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Transatlantic Blog

'Nei til EU!' What is the 'Norway Option'?

The British referendum on June 23, 2016, in favor of leaving the European Union (EU) may be the most widely recognized, but it was far from the first occasion in which a voting public had made that decision in that manner. In both 1972 and 1994, Norwegians had voted nei til EU (no to the EU) via consultative referendums, which the government wisely respected. Therefore, Norway developed a unique European policy frequently referenced in Brexit debates: “The Norway Option.” In light of the recent withdrawal agreement setting forth the terms of Britain’s impending departure next March, what exactly is Norway’s relationship to the EU, and could Britain pursue something similar?

The Kingdom of Norway (Kongeriket Norge) began as a Danish colony and acquired independence through the constitution of 1814, the oldest in Europe. The Norwegian constitution establishes a powerful monarch who must belong to the Protestant Lutheran faith, which is furthermore the kingdom’s established church. It also holds that the parliament (the Storting) must obtain a three-fourths majority in order to yield national sovereignty to any international organization. Norwegians have long felt proud and protective of their constitutional independence and have correspondingly pursued a mercantile-capitalist economic diplomacy in which extremely lucrative petroleum, alcohol, fish, and other industries are protected from multilateral liberalization. On account of this nationalist posture, Norway never joined the EU but instead belonged to the original European Free Trade Association (1960-present). The post-imperial British established the EFTA as a means of counteracting the Treaties of Rome (1957), which created the supranational European Community. Unlike the EU, the EFTA creates no independent bureaucracy, imposes no collective obligations, and obliges no one to stay. Its contemporary members are Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, and Norway – Britain herself having abandoned the EFTA for Brussels in 1973. These four small states have removed all trade barriers amongst themselves but remain at liberty to conclude separate arrangements with other nations.

However, there is a further and more complicated institutional layer. The European Economic Area (EEA) was established in 1992, ostensibly to enable these nations above to participate in the Single Market; and today Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway are known as EEA EFTA member states. (The Swiss refused.) The EEA is essentially an intergovernmental organization that converts EU law and directives into language suitable for those non-members, but does so constantly, condescendingly, and without the full consent of Reykjavík, Liechtenstein, or Oslo. The process is sometimes compared to a “conveyor belt,” because it permits EEA member states representation in numerous joint and consultative committees but, being outside the EU, they do not elect members to the parliament in Strasbourg or send envoys to the ministerial council in Brussels. Although defense industries are legally excluded from EEA jurisdiction – and a clause in the charter (102.4-6) formally permits veto and interposition – the sobering truth is that these three states are more or less subject to EU law without the advantage of EU representation, such as it is.

This situation has disrupted the unity of Norway’s folk industries. In 2001, under EEA pressure, the state oil monopoly was forced to privatize and, in 2011, parliament was compelled to begin to allow oil companies to direct operations from a non-Norwegian base. Norwegian petroleum is also captive to increasingly demanding European climate legislation, and national preferences with regard to wine, fish, television, banking, and even postal delivery have also been disrupted or affected over the last decade by EU diktat. Norwegians have witnessed both the commanding heights and the daily bread of their political economy transformed by a European Union that they twice explicitly rejected at the polls.

Norway’s existence under house arrest helps account for the intense emotions and deep uncertainties surrounding Brexit, which over the last two years have produced some of the worst political acrimony since decolonization. At the time of this writing, Britain and Europe await the publication of a withdrawal agreement promised last month setting forth the terms of the British departure from the EU on March 29, 2019. Based on May’s statements before and since the withdrawal agreement was released (prior to the agreement, see the UK government document, “The Future Relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union” issued in July 2018, along with the critique of it furnished by the Exiting the European Union Committee on September 18, 2018), the prime minister still hopes for a preservation of the free movement of goods between London and Brussels but an elimination of the free movement of people, as well as the (eventual) abolition of any British adherence to European law and subjection to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. A key passage from the July document states, “The UK and the EU should therefore focus on ensuring continued frictionless access at the border to each other’s markets for goods. To deliver this goal, the Government is proposing the establishment of a free trade area for goods.” (Emphasis in original.) The political declaration looking forward to the UK and EU’s post-Brexit relationship also aspires to “[z]ero tariffs.” This objective sounds appealing, but upon closer inspection the future is riddled with complications, not the least of which is the vexatious question of Northern Ireland, the border of which might become ominously refortified post-Brexit. What exactly are goods, how are they to be distinguished from services, and who is to make that determination? If Whitehall and the European Court of Justice disagree, how is their dispute to be settled? Because Theresa May has committed herself to departure from the Single Market and removal from obedience to the ECJ, membership in the EEA – the Norwegian model – is logically foreclosed. Although Britain could penitently return to the EFTA it originally created, returning to it is not actively being discussed.

The future legal, institutional, and economic connections between London and Brussels – even after more than two years of research, deliberation, and rancorous argument – remain shrouded in mist. Many of the most basic questions regarding the future bilateral relationship remain unanswered. Let all sides prepare for an arduous winter of discontent.              

(Photo credit: Joh Erling Blad. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.5.)


Mark R. Royce, Ph.D., is assistant professor of international relations at NOVA-Annandale and author of The Political Theology of European Integration: Comparing the Influence of Religious Histories on European Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). His research interests include EU studies, British politics, and realism in international relations.