Norway is a successful economic country which remains outside the EU by choice. This summer I was fortunate to be invited by the Norwegian Government as part of a five-strong parliamentary delegation to visit Oslo and Tromso in the far north of Norway and to gain some idea of the economic and cultural strength of the country.
Despite being outside the EU it is clear that Norway has to implement all the EU regulations necessary for it to have access to the single European market. And, according to the European Commission, they have a better record than most of the other countries, including the UK, in implementing them. This connected but arms-length situation works well for the country and there are no signs of Norway wishing to join the EU and certainly not the single currency in the near future.
In Oslo I met a number of national politicians and it is a proud boast of the country that half the members of the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament, are women, many of whom gave up their time to articulate to me some very interesting views on Norway’s problems with asylum, immigration, international development, health and the economy. Suffice to say that many of the issues facing Norway are similar to those here in the UK. Also, needless to say – and somewhat to our shame ? virtually everybody in Norway speaks perfect English. It is now taught in school from the age of five and this has ensured that virtually all the population in cities and towns alike is bi-lingual.
Norway with its fewer that 5 million inhabitants is identified as a very successful economy outside the European Union with its exploitation of natural mineral resources, particularly oil and gas, creating an enviable infrastructure and wealth. Whilst there is also an enormous array of seafood, the export of which now employs many thousands of Norwegians, much of the preparation work is dispatched as far afield as China once the vast range of fish have been caught.
Norway is clearly also a very humanitarian society as I discover speaking to the Minister of International Development, who has some forthright views on the failure of the role of the UN in Sudan.
The other place where I spent some time, Tromso, is a large city in the north of the country with some 60,000 inhabitants and an approach to Oslo politics strangely reminiscent of that between Scotland and England. I saw a tremendous new university hospital there and discovered more about the very real difficulties of accident and emergency care for patients in far away rural communities. The air ambulance helicopter, still regarded as something of a novelty here in England, is an everyday part of medical care in Norway. Many small communities are literally hundreds of miles from the nearest doctor or nurse, yet alone a hospital, and in the harsh winter conditions that northern regions of Europe experience the helicopter is the only viable form of transport. The local hospital has the equivalent of its own air traffic controller.
Whilst in Tromso we were able to see the Norwegian Polar Institute as well as the Norwegian Seafood Export Council who gave us chapter and verse about the battle that Norway is having with the EU on export quotas. It seems that Norwegian fishermen and British farmers and fishermen have quite a lot in common!
Norway has been a long-standing ally of our nation and those ties remain very strong. Next year Norway celebrates the 100th anniversary of its independence from Sweden and as part of those celebrations the King and Queen of Norway will come here to London on a State Visit.
There is much regular contact between politicians within the EU because of the representation that we all have in the European Parliament but it is important for us to maintain regular contact with other European countries that choose to remain outside the political assembly, especially such a close neighbour. One can learn a lot.