Norway’s relationship with the European Union is generally treated as a legal construct. Moreover, the Norway model is generally depicted as an off-the-shelf mode of affiliation: take it or leave it. That underplays the complex and comprehensive nature of Norway’s EU affiliation, made up as it is of 130 different agreements.

At the heart of this relationship is the European Economic Area agreement (EEA), which governs relations among three nonmembers (Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway) and all EU member states. This arrangement is marked by “dynamic homogeneity,” which means that the scope of the agreement expands in line with the dynamics of the EU integration process. Many of the other agreements that Norway has signed with the EU must be negotiated and updated on a more regular basis, and sometimes the text is not entirely in synch with the relevant provisions in the present-day EU reality.

In the case of the Schengen agreement on freedom of movement, for example, Norway’s affiliation with the EU was established when Schengen was still an agreement outside the EU treaties. Now that much of the initial Schengen agreement has been incorporated in the EU treaties, there is a discrepancy between the text of the Norway-EU Schengen agreement and the role and status of Schengen provisions within the EU’s own treaties. There are also “gaps” between agreements – in other words, issues that are not covered by agreements. That creates uncertainty, and pressure to “fill” the gaps.

Politics matters more to this arrangement than is generally acknowledged in the U.K. Brexit debate. The complex character of the overall Norway model underlines the importance of negotiation built into the relationship. When disagreements emerge, a political process is often called upon. In addition, the arrangement is workable as a result of a number of political presuppositions. These presuppositions can be described as a domestic “depoliticizing compromise” that has taken the political sting out of rejection of Norwegian EU membership in the 1994 referendum.

EU membership opponents have, formally speaking, been able to keep Norway out of the EU, whereas EU membership proponents have obtained guaranteed access to the EU’s internal market and almost all EU programs. Underlying this compromise is the fact that Norway entered the EEA agreement with the EU before the 1994 referendum, which saw a small majority of the Norwegian population voting against EU membership. The rejection had no bearing on the status of the EEA agreement. That Norway had already entered the EEA agreement with the EU made it easier for people to vote No because they knew that Norway had assured EU market access.

This compromise must be considered in light of the fact that Norwegian EU membership has figured as one of the most politically divisive issues – if not the most divisive issue – in Norway since the Second World War. The EU membership issue reawakened or gave added impetus to old and entrenched cleavages: it pitted centre against periphery, region against region and rural against urban, and it exacerbated deep divisions within and between political parties.

Considered against this backdrop, it is significant that the EEA agreement has integrated Norway into the EU’s internal market. Through the full range of Norway’s EU agreements, Norway has incorporated roughly three quarters of EU legislation. The EEA agreement includes such areas as research and development, education, social policy, the environment, consumer protection, tourism and culture. Key areas that fall outside the scope of the cooperation are the euro, the customs union and foreign trade policy, the Common Agricultural Policy and taxation.

However, precisely because the EEA agreement is a dynamic arrangement and there has been considerable integration within the EU since 1994, some of these areas have been greatly affected by the rules of the single market. Free movement of capital affects taxation rules, and a substantial number of veterinary and food safety rules are included in the agreement. Important aspects of fisheries and agriculture are thus affected by these arrangements, because the incorporated EU provisions to a large extent set the standards in both these sectors.

Today, 25 years after the EEA agreement came into effect, Norway’s comprehensive incorporation in the EU has sparked surprisingly little controversy even though it has profound constitutional democratic implications. Despite deep divisions over EU membership, Norway has faithfully adopted and incorporated EU laws and regulations throughout the 25 years.

What has sustained this close EU affiliation over time? Legal certainty matters. In addition, there are social, economic and – not least – political reasons that help to explain the affiliation. Economically, Norway has a long history of adaptation to changing international circumstances. Norway also has a long history of cooperation among government, management and labour and state-society interaction. It has a strong economy with a large sovereign wealth fund (due to North Sea oil) that forms a significant economic buffer. Furthermore, Norway has a very competent public administration and an extensive welfare state, both of which help to alleviate social disruptions from international exposures and assure a high level of public trust in government.

This does not mean that everyone is now pro-EU. The largest party, the Social Democrats (AP), have for most of the time been split with a rough 60-40 divide in favour of EU membership, and some parties, notably the Centre Party, have been against EU and EEA membership.

The Norwegian political system is hardwired as a consensus-seeking system, with consensus-seeking behaviour induced by the proportional electoral system that favours medium-sized parties and constrains the largest parties. Equally important, the political parties have instituted informal rules and arrangements to keep EU membership off the political agenda. All governments are coalition governments, and all coalitions consist of parties favouring Norwegian EU membership (even if internally divided) as well as parties opposing EU membership. As part of the coalition agreement – whether explicitly stated or tacitly agreed – the parties are committed to retaining the present EU affiliation. These factors have enabled Norway’s politicians to separate EU membership from adaptation to EU rules. It is possible for coalitions that are deeply divided on EU membership to stay together and operate in a society that has become increasingly Europeanized.

It has effectively become a constitutional convention to use a popular referendum to decide EU membership. This probably helps to entrench the notion that EU membership is a key constitutional matter, whereas EU adaptation is not. From a legal constitutional and democratic perspective this is a problematic distinction, not least because it discounts the cumulative effects of adaptation. The membership/adaptation division serves as a peculiar funnel for handling political conflicts surrounding Norway’s EU adaptation. It de facto directs attention to single issues or single pieces of EU legislation; there is no principled debate on the broader ramifications of how Europeanization transforms Norway and the political cost of this mode of affiliation membership. The critical question, “What Norway in what Europe?”, is never raised.

Depoliticization of affiliation has been considered necessary to sustain the consensual element of Norwegian politics. However, Norway has no real codetermination with its European neighbours. The Norway model leaves at most a very narrow channel for Norway to voice concerns. Norway’s inability to influence EU decisions – including EU influence on issue areas like agriculture that are explicitly excluded from cooperation in the initial EEA agreement – puts proponents of a strong EU affiliation in an awkward situation. Unlike member states that can claim victories in Brussels, Norway cannot explicitly bargain (even if the Norwegian delegation in Brussels successfully manages to make EU regulations more amenable to Norwegian conditions). Norway’s lack of political representation in the EU system also means that Norwegians are less clued into what goes on in the EU.

EU opponents, for their part, complain that Norway’s close EU affiliation effectively means that the referendum result is not respected. It is often said that those that voted No won on the day of the referendum but have lost every day since.

Under its EEA affiliation, political tensions and conflicts have to be worked out domestically, either through conflict avoidance or compensation for ill effects. The current combination of depoliticization and compensation is fragile. It presupposes that no external shock can upset the fragile compromise and the specific conditions that sustain this. Might Brexit be precisely such a shock?

From a democratic perspective, Norway’s experience accentuates the need to clarify the role of popular referendums in settling thorny questions of EU membership given deeply interwoven states. How long does a referendum result last? How suitable is a referendum for sorting among options? The 1994 Norwegian referendum question was unambiguous, but the binary referendum question – Yes or No to membership – was not in synch with the underlying options. There were three options: Yes to EU membership; No to EU membership but Yes to EEA; and No to EU membership and EEA. The third was not on the ballot, so the binary Yes/No referendum question could not resolve the strategic choices.

The obvious implication of Norway’s post-1994 history is that, if a referendum is to settle such questions, it is important to work out a viable relationship between a popular vote and parliamentary representation. Brexit shows that a referendum by itself cannot resolve divisions; Parliament has an inescapable role in resolving inevitable gaps. If referendums are to be added to the system of parliamentary government, the details need to be better worked out in democratic theory and practice.