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EEA report reignites Norway’s EU debate

EEA report reignites Norway’s EU debate

| Text: Line Scheistrøen, photo: Björn Lindahl

It is nearly 30 years since Norwegians voted no to EU membership and also 30 years since Norway signed the EEA agreement. A new report on Norway in the EEA has reignited the debate about Norwegian EU membership.

“The EEA agreement has served Norway well for 30 years,” said Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide (Labour) as he received the new EEA report from the committee leader Line Eldring.  

In short, the EEA agreement gives Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein access to the EU internal market, while it requires those countries to accept EU legislation and rules covered by the agreement.

Nordics sceptic of EU labour market regulation

The EEA committee’s mandate has been to assess Norway’s experiences with the EEA agreement and other agreements the country has had with the EU over the past decades. The committee has also examined the experiences the UK, Switzerland and Canada have had with their cooperation models with the EU.

Espen Barth Eide and Lise Eldring

Minister for Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide received the EEA report from committee leader  Line Eldring.

Line Eldring, head of department at the United Federation of Trade Unions (Fellesforbundet), has led the committee. She has been a Fafo researcher for many years, specialising in among other things European labour markets.

One of the chapters in the committee’s report deals with labour market issues. It points to the fact that the EU to an increasing extent is regulating issues that the Nordics traditionally have left to the social partners. 

The committee argues that this has been an increasing challenge in the past ten years. It points out that the Nordic EU members, especially Denmark and Sweden, have been generally critical to EU regulations that impact the Nordic model.

“There is widespread scepticism although the rules generally lead to a strengthening of workers’ rights and are therefore not seen as controversial per se. Typical examples are the new directive on equal pay and not least the minimum wage directive,” the report says.

EEA versus national law

The committee believes there is little doubt that the clashes between national and EEA legislation have created challenges in the labour market and can continue to do so.  

The committee has studied some of the more central regulations and issues from the past 12 years, with a special focus on areas where doubt and conflict have arisen around the national scope for labour market regulation. 

Some of the issues the committee has delved deeper into include:

  • The universal application of collective agreements.
  • Taking pay and working conditions into account during public procurement processes
  • Changes to the regulations for hiring and leasing from temporary work agencies.
  • Transport sector regulation. 

Issues that create disputes 

The committee points out that certain EEA-related issues create significant division in the labour market. One current example includes the recent tightening of the Working Environment Act regarding the access to hiring labour from temping agencies – an issue previously covered in the Nordic Labour Journal.

Espen Barth Eide

Minister of Foreign Affairs Espen Barth Eide believes the EEA agreement has served Norway well. 

The legislative changes, which are politically controversial, were passed by Norway’s parliament in December 2022. Several temping agencies complained to the EFTA Surveillance Authority (ESA), which in January 2023 began looking into whether the new rules are in breach of the agency work directive and the freedom to provide services within the EEA. ESA followed up in the autumn of 2023 with a letter of formal notice, the first step in a treaty infringement case.

“This case demonstrates the challenges that emerge when EEA legislation questions a political decision which in this case was considered to be very important by some of the social partners and politicians, but strongly unwanted by others,” the committee's report states.

No to the EU: “Out of touch with reality”

Not surprisingly, the EEA report has ignited the debate around Norway’s relationship with the EEA agreement and Norwegian EU membership.

Leader of Norway’s No to the EU, Einar Frogner, calls the EEA report from the Eldring committee out of touch with reality. He believes the report does not answer the central questions.

Einar Frogner, No to the EU

Einar Frogner is the leader of No to the EU. He has stood in front of the Norwegian parliament many times to talk about opposition to the EEA and the EU. Photo: Nei til EU 

“The way in which the EEA agreement has led to dramatic changes in both the Norwegian labour and energy markets is dealt with only superficially. The report does not seriously address the insecurity so keenly experienced by many businesses with historically high energy prices,” says No to the EU leader Einar Frogner on the organisation’s website and in several media outlets. 

The leader of the Norwegian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Ine Eriksen Søreide from the Conservatives, sees it completely differently. 

“This is quite a brutal wake-up call for the no side. The committee clearly concludes that the idea of an alternative to the EEA agreement beyond full EU membership has been completely abandoned,” Eriksen Søreide told the public broadcaster NRK. She had wished for a wider mandate for the committee so they could have assessed the consequences of full EU membership for Norway.

The Liberal Party: Yes to EU membership

Guri Melby, leader of the Liberal Party, thinks the EEA committee’s report shows it is high time a new report on EU membership was commissioned.

“Either we carry on with an increasing number of special agreements that voters and politicians from other countries draw up for us. Or else we could go for full Norwegian EU membership where Norwegians are actually able to influence EU policy that we end up adopting in any case,” says Melby in a statement on the Liberal Party’s website. 

Guri Melby

Guri Melby is the leader of the Liberal Party. She is ready to take Norway into the EU. Photo: Arild Danielsen/The Liberal Party

The Green Party also believe Norway should start membership negotiations with the EU. Both parties believe the Centre Party must walk away from the idea that a real alternative to the EEA agreement exists.

The committee: The EEA agreement is the best option

The Centre Party wants a different trade agreement with the EU. Switzerland, the UK and Canada have different connections to the EU – neither EEA agreements nor full-blown EU membership. The EEA committee has studied how these agreements work. 

Line EldringAccording to the committee, the EU’s agreements with those three countries cover fewer areas and secure less market access than the EEA agreement does.

“The EEA secures broader, deeper and more predictable cooperation,” the committee underlines. 

LO: No alternatives to the EEA

In several of the unions organised under the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions LO, including the United Federation of Trade Unions which the EEA committee leader heads, discussions are ongoing about whether the EEA agreement is actually a good deal for Norway. Yet LO centrally still supports the EEA agreement. 

“There are no realistic alternatives that secure Norwegian interests in a better or more predictable way,” says LO Deputy President Steinar Krogstad in a statement on behalf of the Confederation.

He expects the authorities to follow up the committee’s advice to fight labour market crime and social dumping through forceful measures.

“The government has delivered a lot of good things but there is room to do even more, also within the EEA agreement,” says Krogstad.

NHO: Time to do something with the backlog

The EEA committee points out that there has been a build-up over time of a considerable backlog of EU regulations that have yet to be implemented in Norway. The Norwegian Confederation of Business and Industry NHO points this out in their comment to the report.

Ole Erik Almlid

Ole Erik Almlid is the CEO of the NHO. Photo: Moment Studio

“Late implementation weakens Norwegian businesses’ competitiveness in the face of competition from European businesses. It also creates a range of practical challenges,” says Ole Erik Almlid, the NHO CEO. 

He believes the report shows how later years’ trends have made it more costly for Norway to remain on the outside. 

Big gaps in opinion polls 

So what do most people think? An opinion poll commissioned by the NHO shows that six in ten Norwegians think Norway should still participate in the EEA collaboration. The results were presented on the same day as the publication of the EEA report.

But just a few days later, the newspapers Klassekampen and Nationen presented a poll showing that the EEA agreement is losing support, while more people are becoming positive to full EU membership.

The poll showed 48 per cent would have voted no to the EU, down from 54 per cent three years ago. Nearly 32 per cent would have voted yes, while 21 per cent said they did not know.

Great interest

as the EEA committee delivered its report in Oslo in April. The committee was praised for being concise in their writing. The report is fewer than 400 pages.

Norway and the EEA


Norwegian Official Report 2024: 7: Norden og EØS: Utvikling og erfaringer (in Norwegian)

  • The EEA committee was appointed by the government on 6 May 2022.
  • The report was delivered on 11 April 2024.
  • The committee was led by Line Eldring, who is head of department at the United Federation of Trade Unions. 
  • The last time a public committee looked at Norway’s relationship with the EU and EEA was in 2012. 

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