On June 23, 2016, 51.9% of the voters in the United Kingdom voted for leaving the European Union (EU). The turnout was high, and the British referendum gained great international attention. Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front, praised the result, calling Brexit "the most important moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall." Le Pen said that if she wins France's 2017 presidential election she would call a referendum on leaving the EU.
Nigel Farage stepped down as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) shortly after winning the historic vote. Many death threats against him and his family from supporters of the EU reportedly affected his decision.
The complicated divorce process between the UK and the EU could take years of negotiations. Some people have looked to Switzerland and Norway, two of the wealthiest countries in Europe, as possible models to follow, yet both maintain a close cooperation with the EU. There are also concerns in Switzerland and Norway about how Brexit will impact their own relationship with the EU.
Daniel Pedroletti, president of the Swiss community group New Helvetic Society London, says there is "a big misunderstanding" in Britain surrounding Switzerland's position:
"They want to be like Switzerland but they don't know that Switzerland has to pay an enormous amount to the EU and accept the laws without being an influence [on them].
"They don't realize that if they want a similar agreement they will have to accept the free movement of people and pay high fees and accept some laws which they would have no influence on."
Though not a full member of the EU, Switzerland has over 120 bilateral agreements in place with the bloc -- its main trading partner.
Nigel Farage does not want Britain to emulate Norway's deal with the EU. It is terrible, he says. The Norwegian people rejected membership in the EU. Yet the Norwegian Parliament (Stortinget) has "deceived the people" and got Norway into a very bad agreement with the EU, according to Farage.
Norwegians voted against joining the European Community/European Union twice, in 1972 and in 1994. After the 1994 referendum, the country's political leaders designed a close association deal with the EU. This is the EEA Agreement, known as the EØS Agreement in Norwegian. This does not cover common agriculture and fisheries policies. Control over natural resources is sensitive in a country with a long coastline plus major offshore deposits of oil and natural gas. Yet apart from a few such exceptions, Norway in reality became an associate member of the EU after 1994. EEA membership requires the free movement of persons, services, goods and capital with the EU. Norway is also a part of the open-borders Schengen Agreement, which has severely weakened checking migrants and asylum seekers across much of Europe.
Statistics from 2016 show that of all the 31 countries in the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA), Norway is the only country that has adopted all EU directives before their deadline. Norway retained its top position for the third year in a row. Its two fellow EEA countries, Iceland and Liechtenstein, were the worst at implementing directives. Norway, which is supposedly not a member of the EU, thus implements EU rules and regulations more obediently than do the founding members France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This may surprise people who view Norway's relationship with the EU as something to emulate.
Most of Norway's laws are currently written by bureaucrats in Brussels, not by elected parliamentarians in Norway. Some scholars warn that the transfer of power to the EU is so great that it violates Norway's Constitution and seriously undermines the democratic system.
Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, on January 21, 2015. (Image source: Norway Prime Minister's Office)
In June 2016, the Norwegian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to attach the nation to the EU's financial supervision. Critics decried this as the "biggest concession of sovereignty" in many years. With a vote of 136 in favor and 29 against, Parliament approved a bill that would tie Norway's regulation of financial and insurance institutions to EU rules. Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum opposed the bill and warned that it was "a circumvention of the Constitution." The group "No to the EU" stated that Parliament had gone directly against the will of the people by weakening national sovereignty. An opinion poll showed just 26 percent of Norwegians supported the plan to tie Norway to the EU's financial oversight.
The citizens of Norway have rejected membership in the EU, twice. Public opinion has been consistently against membership for decades. Opinion polls today show that a very large majority of Norwegians are against membership in the EU. Despite this, the nation's politicians have made the country more or less a member of the EU, only without any influence or voting rights. The politicians have done this in opposition to the popular will, and possibly also in violation of the country's Constitution.
Britain is a larger country with a much bigger economy than Norway. This will give it a stronger position in negotiations with the EU and others. However, it would be a mistake not to learn from the experiences of other nations. When shaping their future relationship with the EU, the British should study the case of Norway closely. But mainly as a negative example of what to avoid.