OSLO, Norway — To advocates of a British exit from the European Union, the prosperous and fjord-flecked lands of Norway prove that the doomsayers have it all wrong.
Life within Europe but outside the clutches of the E.U. isn’t apocalyptic. It’s the best of all worlds: Norway gets access to Earth’s largest single market without sacrificing its sovereignty.
But to this country’s political and business leaders, Britain’s flirtation with the Norwegian model is nothing short of baffling.
If Britain votes to leave the E.U. on June 23 and follows Norway’s lead as an E.U. outsider, officials here say, the British should be prepared for less control over their own affairs, not more. That is because Norway still must abide by E.U. rules and regulations, even though it has no say in shaping them.
“Yes, we have access to the single market. But we’re also subject to legislation that we can’t influence,” said Kristin Skogen Lund, director general of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise. “The U.K. is a big member of the E.U., and they have crucial influence. Why would they give that up?”
The drawbacks to the Norwegian model — and to every other existing model for trading with Europe from outside the E.U. — represent one of the greatest obstacles for those advocating a British vote to leave, popularly known as Brexit.
As pro-Brexit forces make their pitch in the final days of a campaign that polls show could go either way, they have struggled to articulate a coherent vision of what Britain would look like once it leaves. Some have cited Norway. Others, Switzerland. One prominent leader of the Brexit campaign even suggested that Britain could be like Albania. (He soon dropped the idea.)
All of them argue that Britain will continue to swap cars, wine and other goods and services with the rest of the E.U. — trade that accounts for half of Britain’s total — while unshackling the country from the burdens of Brussels bureaucracy.
But as Norwegian leaders can attest, that sort of relationship simply isn’t a possibility. Norway not only has to accept the E.U.’s rules for commerce, it also has to embrace its core principles. Among them is the free movement of people, a critical sticking point for Brexit advocates who chafe at record immigration levels to the United Kingdom.
“Every time I speak to Brits about this and I start to explain how [Norway’s deal with the E.U.] functions, they sort of say, “I don’t think that will work for Great Britain,’ ” said Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
The absence of a clear paradigm for Britain’s relationship with the E.U. post-Brexit is one reason why divorce proceedings could be particularly messy. If British voters choose to leave, the country’s diplomats will have two years to negotiate the terms of a departure, the first in the E.U.’s history.
Eager to halt a possible contagion of defections, E.U. leaders have signaled that they will not be in a generous mood. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker noted pointedly last month that “deserters will not be welcomed back with open arms.”
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said in an interview published Friday in the German weekly Der Spiegel that Britain will have no access to the European common market if it votes to leave. “In is in,” he said. “Out is out.”
Solberg acknowledged that Britain — the world’s fifth-largest economy — undoubtedly would have more negotiating clout than her tiny country, which has a population less than one-tenth the size. But in an interview at her residence in central Oslo, she predicted that European leaders would be loath to allow Britain the benefits of membership without the responsibilities.
“I don’t think they will allow pick-and-choose participation,” she said.
Solberg knows the E.U. well. Her country may not be a member, but its destiny is shaped by the decisions made in Brussels. Her government has a small army of bureaucrats assigned to the E.U.’s capital city, where they watch from the outside as other countries enact laws and regulations that will help define virtually every aspect of how Norwegians live and work.
The peculiar arrangement came about as a result of Norway’s own referendum, in 1994, when the country narrowly passed up a chance to join the E.U. With farmers and fishermen leading the way, the country’s anti-E.U. forces successfully argued that Norway would be better off in a looser arrangement known as the European Economic Area, or EEA. Two other small countries. Iceland and Liechtenstein, also are EEA members.
Despite the frustrations of Norwegian political and business leaders, the country’s people don’t seem to mind the arrangement. Opinion polls show a healthy majority favoring the status quo, while support for E.U. membership has plummeted.
Kathrine Kleveland, a farmer and politician who leads the country’s “No to the E.U.” movement, said Norwegians are fiercely protective of their sovereignty, which they gained only recently by European standards. Norway was bound in a union with Sweden for nearly a century, ending in 1905. Before that, it was under Danish hegemony for four centuries. The country also was occupied by the Germans during World War II.
The last thing that Norwegians want to do, Kleveland said, is to yield to Brussels.
“We want to decide our own laws and regulations, and have our own voice in international affairs,” she said. “The world is bigger than the E.U.”
Kleveland said she is hoping that Britain votes to leave but acknowledged that a place in the EEA would be a poor outcome given the constraints the agreement places on national decision-making. Other models in Europe — including a more flexible Swiss arrangement in which agreements are negotiated one by one — aren’t much better.
“Perhaps none of the models work well,” she said, suggesting that Britain will need to chart its own path.
Any public dissatisfaction in Norway with the EEA has been masked by the extraordinary success of the Norwegian economy, which for decades has floated on the wealth of North Sea oil.
The country’s prosperity has been all the more striking when compared with the plight of the E.U., which has been weighed down by debt, unemployment and a seemingly unending string of crises.
Any public backlash over Norway’s lack of a voice in E.U. affairs has also been muted by the fact that the E.U.’s policies generally align with Norwegian interests, said Jan Erik Grindheim, who leads a pro-E.U. advocacy group.
“The decisions coming out of Brussels aren’t that bad,” Grindheim said. “That’s the only reason we don’t have a revolt.”
Still, the country’s outsider status does occasionally lead to trouble.
Lund, who leads the Norwegian business association, said E.U. law recently prohibited a tax incentive that Norway had been using to encourage companies to set up shop in the country’s remote Arctic region. But businesses only learned of the switch at the last minute because, she said, Norwegian authorities weren’t involved in the decision-making.
“Circumstances change for business all the time,” she said. “But it’s very bad to get a change like that with so little notice.”
That’s one reason that Solberg, the prime minister, favors Norwegian membership in the E.U. But she said she would respect the voters’ will and not push for it while public support remains so low — even as she urges Britain to stay in.
Hence one of the ironies as Britain prepares to vote:
“We made a mistake with the referendum in 1994. We lost sovereignty with no compensation,” said Erik Oddvar Eriksen, director of European studies at the University of Oslo. “Now Norwegian politicians warn the U.K. to stay. But they don’t take up the issue at home. They’re afraid of another referendum.”
Karla Adam contributed to this report from London.