Norwegians debate benefits of voting tomorrow to join the European Union

November 27, 1994|By New York Times News Service

BERGEN, Norway -- The meeting was billed as a discussion on whether Norway should join the European Union, but judging from the number of "no" buttons, most of those crowded into the tiny hall in rural Os this week had already made up their minds.

They listened politely while Ranveig Froyland, a member of Parliament, told them that they would be better off inside Europe.

But when Hallvard Bakke, a former government aide who opposes membership, declared that Norway should never surrender its authority or its sovereignty to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, the audience of farmers and retirees applauded enthusiastically.

"Oslo is already far enough away," said Kristin Hjertaker, a columnist for the local paper in Os, a farming village of 13,000 people on the far southern outskirts of Bergen, a port city on the North Sea. "So people say Brussels is out of the question."

Tomorrow, voters will decide if Norway will make its future inside or outside the European Union. Norway's neighbors, Sweden and Finland, have already decided to join, in referendums this fall.

But surveys suggest that Norwegians remain more skeptical than their Scandinavian brethren. The beneficiaries of Europe's largest oil and gas reserves and richest fishery stocks, many Norwegians do not see the advantage of closer economic and political cooperation with the rest of the continent.

"We have aluminum, we have hydroelectric power, we have fish, we have oil, and we have jobs," declared Johan Kjaegard, a 73-year-old retiree passing out anti-European Union literature in Bergen's central square. "We can stay alone and still be friends to everybody."

The most recent public opinion polls this week give opponents about 47 percent of the vote and supporters about 41 percent, with about 10 percent undecided.

As in Finland and Sweden, the heart of the opposition comes from rural villages and small coastal communities, whose residents fear that Brussels will make Norway roll back subsidies to farmers and open its rich fishing grounds to the rest of Europe.

But the gap between the two sides in the election has been closing. With many previously undecided voters now supporting membership after the Swedes narrowly voted on Nov. 13 to join, Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brutland, who favors joining, predicted last week that Norway would follow suit.

Other advocates of membership have warned Norwegians that they will suffer if they reject the union, which will open borders between member nations.

If Norway decides against membership, it will join Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Iceland as the only Western European nations remaining outside the European Union.

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