On the edge of Europe

Norway is, if the United Nations is to be believed, something of a paradise, a utopian ideal to which the rest of the world can aspire. Not for the first time, in 2004 the UN Human Development Index, which ranks countries according to life expectancy, education and income, decided that Norway was the most liveable country in the world.

In the years following World War II, Norway was the poor cousin of Europe, its patchwork of remote and rural farmsteads eking out a grim subsistence livelihood while the rest of Europe enjoyed a post-war boom of prosperity. However, the discovery of oil off the Norwegian North Sea coast in the late 1960s transformed the country’s fortunes in the most dramatic way: Norway is now the world’s sixth largest oil producer and third largest oil exporter. Norwegians enjoy the third highest per capita income in the world (between $US37,700 and $US43,350) and the government has created what it humbly calls the ‘most egalitarian social democracy in western Europe’.

Norwegians are entitled to free medical care, free education (including university), unemployment benefits not far below salary levels, sick leave on full pay for up to a year, five weeks annual leave, up to a year of paid maternity leave (42 weeks of which is on full pay and known as the ‘mother’s wage’), four weeks paid paternity leave, heavily subsidised childcare and a guaranteed pension. You can also expect to live for 82.22 years if you’re a woman and 76.15 years for men, a life expectancy assisted by the fact that there are 413 doctors and 1840 nurses for every 100,000 Norwegians (compared with 302 and 532 respectively in Australia).

When added to the fact that Norway has no external debt and has $US70 billion invested in the Petroleum Fund to protect Norwegians against a future without oil, it is difficult not to envy Norwegians the cradle-to-grave largesse of their government.

Norwegians may pay prohibitive rates of income tax (55.3 per cent for the highest earners, down from 70 per cent in 1992) and a range of service-user fees, but the general consensus is that they are more than compensated. So institutionalised has the welfare system become that when the long-standing reign of the Labour Party came to an end in 2001, even the new centre-right coalition government understood that the welfare system was sacrosanct.

For all of Norway’s extraordinary social data, however, the statistics conceal a deep-seated malaise that is at once economic and a signifier of a creeping crisis of identity.

Many Norwegians with whom I spoke were sharply defensive of their welfare system. Their response, which sometimes bordered on hostility, could not be explained only by their awareness of the world’s envy. Norwegians have long been rightly proud of how far they have come from the grim early years of the 20th century, a period which fostered a spirit of hard work and self-reliance. And yet, perhaps for the first time, Norwegians themselves, and not just outsiders, have begun to question whether such values have been abandoned.

According to the OECD, Norway in 2003 had the highest rate of work absenteeism in Europe. On an average working day, 25 per cent of Norwegian workers were absent on sick or disability leave (workers only require a medical certificate after eight weeks of absence). The average period of absence was 4.8 weeks, compared to 4.2 in Sweden, 1.8 in Italy and 1.5 in Portugal. When combined with annual leave, national holidays (11 days) and weekends, Norwegians don’t work for 170 days in a calendar year at an estimated cost of $US12.3 billion to the Norwegian economy.

Increasing exposure to international markets and, for the first time in decades, a degree of job insecurity, led Finn Erik Thoresen, the Vice President of Norway’s Confederation of Trade Unions to state that ‘there has been a brutalisation of the work force. Most of the people away from work are on disability leave. That is a result of the working life. People are working and working until they are on the edge’.

Director General of Norwegian Business and Industry, Finn Bergesen Jr, was withering in his response: ‘Everything is wrong, yet we are living in the best country in the world. People complain and complain, because we have everything ... We’ve never had fewer work hours, longer vacations, a better welfare system—everything is better than before’.

Concerns over productivity have furthered a perceptible sense of anxiety surrounding the future of Norway’s wealth. The last significant Norwegian discovery of oil came in 1992 and an increasingly desperate industry has begun to explore more environmentally sensitive areas such as the pristine Lofoten Islands.

Such symbols of economic uncertainty have coalesced with an increasing angst among Norwegians over their place in the world. Startlingly for a country of its location and means, Norway has consistently voted against joining the European Union, first in a referendum in 1972 and again in 1994. Although divisions within the government mean that no further referendum is likely to be held until after 2005, recent polls suggest a nation deeply divided and uncertain. A survey in May suggested that 51 per cent of those polled were in favour of EU membership with just 36 per cent against. By late July, only 42 per cent were in favour, with 45 per cent against.

Arguments against membership have been the domain of leftists who charge that the EU is a rich man’s club with no valid purpose. Those to the right, including members of the centre-right government, have also advocated fear at a perceived loss of sovereignty that membership of the EU might entail, not to mention the likelihood that Norway’s generous welfare provisions would not survive under EU fiscal guidelines.

Less openly, but with considerable resonance among rural Norwegians, many people also fear that Norwegian wealth would be used to subsidise other, poorer nations, thereby posing a threat to Norwegian prosperity. Key Norwegian constituencies—traditional family farms and fishing interests—oppose membership on the grounds of avoiding competition with their larger and more technologically advanced EU counterparts. As Piers, a long-standing Stavanger resident stated, ‘if we join the EU, Norway’s money will go to Europe and we will get nothing in return’.

And yet, many younger Norwegians with whom I spoke expressed profound dismay that Norway had hitherto refused to join, arguing that people have forgotten Norway’s days of hunger when the outside world provided a lifeline: some 800,000 Norwegians migrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries due to famine at home. A recurring theme among the young—many of whom have travelled throughout Europe, Asia and Africa—is that Norway is not pulling its weight and is abdicating its responsibility to use its wealth for the benefit of European peace and integration. A few also expressed the fear that no one would listen when Norway’s oil was exhausted and Norway needed Europe far more than it does now.

Whichever way Norwegians vote at the next referendum, there is a growing realisation that they may soon be left with little choice. Generous free-trade concessions enabling Norway’s participation in EU markets are becoming increasingly difficult to negotiate. Norway’s restrictions on imports hardly help, nor does the EU’s preoccupation with expansion to the east, a process which in turn may limit Norwegian access to many of its most lucrative markets which once lay outside the EU.

Allied to the economic fears is a darker side to Norwegian politics. If you spend any period of time in Norway, you will at some stage be struck by its glaringly visible homogeneity. Indeed it is difficult to imagine a more stark contrast to the multicultural pastiche of London, Paris, New York or Sydney than you will find on the streets of Bergen or Oslo, let alone more provincial centres.

Norwegians were rightly indignant when the Norwegian-flagged Tampa and its Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers were denied entry to Australia in 2001. And yet Norway is a country where asylum seekers are most assuredly not welcome. Immigration is minimal and strictly controlled. Each time that I crossed the border between Norway and Sweden, a handful of Africans were removed from the bus, their papers scrutinised and their luggage painstakingly searched. This in spite of Norway signing the Schengen agreement granting free movement for all travellers between European countries.

Those refugees admitted in recent years by the Norwegian Government—primarily Somalis—are restricted to those already identified and approved in far-distant processing camps. They crowd into the suburbs of eastern Oslo, particularly Grønland, which is, depending on your perspective, a ghetto or refreshingly heterogeneous. Refugees also arrive knowing that the Norwegian government would like to repatriate them as soon as possible.

In international fora, Norway is sometimes portrayed as the model international citizen. The Norwegian Government is, as a proportion of Gross Domestic Product, one of the largest donors of foreign aid and it has been actively involved in peace initiatives in conflict zones such as Sri Lanka and the Middle East. And yet, for many critics, this typifies the Norwegian approach to international relations: spending money to keep the problem far from Norwegian shores.

On 26 January 2001, Norway’s first racially motivated murder—the stabbing of a mixed-race youth outside his Oslo home—shocked a nation which had hitherto seen itself as a tolerant and responsible international citizen. In May 2004, the Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik rejected a plan by a local Lutheran pastor to turn empty, disused churches into mosques (there are just 50,000 Muslims in a population of 4.5 million). Answering a question by Carl Hagen, leader of the far-right Progress Party, Bondevik stated, ‘I think there are other uses that are more natural’. Norway is also one of the few non-secular European states with a constitution declaring: ‘The Evangelical-Lutheran religion shall remain the official religion of the State. The inhabitants professing it are bound to bring up their children in the same’.

Against this backdrop of institutionalised homogeneity, the widespread and dangerously populist argument against EU membership is the fear that Norway would be flooded with immigrants.

Norway’s history of poverty—its centuries of occupation by the foreign armies of Sweden, Denmark and Nazi Germany—may have taught its people self-reliance and a wariness of outsiders. It may also have fostered an unwillingness to yet again surrender its sovereignty and become minor inhabitants in someone else’s kingdom. But Norwegians are increasingly being asked to consider whether these understandable historical impulses can serve the nation well in the 21st century with a vibrant and troubled multicultural Europe on its doorstep.

Tucked away on the south-western coast of Norway is the lively and sophisticated city of Stavanger with daily departures by air and sea to other European cities. Its delightfully preserved old quarter of white timber houses overlooking the harbour and its 23 museums showcasing Norway’s rich past has earned Stavanger the title of 2008 European Capital of Culture. It is also notable for one quality that is rare in Norway. Whether by choice or economic necessity, the home port of Norway’s oil industry is home to workers from across the globe. Stavanger is one place in this largely monocultural country where a cosmopolitan, multicultural future seems possible. One cannot help but wonder whether the EU, in choosing Stavanger to host a celebration of European culture, is gently suggesting that it may equally represent an ideal of Norway’s future. 

Anthony Ham is a freelance writer living in Madrid.



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