Norway wrestles with EU ties

Norway’s last election has sparked a wide-ranging debate about national values, leaving voters wrestling with how close the Nordic country should be to the European Union and what its responsibilities are toward migrants and asylum-seekers.

While Britain looks to Norway for inspiration in its divorce from the EU, some in Oslo see the U.K. as a model for severing ties to the 28-nation bloc altogether. This populist position is gaining traction as Norway’s left-wing Labor party and the right-wing Conservatives looked to forge ties with smaller partners to gain a thin majority in parliament.

In this wealthy nation of 5.3 million, both main parties are losing support, casting in doubt the direction of the dominant oil and gas business and creating a fight about Norwegian values.

The country was ruled by Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives in coalition with the populist Progress Party, propped up by votes from the Christian Democrats and the Liberals.

Norway isn’t in the EU, but it has access to its single market of half a billion people. It also accepts the free movement of EU workers, enacts reams of EU law and pays a membership fee to do that.

“We are a country that has always been opposed to elites. And the EU is an elite that takes too much power away from our parliament. We think it transfers too much sovereignty to an unelected bureaucracy in Brussels,” Center Party leader Sygve Slagsvold Vedum told The Associated Press.

He says his party wants Norway to cut its governing ties with the EU.

“This is much less radical than Brexit, since we are not an EU country. But we will watch closely what happens in the U.K.,” he said.

Before the vote, the Center Party’s poll ratings have surged.

“You see a familiar populist message here. They are claiming to protect the people against the immoral elites who live in the big cities and are a threat to real people,” says Torril Aalberg, a political science professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

But with both Labor and the Conservatives committed to the current arrangement, Aalberg believes a renegotiation with the EU or a referendum on the topic are unlikely. The Center Party leader, however, thinks the time is ripe.

“Brexit means there is a new reality, and there will be new trade agreements with the EU. We want to see the opportunities,” Vedum said.

Labor’s sinking poll ratings means getting an 85-seat majority depends on the euroskeptic Socialist Left party, and possibly even the Greens or far-left Red Party. All are hostile to the current EU arrangement, and to varying degrees the expansion of the oil and gas business, which accounts for more than half of all Norwegian exports and feeds the country’s $990 billion sovereign wealth fund.

Ending oil and gas exploration – a demand of the unaligned Greens – is ruled out. But outlawing drilling in ecologically sensitive areas and putting a moratorium on expanding new exploration licenses in the Arctic are seen as more realistic targets by some smaller parties jostling for a place in the new left-wing government.