Photo: Jonas Gahr Støre, Kommunesektorens organisasjon, Via Wikimedia Commons.

A more fragmented parliament

In its parliamentary election on September 13, Norway took a clear turn to the left. Of the 3,876,200 eligible voters in the election – held four years after the last one according to Norway’s fixed-date system – 77.2 per cent cast ballots. The ruling minority centre-right coalition went down from 61 seats in 2017 to 47 in 2021, out of a total of 169 in the Storting, the Norwegian parliament. The right-wing populist Progress Party (FrP), which withdrew from the ruling coalition in 2020, also lost six of the 27 seats it held in the last parliament. Thus, whereas overall the centre-right parties had a majority of seats in the outgoing parliament (88 out of 169), they now have only 68 seats.

If we look at the overall pattern of party system change, the main result was political fragmentation. Both of the two largest parties lost seats, with Labour (AP) losing one seat and the Conservatives (Høyre) losing nine. The biggest winner was the centrist Centre Party (SP), which increased its seat total from 19 to 28. A similar gain took place on the far left, as Red (Rødt), a former Marxist-Leninist party, crossed the 4 per cent threshold and increased its number of seats from one to eight.

Domestic issues dominated the election campaign, and there was very little focus on foreign policy. There were flashes of attention to Norway’s relationship with the European Union, the main question being whether the expected change in government would lead to changes in Norway’s EU affiliation, given that the Centre Party is deeply Eurosceptic. The early stages of the election campaign were marked by a “revolt of the periphery,” which was directed against Oslo and other cities and gave a major boost in support to the rurally based, agrarian Centre Party.

The Centre Party could draw on popular opposition to a regional reform which had amalgamated regions and created the geographically awkward region of Viken, which stretches considerably to the north from the southeastern border with Sweden. A similar change took place at the northern tip of the country, where the two northernmost regions, Troms and Finnmark, were amalgamated against the will of the majority in Finnmark (the No side had won a referendum on the issue by a clear margin: 87 per cent against with 58 per cent participation). There was also discontent with the closure of local police stations and hospitals.

With the revolt of the periphery as a major impetus, in early January 2021 it looked as if the Centre Party could overtake Labour in the polls, and Centre Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum declared himself ready to become prime minister. There were thus three candidates for prime minister going into the final stages of the election campaign: the incumbent Conservative Erna Solberg, Jonas Gahr Støre of Labour and the Centre Party’s Vedum. As the campaign unfolded, the centre-periphery and urban-rural conflict subsided somewhat, while inequality and the green transition moved to centre stage. All parties on the centre-left made rising socioeconomic inequality a theme of their campaigns. But there were competing accounts as to which aspect of inequality should be addressed, as the Centre Party stressed its rural-urban dimension.

The green transition issue gave the Greens (MDG) a boost in the polls, but in the election the party fell just short of the 4 per cent threshold and therefore only obtained three seats. The other main environmentally focused party, Venstre (as the Liberal Party is known), which had been part of the governing coalition, managed to hold onto its eight seats. The Socialist Left Party (SV), whose campaign stressed both socioeconomic inequality and the need for a green transition, gained two seats to end up with 13. The Centre Party is somewhat divided on how committed to the green transition Norway should be and for some time even prevaricated over whether it thought Norway should be committed to the Paris Agreement, although it came down in support of it eventually. On the other hand, the Progress Party has long been a petro-populist party and is a staunch supporter of the oil industry.

The government’s loss of seats cannot be easily attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Norway’s fatality numbers during the COVID-19 period were lower than in a regular influenza year, and the Norwegian government has launched a range of policy programs to buffer people from the pandemic. The negative effects have been far from equally distributed, but it is difficult to pin the responsibility squarely on the government, which as a minority coalition has depended on parliamentary support from opposition parties that at times have dictated government policy.

The new government takes shape

The election result paved the way for a change in government. Unlike Germany, where the Social Democrats governed together with the Christian Democrats until this fall’s election, Norway has no tradition of grand coalitions, and its coalition governments are aligned along the right-left dimension. The left-right cleavage structure is complex, however, with a significant centre-periphery and urban-rural dimension cutting through it. That means that some parties can change sides, as has been the case with the Centre Party. Minority governments without the two large parties are rare. The norm is either a coalition to the left led by Labour or a coalition to the right led by the Conservatives.

As leader of Labour, the largest party, Jonas Gahr Støre initiated talks with potential coalition partners. He sought to reinvigorate the so-called red-green coalition consisting of Labour, the Centre Party and the Socialist Left Party, which governed between 2005 and 2013. In this coalition, which was led by Jens Stoltenberg (now NATO Secretary General), Støre served as foreign minister until 2012 and then health minister. Støre’s model coalition was weakened by internal divisions within the Socialist Left Party, with a minority often demonstrating against its own government.

The Socialist Left Party wanted to make sure that this time around it would not repeat the same mistake and therefore pulled out of the coalition talks to try to make more of a mark on its own, stating that it did not believe the other two parties were willing to go far enough in tackling socioeconomic inequality and environmental degradation. The upshot was that the two remaining parties, Labour and the Centre Party, were left to reach a deal. The new government is thus a minority coalition, with a total of 76 seats. The Socialist Left seats would have brought it up to 89 and a majority in the Storting. In any case, the minority Støre government will seek Socialist Left support before crossing the ideological left-right divide.

Labour and the Centre Party signed a governing platform declaration, dubbed Hurdalserklæringen from the town of Hurdal north of Oslo where it was negotiated. This 86-page declaration lists the government’s objectives in considerable detail and sets out a left-leaning agenda quite different from that of its centre-right predecessor. Key objectives include: steering a safe economic courseand just distribution; creating jobs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions; a just climate policy; green choices that tie the country together; a safer work environment for everyone; and welfare for all. The platform promises to tackle inequality along both socioeconomic and regional lines, but has been criticized for not doing enough about socioeconomic inequality, especially poverty in the cities. It has also been criticized for not paying enough attention to environmental challenges.

During the campaign the Green Party, in particular, called for a fixed date to end oil exploration, and Labour’s Youth Organization (AUF) took this position as well. The government program instead speaks of developing and not dismantling the petroleum sector. Commentators also note that the government compromised on CO2 emissions, especially given that the Centre Party was against passing on the costs to motorists in the regions. As a result, as was noted, the new government’s budget is less environmentally oriented than was the outgoing government’s alternative budget, but that governrment knew that its budget could never be implemented given the refusal of its partner, the Progress Party, to go along. Some commentators have concluded that Norway is far more willing to fight climate change abroad than at home.

Norway in Europe: Freezing the status quo

The question of Norway’s EU affiliation has been the most controversial issue in Norwegian politics in the postwar period. Two popular referendums have been held, in 1972 and 1994, and both turned down EU membership by small margins. Nevertheless, Norway’s EU affiliation through the European Economic Area Agreement (EEA) and some 70 other agreements make Norway so closely affiliated with the EU that Norwegian nationals are de facto EU economic citizens (although not political citizens as are citizens of EU member states). Some argue that the No side won the 1994 referendum but has lost ever since.

The text of the new coalition government’s platform position on Norway’s EU relationship is an amalgam of the statements on Europe of one broadly speaking pro-EU party and one very Eurosceptic one. The new government reiterates the “gag rules” meant to keep a lid on the EU membership issue and any serious change to the status quo. The tacit understanding is that if either party actively starts working toward changing the status quo, the coalition will unravel. The present governing configuration therefore falls into an established pattern of governing coalitions “freezing” the status quo, of which the EEA is the centrepiece.

Labour’s balancing act

The election campaign reflected the long-established Norwegian cleavage pattern that intertwines left-right with centre-periphery/urban-rural conflicts. The new minority coalition government has pledged to cooperate with the parties to its left. Nevertheless, the coalition reflects the attempt to reconcile left-right and centre-periphery concerns. This places the main governing party, Labour, in a squeeze: between a strengthened Centre Party to its right and a strengthened left flank with the Socialist Left and Red parties. This could be quite a precarious position, with the prospect of hemorrhaging voters either to the right or to the left, depending where it sets its foot. It remains to be seen how well Labour
will keep its balance.

This article was published as part of a larger elections feature for Inroads 50. To check out the rest, go to Elections Bring Change (Except in Canada).

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.

Contemporary societies, it is often claimed, are marked by a “populist zeitgeist.”1 Populism is a global phenomenon, but it comes in many forms and shapes. Even if populist parties and movements espouse views that tend to straddle the left-right dimension, it is common to distinguish between left-wing and right-wing versions of populism.2

European populist movements started out as fringe groups, but their views are today becoming part of the mainstream. With some exceptions, the trend is for established parties to move closer to populist positions, notably on immigration and cultural diversity. Moreover, populist support correlates with a significant decline in social democratic party support, as many populist parties fashion themselves as the real workers’ movements.3 In a number of cases, populists have entered governments or are wielding direct influence on governing parties, although it is only in eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland) that populists, of the right-wing variety, are running governments.

The European Union as populist target and as arena

The populists’ favourite target is the European Union (EU).4 Populists in Europe, and especially right-wing populists, are Eurosceptics or Europhobes, calling for dismantling the EU. The EU appears to fit the populist stereotype of an aloof elite disconnected from the people5: its movers and shakers are executives and experts, in charge of institutions without proper anchoring in the demos. Ironically, an important reason for that is the exceptional degree of member-state control of EU-level institutions, which places strong constraints on the EU, especially in fiscal matters. Populists actively seek to foster a contrast between what they portray as disloyal and morally corrupt EU and national elites on the one side, and themselves as the authentic expression of the peoples of Europe on the other. It appears that few political entities lend themselves better to that social construction than today’s EU.

But if the EU is a populist target, it also fosters populism. The EU level serves as an important arena and even launching pad for populist politics. In the last European Parliament (EP) elections, populist parties gained very strong support, in some cases far stronger than in their respective member states. The United Kingdom is a case in point. In the 2015 U.K. election, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 12.6 per cent of the vote, which gave it only one seat (out of 650) in the House of Commons. In the 2014 EP elections, UKIP gained 26.8 per cent of the vote, which gave it 24 seats (out of 751) in the European Parliament).6 U.K. elections are first-past-the-post, whereas EP elections are proportional. The far easier conversion of votes to seats at the EU level has enabled parties that were constrained by national electoral systems to build strength and visibility at the EU level and to convert that into domestic influence.

The EU level facilitates cross-national populist organizing and politics in Europe. Even though populists espouse strong (ethnic) nationalist views, European populism is becoming more transnational (in EP party groups, in contact patterns, in learning and in copying from one another). An interesting question is whether the transnational component is simply a means for improving national positions, or whether the parties might develop genuine transnational attitudes. Islamophobia might be one such trigger insofar as populists consider Europe (not simply the nation-state) as the natural unit to defend.

Populists use EU institutions as platforms, drawing on their resources to denounce the EU, often in utter disregard of what they have experienced at the EU level. The lines of attack follow the basic constructions of the world that populists operate in, and will be further illustrated below.

EU decision-making is typically consensus-seeking and draws heavily on expert knowledge. Both aspects run counter to populism, especially right-wing populism that focuses on strong and decisive leadership and has a strong authoritarian bent.7 Populists are quite prone to dismiss experts and expert knowledge, and seek to associate experts with the dreaded elite. In the European setting, this construction of a conflict between expertise and popular democracy has been facilitated by important changes in party systems. Many of Europe’s established parties are no longer embedded mass parties, making them appear to be closely linked to the state.8 These parties are easy targets of populist ire, construed as part of the technocratic elite, unresponsive to the national settings from where they stem.

The many crises of the EU

Populism thrives on crises. In that sense, contemporary Europe is fertile ground. The EU is still reeling from the aftereffects of the financial crisis and the Eurozone governance crisis. It faces a geopolitical crisis related to Russia’s resurgence as a power hostile to the EU’s interests, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, and to the EU’s weak ability to cope with the latest migration crisis. In addition, the EU has to confront the potential fallout and domino effects of the looming Brexit.

Populism figures centrally in all these challenges. The EU has instituted sanctions against Russia. Most populist parties want to abolish these sanctions because they have quite close links to Putin’s Russia. In some cases there is a direct financial element involved. In 2013, for instance, Russia’s First Czech-Russian Bank lent Marine Le Pen’s National Front €9.46 million to finance an election campaign. A survey conducted by the European Council of Foreign Relations found that in Western Europe, right-wing populist pro-Russian parties included Alternative for Germany, the Austrian Freedom Party, Golden Dawn (Greece) National Front (France), Northern League (Italy), UKIP and Vlaams Belang (Belgium). They also surveyed populist left-wing parties and concluded that AKEL (Cyprus), Die Linke (Germany), Podemos (Spain), Syriza (Greece) and the Italian Five Star Movement could be considered pro-Russian. The study underlines how these links have helped to legitimize Russian policies in the relevant countries, but the findings were not clear on the extent to which there was collusion.9

The financial crisis that turned into the Eurozone crisis has given added impetus to populism. In southern Europe, where the crisis hit the hardest, the main growth has been in left-wing populism. In northern Europe, the financial crisis did not have profound effects; the main surge has been in right-wing populism. An important factor stimulating growth in right-wing populist sentiment in northern Europe has been immigration, in particular the refugee crisis.

These patterns show that there is no direct link between magnitude of socioeconomic dislocation and support for right-wing populism. The Brexit story should not be read as an exception even though UKIP and the Leave campaign gained very strong support in deindustrialized regions. If we go back in time, we see that it is failure to act at the national level that underlies these developments: U.K. governments have tolerated what Simon Deakin described as “the shrinking of the industrial base, while actively encouraging the growth of a casualised labour market, characterized by growing self-employment (often a front for very insecure employment), agency work, and zero hours contracting. The result is the low-wage, low-productivity economy that the UK is rapidly becoming, and increasingly so since the crisis of 2008 revealed the structural weaknesses of the British economy.”10

The EU did little to reverse Thatcher-driven deindustrialization, nor did it inhibit member states such as Germany, the Nordic countries, the Low Countries and France from retaining their manufacturing base. UKIP’s Nigel Farage worked consistently and effectively at directing dissatisfaction at the specific target of the United Kingdom’s EU membership. He spent 25 years keeping the issue alive, nourishing it and actively and constantly looking for an opportunity or a political opening to bring this momentous change to fruition.11 As Hanspeter Kriesi has noted, “There is nothing inevitable about the politicization of European integration. It takes partisan operators who are capable and willing to mobilize the latent structural potentials for euroscepticism to become politically and electorally relevant.”12

There is a broader issue pertaining to the relationship between populists and crises here. Populists do more than respond to crises; there is an intrinsic link between populism and crisis in the sense that populism actively seeks to construct and trigger crises. “While crisis may present an effective stage for populists,” Benjamin Moffitt writes in his book The Global Rise of Populism, “it is often the case that populists must play an important role in ‘setting the stage’ themselves.”13

Shifting the focus: Populists as authentic expressions of “the people”

It is common to highlight what populists are against, but it is equally important to pay attention to what are for. Key here is that they present themselves as the authentic expression of the people. In doing so populists skip quite gingerly over the central role that media play in this relationship. Once we recognize that there is a distinct political style intrinsic to populism, it becomes much easier to understand the close connection between modern populism and contemporary media developments. Moffitt notes that populism’s “appeal to ‘the people’ versus ‘the elite’ and associated Others plays into media logic’s dramatization, polarization and prioritization of conflict; its ‘bad manners’ line up with media logic’s personalization, stereotypisation and emotionalisation; while its focus on crisis plays into media logic’s tendency towards intensification and simplification.”14

The emphasis on populism as a distinct style of politics helps to uncover the distinctive ways in which populists orchestrate themselves and their surroundings in the pursuit of their objectives. Populists have become increasingly skilled in working the media, in particular the new media. “Populists are not particularly keen to reveal the artifice behind their own media performances, nor the professional machinery behind them,” Moffitt writes, “given that much of their appeal stems from appearing to connect with ‘the people’ in an unmediated way that is different from ‘politics as usual.’”15

There is no such thing as an authentic representation of “the people.” If we are to move forward, if the values that have guided democratic development for three generations are to be sustained, we need to uncover and expose populist artifice and strategy, without underestimating the seriousness of the issues that these movements reflect. Continue reading “The European Union and the populist challenge”