Letter From … Bergen

Over 20 years ago, as a postgraduate studying Norwegian, it felt like a whole host of European Union-related career possibilities were closed down to me when Norway voted to stay out of the EU.

In 1994 most of my Norwegian friends (holding generally socially progressive views) were opposed to joining. Among arguments used by them and in the media was concern that the EU might insist Norway cease hunting whales. There was also a genuine concern that their comparatively high level of employment rights would be watered down to the lowest common denominator. I mounted a doomed one-woman campaign to tell them the opposite was true (on workers’ rights, not whaling).

Support varied from region to region with the capital city Oslo voting over two-thirds in favour of membership and more remote, more rural and northerly areas voting strongly against.

Over two decades on, last month I spent a long weekend in Bergen – a proudly independent city in a region that voted against EU membership.

Conversation after conversation turned to Brexit. All who were able to vote in 1994 said they had voted to stay out. All of them also acknowledged that the country – by signing up to Schengen and the European Economic Area – had effectively adopted much of what they had assumed they had voted against. From free movement to free trade to open borders, the country also pays a considerable amount of money to the EU annually to be an affiliated member of the European club. None of the people I spoke to would commit to how they would vote now in an increasingly interconnected world. However, equally none of them took the view that Brexit would benefit either the United Kingdom or Norway. The success of Norway’s semi-detached approach depends to a certain extent on the European project working. Without the EU as it stands (a genuine possibility if a Brexit situation led to further disintegration) there is no option of any country being a member of an EEA. This is not a game of Jenga, but remove some of the building blocks and the whole thing could start to tumble.

I remain as passionate about Europe as I was in the 1990s. For me it is about jobs and workers’ rights. I am concerned about the emphasis by both sides on security as if countries like Norway are less safe for not being in the EU, or less likely to communicate with allies over terrorism whether inside or out. I also worry we are taking support in London for granted – assuming that its votes will be enough to see us through. They may be, but only if those in favour of remaining feel as motivated to turn out as those who want to leave. This late in the game, and when for decades we have tried to pretend European elections are about anything other than Europe, getting a positive message out there is difficult – the benefits are harder to argue than quips about bananas and scaremongering about future immigration.

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Fiona Twycross is a member of the London assembly

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