The Northern Fringe: Better Out than In the EU

Icelanders are often told that Norway is on the way into the European Union. They have been getting this message for a very long time now, for decades – of course without it ever coming true. Pretty much the same has been going on in Norway, only there the story is that Iceland is on the way into the EU. In both cases, however, it is highly unlikely that either country will join the EU in the foreseeable future.

Norway has rejected EU membership twice in referendums, first in 1972 and again in 1994. As a consequence the EU is not very eager to enter into new negotiations with the Norwegians. The pro-EU movement in Norway, too, has conceded that it is pointless even to consider new negotiations before there is a stable and vast majority for membership among the Norwegian people. At least 60% has been mentioned in that context.

On Monday general elections are being held in Norway. There is a rather peculiar political landscape in Norway when it comes to the attitude towards EU membership. Although the two traditionally largest political parties in the country, the Conservative Party (Høyre) and the Labour Party (Arbeiterpartiet), are in favour of joining the EU they cannot find a common ground to work together. So there are only two options when it comes to forming a government: a center-right government, including the conservatives and a couple of smaller parties, and a center-left government, including the Labour Party and a couple of smaller parties. These small parties of the right and the left are all opposed to EU membership so neither government will put the issue on the agenda.

As a result the EU issue has been almost completely written off in the ongoing election campaign in Norway. Since the rejection of the proposed EU constitution in France and the Netherlands polls in Norway have repeatedly shown a large majority of Norwegians opposed to the idea of joining the EU. This hostility towards EU membership is not making it more attractive for the Europhiles to raise the issue during the campaign.

However, because of the positive attitude of the two traditionally largest political parties in Norway towards EU membership there is always a certain ongoing debate in the country on the issue, including monthly polls. This is not the case in Iceland where the EU question has simply been as good as dead for years with the sole exception of the second half of 2002 and the beginning of 2003 when there was a short debate on the issue before the general elections in the spring of 2003. The result of this debate in the polls was a vast majority against EU membership.

Although it is highly unlikely that Norway will join the EU in the foreseeable future it is even less likely that Iceland will ever do so. Iceland does not have a pro-EU government nor a pro-EU parliament majority. In fact, only one of the political parties is in favour of joining the EU, the Socialdemocratic Alliance (Samfylkingin), although the party has never actually put the issue on its agenda.

It is not difficult to see why. Iceland is better out than in the EU. The recent United Nations report on living standards and wealth published only a few days ago shows Iceland in second place after... Norway. So why should both countries even consider joining the EU?