Sovereignty under the EEA is a Norwegian illusion

Silva Hoffmann |

In her master’s thesis, Silva Malin Hoffmann investigated how the European Union and European Economic Area are portrayed in the Norwegian media. This blogpost draws on her thesis, showing that membership to the EEA is framed as less negative and as entailing more national sovereignty than membership to the EU — which, Hoffmann argues, is an illusion.   

News stand in the centre of Oslo. Illustration photo: gabriol

The EU is once again becoming an important issue in Norwegian politics. Even more so after the NAV scandal that followed a costly misinterpretation of the EU law in Norway. The debate, while previously focused on EU membership, now centres around the EEA Agreement, which gives Norway access to the EU single market and obliges it to follow EU rules in areas concerning the single market.   

Following last year’s general election, the new coalition government set out to evaluate Norway’s experience with the EEA by setting up an independent inquiry. The mandate for the inquiry includes an evaluation of the Norwegian area of manoeuvre and through that directly addresses the issue of sovereignty.   

Norwegian public opinion of the EU after Brexit 

Sovereignty has played an important role in Euroscepticism. It has been a deciding factor in both previous Norwegian referendums that rejected membership. ‘Take back control’ – a central slogan for Brexit illustrates the importance of sovereignty even more clearly.  

The UK leaving the EU brought forward the implications of the EEA agreement, when the UK rejected the Norwegian model. The Norwegian model would have led to ’self-inflicted subservience to the EU’. The EEA Agreement has also been described as a one-sided relationship, with no export of Norwegian rules to the EU and limited influence on the rules Norway has to implement. 

Despite all this, Norwegian public support for the EEA remains high. Support for EU membership, which would arguably increase Norwegian sovereignty by giving it a seat at the table has remained low. However, there are some recent shifts in public opinion regarding the EU.  

The war on Ukraine has highlighted the importance of the EU. A recent survey by the University of Bergen highlighted a change in opinion – while only 26% of respondents were in favour of EU membership in 2019 and 60% opposed it, in 2022 40% were in favour and 47% were opposed. At the same time, about 2/3 of Norwegians support the EEA (a slight decrease) but a survey for Nei til EU (No to the EU) showed that 50% of Norwegian thought that the EU had too much power in Norway.

The EU and the EEA in the Norwegian Media Agenda 

For my master thesis, I analysed Norwegian newspaper articles to find out more on how the media portrays Norwegian membership to the EEA and the EU. Despite the EU/EEA question’s importance for Norwegian politics, there have been no systematic studies on Norwegian media. Since the long-term media agenda can have an impact on how the public understands certain issues, this can give us a deeper understanding on how the EU and EEA are understood in Norway. 

To do this, I collected over 800 newspaper articles form Norway’s three biggest newspaper articles – VG, Aftenposten and Dagbladet – from 2013 to June 2021. I then analysed both the themes they addressed about and how often certain themes occurred. 

I identified five overarching themes – the importance of the EEA, problems with the EEA, EU membership, international cooperation in general and misunderstandings connected to the EEA. Narrowing the focus a little more on the first 2-3 themes, it crystallised that the EEA was often described as Norway’s most important international agreement. Newspapers highlighted how dependent the Norwegian economy was as well as how there was no real alternative to it.  

Meanwhile, the EEA was criticised as not being in the Norwegian interest due to its democratic deficit – characterised by the dynamic adaptation of EU rules without Norwegian representation during the decision-making process. The EEA was also criticised along the same lines as EU membership – namely identity politics. 

Identity has played – and confirmed by my results – still plays a central role in Norwegian Euroscepticism. Norway and the EU are constructed as mutually exclusive along the cleavages of people-elite and centre-periphery. These have remained remarkably stable over time and apply both to EU and EEA opposition. 

Comparing EU and EEA coverage in the media  

I further looked into the difference in how EU and EEA membership are portrayed by analysing the frequency of the certain themes. While the EEA was portrayed more as a challenge to the Norwegian social model, the EU was portrayed more frequently as a challenge to sovereignty. However, the discussion of the EEA in terms of sovereignty notably picked up in 2021. 

Above all, the EEA is portrayed more positively in the media than negatively. I found that the EEA gets most of its positive media attention by being portrayed as vital for Norway and its economy, by guaranteeing access to the single market. For negative coverage, I examined issues such as dependency, lack of choice and a lack of influence. Overall, I found that the positive coverage outweighed the negative coverage about the EEA. 

An illusion of sovereignty? 

This brings me back to the illusion of sovereignty. Despite Norway having to accept EU rules without a vote on the matter the EEA is portrayed a) more positively than negatively and b) less in terms of challenges to sovereignty than the EU. In other words, the EEA is portrayed as a more sovereign alternative to EU membership. 

The media agenda can be triangulated with public opinion data. At the same time as the EU is discussed more positively, support for the EU has increased. Vice-versa, support for the EEA has decreased slightly, matching the development of the EEA being increasingly challenged. While this obviously cannot establish causation, it does however give us a good insight. 

Both the media and the public are caught in an illusion of sovereignty. A more informed and deeper debate would be vital to increase understanding of Norway-EU relations. With my data collection ending in June 2021, it would be ever more important to further investigate both how the EU and EEA are perceived and portrayed and see how it has developed and is developing. 

Silva Hoffman’s thesis was titled: ‘An illusion of sovereignty? – Portrayals of EU and EEA membership in Norwegian Newspapers’.