Norwegian politics: a “special country”?

From the time when fishing fields were a public commons open to all who would fish there. Photo: Lindqvist. The Lofoten Museum.
From the time when fishing fields were a public commons open to all who would fish there. Photo: Lindqvist. The Lofoten Museum.

It is tempting to ask whether a line can be drawn from economic conditions to politics, with social conditions as the intermediate variable. A well-known fact in the country’s political history is that socialist parties in the first half of the 20th century had a stronger following in the industrial towns of Eastern Norway and Trøndelag than in the coastal towns of Southern and Western Norway. Centre political parties such as Liberals (Venstre) and later the Christian Democratic Party (Kristelig Folkeparti) have corresponding more support here, where the political polarization was weaker.

Many consider that one of the most notable features of today’s political situation in Norway is that the country is now one of only three western European countries not belonging to the EU; after two referenda (1972 and 1994), and despite massive pressure from state authorities, political parties, and the media to join: in short, a “special country”. By all appearances Norway should have had a majority in support of EU membership in 1994, given the narrow defeat in 1972.

The decline of primary industries, a general tendency towards a strengthening of a liberal market ideology, and increased industrial and market concentration throughout the West, in combination with the development of the post-industrial and steadily more globalized information society, should have swung voters especially in the larger cities over to support of membership (as in Oslo). But that did not happen: in Stavanger, Bergen, and a number of other coastal towns the support for EU membership actually declined somewhat between 1972 and 1994.

A possible explanation is that the Norwegian economy had been fundamentally changed since 1972. The offshore economic zones established by international agreement in 1977 gave Norway (as other coastal nations) responsibility for the management of an enormous new area of the sea, and the petroleum industry had clearly become the main industry and engine for economic development. As with most fisheries resources, the petroleum resources were also a long way out to sea, in areas that would not necessarily be respected by Europe’s great powers in the long term.

The question of future control of fisheries resources, and fisheries policy in general, were key questions in the EU debate in 1994 in the west and north of Norway, and there was also some concern as to whether the strong national petroleum policy could be sustained in the long run. As mentioned, natural resources in Norway have acquired an increased significance for the national economy, as have the resources that are under pressure both physically and biologically or politically – for example, the continuing question about the limits of Norwegian jurisdiction over Svalbard and the surrounding waters, and the tug-of-war over the maritime boundaries with Russia.
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