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Norway Offers Glimpse Into Possible Model For Post-Brexit United Kingdom


When people speak of a future for Britain outside the EU but still enjoying free trade inside the EU, the example most often cited of a country doing just that is Norway. Norwegians twice voted in referendums against joining. But the country has negotiated a free-trade agreement with the EU. How does it work, and what does it offer as a model for the U.K.? We're going to ask Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who joins us from Brussels. Welcome to the program.

ERNA SOLBERG: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Norway's arrangement is sometimes called the worst of both worlds - that is, you have to contribute to EU coffers, you have to follow many EU laws, including the free movement of labor, but your country has no say on how EU policies are arrived at. Is that a fair description of it?

SOLBERG: Well, we are not participating in the last part of the decision-making process. We do have a system of consultating. We have the system of our experts participating in the work before new drafts are made. And they listen to us on the most important issues for our country. But of course, we are not participating in the last part of the decision-making process. And sometimes we see that things get changed in that process because there's made a compromise between the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, and we are not there.

SIEGEL: Would you rather be there? Would you rather have Norway be a member?

SOLBERG: Personally, I would have liked that, not because I think things are perfect in the European Union. There's a lot of things I would - as a conservative politician - would have done differently. But I think the idea of a European Union is based on the idea of economic cooperation to prevent wars and to create peace. And we know that European Union have really delivered on the hope for democracy and human rights for a lot of countries that have been different types of - it has been communist dictatorships or earlier fascist dictatorships - and they have all become in line in the democratic way through a European Union membership.

SIEGEL: But Norwegians voted against joining in the 1970s and again in the 1990s. What do your countrymen have against membership in the EU?

SOLBERG: Well. I think that's has something to do both with our history. We are fairly new country. We were sovereign in 1905. We used to be a kingdom in the Middle Ages before that. So the word - just the word union was difficult for us.

SIEGEL: Because you'd only recently gained independence from Sweden is what you're saying.

SOLBERG: First from Sweden and earlier 400 years with Denmark. But the second thing is that Norway's a scarcely-populated country with parts of the country in the Arctic area. And we have different challenges on agriculture, on rural policies and things that EU policies weren't adjusted to.

SIEGEL: You've met with other European conservative leaders in Brussels today, including, I gather, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I wonder is there any sense among them that perhaps the EU should reform itself to avoid another country doing what Britain did, or should the response be to defend current practices and be that much tougher on Britain in separation talks?

SOLBERG: I have a feeling that there is a deep understanding that Europe has to deliver more results to the people of Europe, be less bureaucratic, become better at solving the large issues. On the other hand, it's very often so that different countries are blaming EU for things they made. Maybe they should have done something with themselves.

But when you look at the migration crisis, EU has tried. The different national countries don't want to have a European solidarity on solving it, so it's also difficult for the European Union. But I think there's a clear feeling that there should be less bureaucracy.

What I think is important - creating jobs, creating opportunities. I think all over the world now if we are losing a whole generation of young people who don't get into the workforce, who don't see hope, we will not manage to include people enough in the political projects we have.

SIEGEL: Prime Minister Solberg, just to sum up, is it your sense from other conservative European leaders, perhaps from Chancellor Merkel, that there is a desire to see the United Kingdom have an arrangement much like that of your country, Norway - paying in, observing laws, or most of them anyway, but not being a member of the EU? Does that model seem right to them, or do they say those Brits are not going to get the deal that you have?

SOLBERG: Well, I think that they could live with an agreement like ours. I'm not sure if the Brits can live with that because on some issues, I think this will be difficult for those who have voted no to say yes to such an extensive integration to the internal market. But I think they can't expect to just get a free ride. They can't expect to have market access without participating in the solidarity of Europe.

SIEGEL: But you're saying that your status, Norway's status, being outside, maybe too far in for those Brits who voted to leave the EU.

SOLBERG: I think especially on the freedom of movement and on the issue of accepting the changes that are done in the legislation around the single market.

SIEGEL: Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway, thank you so much for talking with us today from Brussels.

SOLBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.