Any port in a storm for Norway?
On the EDGE: An opinion column about current issues in Norway and the United States
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Årstad Conservatives, Bergen
Norwegian Americans may struggle to understand Norwegian decision-makers’ recent strong pro-EU attitude. Norway is not an EU member, so why this infatuation? What’s with American ties?
At the northern edge of the Atlantic, Norway can feel a slow rumble from shifting tectonic plates in foreign policy. To the west, our old ally America seems preoccupied and angry with the world. To the south, a new superpower grows: the European Union. To the east, restive Russia returns with invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine. To the north, a melting Arctic. The European Union is looking more and more like a safe harbor, to shelter with our Nordic kin.
When superpowers scuffle it impacts us all. The Atlantic seems a little wider these days. Think of it as a rough patch in a long marriage. Gray divorces do happen—will it this time? European blemishes that were always there, now inexplicably seem to bloom in America’s mind—and vice versa.
The unstable superpower love triangle between America, Europe, and China shifts and twists. Early stage fantasies of divorce churn in some American minds—America alone. Being single seems strong and liberating! Or perhaps Russia will be America’s new mistress, poorer but compliant? Can America handle China on its own?
For a generation, America was the world’s only superpower. Europe was gratefully under its wings. Now the world has three superpowers: America, the European Union, and China. The European Union is richer and has a larger population than America: a superpower in the making.
Geography matters. It is a long way from Oslo to Washington, D.C. Brussels is a skip and a hop. Economically, the EU is more important to Norway than America is. Norway’s main export is natural gas to Europe, not lutefisk to Seattle. This is not a question of identity, but a key to prosperity.
Recent developments slowly push us away. President Donald Trump’s trade war hurts transatlantic relations. For example, Norway’s large aluminum industry breathed a sigh of relief when we were excluded from Trump’s tariffs by virtue of our EU association. Norway’s oil and gas industry is in direct competition with American frackers.
America’s No. 1 advantage over Europe is its large military capacity. The EU is a trade superpower, not a full-spectrum superpower. Norway’s shiny new fleet of fighter jets is American, not European. Europe’s weak militaries are being slowly rebuilt. NATO is reinventing itself.
This rebalancing is what Trump says he wants. Burden-sharing is the fancy name for it. But will more burden sharing actually improve EU-U.S. relations? It could go both ways. Is there any pleasing Trump? Too little, and Trump’s still angry. Too much may cause a rushed establishment of a strong EU defense instead of a stronger NATO. This may weaken transatlantic ties further.
All of this explains the Norwegian foreign policy establishment’s preference for strong ties with the EU, even possible membership. However, the Norwegian general population is ill prepared for this shift. Support for our EU association agreement the EEA (European Economic Area) is becoming polarized. Generations of Norwegians have grown used to NATO and the American long peace. Two referendums in 1972 and 1994 went against EU membership by a whisker. In practice, Norway is an EU member with an exception for fish and farming—the country cousin without influence.
Russia has always been an expansionist power. The worst-case scenario is American withdrawal and Russian aggression in the Nordic-Baltic region. Perhaps a simultaneous feint at Svalbard, Finland, and Estonia? Who knows.
Norway has always tried to look around the next bend in the road. Norway may be forced to apply for EU membership under external pressure. Cap in hand and a bowed head is not a good starting point for negotiations—not with Trump, not with Putin, and not with the EU. Starting an EU-membership debate in Norway may be prudent from a foreign policy view, but domestic electoral success is not certain.
The likely outcome for Norway is a rearguard defense of the established order. Masterful inaction will be the order of the day. If America turns definitely away from multilateral alliances, expect a Norwegian final docking in the safe harbor of the EU.
Jan Brøgger is on Twitter @JanBrogger
This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.