Norwegian Exceptionalism: How the European Union can use Norway to further European Integration

By: Christian Neubacher, Jesse Silva, and Pierre-Jean Thil

Problem Statement:

Since 1951, the European Union has expanded from a group of six western European nations to encompassing nearly the entire continent, including previously neutral nations such as Sweden, Finland, and Austria. Yet one notable exception remains, namely Norway. The Nordic country is one of the wealthiest European countries per capita, has one of the largest sovereign wealth funds in the world, and is a leader in ecological, social, and gender policies. That Norway is not a member of the European Union is incredibly perplexing. Given the strategic and political benefits of Norwegian membership, the country should join the EU, but only on terms favorable to its unique economic, geographic, and social situation.

Policy Objective:

A politically integrated Norway would present benefits to both the EU and Norway itself. Firstly, full EU membership would guarantee Norway voting rights in the EU Parliament, Council of the European Union, etc., giving it a currently-absent official voice in the European legislative process, and thus making the Norwegian adoption of EU law profoundly more democratic (again this situation is presently rather undemocratic, with Norway forced to adopt many EU policies without recourse as a result of its European Free Trade Association/Single Market membership). Secondly, the further integration of Norway will serve both as a demonstration of a limited “multi-speed” Europe and as a reaffirmation of the broader European integration project and EU values. Likewise, Norway would serve as a wealthy, western figurehead for other nations seeking to join the union, and possibly entice other nations (e.g. Iceland) to re-engage in membership negotiations due to a renewed potential for select membership concessions. Lastly, the likely mandate for Norway to adopt the Euro would push other economically stable Nordic states (i.e. Sweden and Denmark) to reconsider or speed up their adoption processes, and upon adoption Norway’s robust and steady economy would likewise stabilize the currency itself. Material and immaterial benefits would accrue to both the EU and Norway should Norway join the EU.


Our policy recommendation is to have a referendum in Norway on EU-membership in 2020. The referendum will have two options, “Yes” and “No”. Prior to holding the referendum, Norway will negotiate with the European Commission a provisional membership package, which would necessarily include concessions relating to Norway’s vibrant and outsized oil and fishing sectors, as well as other important areas, such as agriculture, currency, and defense. If these concessions are not considered by the EU, Norway will not hold a referendum, and will state that politically it will be infeasible to attempt such a process again for 15 years. However, if the concessions are met, then Norway will pledge to have a referendum on EU-membership by the end of 2020. This will allow Norway and the EU to negotiate accession and allow for Norway to seamlessly enter the EU institutions prior to the 2024 European Parliament elections and any future Western Balkan enlargement attempts, scheduled to begin in 2025.

Such an approach would serve as an illustrative model for the integration and membership of other potential new member states, most notably those with economic structures that differ significantly from those of the great socio-political powers of Western Europe.


There are numerous benefits for both the EU and Norway should Norway join the EU. For one, having Norway join the EU given the approach we have outlined provides the EU with an example of how to integrate new members with a multi-speed approach which does not infringe upon core European values. Further, as a member of NATO, Norway would become a pillar in the EU’s new defense strategy through PESCO. Indeed, in view of its economic situation, Norway could become a great contributor to the EU defense budget. As for Norway, since Norway is already part of both the Schengen area and EFTA, joining the EU would allow Norway to take fuller advantage of the single market.

The EU policy concerning the integration of third countries is currently directed toward the Balkan countries,  which is why it must be adapted to accommodate a vastly different country like Norway. Logistically, since Norway is quite similar to the other Nordic countries which have already joined the EU, the country could easily comply with the Copenhagen criteria and would not face much difficulty in joining the EU.

One crucial sector in the Norwegian economy is its fishing sector. Along with Iceland, one of the major complaints of a potential membership in the EU is having to join the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). Given the importance of the fishing industry in Norway, it is likely that the EU will have to provide Norway with some exceptions within the CFP to ensure that the country has more incentive to join. Moreover, the EU will have to adapt the Common Agricultural Policy to reflect Norway’s import-oriented agricultural sector. Therefore, the integration of Norway may also be a chance for the EU to promote new liberal agricultural standards.

Of course, the Norwegian case cannot be analysed without considering the country’s role as an oil-producing country, with the sector being among the largest and most important in the country. Despite recent attempts to improve the ecological footprint of its economy, Norway remains a large exporter of oil, with revenues from oil exports supporting the country’s large sovereign wealth fund. Given this, it is unlikely that Norway will want to harmonize its oil-producing laws with the rest of the EU. For instance, all Norwegian oil is produced by Statoil, a state-owned and run Norwegian oil company, which may infringe upon the EU’s rules against state subsidies. Therefore, one concession that the EU could make to Norway is to allow the company to remain state-run.

Last but not least, Norway’s current relationship with the European Union is inherently undemocratic. Norway is a member of the Single Market and Customs Union, pays membership fees to the European Union, is subject to European regulations, yet does not have any say in these laws and directives. Norway does not have any European parliamentarians or a commissioner or a seat in the Council. This democratic deficit significantly damages Norway and limits its national sovereignty, as currently Norway has to follow the dictates of Brussels without any accountability. Paradoxically, it is this very arrangement which many Norwegians hold up as bolstering their own sovereignty vis-a-vis the EU.


In order to ensure that the policy would be feasible politically, it is necessary to be realistic in our ambitions. For instance, it is highly unlikely that the European Union would make significant concessions to Norway over oil and fishing, and it is also not probable that the EU would give Norway a formal opt-out of the Euro, as Denmark has. Similarly, while there are movements within Norway to join the EU, membership is not a pressing and omnipresent political issue.

However, a referendum and subsequent membership is relatively feasible. For one, Norway’s two largest political parties, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, are both pro-European, giving an integration drive momentum from the country’s large political actors. However, as with most of Europe, Norway is dealing with populist and anti-immigration movements, and given the topics which dominate political debate in Norway at the moment, it is unlikely that a renewed push for membership would be easy. Therefore, we stress that the European Union must be willing to make concessions to Norway on certain issues to help bring more political parties, voters, and interest organizations in favor of membership. Also, allowing Norway to have some leverage within the negotiations allows the country’s politicians to increase domestic support. Arguably, the most important cleavage which a referendum would lead to is over the role of national sovereignty. Given Norway’s patriotic society, overcoming this issue will be difficult for politicians.

Ultimately, Norwegian membership in the European Union requires that the Norwegian people themselves take the initiative to advocate for membership. As long as this is lacking, our aforementioned points remain muted.