Should we follow Norway to the EU exit? Nei!

Published by The Mail on Sunday (29th May, 2016)

Picture a scene familiar to many who live in the English countryside. Armies of eastern European farm workers are toiling in the fields. In nearby towns and cities, Latvians are serving lattes in cafes, Lithuanians are cleaning homes, and thousands of Poles are on building sites.

But this is not Britain. It is Norway, the Scandinavian nation that twice refused to join the EU and is held out by Brexiteers as some kind of Brussels-free nirvana that we should emulate. Yet the reality was rather different when I visited last week.

Typical was the scene I found at a traditional white farmhouse overlooking fields of apple trees in Lier, east of the capital Oslo. The owner, Marius Egge, 57, proudly told me how his family has farmed this idyllic spot for 314 years over 11 generations.

But there is one big change in recent years: the workers in surrounding fields used to come from villages scattered around the hills and fjords, but now they come in from eastern Europe. There are 20 foreign staff working on the farm – with 250 more Poles arriving next month to pick apples and the region’s prized strawberries.

This shows the absurdity of claims made by Brexit campaigners that leaving the EU will stop the flow of migrants.

Norway may not be a member of the EU but you would barely notice it. To access the single market, it accepted rules on free movement. It has even heavier rates of migration from eastern Europe than Britain does – and had far more asylum claims last year.

Polish strawberry-pickers have become a national stereotype similar to Polish plumbers in Britain. ‘No one here wants to pick fruit these days,’ said Egge.

His farm has 1.5 million strawberry plants and 30,000 apple trees – but he must abide by Brussels red tape like any British business. ‘It makes no difference whether you are in or out of the EU. We have to follow all their rules,’ he said.

I heard the same thing again and again in Norway. Yet this nation’s arm’s-length relationship with Europe has been admired by Nigel Farage, while Tory ex-Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson says it is the ‘only realistic option’, and Arron Banks, founder of Leave.EU, argues ‘the Norway option looks the best for the UK’.

Such praise perplexes prominent figures in Oslo. ‘I don’t think the British realise how bound we are by Brussels,’ said Kristin Skogen Lund, head of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, which represents employers.

Yet Norway has twice rejected EU membership in referendums: first in 1972, then again in 1994.

Instead, it signed the European Economic Area (EEA) agreement along with Iceland and Liechtenstein, plus the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with Switzerland, so they could join the EU internal market for goods, cash, services and labour. In fact, it is just like being in the EU.

Yes, the country’s immigration levels are different to Britain – but not in the way Farage and his friends might have you believe.

Less than five per cent of the British population comes from EU and EEA member countries – but such migrants make up almost seven per cent of the population of Norway. Edith Stylo, president of Norway’s Polish Club, said there are 200,000 of her fellow Poles alone in this country of five million people, with 16,000 more arriving this year.

‘It makes no difference being inside or outside the EU,’ said author and analyst Sylo Taraku. ‘Migrants from EU countries can come here for three months to find work, then stay if they find a job.’

In one regard, Norway is closer to the core EU members than Britain. While Britain accepted only a handful of asylum applications following last year’s Middle East meltdown, Norway received more than 31,000.

Why? Unlike Britain, it is one of the Schengen group of countries that have dispensed with border controls. It had the fourth highest per capita number of asylum claimants in Europe – and ten times the rate of Britain.

The Leave campaign’s nonsensical claims that Britain will save tens of billions of pounds in EU contributions if we go it alone are also exposed by Norway’s experience.

To gain trade advantages needed to prosper, Norway still makes a net contribution to Brussels of about £106 per person per year, only slightly less than the £128 per head handed over by Britons.

Then there is the deluge of EU regulations that Norway must comply with like any actual EU member. Five are passed for each day the Oslo parliament sits, with 75 trade agreements and more than 10,000 measures enacted into Norwegian law.

Norway is so committed to the EU that it sent troops to fight under the EU flag when a navy warship joined a British-led mission to protect shipping from Somali pirates off Africa.

But there is one big difference to Britain: Norway has no say in decisions taken in Brussels. ‘It’s a stupid arrangement,’ Nikolai Astrup, an MP for Norway’s Conservative Party, told me bluntly.

This can have dire consequences. One manufacturer of hot water tanks found its entire range fell foul of new size regulations designed to conserve energy since Norway’s officials were not party to discussions on the issue.

Every six months Norway must beg the incoming EU Council president for permission to attend informal ministerial meetings – and regularly has the door slammed in its face. They have to go to extraordinary lengths to get round their exclusion, such as asking diplomats from other Scandinavian nations to represent their interests.

Environment Minister Vidar Helgesen even told me that when he was Minister for Europe, he used to fly to meetings of the UN in New York ‘purely so I could speak to my colleagues from Europe’. Truly, this is the stuff of farce.

Meanwhile, a shadow bureaucracy has developed for EFTA countries with a special court and surveillance authority to enforce measures. Once a month Norway is told about relevant new rules.

Agriculture and fishing are excluded from Norway’s agreements with the EU. Yet this has caused problems of its own, with high protective tariffs driving up prices at home and thousands of jobs being exported abroad.

Fish, especially salmon farming, is the nation’s second biggest industry after oil. Yet since the EU imposes only 3.5 per cent tariff on fresh fillets but 15.7 per cent on processed fish, huge quantities are trucked to Danish and Polish smokehouses to avoid the EU levy. This has cost Norway about 20,000 jobs.

‘We’re moving employees and activity out of Norway and into EU countries,’ said Trond Davidsen, deputy managing director of the Norwegian Seafood Federation, which represents 500 fish farms.

Although a Nato member, Ministers also say they feel squeezed out on security issues. One confessed they were not even party to shaping energy sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea.

Norway offers a worrying glimpse of the future for post-Brexit Britain if staying in the single market: forced to follow laws laid down in Brussels and to pay for this privilege, but with no chance to shape the rules in our interests: the worst of all worlds.

‘This is not independence,’ said Ulf Sverdrup, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. ‘It is a compromise that is not loved by anyone.

‘There are people in Britain who look at Norway’s prosperity and think this is a result of our relationship with Europe. But their view is utterly wrong – it is down to oil and the way we run our country.’

So how would he vote on membership? ‘I would vote Remain. You have much more influence, especially as a big state, and you can shape European development. Why give all that up?’

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