Exclusive: Norway reveals “open mind” to welcoming independent Scotland to EFTA membership

Nathanael Williams

With a hard Brexit and independence referendum looming EFTA members juggle idea of Scottish membership if EU road is blocked

THE NORWEGIAN GOVERNMENT will keep an “open mind” to the idea of Scotland joining the european free trade association otherwise known as EFTA.

It would not be drawn on the issue of independence but suggested that there was scope for cooperation with either the UK or an independent Scotland on issues such as fishing and trade.

The comments made to CommonSpace, come a day after the Times revealed that the Scottish Government was holding talks to see whether Scotland could join the EEA or EFTA after independence.

Given worries that linking a second independence referendum with the EU might cost the votes of some yes voters, it is thought that the first minister is widening Scotland’s options after a successful vote.

“We fully understand that this is an important matter for many in Scotland.”

A spokesperson for the Utenriksdepartementet, Norway’s ministry of foreign affairs, told CommonSpace: “It is not for the Norwegian government to comment in detail on ongoing political discussions.

“But we fully understand that this is an important matter for many in Scotland, but regarding independence we will not comment on the ongoing political discussions on this matter in the UK.

“However, the Government will keep an open mind on the question of possible membership of the EFTA. Norway’s interests will be our key concern when considering this issue. And any future questions of membership of EFTA will be a decision to make by all the EFTA member states.”

SNP MPs met Elsbeth Tronstad, State Secretary in Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Oslo last December, who deals with EEA policy affairs in government. Last year SNP MEP Alyn Smith, a strong advocate of the EU and Scotland’s membership of the Single Market, indicated that Scotland should “not rule out” a move to apply to join EFTA.

EFTA, set up in 1960, is a free trade zone in Europe which consists of Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, but is different to the EU single market which is the Scottish government’s first option. Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein are members of the European Economic Area (EEA) through EFTA.

Last November the Scottish Government’s minister for Brexit talks, Mike Russell said that EEA or EFTA membership would raise questions for the Scottish Government’s five key Brexit pledges.

“We can’t see that it would be possible for Scotland to be part of the EU or the EEA as long as they are part of the UK.”

Three of the current members of EFTA, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway, have all had lengthy negotiations to gain access to the single market but have not agreed to agriculture and fishery terms. They have also had to implement EU single market rules and regulations in their own countries and pay varying amounts towards the EU for this access. This explains why the Scottish Government had EFTA and the EEA as a secondary but political viable option.

CommonSpace also spoke to political spokesmen representing Frank Bakke-Jensen, Norway’s spokesperson for european affairs, who suggested this year that as long as Scotland was in the UK there would be no chance of any compromise for it to join the EEA, EU or EFTA. They said: “We can’t see that it would be possible for Scotland to be part of the EU or the EEA as long as they are part of the UK.”

Norway has access to most of the EU’s internal market through its membership of the European Economic Area. All goods, services and labour flow freely between Norway and the EU. In return, the Scandinavian country has to adopt a large number of EU laws without having a formal say in how they are shaped. Norway negotiated this deal in 1992 when the EU had just 13 members.

A spokesperson for Elsbeth Sande Tronstad who speaks for the Norwegian Government on European Affairs, said: “Norway’s interests will be put first and foremost. There is a lot of coordination within and among the EFTA and EEA members. There is scope for cooperation on fisheries, energy, technical and trade. This always kept in mind when considering new applicants.

“The Government will keep an open mind on the question of possible [Scottish] membership of the Efta.”

“As for independence. I’m afraid it’s just something we can’t go into detail on. Not just yet.”

Accession to EFTA is more straightforward than joining the EU as new members of Efta must be accepted unanimously by the existing four members, but Scotland is confident that the other three would follow Norway’s lead.

Last year before Theresa May ruled out the UK remaining a member of the single market, Alex Salmond, the former first minister, met EFTA representatives. Preceding this Dag Wernø Holter, Efta’s deputy secretary general, and Marius Vahl, the head of EEA policy co-ordination, travelled to Scotland to give evidence to the Scottish parliament.

Picture courtesy of Steve Evans

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