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Norway and the European Union

by Jostein Ryssevik (NSD, Bergen)

For the second time in 22 years the people of Norway have rejected to become a member of the European Union. This is the conclusion of the referendum on the 28th of November last year, where a majority of 52.2% voted against the governments proposal to join the EU. The referendum was held in an atmosphere of heated debate and intensive mobilisation. A total turn-out of close to 90% is the highest ever in the history of the Norwegian democracy. As a comparison, the turn-out of the 1993 Parliamentary Election was approximately 75%.


The question of the relationship with Europe has a long history in Norwegian politics. The issue appeared on the agenda for the first time in 1961, but was after a couple of years punctuated by de Gaulle’s no to an inclusion of new members. A comparable episode took place in 1967. In the beginning of the seventies the negotiation of a membership agreement was completed and it was decided to ask for the peoples opinion through a referendum. Although most of the political parties, as well as the major part of the press, were positive to European integration, they were not able to convince the people. Against all odds a no majority of 53.5% of the voters turned the European question into a non-issue of Norwegian politics for almost two decades.

When the issue reappeared on the political arena in the beginning of the nineties, this was largely due to the reshaping of Europe caused by the opening of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Empire. When Sweden and Finland, as a result of these major geopolitical changes, decided to apply for membership, Norway was left with few options but to follow. Although the popular resistance against membership proved stronger than expected in all three countries, it was only in Norway that the no-movement was able to master a majority. In Finland 56.9% of the electorate voted yes as compared to 52.3% in Sweden.

A cross-cutting cleavage

The membership-issue cut across the dominating left-right dimension of Norwegian politics. The pro-European alternative was propagated by the governing Labour-party (Arbeiderpartiet) and their main opponent in everyday political life, the Conservatives (Høyre). The most active anti-EU stand were taken by the Agrarian-party (Senterpartiet) and the Left Socialists (Sosialistisk Venstreparti).

In 1972 the referendum caused a major restructuring of the Norwegian party system. The pro-European parties lost a lot of their supporters and several parties split. A similar realignment does not seem to become the effect of last years referendum. The Agrarian-party, that managed to establish itself as the symbolic leader of the anti-EU campaign more than doubled the ratings in the opinion polls in the months before the referendum. However, shortly after the victory was won, the support began to shrink. The constituency of the Labour Party was severely divided on the membership issue. An anti-EU fraction was organised inside the party and a substantial portion of the supporters were torn between their feelings towards a EU-membership and their loyalty to the party leaders. In spite of most prophesies the party was able to keep its strength as well as its unity throughout the campaign. In the few months after the referendum the party has in fact experienced a tremendous growth in popularity as well as in membership.

The arguments

On the pro-European side the arguments were mainly put in economic and political terms. Free access to the European markets was seen as mandatory if the open and export-oriented Norwegian economy should be able to continue to produce the necessary surplus to uphold the welfare state. It was also argued that extensive international cooperation was the only way to solve the major problems that faces Norway as well as most other countries of Europe i.e. unemployment, pollution. In the last weeks of the campaign, issues related to security policy was also brougt to the front.

The main emphasis of the anti-EU campaign was put on loss of sovereignty. By delegating power to the political bodies of the EU, the people of Norway would loose control of the politicians as well as the decision making process, it was argued. In addition, the state of Norway would loose control of the economic resources, especially the fish and the oil. The no-movement was also quite successful in selling the argument that a EU-membership was incompatible with the Norwegian “way of life”. This includes important values (i.e. egalitarianism), the economy (i.e. small scale farming and fisheries) and institutions (i.e. the welfare state).


By looking at the geographical distribution of the vote, it is quite obvious that the EU-question aligns very closely to the traditional centre-periphery dimensions of Norwegian politics (Figure 1). Only 62 of the 435 municipalities returned a majority of yes-votes. Most of these are concentrated in the most densely populated areas in the Oslofjord-region. The resistance against the EU-membership was strongest in the northern part of Norway and in the most isolated and less modernised regions in the South. As much of one fourth of the communes returned a no-majority of more than 75%.

A similar centre-periphery dimension is also evident in the voting patterns from Sweden and Finland (Figure 2). The pro-European attitudes are strongest in the most central, urbanised and modernised parts of the countries and weakest in the north.

Social patterns

A closer look at the data will also reveal that voting patterns are closely related to the social composition of the municipalities. As an illustration, the bivariate correlation between the no-percentage and the proportion of the labour force in agriculture and fisheries, is 0.72. The corresponding correlation with the average income per taxpayer, is - 0.70.

Similar social pattern are also evident from individual level data. The pro-EU sentiments were strongest among people with high education, high income and high social status. Two other social determinants of utmost importance, are sector and sex. The scepticism towards EU was particularly strong among the rather large group of woman in the public sector.

Freezing of social structures?

A comparison with the referendum in 1972 reveals a striking similarity. Not only is the gross result almost identical. The regional patterns are also to a large degree reproduced. The intercorrelation at the municipality-level is as high as 0.88. Given the substantial shifts in the electorate between the two referendums, this seems rather surprising.

According to some observers, the fact can be explained by the extraordinary stability of the social and geographical structure of the Norwegian society. The surplus created by the oil-industry has prevented the transformation of the social fabric that most other industrialised countries have experienced during the last few decades.

Access to data

A file with data on the municipal level is available from the Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD). The file is “wrapped” in a run-time version of the statistical package NSDstat+ which will allow you to analyse and display the data.

Jostein Ryssevik
NSD, Hans-Holmboesgt. 22, N-5007 Bergen, Norway
Phone: (+47) 55 21 26 16

EURODATA Newsletter No.1, p.21-23