Sundlisaeter Skinner’s new theory on Norwegian Euroscepticism

Norway rejected EU membership twice. The first election was held on 25 September 1972 with a 53.5 percent no-majority and the second on 28 November 1994, this time with a 52.2 percent no-majority. It is well-known that Euroscepticism is widespread in Norway, started in the early 1950s with the scepticism against supranationalism and continental economic policy. The following decades Norwegian scepticism was also based on protection of state sovereignty, agriculture and the countryside. Later on several researchers also concluded that the economic interest in oil played a central role in Norwegian Euroscepticism. However, the Norwegian author Marianne Sundlisæter Skinner presents a new theory in her article entitled “Norwegian Euroscepticism: Values, Identity or Interest” published in the last number of  the Journal of Common Market Studies (available also online for the subscribers). The presented theory is called VCR, which is the acronym for “political Values, political Culture and Rural society”. The author supports her theory with an analysis of over 500 articles (between 1961-1994) from the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. The author’s purpose is to clarify what Norwegian Euroscepticism is really about.

According to the author, Norwegian people emphasise values like equality, environment and quality of life. These values are also characterised by a strong territorial culture, the rural society. The countryside has a great value in Norway. The purpose is to protect nature and cultural landscapes in order to preserve Norwegian agriculture and fishing. There is also a strong need to keep the decentralised settlements in order to uphold rural society. Because of its commitment to the free market and open competition, the EU supports the large-scale agriculture industry, and smallholders would not be able to survive the competition. The fear is that the countryside will “vanish” and urbanisation will increase. This is a phenomenon we have seen in Sweden since we joined the EU, a common argument used by Swedish Eurosceptics. Norway is not willing to make those changes in the agriculture that would be forced with EU-membership, like in Sweden.

The aim of the EU is economic growth for all Member States. Sundlisæter Skinner calls this the idea of “much wants more”, which is not compatible with Norwegian political values. The political values in Norway, according to the author, include “people-focus” which means prioritising people, welfare and their quality of life. Consequently, when it comes to business regulation the Norwegian legislation focuses on solidarity, morality and responsibility to future generations both inside and outside Norway. This is a clear difference from the interests of the EU. Firstly, the EU puts only emphasis on the competition among the Member States and excludes other countries. Secondly, within the EU values like morality and environment must always be balanced with economic freedoms and not necessarily be evaluated higher.

Another important reason for Norwegian Euroscepticism is the general wish “to make Norway and the world a better place, not Norway and Europe a richer place”. The opinion of many Norwegians is that the EU is discriminating third countries when it comes to trade policy. So the value of Norway’s solidarity with the Third World is important to point out. This is better exercised outside the EU in order to create, in Norway’s view, a “better world”.

Moving on to the political culture aspect, the author points out that the Norwegian ideal of folkestyre (participatory democracy) is unique. The independence of Norway has a short history with a strong sovereignty. Since Norway belonged to Sweden until its independence in 1905, the high value of sovereignty and self-determination is understandable. It is important for the political culture of Norway that people feel a connection to the government. The author alleges that Norway thrives as a free nation. The EU is an organisation with the majority of non-elected decision-makers, which is not compatible with the Norwegian ideals. As the former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik stated: “We don’t think that these large units give the individual human being the room and the influence that is required today.” (Sundlisæter, p. 434.)

As neighbours, Sweden and Norway are two similar Nordic countries. One may presume that there should be several similarities in the Euroscepticism, but there are many differences as well. According to Stig Hadenius, a Swedish political scientist (Sveriges politiska historia, 2008, Stockholm, publisher: Hjalmarsson och Högberg, p. 137 and 197) the earliest Swedish scepticism in the 1960s was related to the principle of neutrality. Although, EU-membership has always been considered to be a positive step for Swedish trade from an economic point of view, the principle of neutrality was regarded to be of higher value. When Sweden discovered the trade benefits of the EFTA agreement the neutrality principle was no longer considered to be more important than the economic profits. In the late 1980s, it was also argued that EU membership was necessary for Sweden in order to maintain the efficiency of trade and export. The Swedish government believed that a non EU-membership would be less favourable for the Swedish economy.

Another Swedish author, Olof Allgårdh, writes in his article entitled Sveriges väg från skeptiker till pådrivare (in English: Sweden’s path from scepticism to impeller) published in the Swedish journal Svensk Juristtidning, that a common scepticism among the Swedish people was based on the belief that the EU was about capital, conservatism and Catholicism, but this is not the case anymore. It has always been, and still is, of great importance for Sweden to maintain its values even with the EU-membership. Sweden has a high level of protection for environment, labour protection and social-welfare policy, equality and transparency. The fear is that the EU may soften this high level of protection and the Swedish government consistently argues that Sweden shall be allowed to sustain it.

Even though Norwegians voted against EU-membership, the outcome of the referendum was a weak majority. The Swedish referendum, which was held on 13 November 1994, was similar with the Norwegian one, with the only difference that it was the yes-majority that prevailed with 52 percent. This shows that the number of sceptics was almost the same in Norway as in Sweden in 1994. Yet, Norway is still not a member but Sweden is. Both countries have been sceptical because of certain values although some of them are different. According to Norway, their values will never be compatible with the EU while Sweden’s view is that our values can still be maintained with the EU-membership. These values are not simply values for Norway but they also form an integral part of state identity.

It is also important to notice the different wills of the politicians in the two countries. During the time of elections, the Norwegian government was negative to a membership while the Swedish one was positive. One can assume that the interest of the politicians may have had an impact on the people’s decisions. It is clear, that the Norwegian government wants to enshrine their unique system and state sovereignty because of a short independent history, in contrast to Sweden.

Sundlisæter claims that the EU emphasises the idea of “much wants more”. This is of course true. The EU is first of all an economic organisation with economic interests. If a state considers membership they must first consider the economic benefits and disadvantages with such a membership. It seems logical then that the economic aspect must have had an impact on Norwegian Euroscepticism. It might have been different if Norway was not such a strong state economically. In such a case one can assume that Norway would have had considered the membership for the same reasons as Sweden, because of a great trade benefit.

It should be noticed that the author’s method is based on just one newspaper, Aftenposten. Even though Aftenposten claims to be a neutral newspaper and it is Norway’s largest newspaper, it is not the only one, and it can be subject to criticism that the analysis is based on only one newspaper and the conclusion is extended to opinions expressed in the media in general. One can also criticise Sundlisæter´s conclusion since she in fact is Norwegian herself. The risk is that the author may have idealised the reality by underestimating economic interest and national identity arguments in her theory based exclusively on the fact that these arguments are not used openly in public debates so often than other arguments. Either way, her article is still interesting since it throws light upon the negative aspects of European integration, such as discrimination of third countries and the relationship between the EU and the Third World, free movement of workers vs. collective labour agreements (in Sweden) and the countryside vs. competition in agriculture.

The Norwegian claim that the EU is discriminating third countries when it comes to trade may be a harsh one, but one must still agree with it due to the fact that the EU promotes a free trade market within the Union which can be argued as indirect discrimination since it is more favourable in certain areas, e.g. customs duties.

Despite different conclusions have been reached by other scholars, Sundlisæter states that Norway is a country with strong post-materialist values and a strong state identity where the protection of the environment and the prioritisation of people’s welfare and quality of life over business interests are not considered to be compatible with the EU today.

Amelie Edgren, Stina Haglund, Lina Olsson


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Örebro Universitet (Sweden)
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3 Responses to Sundlisaeter Skinner’s new theory on Norwegian Euroscepticism

  1. Richard says:

    The VCR theory – Political Values, Political Culture and Rural Society- which Marianne S. Skinner presented is well-founded. But it seems to be not exhaustive as they are other factors which might be considered to further explain the Norwegian Euroscepticism including the protection of its natural resources in terms of fishing, oil and natural gas. These natural resources generate huge income to the country, and the income makes the economy of the country to be strong and stable therefore it strengthens the stability of political system and the economic independence of the country. If Norway is a stable country- economically, politically and furthermore the fact that Norway does not face any direct international threats, there is no good reason which might inspire the Norwegians to join of the Union. We may remember that Norway like Switzerland has the option to ratify the Union´s regulations which praises them. It is doubtful to believe if those values that author raises in the article that the Norwegian people emphasize on such as equality, environment and quality of life, would sound relevant if they were not based on the strong economy that the country does have at its disposal, combined with the absence of any international threat to their security.

    The unpopularity of the Europeanization project in the rural areas that the author mentioned in the article may even be explained by the fact that the rural areas might be the vulnerable group compare to the urban one. The rural society which feels a little bit far from the central government in Oslo might be scared to be even more abandoned if Norway becomes the EU member state as far as Brussels is considered as the capital of the European Union.

  2. Marijela says:

    Norway may, as Marianne Sundlisӕter Skinner in her article asserted, be a country with strong post-materialists values and a strong state identity where the protection of environment, the prioritisation of people’s welfare and quality of life over business interests are high. However to argue, as Sundlisӕter Skinner did, that the Norwegian Euroscepticism is a result of the above mentioned statement not being compatible with the interest of the EU today is not entirely correct. While it is true that the aim of the Union is to, among other, establish economic growth and cooperation between the EU member states (Article 3(3) TEU), it is not true that the only reason why the majority of the Norwegian people do not want to join the Union is because the Norwegian political values are not compatible with the aims and interests of the EU. There is more to the Norwegian Euroscepticism that might meet the eye from the VCR theory and economy plays a huge part in it.

    Norway is a country well-endowed with natural resources such as forest, fish, natural gas, hydro-power and oil. To join the European Union would thus mean letting other countries take important decisions that in the end would affect Norway in one way or the other. A wealthy country such as Norway, which is one of the world’s richest countries, does not need the EU in order to increase economic growth, as many or most of the current EU member states do. It is thus comprehensible why Norway does not want to join the EU, the country is simply not in the need to join the Union and it should not be “pressured” to join it either.

  3. Airton Valente Junior says:

    The clash of values, political and social aims between the EU and Norway prevented its entry. It was not only economic, as people could believe, rather was a series as a whole.

    Nevertheless, economy plays an important role regarding to the decision not to join the EU. Even though could not be the main reason, the fact that Norway has a strong economy allows them to keep themselves away from the alleged benefits from the EU. If the main goal of EU is related to economic prosperity of the EU members, why should Norway join the EU, if its economy is still growing and they are already part of three others economic agreements: European Economic Area, European Free Trade Association and Schengen Area, one which already grants Norway access to the EU single market – the EEA? It seems that there is no economic reason for that.

    Sweden and Norway have similar values, what is understood, considering their history roots and culture, but why one join the EU and not the other besides the fact that they are independent and sovereign countries? The answer is not clear, but the fact that the government of Sweden supported the idea of accession could have played a significant role. The Swedish government believed that the benefits would be higher than the risk and that they could handle possible issues brought by the entry in the EU. On the other hand, the government of Norway did not see the entry in the EU with good eyes. Entering the EU would affect fundamental values of the Norwegian culture, which would go against fundamental principles of its political policies. It is, indeed, much easier to Norway government to control and develop their policies and maintain their values (environment, quality of life, equality, solidarity, morality and responsibility) without any external interference. In any way, in both countries, the Euro skepticism is equivalent, almost similar.

    Sweden is facing a high risk that could represent a high price. However, it could be worse if Sweden would be in the euro zone. On the other hand, Norway is more careful and still waits for the new EU´s ongoing.

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