If you’ve ever had the pleasure of attending a Bruges Group event, or indeed a UKIP press conference, you will be familiar no doubt with the propaganda laid out at each which details how great the “Norwegian model” is and how it should be adopted by the UK. Which is why today’s speech by Vidar Helgesen, the Chief of Staff to the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, a Conservative prime minster no less, was so important.
Vidar started his speech talking about how as a child he revered Margaret Thatcher, to the point of hunting down printed copies of her speeches and endlessly re-reading them. In this context he discussed her infamous Bruges speech in 1988 (indeed the Bruges group takes its name from this event), recasting it in a way not usually heard. Helgesen reminded us of the parts of the speech that, by today’s Conservative Party standards anyhow, were actually fairly pro-European. Thatcher talked in 1988 about the importance of leadership in the EU, as a for instance.
The Norwegian then set about on his real task for the morning: to dispel the myths that have grown up around Norway and the EU, citing some of the disadvantages the country faces by being outside of the Union. Three-quarters of EU legislation is taken up by the Norwegian government, the major exceptions being fishing and agriculture policy. The reasons these are kept outside EU regulations, and indeed this remains the single biggest obstacle to Norway joining the EU, is that EU fishing and agriculture policy is not left-wing enough. In other words, Norwegian farmers and fisherman are worried about their subsidies dropping from their current standard down to a European Union level. There are other worries – protectionist in nature generally. All of which is food for thought for the Tories and indeed the centre-right in general.
Vidar also highlighted the Russian situation and the rise of far-left and far-right parties throughout Europe willing to cosy up to Putin (highlighting beautifully Putin’s trip to Hungary recently, during which he praised Soviet soldiers who fought to suppress the 1956 uprising, all while Orban didn’t even bat an eyelid). How in the face of such a force, European unity is all the more important.
In terms of bureaucracy, Helgesen pointed out that while some of the rules in the EU might seem strange or arcane to one or even several of the member states, it is better to have a set of rules that 28 countries can agree on than each one having everything they like but then not being able to actually trade with one another. This is key to how a single market works, a single market we always hear that UKIP and the right of the Conservative Party wants to keep Britain involved in. Also, Norway, while not an EU member state but part of the single market, has to abide by all these rules anyhow – while not getting a say on any of them.
In terms of funding, Norway has to buy into the market piecemeal – and Helgesen dropped a bombshell by saying the amount they may have to pay next year to have access to what they have access to may go up by 100%. So much for being out of the Union being a huge money saver.
On the issue of sovereignty, it was left to one of the British panellists, Sir Colin Budd, to remind us of a great Heseltine quote on the matter: “A naked man in the Sahara has absolute sovereignty. He also has no power whatsoever.”