The U.K., European Union and Norway: The Troubling Search for Alternatives

Norway's Relationship With the EU
European Council President Donald Tusk shakes hands with Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg ahead of a meeting in Brussels earlier this year. Francois Lenoir/Reuters

As the U.K. debates its relationship with Europe, the key question is: what are the alternatives to membership in the European Union? Some see the Norwegian model as an option. Prime Minister David Cameron recently pointed to some of the disadvantages. Here's how we see it.

The Norwegian option is a compromise that made it possible to stay outside while ensuring close cooperation with the EU. The result is access to the single market, but very limited direct influence on the rules that govern it. Our model has a considerable financial cost, but the overall economic benefits are unquestionable.

Referendums in 1972 and again in 1994 narrowly rejected EU membership. The alternative Norway chose was membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), which gave European Free Trade Association (EFTA) countries access to the EU's internal market. Two other EFTA countriesIceland and Liechtensteinchose the same path as us, while Austria, Finland and Sweden became full EU members.

As an EEA member, Norway enjoys access to the single market and thus the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. This is essential for our economy, our companies, our jobs and our welfare. More than 80 percent of Norwegian exports go to the EU. The Union is by far the most important destination for our investments and is home to the largest clusters of Norwegian companies abroad. The EEA Agreement is our lifeline to the European market. Norwegian companies depend on the level playing field created by harmonized rules at the EU level. We see the results of this every dayat home, in our work, and in our public sector. It has brought about extensive Europeanisation of Norwegian society.

In many ways, Norway is no less integrated into the EU than Britain is. In fact, our trade with EU countries accounts for a greater share of our foreign trade than is the case for Britain. We have more EU labor immigrants than the U.K. We are part of the Schengen system. We regularly align ourselves with EU positions in foreign and security policy because it is in our interests to do so. Our financial contributions are on a par with those of comparable EU member states. But we don't have the right to vote in Europe.

Under the EEA Agreement, Norway is obliged to incorporate relevant EU legislation systematically into Norwegian law, but through national democratic processes. Over the past 20 years, we have incorporated more than three-quarters of the relevant legislation. Looking ahead, we are considering what a TTIP trade deal between the EU and the U.S. would mean for Norway. Despite the fact that 86 percent of Norway's exports go to the EU and the U.S. combined, we will not be part of the deal. This is an issue worth considering for Britain, too.

The U.K. must determine its own form of association with the EU, but its relationship with the EU is also important for people beyond its borders. A strong EU is in Norway's national interests. The active engagement of the U.K. promotes growth, and we support Britain's efforts to make the EU more competitive. The engagement of the U.K. in Europe also strengthens European security. This is crucial as Europe faces its most serious security situation since the Second World War.

Vidar Helgesen is the Norwegian Minister for EEA and EU Affairs.