Norway’s EU relationship – some possible lessons for the UK

Norway’s EU relationship – some possible lessons for the UK

John Erik Fossum

Tight economic, cultural and political bonds tie the UK and Norway together, and Norway’s model of EU affiliation – the ‘Norway model’ – is discussed as a possible solution for the UK. I will discuss some possible lessons from Norway’s experience [1].

EU membership referendums 

One possible lesson from Norway’s experience pertains to the role and salience of referendums as decision-making instruments. Norway is the only member of the European Economic Area (EEA) that has rejected EU membership in a popular referendum (twice: 1972 and 1994). The relevant parallel between the UK and Norway is that both were incorporated in the EU’s internal market before the referendums that rejected EU membership. That affected the choice-set and brought up the post-referendum challenge of clarifying the scope of each state’s continued exposure to EU norms and rules.

Norway had signed the comprehensive and dynamic European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement with the EU (the agreement entered into force on 1 January 1994) before the popular referendum that rejected Norwegian EU membership (28 November 1994). The UK became an EU member in 1972 and has incorporated EU rules and norms ever since. This situation created a gap between the options that people could vote over and the type of EU affiliation that each choice option would entail. For Norway, the referendum question was a straight yes/no to EU membership, but the actual options were: a) yes to Norwegian EU membership; b) no to Norwegian EU membership but retain the EEA agreement; or c) no to Norwegian EU membership and reject the EEA. The referendum could not settle the choice between b) and c), which pertained to how extensively Norway would continue to be subject to EU rules and norms.

For the UK, voting yes did not settle the question of the UK’s future exposure to EU rules and norms. To avoid a cliff-edge, the EU Withdrawal Act transposes most of existing EU law into UK law; hence the UK faced the same difficulty as had Norway in ensuring that no to membership ends exposure to EU rules and norms. Further, since the government pre-referendum had not clarified what voting yes would entail for the UK’s future EU relationship, the yes vote could hardly dictate the government to pursue a specific Brexit outcome (a soft versus a hard Brexit).

The timing of the two referendums was different: Norway’s membership referendum was held after the negotiations with the EU were completed, whereas the UK’s referendum started the process. The difference in timing matters to the referendum’s credibility as a decision-making measure. In the UK, rather than giving the people the opportunity to decide on a negotiated outcome as was the case in Norway, the referendum triggered a debate on the kind of procedure that should be adopted for delivering on the referendum result. We may talk of three options: a) a government-led process where the government negotiates with the EU and for reasons of bargaining clout and internal coherence confines parliament’s role to that of approving or rejecting the negotiated package-deal; b) the process operates as a government – parliament dialogue in order to ensure that the different considerations are brought to bear, and parliament will be able to have a say on the substantive contents of the negotiated outcome; and c) the result of the negotiations is put to the people in a second referendum. The government initially opted for option a) but has been pushed towards option b) by the two chambers of parliament (and other actors, including the UK nations), and option c) is still being debated.

Within the present European context, referendums are not good instruments for choosing among the relevant options, especially when a referendum is used to launch a process of exiting the EU. Then, other additional instruments are needed for sorting out the terms of the nation’s future EU relationship. Under these circumstances, as Norway’s experience shows, there are clear limits to the referendum as an instrument to select the country’s future EU affiliation. The next section will spell that out in further detail.

The limits of referendums as tools for staking out the future

In Norway, it is often said that those that voted no to EU membership in 1994 won at the day of the referendum but have lost every day since. Whereas the EU membership question remains a highly controversial and divisive issue, Norway has been very tightly incorporated in the EU through the EEA Agreement and other arrangements. These have profound constitutional democratic implications and yet have sparked very little controversy (Eriksen and Fossum 2015). The main mechanism that sustains this is that the political parties have introduced a range of gag rules to prevent the EU membership issue from dominating the political agenda (Fossum 2010). Norway has thus managed to depoliticize the issue of EU adaptation.

Since Norway was already closely affiliated with the EU through the EEA agreement at the time of the November 1994 referendum, it had to find a means of working out the tension between ensuring continued EU access on the one hand and protecting sovereignty (as mandated by the negative referendum result) on the other. The EEA agreement and further EU adaptation was the solution.

An important reason for why Norway has depoliticised the issue of EU adaptation is that it is very difficult to retain sovereignty in contemporary Europe. Under such circumstances, even a referendum that is held after the negotiations have been terminated does not give a good steer to Norway’s subsequent EU affiliation. Norway’s need for continued assured access to the EU trumped all other concerns.

The main lesson for the UK is that it will lock itself into a hopeless situation if it links the referendum result to a specific outcome and fails to control the highly politicized Brexit process. The first step to that is to recognize the limits built into the referendum as a decision-making instrument.

Borders and border controls

Another possible lesson from Norway pertains to borders and border controls. In the UK context, this issue has taken on a particular salience given the political importance of maintaining an open Northern Irish border. According to Article 49 of the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK undertakes to “maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.” At the same time, the UK undertakes to ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The EU plays an important role in sustaining an open border, both in terms of its support for the Good Friday Agreement and in terms of the EU’s internal market and customs union.

There is a certain parallel with Norway’s situation on both counts: the political importance of open borders and the EU’s central role in ensuring that. Norway has a 1630 km long border with Sweden that has been open for over 200 years. When Sweden entered the EU, Norway could only keep this border open through affiliating with Schengen, which meant that Norway would be inside the EU’s external border with responsibility for border controls. Had Norway opted to stay outside of Schengen it would have undermined the Nordic Passport Union and the provisions for free movement within the Nordic region. It could be added that some border checks are necessary since Norway is not a member of the EU’s customs union (in other words, Norway is included in the EU’s internal market but is not within the customs union). This has little bearing on ordinary non-commercial forms of border crossing but has for trucks that are bringing in goods. They can however declare these electronically, through a company. If they do not, they have to do so at a customs station at the border. There is also a decision to mount cameras at all of Norway’s borders (with Sweden, Finland, and Russia) by 2019. The system in question is ANPR (automatic number plate recognition), which has been in operation in the UK for decades.

The main lesson is that in today’s deeply interwoven Europe historical bonds and arrangements tying states together get caught up in the EU integration process and can only be disentangled through painful actions.


Eriksen, E. O. and J.E. Fossum (eds.)(2015) The European Union’s Non-members: Independence Under Hegemony?, London: Routledge.

Fossum, J.E. (2010) “Norway’s European ‘gag rules’,” European Review, 18(1): 73-92.


[1] A more extensive discussion of lessons is found in the book that I co-authored with Hans Petter Graver entitled Squaring the Circle on Brexit – Could the Norway model work?


John Erik Fossum is Professor in Political Science at ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo, Norway. He has written extensively on issues of state transformation, constitutionalism and democracy in the EU and Canada, and is currently working on Brexit and ‘the Norway Model’.