An article from University of Oslo

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Democracy lost for non-members of the European Union

Why it’s so problematic to be a reluctant European – an associated non-member of the European Union.

University of Oslo

The University of Oslo is Norway's leading institution of research and higher education.

Britain, Norway and Switzerland are all reluctant Europeans, with ambivalent relations to the European Union. They want some form of association to the Union, but hesitate to be full members.

Even though there are several options for non-EU members, no matter what, it has consequences for their democracy and self-rule.

The Norwegian paradox

"Norway is a very close associate to the EU through the European Economic Area (EEA), Schengen and other agreements. EU law applies to Norway to a large degree and we experience a huge democratic deficit as a consequence of our EU affiliation", Professor Erik O. Eriksen says. He is director of ARENA Centre for European Studies at the University of Oslo.

"Over the last few years we have studied Norway’s EU affiliation in depth. This research culminated with a book on what we termed “the Norwegian paradox”, which concluded that Norwegian citizens are no longer authors of their own laws. The democratic chain of governance is broken", Eriksen explains.

The EEA Agreement is a poor contract, according to Erik O. Eriksen. (Photo: UiO)

He has been concerned with European integration and democracy beyond sovereign states for decades. "The situation for Norway now appears quite dramatic", he says.

The loss of sovereignty experienced by Norway is not compensated for through membership rights, as it is for EU member states, because the latter are represented in the various EU decision-making bodies, according to the professor.

He emphasizes that the concept of sovereignty has changed in post-war Europe. "It is important to keep the two forms of sovereignty apart: sovereignty of the state versus that of the people. The democratic chain of representation is breached when citizens do not govern themselves through democratic self-rule. This is dramatic in democratic terms", Eriksen warns. 

He terms Norway’s agreements with the EU an ‘indigent contract’, which privileges the one part, the EU.

The 2014 Norwegian constitutional bicentennial served as a catalyst to investigate the state of democracy in Norway. As a follow-up, Eriksen and ARENA Professor John Erik Fossum, wanted to investigate the state of affairs of other EU-associated non-members.

The EU has a range of associations with its neighbouring countries, either because these do not want full EU membership, or because they do not qualify for it. The results of their cross-national study are published in the book The EU’s non-members: independence under hegemony?

Switzerland’s EU adaptation

One such non-member is Switzerland. The Swiss model based on bilateral agreements is often voiced as an alternative in the Norwegian debate. Eriksen however, warns that the EU exerts no less influence on Switzerland than on the EEA countries.

The EU-Switzerland relations are complex, consisting of around 120 bilateral agreements. As opposed to the EEA agreement, they are not dynamic, which means continuously updated to incorporate new legislation. The Swiss agreements moreover cover limited sectors.

But just like Norway, Switzerland is increasingly Europeanized. It has experienced a comprehensive legal adaptation to EU legislation. "Switzerland has similar problems of democratic self-rule as Norway does", Eriksen underlines.

"Although this EU adaptation is voluntary, the structure has a strong in-built pressure which makes the adjustment much more dynamic in practice than it may formally appear to be", Sandra Lavenex from the University of Geneva confirms.

Democracy lost regardless of agreement type

"Countries that are not EU members, but still closely associated with the EU, are increasingly experiencing a democratic deficit", Eriksen says.

This happens regardless of the type of affiliation: If a country has bilateral agreements with the EU, like Switzerland, or is affiliated through the dynamic EEA Agreement, like Norway and Iceland, does not make any significant difference. The negative implications for self-rule are the same, according to the professors.

Eriksen elaborates: "These countries have voluntarily subjected themselves to EU dominance. This means that they are living under a hegemony, which is not imposed on them from the outside, but as a consequence of their own choice. They are integrated into a polity that is constantly changing and over which they have no influence."

No real options

In view of the upcoming British referendum on EU membership, some lessons from current non-members should be drawn, Eriksen argues. "Many EU critics have already realized that both the EEA Agreement and Switzerland's form of association are unfavourable from a democratic point of view."

So, if neither the EEA nor the Swiss approach are viable options what are the alternatives?

"If we look at existing agreements that the EU has with its other neighbours, there seem to be no real options in place today", Eriksen concludes. He refers to the EU’s relations with its neighbours in the Mediterranean and the East, as well as European microstates.

"The different agreements have become more complex as integration covers ever more sectors. The EU increasingly refers to the dynamic EEA as the ideal model for neighbours seeking access to the large European market. To the EU, EEA is the second-best option after full membership", Eriksen says.

"For almost a decade, the EU has also been pushing for Switzerland to agree to either the EEA Agreement or full EU membership."

It is against this background that Christopher Lord, ARENA professor at the University of Oslo, argues that for those who want the UK to leave the EU to regain sovereignty, the only option would be to stay completely outside the EU.

For European countries with a stake in the single market, however, the best option might be to opt for full EU membership rather than loosing their sovereignty outside the Union.

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