December 13, 2018 / 3:29 PM / 9 months ago

Norwegians nonplussed at 'Norway-plus' Brexit idea

OSLO (Reuters) - Whatever the outcome of Britain’s tortuous divorce proceedings from Europe, there appears to be little help waiting in the wings from non-EU member Norway to join its own special relationship with the bloc.

FILE PHOTO: Norwegian flags flutter at Karl Johans street in Oslo, Norway May 31, 2017. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins/File Photo

Some Brexit supporters in Britain have touted a so-called “Norway-plus” scenario, whereby the world’s fifth largest economy would emulate the Scandinavian country in finding its own tailored deal with the European Union.

Their idea has not gained much domestic momentum.

But even so, in Oslo, there would be low prospects of consensus for any potential U.K. bid to rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) - between Norway, Iceland, Lichtenstein Switzerland and the European Union - which it left in 1973.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg did tell Reuters that Oslo could lend a hand, but there would be little support from others in her governing coalition or the opposition Labour party, Norway’s biggest party, on a major issue needing consensus.

Politicians say the nations’ interests are too diverse - even though Britain is Norway’s biggest trading partner - and they worry U.K. entry to EFTA could swamp other members.

Currently the second largest EU economy, Britain has 66 million people, versus EFTA nations’ combined 14 million.

“Norwegian interests are quite different from British interests,” Anniken Huitfeldt, leader of parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told Reuters, citing fisheries and agriculture policies.

“I do not see the need to extend an invitation for Britain to join EFTA,” said Huitfeldt, a Labour lawmaker.

FOOD DIFFERENCES

Norway imposes high tariffs on food to protect farmers in a nation that stretches into the Arctic, whereas Britain is a major food exporter.

Another concern is that London could veto future EFTA decisions, said Abid Raja, vice president of parliament of the centrist Liberal party that is part of Solberg’s coalition.

“Norway must think of its own interests and what is best there is that Britain holds a new referendum and stays in the EU,” he told Reuters.

Under its arrangements, Norway is currently part of the EU single market - which allows for free movement of goods, capital, services and people - but not the customs union.

With the Norwegian public largely disinterested in the issue, the only political support for Britain joining EFTA seems to be from two small parties, the Socialist Left and the Centre Party, which want to renegotiate Norway’s entire relations with the EU. They think British membership of EFTA would give Oslo better bargaining power with Brussels.

“Northern European countries would have a stronger negotiating position and could assess together what kind of relationship we would want to have with the EU,” Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes, a Socialist Left lawmaker told Reuters.

“We could ... have a better deal for democracy and Norwegian business.”

Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik in Oslo, William Schomberg in London; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne

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