Alternatives to EU membership: The Norway model in light of Brexit

By Emma Myhre

Out of all non-EU countries, Norway is the one that is the most involved with the EU. Norway’s membership in the EEA means that it has full access to the single market, and very limited barriers to trade with the EU. Furthermore, people from across the EU are free to live and work in Norway, and vice versa. Norway is exempt from EU rules on justice and home affairs, and also on policies on agriculture and fisheries, as it is not part of the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. Most other policies, however, are adapted. These include the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people [1]. The idea of a “Norway model” for the UK has been brought up as a possible plan B for Brexit because of the harsh resistance in the UK parliament to the draft agreement signed off by the EU and UK [2]. The model is relevant because it is as close as a country can get to the EU without membership. Hence, some would consider it a valid option to keep trading relations as tight as they currently are.

However, the Norway model is not perfect. Perhaps the biggest problem with Norway-EU relations is that Norway has no formal say in EU policy-making, because it has no representation in any of the main European institutions [3]. This point has been a cause of discontent among Norwegians towards the current deal. Although the EEA is the most important way for Norway to access the EU single market, Norway finds itself in a suboptimal situation in which it has no vote in the electoral processes that determine EU policies that Norway ultimately has to adopt.

Many Norwegians recognize that the current model is not ideal, but the political parties are at stark disagreement on how to improve it. While some parties wish for Norway to join the EU as a full member, others think it is a better idea not just to reject EU membership but to withdraw from the EEA entirely and form a new set of agreements with the EU. Those that want to join the EU argue that Norway should have a say in EU decision-making and secure Norwegian economic interests by being a member of the union. Another important point the advocates for membership bring up, is the fact that the world needs more cooperation to tackle global challenges that exceed country borders [4]. However, those opposing membership point to democratic problems within the EU and the importance of having politics at a close distance, as well as a clash of values when it comes to international and domestic solidarity and questions of climate [5].  

For the UK to adopt something like the “Norway model” would be difficult. Adopting the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people, would be a tough sacrifice. The British government’s desire to retain control over its own borders and a say in who it lets into the country is an important factor in its relations with the EU [6]. Moreover, being only on the receiving end of policy-making, and following EU rules without voting on them, will raise skepticism among many Brexiteers because it takes significant control from London over its own economic policies. Another important point is the issue with Ireland. To avoid a hard border, the UK would need to have a customs agreement with the EU, pointing towards a so-called “Norway-plus” option. Such a model could further limit the UK’s ability to settle its own trade deals [7].

There are also aspects of the model that are attractive to Brexiteers. Apart from it being a way for the UK to keep its close ties to the EU and the single market, it would give London the ability to set its own policies on important sectors, the way Norway does on its large fishing and agricultural industries [8]. Additionally, it would allow the UK to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries [9].

The very fact that the Norway model has been discussed by politicians and scholars to such an extent proves that it holds significant relevance. However, there is much more to the solution than just picking some kind of a premade package with a guarantee of success. The UK adopting the Norway model would come with significant costs, something the parliament has also recognized. It is also undeniable that the UK and Norway are different countries with different (although overlapping) interests in the international system. Hence, it is not perfectly realistic for the UK to follow suit of Norway. A more pertinent approach would be to look at Norway as an example of an alternative, although perhaps suboptimal solution to EU membership, and make whatever adjustments necessary to produce the best case scenario in the UK context.