Norway and the European Integration:
Why Norway Chose Not to Join the European Union



Peter Engholm

Monash University, 1998





Norway, European Union, integration




When the Norwegian people said “no” to be a part of the European Union at the referendum day, November 28th 1994, it was the fourth time in 35 years that a Norwegian Government failed to convince its people to become involved in the process of uniting Europe into one political and economic body. When Sweden, Finland and Austria decided to join the same year, Norway showed the world that no governments or economic experts could force it to follow the stream. It was a victory of the people, not that of a rich elite who thought that power and money could buy their votes.

To discuss why Norway chose not to follow the other Scandinavian countries and join the EU, requires an in-depth knowledge of the Scandinavian history and culture. This can not be fully explored in a short essay like this, but the main reasons can be addressed and touched upon, to present a general explanation. I will show that certain historical, cultural, economic and organisational factors, specific to Norway, had a direct impact on the result of the referendum in 1994. This has divided the country into two groups – those who see Norway’s integration into Europe as essential for its continuous wellbeing, and those who do not.

Norway – different from the other

‘She remained true. She was the better part
of what we call Norway’s popular soul.
She is our nobility. She is the dream of freedom
The best of us is akin to her.’[1]

This poem illustrates Norway as the most noblest and best of all countries. It was frequently used in the campaign against EU and has its strength in exhorting nationalistic feelings towards the motherland. It is no wonder that Norwegians have a strong feeling towards their country, as it was only in 1905 that it was separated from the union with Sweden. During World War II, Norway’s sovereignty was again threatened by the German army, and A.H. Thomas see this as the definite break-away from Sweden, citing King Haakon’s speech that there now ‘must be no more talk of Sweden as big brother’[2].

Thus, centuries of foreign domination have fostered strong nationalistic sentiments, which they could fully enjoy only after the war-years. This might be the initial reason for the reluctance towards the rest of Europe, and particularly being part of the EU. The country has also traditionally pursued a policy of non-involvement in European conflicts[3]. Geographically and economically, Norway has not been as dependent on European countries for cooperation and trade. Instead, the last decades of income from the oil and gas sectors allows Norway to maintain a strong welfare state, keep unemployment low, and subsidise the fishing and farming sectors without help from an outside institution, such as the EU[4]. The Nordic countries have during this century managed to combine the world’s most developed welfare states with some of its highest living standards and, as Saeter sees it, many people felt threatened by the prospect of a remote and supranational Brussels[5]. In fact, since 1991, Norway’s Scandinavian neighbours and much of the EU have suffered a recession in the economy with a rise in unemployment, but this did not affect Norway which was the only Scandinavian country to display a balanced fiscal position in 1995-96[6]. Thus, it is understandable why the Norwegian people didn’t see the need in voting for membership in 1994. They knew their economy was better off than most of the European countries, and few people could see a need for an European Union leadership in Norway, which in 1994 didn’t seem to be able to improve the state of affairs for its other members. The risk of losing their sovereignty was considered to high.

The EU debate in Norway

It is also important to look into the ongoing debate about EU in Norway that started off in the early 1960’s, as well as to discuss the attempts of cooperation with the European countries to better understand the result of the 1994 referendum.

First, Norway is a member of the Nordic Council that was established in the 1950s. Its member states all share a common cultural heritage with strong democratic traditions, an emphasis on equality and justice and building up and maintaining strong welfare states. This cooperation has united Norway and the other Nordic members in terms of national and international policies, and is an important key in the development of Nordic “exceptionalism” that can explain some of the resistance towards the rest of Europe.

Secondly, Norway is a member of EFTA (European Free Trade Association) which main purpose is, as the name implies, to establish free trade between its member-states. This was seen as an alternative to EU, as the members of EFTA could participate in EU’s economic integration while falling short of full membership with its political implications[7]. Finally, in contrast to Sweden and Finland, Norway is also a member of NATO. Thus, Norway traditionally has had its focus over the Atlantic (with its oil and gas) towards USA and Canada, and could cooperate with European countries without the need of too close ties to EU. But Europe has recently undergone extensive political and economic changes. This has directly or indirectly affected every country in Europe – including Norway. The most important factor for the decision by the Scandinavian countries to seek full membership in EU was probably the EEA (European Economic Area) negotiations that were finalized in the beginning of the 1990’s. The basis for the agreement was EC legislation concerning the “four freedoms”  - the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. This lay the foundation for a new, comprehensive and expanded Western European cooperation, and if the Scandinavian countries were to be a part of this future Europe, they felt they had to be part of the decision making process as well. Thus, the Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish governments applied for full membership of EU in 1991[8].

With 52.2% of the Norwegians voting against membership, it is clear that the government failed in its attempt of propagating its positive view of EU. Many similarities have also been drawn to the first referenda about EU-membership, which was held in 1972, when 53.6% voted “no”. Saeter argues that the debate in 1972 probably was the hardest fought battle in Norway since the dissolution of the union with Sweden in 1905[9]. The result had such a devastating effect on the political life that it caused the downfall of two governments and splitting political parties, organisations end even families. He mentions that many Norwegians felt that the membership question was forced upon the people by the elites in the society. As a result of this, EU membership became a taboo question in Norwegian politics between 1973 and 1988, and the Labour party – which had had 45-48% of the Norwegian votes during the 1950’s and the 1960’s - has never returned to its former strength[10]. This negative experience surely had some effects on the Norwegian people when it was time to vote again in 1994. The probably most important similarity between 1972 and 1995 was that a broad grassroots anti-EU movement emerged to dominate the political debate. ‘Nei til EU’ (‘no to EU’) numbered more than 145,000 members from all sectors of society in 1994 - a record size in a small nation of four million. It managed to reach out to the Norwegian people on a local, regional and national level. According to the organisation itself, its success was the result of a strong mobilization with more than 10,000 activists voluntarily bringing out a book they produced about EU to every household – “in the cities, to the far off farms in the mountain valleys, and to the fishing communities along the coast”. They also had a daily newspaper in Oslo distributed for free on the streets in 80,000 copies. Finally, they managed to get people to go and vote on the referendum day, which led to an unusually high percentage of voters – close to 90%[11].

As in 1972, resistance against membership was strongest in the agricultural and fishing districts in the peripheral parts of the country where the people feared the loss of job opportunities or subsidies by the Norwegian government.  It became a battle between the rich and the poor. The government, the industry, and the media had the money to promote membership, but their far less prosperous opponents had the people who saw mostly threats with EU. ‘Nei til Eu’ also accused the governments of manipulation in setting the dates for the different referenda in Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway. Those campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote had been hoping that earlier votes in favour of joining by Austria, Finland and Sweden would prompt the Norwegian electorate to follow suit. The reason for having the referenda in that order was so that the Finnish, whose support for membership was rarely in doubt, would encourage the rather undecided Swedes to vote in favour. This, in turn, would put pressure on the Norwegians so that that the fear of being completely isolated outside the Union would produce the necessary votes in favour of membership. However, this svenskesug (the ‘suction’ effect on Sweden’s entry to the EU) showed to have no decisive impact on the Norwegian vote. ‘Nei til Eu’ even turned this unfair (as they saw it) strategy into an advantage, with advertisements running such as “Some believe we shall let the Swedes decide...It’s you who decides” and “Money won in Sweden”[12]. But the strongest issue was during the whole debate that of democracy. ‘Nei til EU’ sums up the political content of its campaign with the following statement:

‘When you move hundreds of the main decisions from the national parliament and the national government to Brussels
– to a political superstructure, a huge, political machinery which is completely impenetrable, incomprehensive to the ordinary citizen, the result is a devastating threat to democracy.’[13]

Norway outside EU

Despite the outcome of the referendum, Norway will continue along the road to EU integration for the simple reason that there is no other choice. The Norwegian government was quick to underline after the result that the goals of its policy towards the EU remained unchanged, except for the membership question[14]. Norway will continue to be part of the European Economic Area (EEA), EFTA and NATO, and build strong relationships with EU. It is clear that the process of “Europeanization” in Norway does not stop with the rejection of membership to the EU.

Summing up

The Norwegian people chose to stay outside the EU primarily to protect their country from being run by other than themselves. They saw Norway outside the EU as a bastion of democracy and progressiveness, defending their independence and national ideals. There was not an urgent need for economic help in 1994 as was more the case for Finland and Sweden, and there seemed to be more to give up than could be gained by a membership. A strong ‘Nei till EU’ movement was also more organised and effective in reaching out to the population than those who favoured membership, which probably was a decisive element. The relatively small victories for the ‘yes’ side in Finland and Sweden, together with its defeat in Norway, show that enlightened citizens in a fast developing Europe are a voice to take seriously into account - especially when it comes to the “exceptionalistic” Nordic states. Cultural and national values can not be bought for money, and if it is unclear what the sacrifices will be, people tend to protect what they have and not what the future may give. This is what the Norwegians showed Europe.


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EIU Country Report Norway, 1st quarter, 1995.

Miles, L., The European Union and the Nordic Countries, London: Routledge, 1996.

Nelsen, B.F., Norway and the European Community, London: Praeger Publishers, 1993.

Seierstad, D., ‘Norway – EU, 1961-1994’,, 1995.

Welch, C., Integration theory and the case of Norway's second referendum on EU membership, Monash, 1995.



[1] ‘Hun holdt på sitt. Hun var den bedre del av det vi kaller Norges folkesjel. Hun er vår adel. Hun er frihetsdrømmen... Det best i oss er i slekt med henne.’ A. Bjerke, “Kjerringa mot strømmen”, in A. Bjerke, Samlede Dikt, vol. 1, Oslo: Aschenoug, 1984, p.279. cf. C. Welch, Integration theory and the case of Norway's second referendum on EU membership, Monash, 1995, p.46.

[2] A.H. Thomas, ‘The concept of the Nordic region and the parameters of Nordic cooperation’ in L. Miles, The European Union and the Nordic Countries, London: Routledge, 1996, p.19.

[3] M. Saeter, ‘Norway and the European Union”, in ibid., p.137

[4] EIU Country Report Norway, 1st quarter 1995, p.7

[5] M. Saeter, ‘Norway and the European Union”, p.136.

[6] EIU Country Report Norway, 1st quarter 1995, p.5.

[7] S. Gstöhl, ‘The Nordic countries and the European Economic Area (EEA)’, in L. Miles, The EU and the Nordic Countries, p.61.

[8] Ibid., pp.55-60.

[9] M. Saeter, ‘Norwegian Integration Policy in a Changing World: The Primacy of Security’, in B.F. Nelsen, Norway and the European Community, London: Praeger Publishers, 1993, p.25.

[10] D. Seierstad, ‘Norway – EU, 1961-1994’,, 1995

[11] Ibid.

[12] C. Welch, Integration theory and the case of Norway's second referendum on EU membership, Monash, 1995, p.71

[13] D. Seierstad, ‘Norway – EU, 1961-1994’,, 1995

[14] M. Saeter, ‘Norway and the European Union”, in L. Miles, The EU and the Nordic Countries, pp.145-147.