New trade deal with Britain may take time, Norwegian minister says

OSLO (Reuters) - Norway wants to maintain a good relationship with Britain after it leaves the European Union but it may take a long time for a new trade agreement to be established, the EU affairs minister in Oslo said on Wednesday.

Elisabeth Aspaker told a meeting that ministers would soon meet their London counterparts, later adding to Reuters that she expected negotiations with Norway to be a priority for Britain.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg told Reuters last week she saw some advantages if Britain joined the four-nation European Free Trade Association (EFTA) after quitting the EU, qualifying past doubts about membership.

Britain is Norway’s third-biggest destination for goods produced by its mainland economy, which excludes the oil and shipping sector, with an 8 percent share.

Mainland exports are primarily seafood, including salmon, but Norway is also Britain’s top foreign gas supplier, accounting for some 40 percent of all supplies in 2015. Its $896-billion wealth fund, the world’s largest, is a major foreign investor.

“We want to maintain at least as near a relationship with Britain as we have today,” Aspaker told the meeting on the implications of Brexit with business and trade union officials.

“Our goal is to have a well-functioning solution with Britain in place as soon as possible ... (But) we must be prepared to the fact that it could take a long time and that it may not be in place the moment Britain leaves the EU.”

The Nordic country is not an EU state but pays hundreds of millions of euros to access the European internal market. It has been touted by some referendum campaigners as a potential model for post-Brexit Britain to follow.

Citing gas trading and bilateral security links, Aspaker told Reuters she expected Norway to be “quite high up in the queue of countries it is important to have good relationships with”.

Writing by Gwladys Fouche; Editing by Alison Williams