's not enough to reopen the debate.

“The support for EU membership in Norway is very low,” says Solberg. “The EU has more than enough troubles in its own policies, the economic downturns, its need of more competitiveness. They don’t need a negotiation period with Norway.”

Norway has turned down membership in the EU twice, first in 1972 and then 1994. The oil-rich country – which feared having its national interests steered from Brussels – opted instead to be part of the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement together with Iceland and Liechtenstein, allowing them to participate in the EU’s internal market.

Both Norway and Iceland are especially concerned about their national sovereignty, although for different historical reasons, according to Mr. Olaussen. “For Norway, it is about our historic experiences being under Danish, Swedish, and German governance. We look upon ourselves as a historically speaking 'new' state.”

However, some Norwegians are even questioning the EEA agreement. The euroskeptic members of Norway’s coalition Center and Socialist Left parties have discussed possibly renegotiating the agreement and even withdrawal. The political debate was later quashed by Labour, which helped prod its coalition partners to continue on the same compromise they entered government with in 2005, namely to keep EEA as the basis for the coalition but not to seek EU membership.

One of the arguments for continuing with the EEA has been the lack of alternatives. A report this week by Menon Business Economics, commissioned by No to EU, suggested using the 2010 free-trade agreement between Norway and South Korea as a model in place of the EEA. But more Norwegians are afraid of ditching the EEA than they are of joining the EU.

“What we would like to do is to continue to work on the EEA for the next four years,” says Solberg. “But we would like to have a more active European policy so that we can also influence more on issues that are important to us.”

Polls show Norway’s Conservatives and the far-right populist Progress Party would have enough mandates in the September elections to form a majority government, ending the center-left coalition's eight-year reign. According to the average of nine polls by Poll of Polls yesterday, the Conservatives and Progress have 32.6 percent and 16.5 percent of voter support respectively, giving them 86 of the 169 mandates in Parliament.

Should the Conservatives succeed in forming a coalition with Progress, it would mark the first time the far-right party sits in government. Solberg says it is always challenging when a new party become part of a coalition, but points out that current Prime Minister Stoltenberg’s coalition faced the same dilemma when it took in the Socialist Left. The Conservatives could also end up forming a center-right government with the Christian Democrat and Liberal parties.

Meanwhile, Iceland is still in the process of deciding on its government coalition. The Icelandic president yesterday asked Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, leader of the centrist Progressive party and biggest gainer in the election, to form a government. Among the alternatives is a coalition with the former ruling Social Democrats and Left Green Alliance or the Independence party, which won the largest amount of votes.

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