Tuesday, May 03, 2005

To Where Goes Norway?

This year it is 100 years since the peaceful dissolution of the very loose union between Sweden and Norway that had existed since the end of the Napoleonic wars nearly a century earlier.

Up until then, Norway had been ruled from Copenhagen as a part of Denmark for centuries. But Denmark ended up on the wrong side of the cataclysm of Europe of those days, while Sweden ended up on the other side. As Russia managed to secure the sovereignity of Finland, which up until then had been part of Sweden, Norway was then given to Sweden as some sort of compensation.

But Norway was never ruled from Stockholm in the way it had been ruled from Copenhagen. The two countries had the same king and the same foreign policy, but that was it. Democracy came to Norway well before it come to Sweden, the country decided all its domestic affairs on its own, and even built up its own defence forces, including fortifications along the border with Sweden.

Nevertheless, the union was unsustainable, and was peacefully dissolved in 1905, thus giving Norway its modern independence.

To celebrate this, a number of seminars are being arranged. I have already spoken to one in Copenhagen, and today I have spent the day in Oslo on another one. They are useful fora for reflections not only on a common past in the Nordic area, but also on common challenges in the future.

But I was struck by how Norway fels lost in the new Europe. Always a staunch member of NATO, it now feels that NATO matters less, and that Norway matters less within this NATO. Parliamentarians at the seminar spoke about their feeling of Norway being marginalized in foreign and security affairs in Europe.

Increasingly, they are starting to look towards the European Union again.

They have tried twice before. But by thin margins, referenda in both 1972 and 1994 have failed to produce sufficient support for membership. There was always the feeling that one could do at the least as well outside.

There was the fish, the oil and... NATO.

But now all of this is starting to change. The fish needs to be exported, and the rest of Europe is the key market, although access to that market is proving increasingly challenging. And NATO isn't what it used to be in providing an important fora in foreign and security affairs for Norway.

We'll see where this takes our Norwegian neighbours during the years to come. The elections in September for the Storting will either reaffirm the existing centre-right government or pave the way for a new one of the centre-left, with opinion polls at the moment indicating that the later alternative is the more probable.

But on these bigger question it's unlikely to make much of a difference. The centre-left is as split on the European issue as is the centre-right. And it's this split that leads to the progressive further marginalization of Norway in Europe.

Sooner or later this will change. The union with Sweden did not work, but to be part of a union with all of Europe is clearly the road for the future. I'll put my money on Norway submitting an application for memberwship of the European Union within the next five years.