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Norway - EU 1961-1994

Dag Seierstad gives a thorough presentation of the relationship between Norway and the EU as well as the two referendums on this issue.

(Based on a speech held at a Trade Union conference at Wakefield, November 1995)


There have been four attempts to get Norway into the EEC/EU. There have been three intensive debates or campaign periods, in 1961-63, 1970-72 and 1989-94.

1957: The Rome Treaty leading to the EEC

EFTA as the British-Scandinavian alternative to the EEC

1961-62: The first debate

The Labour Government applied for membership (together with the UK and Denmark). The application led to a certain grassroots mobilization against membership of the EEC. This mobilization was gathering momentum when the application in January 1963 was put aside by the French president de Gaulle's veto against British membership of the EEC.

A referendum would most probably have given a majority for membership if there had been one in 1963.

1967: The second attempt

A coalition government (The Conservative Party + three "center" parties) applied for membership - once more together with the UK and Denmark. For a second time the application was stopped by a French veto against British membership. There was no time for a real debate on EEC membership in 1967.

1970-72: The second debate

The same coalition government applied for membership of the EEC in June 1970. This provoked an intense debate and a huge mobilization against membership.

A referendum was held on 25. September 1972. A majority of 53.6 % voted "no". At a similar referendum in Denmark a majority voted "yes", and Denmark entered the EEC together with the UK and Ireland.

The referendum led to negociations for a free trade agreement between Norway and the EEC - an agreement similar in structure to the agreements between the EEC and other EFTA countries (among them Sweden, Finland, Austria, Switzerland).

Since 1974 Norway has a free trade agreement with the EEC. The free trade agreement covered all industrial products (no customs, no quotas) with two exceptions. Excluded from free trade were all agricultural products and most products from our fishing industry. Fresh fish entered the EEC market freely.

The dimensions of conflict in 1970-72:

a. Center-periphery: - geographically (urban-rural)

- socially (inside organizations and communities)

The social and geographical periphery voted no while the center voted yes.

b. A left-right dimension inside the labour movement, the left voting no and the right voting yes.

The deciding factor for the outcome of the referendum: the degree of loyalty towards the Labour party leadership within the Labour party and within the trade unions.

1973-1988: The taboo period

For 15 years EEC membership was a taboo question in Norwegian politics. During the referendum campaign 1970-72 the Labour party leadership was the main political force promoting Norwegian membership of the EEC. After the referendum of 1972 the Labour party was split. Many anti-EEC members left the party and joined the Socialist Left party.

At the parliamentary elections of 1973 the Labour party lost one third of its votes. Most of the protest voters were regained at the elections in 1977, but the Labour party has never returned to its strength of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of getting 45-48 % of the votes, the level for the next 15 years varied between 35 and 42 %.

1990-1992: The third debate, first part, the debate on the EEA


1. The introduction of the single market and the Single European Act.

2. The Luxembourg process

3. The Oslo process: Negociations beween the EFTA and the EEC on the EEA (the European Economic Area).

- The speech of Jacques Delors in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in January 1989

- The EFTA meeting in Oslo in March 1989

- The EEC-EFTA meeting in June 1989

The Norwegian parliament decided in October 1992 to ratify the EEA Treaty with the votes 130-35. Since the Treaty implied the transfer of sovereignty from the parliament to EU/EEA institutions in specific questions, a 3/4 majority in parliament (128 votes) was needed.

The strategy options in 1990-92:

1. Applications for membership

Promoted by: Right ( Conservative Party) and Party of Progress (= the extreme right)

2. The EEA Treaty as preparation for membership

Promoted by: Labour Party

3. The EEA Treaty as a solution for avoiding membership

Promoted by: Christian People's Party and The anti-EU wing of the Labour Party

4. Continuation of the free trade treaty of 1974

Promoted by: Center Party and Socialist Left Party

The parties and their voting strength 1989-1991:

The Labour Party 35 %

The Right (Conservative Party) 20 %

The Party of Progress (a right-liberalistic party) 12-14 %

The Christian People's Party 8 %

The Center Party (the former Farmers'Party) 7 %

The Socialist Left party 10-12 %

The official line of arguing for entering the EEA 1990-92:

The export argument

The creation of a huge single market without frontiers changes the conditions for the economic development of Norway. Our access to the EC market is in danger. The competitive position of our enterprises will deteriorate compared to those of the internal market.

The main counter-argument:

The free trade agreement between Norway and the EC - existing since 1974 - gives free access to the EC market for the main core of our industry. Excluded from free trade are agricultural products and products from our fishing industry. Fresh fish enters the EC market freely.

The counter-counter-argument:

The single market covers not only industry, agriculture and fisheries, but also the main growth sector, the tertiary sector. The development of a huge common market of capital and services will improve the competitive situation of the EC industry. We must give our industry the same competitive conditions.

There were of course counter-counter-counter-arguments to this. I will save you from this part of our debate.

The environmental argument:

Environmental problems know no frontiers. Thus international cooperation is necessary. Since the EC ....

The isolation argument:

In a decade Norway may end up - together with Albania - as the only European country outside the framework of the European Community. We must not turn our back to Europe.

The general question - a question of democracy:

Which questions should be decided where?

Given that international cooperation is necessary, which fields of politics should be handed over to supranational political structures, and which should be decided at national and local levels?

The most acute specific question- a question of employment:

Why were all EFTA countries - in the long period from 1974 to 1988 - able to avoid the problem of mass unemployment which prevailed in all EC countries?

1992-1994: The third debate, second part, the debate on EU membership
 The rest of this paper outlines this debate.


Parties in favour of membership of the EU:

1. The Labour Party, the biggest party, more similar to the social democratic party in Germany than to the Labour party in Great Britain. The party gets 30-40 % of the votes in elections. The party leadership has for thirty years been pushing for membership of the EU, and party congresses have always with great majorities voted for membership. At the referendum the Labour party voters split 50-50. The members voted 2:1 in favour of membership.

2. The second biggest party - with 20 % of the votes - , The Conservative Party, is also strongly in favour of membership.

3. Our ultra-right, the Party of Progress, an ultra-liberalistic party playing with racist emotions among the voters, is - thank heaven! - in favour of membership. The voting strength of the party varies between 3-15 % from election to election depending on the climate of xenophobia among the voters. At the referendum the party's voters split 50-50.

Parties opposing membership:

3. Three so- called "center parties" with a combined voting strength of 20 -30 % were all campaigning against membership.

4. The Socialist Left Party with voting strength of 6-8 % (12 % in 1993) and the ultra-left party, Red Electoral Alliance, with a voting strength of 1 % were both opposed to membership.


As in 1972 four dimensions split the voters:

1. a center-periphery dimension:

- Oslo voting 2:1 in favour of membership

- the periphery (the countryside, the fishing communities, the far north) voting 2:1 against membership.

2. a social dimension:

- the power elite, the better-off, the highly educated, the upwardly mobile people (the career oriented) tended to vote in favour of membership

- the powerless, the poorer, the lesser educated, the ordinary worker tended to vote against membership.

3. a political right-left dimension:

People at the right of the political spectrum tended to vote in favour of membership. We find this tendency among the voters in general, but even more so within the labour movement, inside the Labour party, and inside the trade unions.

4. a gender dimension:

Men voted 50-50, women voted against membership by 55-45.


The campaign was uneven
 As in 1972

- the power elite were against us

- the government, the ministries, the whole government apparatus were against us

- the top people in economic life were against us

- the banks, the big firms, the employers' organization were against us and provided money for our opponents

- most of the big newspapers were against us

What did our opponents tell us during the campaign?

The fairy tale:

- that membership would add to democracy

- that the EU is equivalent to international cooperation

- that the EU will and can control capital in the age of transnational capital

- that the EU is needed to solve environmental problems.

We were able to show people that those arguments were not convincing. Then the other side turned to threats - just as in 1972.

The threats - if people voted no:

- that our exports would be hit

- that capital would move abroad and investments would decrease

- that the interest rate would rise

- that the value of our money, the krone, would drop

- that employment in industry would be hit

After a year it is obvious to anyone

- that our exports are rising

- that investments are rising

- that foreign capital buys our enterprises

- that the interest rate decreased from the first day after the referendum

- that the crown became stronger

- that employment in industry increased

The last weeks the most important threat was used to full extent: the isolation of Norway when becoming an Albania close to the North Pole.

The domino strategy

Let me remind you of the domino strategy in connection with the referenda. (When one piece falls, all fall.)

Four countries applied for membership of the EU, all four should have their referenda, Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway.

We proposed - in agreement with the no movements in the other Scandinavian countries - that all Scandinavian countries should vote on the same day. But the governments decided to break the chain where opposition seemed to be the weakest.

So Austria voted in June - and the result was 38 % no.

Finland voted in September - and the result was 43 % no.

Sweden voted on 13. November - and the result was 48 % no

Norway was to vote 15 days later - on 28. November. And the government hoped that the fear of being completely isolated outside the Union would produce a majority in favour of membership.


Until 1989 there was a huge majority against membership. The question was simply not on the agenda.

During 1990 and 1991 the whole establishment kept on telling the people: It is no longer possible to remain outside the EU. The Berlin Wall has come down. Now comes the New Europe, and Norway must be part of it.

Gradually there developed in the population a mood of resignation. We used to call it a "belief in fate". Opinion polls started to show majorities of about 10 % in favour of membership. And more importantly: when asked "do you think Norway will become a member of the EU in five or ten years", 85 % answered yes.

Therefore we had to fight this mood of resignation - the tendency of looking at the EU as destiny, as historical fate.

The spring of 1992 was decisive. In december 1991 the Maastricht Treaty was signed, and the new treaty was to be ratified in the different EU parliaments. Then came the Danish referendum on the Maastricht treaty in June 1992. The victory for the no side broke the fatalism, the feeling of destiny. Our opinion polls showed a stable majority against membership of about 60 to 40 in all polls from July 1992 until the Swedish referendum in November 1994.


The organization "No to the EU" was founded as an information group in 1988 - and was established as a proper organization in August 1990.

"No to the EU" is the main - and in fact the only - broad "cross-political" organization opposed to Norwegian membership of the EU. It organized the opposition to EU membership during the campaign up to the referendum in November 1994.

"No to the EU" defines itself as a broad political coalition with one goal: to keep Norway outside the EU. The organization nevertheless found it useful to develop a common political platform on the questions of democracy, environment and international solidarity. The main object of coming together in this broad coalition was to avoid the subordination to Brussels that membership would have led to, so that it would still be meaningful for us - in a Norwegian context - to disagree on other poltical issues.

"No to the EU" was from the start in August 1990 built as an organization

- with local branches at the municipal level.

- in each of our 19 counties a regional organization: A regional congress every year electing a board, organizing a secretariat from the start staffed wih non-salaried people working on a voluntary basis (pensioners, students etc.)

- at national level a national congress every year, a national board (two people, one man and one woman) from each region meeting 3-4 times a year, an executive board and a national secretariat.

At the end of 1990 our organization had about 15,000 members. At the time of the referendum in November 1994 our membership was 145,000 - or approximately five percent of the electorate.

We had more than 500 local branches - in all 440 local municipalities and at parish level in the bigger cities.

We were better organized in the countryside than in the towns and cities. In Oslo we had only one percent of the electorate as members. In my own region with 180,000 inhabitants we had 15,000 members - or 11 percent of the electorate. In some small countryside communities up to 50 percent of the electorate were members of our organization.


1. The book brought to all Norwegian households in March 1994
 In the summer of 1993 the Government produced a 16-page booklet as general information of the blessings of EU membership. The booklet was placed in hundreds of copies at post offices, public libraries and other public ofices. Some of our parlamentarians were able to show that the booklet was so inaccurate and biased that the Parliament was forced to give financial support to our organization to balance the information by another publication for mass consumption. (After a while the Parliament gave the same financial support to our opponents in the European Movement - to safeguard the balance even more.)

We decided to produce not a booklet which people throw away as another piece of propaganda, but a proper book of high quality. We asked about 30 of our best authors to write a short story, a poem, an essay on a theme connected to Europe and the world outside Norway. Most of them felt honoured by being asked, and wrote their contributions with entusiasm. Then we added some 20 pages with factual information on the EU and the membership issue. Altogether it turned into a nice book of 140 pages.

This book was printed in 1.8 million copies, one for every household in Norway. Never has a book of fiction been printed in anything near such a number in Norway. Then all the money from the government was gone, although each copy becomes very cheap when you print 1.8 million of the same book. To send it to the 1.8 million households by post would cost us at least three times as much as to print it.

So we mobilized our whole organization. More than 10,000 activists shared the job and brought the book out to every household - in the cities, to the far off farms in the mountain valleys, and to the fishing communities along the coast.

2. The Trade Union Congress in September 1994
 In 1972 the Trade Union Congress voted in favour of membership by a great majority. The votes were 220 to 81.

At the Congress in September 1994 - two months ahead of the referendum - the Trade Union leadership had put on the agenda of the Congress the following proposal: The Congress recommends membership if Sweden decides to become a member.

This proposal was defeated by 152 to 148 votes. The result came as a schock to the whole Norwegian establishment, including the leadership of the Labour Party and the Central Trade Union.


The Swedish referendum was to be held the on13. November 1994, 15 days before the referendum in Norway. All the polls showed that if there was to be a no majority in Sweden, then there would be a overwhelming no victory in Norway. Therefore our strategy was obvious:

1. to make the no voters mentally prepared for a Swedish yes vote

2. and to show people throughout Norway the fundamental contrast between the two sides: that they had the money, the media, the whole page advertisements in the newspapers - and we had the organization, the thousands of ordinary people turned into grassroots activists:

- we were on the streets with our leaflets

- we had a daily newspaper in Oslo distributed for free on the streets in 80,000 copies

- we had a computer network reaching all regional secretariats and some secretariats in the bigger centres

The last weeks we concentrated on two strategies:

1. In the central regions: to win as many voters as possible.

2. In the countryside and along the coast: to get people out to vote on the referendum day.

We knew that at general elections participation is usually about 80 % in the central regions and only 70 % in the periphery where people often have a long journey to reach the polling stations.


The weather forecast on the referendum day was as unfortunate as it might be - with nice weather in the central regions - the main yes regions - and storm and rain along the coast and in the North - in the no regions.

Then came the first results - from the small communities along the northern coast. The votes were cast 80 to 20 or even 90 to 10, and the participation rate was 90 percent, 90 percent, 90 percent - and we knew we might win. At the end of the night the average participation for the whole country ended at a record 88 %. And for the first time the participation rate was as high in the periphery as in the central regions.


- It was not a victory of a reluctant, intolerant, inward-looking majority.

- It was not a victory of ignorance.

In fact, the Norwegian public has been discussing EC/EU questions for decades.

(Example: the debate in local newspapers. The no voters were in general better informed than yes voters.)

We won the debates among ordinary people because our activists knew the facts, knew the treaties, knew the results of the negociations between Norway and the EU, knew the consequences of membership.

We won because the establishment had to confront an informed and organized people.


To us who oppose membership of the EU, the main question - the question above everything else - is the question of democracy.

Let me put it this way: When you move hundreds of the main decisions from the national parliament and the national government to Brussels - to a political superstructure, a huge, political machinery which is completely unpenetrable, incomprehensive to the ordinary citizen, the result is a devastating threat to democracy.

In all European countries, democracy developed within a national framework. When a decision is taken at a national level, when a new law is enacted, we know who is responsible:

- the government is responsible

- the majority in parliament is responsible

- for more specific decisions a minister or a department within a ministry is responsible.

There is someone who is responsible.

If the decision is bad enough, we can in principle elect another Government at the next election.

That is not possible in Brussels - for two reasons:

1. No one is responsible. At least: It is impossible to know who is responsible.

2. Even if we knew who were responsible, we could not get rid of them. We could not make them responsible for their actions or decisions.

Conclusion: If no one is responsible, then the whole system is irresponsible - and a threat to democracy.

Is democracy that important?

To make my answer brief:

In our societies where social problems grow, even explode - unemployment, drug problems, crime - there seems to be no obvious answer.

And what is most worrying, and most difficult to understand: in a society where the production of goods and food is more and more efficient, the welfare systems break down. We can no longer afford to take care of our kids and our elderly people in a proper and responsible way.

To solve these problems, the only answer is improved democracy and involvement of ordinary people in decision-making.


In all European countries, democracy developed within a national framework.

The ideological proponents of the EU's single market talk of the EU as an extension of democracy. They talk about the EU as the way of controlling capital when capital is internationalized.

On paper there should be a balance between the EU freedom of capital and the EU freedom of the worker. They have both the same freedom of movement under the Rome and Maastricht treaties.

But that is on paper - not in the real world.

- The owner of capital is free to move his capital whenever he is not content with the conditions offered him by the state, the local community or the workers.

- The worker is free to follow wherever capital settles - but only if he can bring with him his family and his local community and get rid of the debt of his house.

Thus the balance is similar to the balance between rich and poor in Victor Hugo's Paris: They have the same freedom to sleep under the bridges of Paris.

The labour movement has from its very first beginnings relied on two main strategies:

- to oppose capital/the market forces by organization, negociation, action through trade unions locally and at a national level

- to influence, to initiate and force through legal improvements, legal regulations of labour conditions through parliaments.

Those are the two feet of the labour movement - and it is simpler to move when you have both. And what is most important: both feet are more efficient in a national setting than in a supranational one.


Why does such a big part of the Norwegian society resist so vehemently Norwegian membership of the EC?

Possible factors behind the Norwegian peculiarity:

- The Norwegians are not inward-looking by tradition: a shipping nation, the huge emigration 1850-1920, the missionary zeal (the hundreds and hundreds of missionary associations along our coast).

- There are at work early and ingrained traditions of political democracy and involvement at local levels - more than in most other West European countries.

- Our society as a "village" in a European context - the small, easily surveyable, tightly knit community giving security to the individual,

- Strong egalitarian values and structures.

- These and other factors may in combination be used as an explanation of a tradition of political participation with structural traits at odds with most other Western countries. For instance: the level of political participation as studied by social scientists in Norway is not dependent on type of work, level of education, income, social class, etc. Researchers find in Norway a political "self-counsciousness" in relation to the political system and its institutions and processes which spreads more evenly in Norwegian society than in most countries.

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