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Norway’s European ‘Gag Rules’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2010

John Erik Fossum
ARENA, Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, PO Box 1143, Blindern 0317 Oslo, Norway. E-mail:


As part of their conflict handling repertoire, political systems possess a range of mechanisms to suppress or avoid conflicts. A closer look across Europe would yield a broad tapestry of mechanisms for handling the thorny issue of European integration, with most governments and political systems relying on some version of conflict avoidance. In this picture, one should expect that a country such as Norway, which has rejected EU membership twice, has an active and vocal anti-membership organization, and where polls consistently show a ‘no’ majority, would stand out as the exception, in the sense that there would be no need for the Norwegian political system to take any measures to suppress the issue. But reality is more complex. Since the early 1990s, when Norway entered into the EEA agreement with the EU, Norway’s relationship to the EU has changed dramatically. Norway’s current arrangement with the EU is perhaps best labelled as ‘tight incorporation without formal membership’. This situation is managed through arrangements not to raise the EU membership issue. In this article, I rely on Stephen Holmes’s notion of ‘gag rules’, as a particular means of issue avoidance. This mechanism speaks of how actors seek to remove debate on a controversial issue that does not go away: it is a matter of stymieing debate on the issue but not stopping to deal with it. If anything, the lid on debate on EU membership helps the political system to keep alive an active process of Norwegian adaptation to the EU, with serious implications for Norwegian democracy.

Norway and Europe
Copyright © Academia Europaea 2010

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Notes and References

1. In 1972, 53.5% voted against membership and 46.5% voted for, and in 1994 52.2% voted against, whereas 47.8% voted in favour.Google Scholar
2. A brief overview includes the following, which encompasses all of the EU’s three pillars: through the EEA Agreement 5000 legal provisions have been incorporated into Norwegian law since 1994. In addition, Norway participates in 35 different EU programmes (such as research and development, culture etc.) and a host of EU bureaus. Norway is also a member of the Schengen Agreement; it is attached to the Dublin network; Norway has a cooperation agreement with Europol and Eurojust; and has negotiated a parallel agreement to the European Arrest Warrant (see F. B. Finstad (2008) Norges tilknytning til EUs justis- og innenrikspolitikk, for an overview of these). Within security and defence Norway takes part in the EU’s civilian and military crisis management, including the EU Battle groups (for an overview see H. Sjursen (2008) Fra bremsekloss til medløper: Norge i EUs utenriks- og sikkerhetspolitikk [From brake to participant: Norway in the EU’s foreign and security policy]. Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift, 4, 323–335). Source: Scholar
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21. The EEA includes Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, but not Switzerland.Google Scholar
23. Author’s translation. The following statement is reflective of how this provision was portrayed in the media: (In author’s translation) ‘The government will neither prepare nor send any application for EU membership during this Storting, not even if Iceland were to introduce negotiations with the EU.’ Scholar
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30. Henry Valen notes that the EU membership issue has contributed to activate structural cleavage lines that were important to the early stages in the development of Norwegian political parties (Ref. 14, p. 106). Bjørklund (Ref. 13) argues that the rejuvenation of the original cleavage model is overstated; new and more salient dimensions were gender (more women than men voted no) and the rise of public sector employees (more of them voted no). The underlying factor is defence of the welfare state. Thus, Labour as its main protagonist, ‘was defeated [in the EU referendum] by its own success’ (Ref. 12, p. 158).Google Scholar
31.Heidar, K. (2005) Norwegian parties and the party system: Steadfast and changing. West European Politics, 28(4), 807833.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
32. Labour was split during the 1972 referendum process, with party cadre leaving the party. It was also deeply divided in 1994 but did not split then (Ref. 29).Google Scholar
33. Many appear to move from yes to no. Sjøli reported on 15 September 2008 in the daily newspaper Klassekampen that there is now a no majority within the FrP elite.Google Scholar
34.Fremskrittspartiet (2005) FrPs Prinsipp og Handlingsprogram 2005–9 [The Progress Party’s Principle and Action Program]. Available at: Scholar
35.Høyre (2005) Nye muligheter Høyres Stortingsvalgsprogram 2005–2009. [New possibilities – the Conservatives] Available at: Scholar
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37.Venstre (2005) Mer Frihet. Mer Ansvar. Et sosialliberalt progam for stortingsperioden 2005–9 [More Freedom. More Responsibility. A social-liberal program for the Storting Period 2005–9]. Available at: Scholar
38.Senterpartiet (2005) Prinsipp- og handlingsprogram, 2005–2009 [Principle and Action Program 2005–2009]. Available at: Scholar
39. This was an issue prior to the 1994 popular referendum when the Centre Party and the Socialist People’s Party indicated that they might not respect a small yes majority in the popular referendum. Cf. Bergens Tidende 17.11.1994, p. 8. Norsk Telegrambyrå (NTBtekst) also reports on January 8, 2008 that the Centre Party still asserts that the Storting should ‘interpret’ a referendum majority, not automatically defer to it.Google Scholar
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41.Rødt (2006) Arbeidsprogram 2006–2008 [Working Program 2006–2008]. Available at: Scholar
42. In 1994, 65% of Norwegian exports went to the EU. Including Sweden and Finland (joined the EU in 1994), the share increases to 77%. For imports the figures for 1994 are 49 and 67%, respectively. Source: Statistical Yearbook 1995, Table 286.Google Scholar
43. An opinion survey conducted by Sentio Research Norge found that a majority of the population supports the EEA Agreement (62.1% of men and 53.5% of women). Cited in Bergens Tidende 21 April 2008, p. 8.Google Scholar
44. The Centre Party is the most explicit here: ‘Through the referenda in 1972 and 1994 a majority of the Norwegian people said no to EU membership. The Centre Party will defend this position and will work to prevent a new membership application being sent to the EU.’ Source: Senterpartiets prinsipp- og handlingsprogram 2005–2009; author’s translation.Google Scholar
45.Finstad, F. B. (2008) Norges tilknytning til EUs justis- og innenrikspolitikk [Norway’s association with the EU’s policy on justice and internal affairs]. Nytt Norsk Tidsskrift, 4, 336347.Google Scholar
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