Norway torn over joining Europe

Click to follow
LESS than two weeks before Norwegians vote in a general election, the only certainty about the country's politics is that the next prime minister will be a woman.

The country, which is toying with the idea of joining the European Community, dabbling in Middle East politics (it helped broker the Israeli- Palestinian peace formula) and trying to stave off a US trade boycott caused by its controversial whale-hunting policy, is certain to be led by one of the three female candidates after the general election on 13 September.

Norwegian women have always had a strong role. Norway's maritime tradition stretches back to Viking times: while the men were off fishing for cod or searching for whales, the women ran the farms and managed the fish trade with Mediterranean countries.

Norway's Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, says the big parties' candidates are all women because 'women have played a wider and stronger role in Norwegian history than in many other countries and we have not had a typical upper class'.

Though unconcerned about the lack of male candidates, the electorate is deeply divided over the prospect of joining the European Community. Most Norwegians want the country to remain outside the EC, but curiously, a majority of voters also support the government's application to join the Community. Norway's electorate has made a clear distinction between the negotiations for membership and the final decision on whether to join. Once Oslo's negotiations with Brussels are completed in 1994, membership will be decided by referendum.

Mrs Brundtland is expected to win the election despite the opposition to her pro-EC policies, especially in the north. Almost 60 per cent of Norwegians want her to rule the country, despite the unpopularity of her Labour party. Her main opponent, the Conservative leader, Kaci Kullmann-Five, is also campaigning to join the EC. Anne Enger Lahnstein, the Centre party candidate, supported by Norway's fishermen, whalers and Arctic farmers, is opposed to membership. However, her chances of being elected are slim, as her party is expected to get no more than 13 per cent of the vote.

The country rejected EC membership in a bitter referendum in 1972. Just as many Norwegians seem to be opposed to membership today. The country, a Swedish colony for 600 years, fears a loss of sovereignty to a European super-state, loss of control over North Sea oil and an invasion of Spanish fishing boats in the rich fishing grounds off its west coast.

Norway's temperance lobby is also a force behind the anti-EC mood. The country has very strict laws on alcohol, and many Norwegians dread the prospect of floods of cheap alcohol once border controls are lifted.

Yet the prospect of remaining in spendid isolation on the edge of Europe seems to be unnerving Norwegians. Yesterday's opinion poll in the daily Verdens Gang showed 54 per cent felt the government was right to negotiate membership of the EC. The only explanation that senior Norwegian officials could give was that voters want to keep their options open until they know for sure whether Finland and Sweden intend to join the EC.