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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 13:57 GMT
Petersen sees Norway outside EU for years
Norwegian FM Jan Petersen (left) with his British counterpart Jack Straw at the talks in London
Petersen (left) says Norwegians oppose EU membership
By the BBC's Lars Bevanger

Europe was high on the agenda when Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen met his British counterpart Jack Straw in London on Monday.

The fact is there will be no majority for Norwegian membership in the union today, and probably not in the foreseeable future

Jan Petersen

Britain and other European Union member states will most probably welcome the rich oil-nation into the fold with open arms.

But Mr Petersen could not promise Mr Straw that Norway would be in a position to re-apply for membership any time soon.

Much as Mr Petersen would like to pursue his dream of Norway in the EU, he appreciates that public opinion has changed little since voters rejected membership in a referendum in 1994.

"The fact is there will be no majority for Norwegian membership in the union today, and probably not in the foreseeable future," he told BBC News Online immediately after his meeting with Mr Straw.

"What we want to do is to stay as closely as possible to the European processes, and hopefully make a contribution.

"I told [Mr Straw] that the present government sees the European Economic Area agreement as the basis for their relations with Europe," he added.

But analysts say the EEA agreement is becoming less and less relevant, as EU integration starts to move faster on such important issues as defence and the economy, and with the forthcoming eastward expansion.

And as Sweden and perhaps Denmark plan to hold referenda on adopting the euro as early as next year, Norway looks more than ever like the odd one out.

The enemy within

However, public opinion is not necessarily Mr Petersen's biggest enemy when it comes to the question of joining the EU.

Jan Petersen
Petersen wants public debates on Europe
His Conservative party shares power with the Liberal and the Christian Democrat parties, who are both against Norway re-applying for EU membership before new elections in 2005.

In its manifesto, the Conservative party calls for Norwegian EU membership "as soon as possible".

But this was dropped in order for a coalition government to be formed.

Conflict of interests

Mr Petersen has reconciled his personal convictions - and those of his party - with being foreign minister in a government which has no stated policy on the EU.

Norwegian oil-rig
Oil-rich Norway would be welcomed by the EU

"I'm quite open about the fact that it is not possible to realise my dream about Europe today, and that means that I'm not going to stay in opposition until it is possible," he says.

So is it better to be in power and unable to press for EU membership, than to be in opposition and free to do so?

Some within Mr Petersen's own party think not.

In the past few weeks he has been facing heavy criticism from local leaders who themselves work hard to sway the electorate in favour of the membership.

There have been calls for him to use his role as number two in the government to change public opinion to such a degree as to make a pro-EU referendum victory feasible.

Mr Petersen told News Online his strategy now was to put all the cards on the table and let people make up their own minds.

"We have to be quite open about the challenges, the possibilities, the shortcomings [of the EU membership] and then simply let the public debate all these things. I think that is the only way to bring about change," he says.

Lack of debate

But, his critics argue, herein lies the root of the problem, as Norwegians are not going to change their minds without a proper public debate.

Cafe in Oslo
On our own: Norwegians rejected EU membership in 1994

And ever since the new government was sworn in before Christmas last year, the absence of the EU as a theme on the Norwegian political agenda has been striking.

In his New Year's speech to the nation, the Prime Minister and the leader of Christian Democrats, Kjell Magne Bondevik, did not mention Europe or the euro at all.

And this was on the day when the new currency was launched in the 12 EU countries.

Analysts say it is no wonder Mr Petersen is reluctant to be drawn into a debate on a political strategy to join the EU.

His party has already been twice in coalition governments which unravelled over Norway's failed attempts to join the union.

See also:

16 Oct 01 | Europe
Norway far-right sets new course
11 Sep 01 | Europe
Norway poll sparks power struggle
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Norway
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