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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Out of the EU and into... Norway.

More live blogging - this time from Oslo.

An extensive socio-cultural research programme (a weekend visit to you and me) reveals that almost everything everyone says about Norway is true.

For starters, it really is squeaky clean. Even the dirt is clean. Arriving in Oslo airport is a bit like arriving in the future: everything is shiny and there are even porters on futuristic tiny motor scooters.

And it really is eye-wateringly expensive. Off the plane and about two thirds of the people were straight into the duty free to stock up on the only cheap drinks in town.

Lastly but not leastly, it really does feel (from three days experience) like an amazingly smoothly running, and frankly quite cosy, kind of culture. Everything runs on time. People are stunningly helpful. For instance, on Sunday there was an amazing national collection day for Medicines Sans Frontiers. There were hundreds of people everywhere collecting - and plenty of people coughing up too.

On a trip with two former members of the no euro campaign team (Harriet + Helen) it was probably inevitable that there would be some political geekery. It turned out that another former no-euro person was in town. It transpired that Peter Gusavvsson (Swedish) was going to be talking to a conference of Norwegian young Labour types about... (I hear you groan) ...Sweden's experience since joining the EU.

We ended up meeting up with the Labour people too. Talking politics (honestly - only for a little bit...) they were mostly concerned about the Progress party having overtaken Labour in the polls. Progress is a right wing party founded to campaign against higher taxes, which wants to make a pretty dramatic break with the Nordic model, and shrink the state. They also get votes off the back of concern about migration, which is bubbling away as an isue in most of the Nordic countries.

But quite a few of the young Labour people are also interested in (and very critical of) the EU too. A lot - probably a majority - of the older members of the political class would like to join. But since the most recent referendum 'no' to joining in 1994, there isn't much chance of them getting their way unless something pretty unexpected happens.

Several of the people we met were dead against joining. Talking to them it struck us that, as well as the big strategic sticking points, (like fishing and fears about a common EU energy policy) one of the really big EU turn-offs for them seems to be really about political culture more than anything else.

Compared to the confrontational, in-your-face world of British politics, the Norwegian scene seems very soft - in fact almost naïve. Oslo is officialy a "city of peace". The Nobel Insititute and international conflict resolution are a big deal here. Norway's aid budget is big, and generally seen in the 'industry' as among the worlds most effectively spent. Its generally very outward looking.

National politics is still (despite a lot of recent soul-searching) a far more transparent process here than in most of the west. In fact, this seems to be a Nordic thing - we've always admired the Swedes' and Finns' attitude to EU discussions: many is the time they will fax you an EU doc that the UK government is still telling Westminster MPs doesn't exist yet...

But, although they went into it with their eyes open, quite a few Swedish and Finnish politicians were genuinely surprised to find that daily life is in Brussels is less about peace and international friendship than they might have hoped - and rather more about a relentless struggle for money, power and prestige, all carried out still almost entirely behind closed doors.

Their experience of the EU really isn't making Norwegians any keener to join. It strikes me that - in the style of Gordon Brown's 'five tests' - one of the key 'tests' for reform of the EU should be whether it can be transformed into the kind of flexible, democratic organisation that Norwegian and Swiss voters would find atractive enough to join.

Can it really be done? A lot of people think such a transformation is just pie in the sky. But there is no question that the EU is heading for a real crunch in the none too distant future: the relaunch of the EU Constitution in March 2007, a row over the CAP review in 2008, and a new more sceptical PM in the UK. Perhaps the coming crisis (unlike so many before) might actually be seized as an oportunity for reform.

The Commission are always keen to paint Norway's refusal to join the EU as the product of an eccentric or insular - or even selfish - mentality on the part of Norway's voters. We fear that it says more about the EU as it is today than it does about Norway.

1 comment:

Serf said...

Your first impressions of Norway were similar to mine. It was like entering a science fiction film.

The laws on things like alcohol are so draconian that they don't really need protection from EU red tape, they are doing it themselves.