Norway favours going it alone: Opinion polls indicate that, 25 years on, voters will again reject EU membership, Imre Karacs writes from Oslo

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The Independent Online
Migrating herrings, curved cucumbers and a vision of Germans plundering the fjords are causing sleepless nights in Norway. Nearly a quarter of a century after Norwegians decided to shun the European Economic Community, the ballot papers have been reprinted with the same question, but Norwegians are proving to be equally awkward Europeans.

Hopes in Brussels of a grand slam of new members are fading. Austrians and Finns have already voted for European Union membership. The Swedish referendum, set for 13 November, seems trickier, with the latest opinion poll, in the Goteborgs-Posten daily newspaper, putting the 'yes' and 'no' camps equal at 37 per cent each, with many Swedes undecided.

In Norway, however, pro- Europeans need a miracle to reverse the current trend by the day of judgement, 26 November. The latest poll in the newspaper Dagbladet, shows 46 per cent of Norwegians plan to vote against, 29 per cent are in favour and 25 per cent are still undecided.

That miracle would come in the shape of a strong 'yes' vote in Sweden, reducing the dilemma to a straight choice between the Norwegians' innate fear of the outside world and their fear of being stranded outside the family of neighbouring nations.

At the moment the 'no' campaign, employing simplistic slogans such as 'Environment protection or union' and 'People's power or union', is making a greater impact. The notorious Brussels-regulated cucumber has been sighted in Norway, proving that there is already a free flow of Euro mythology across the borders of the continent. (In fact, the bent cucumber has boomeranged: it turns out that Norwegian regulations on cucumbers are much stricter.) Nor does the notion that Germans will be able to scoop up weekend cottages by the fjords stand up to closer inspection. Under the Treaty of Accession, EU nationals will not have automatic rights to purchase property in Norway for five years, and even after that period local bureaucracy will be able to impede their progress.

The case of the herrings, however, is more compelling. By joining the EU, Norway would relinquish sovereignty over the rich fishing grounds within 200 miles of its coastline. The fishermen argue that EU quotas would not only harm their business and threaten their livelihood, but would also be unenforcable.

Brussels has one quota, for instance, for Norwegian herring and a different one for North Sea herring. The two herrings are of course the same.

Norwegian herring become North Sea herring when they cross the 62nd parallel.

The case has a serious point. Fishing is the second most important export industry, employing up to 100,000 people, mainly in remote hamlets which, Norwegians fear, would wither under the onslaught of intense foreign competition.

Much of what Norwegians feel makes their country better than others is attributed to its enduring rural traditions. Away from the relative deprivation of eastern Oslo, crime is petty and infrequent, unemployment low (the national average is 6.5 per cent), society egalitarian and the pace of life slow.

Opponents of EU membership - ranging from nationalists, fishermen, farmers worried about competition and loss of subsidies, and left-wingers fearful for the welfare state - have been united by their desire to preserve the Norwegian way of life.

Pro-Europeans retort that the country cannot ignore the outside world for ever, and that it should manage the changes rather than be their passive victim. Everybody agrees that Norway's fairytale world has been vanishing since 1972, when Norwegians voted to stay outside Europe.

In January this year Norway became part of the European Economic Area (EEA), bringing together the EU and former members of the European Free Trade Association. Within the EEA fortress Norway has had to lower the drawbridge, allowing freer movement of labour, capital and goods. The Labour government and the largest opposition party, the Conservatives, agree that the country must open to trade with the outside world in order to reduce its dependence on its most important commodity: oil.

'Membership of the EEA means we have all the economic consequences of union already, but no political influence in Brussels,' says Arve Ostgaard, of the European Movement, campaigning for the 'yes' vote. 'We need to be in the EU so that we can have a say in our economy.' It is a rather boring slogan, and for that reason it might just appeal to Norwegians.