Can Norway show the UK how to prosper outside the EU?
- 8 March 2013
- From the section England
As the UK builds up to a possible referendum on EU membership, people will be searching for hints at what life might be like outside the union.
And one country many Euro-sceptics are keen to point to is Norway.
Despite several referendums of its own, it has consistently chosen to stay outside the EU.
But that does not mean it has nothing to do with the member states.
Around 75% of its trade is with the EU, and its economy is booming.
It's scarcely surprising then that UKIP points to Norway as a model for a UK that could thrive outside the EU.
North East UKIP chairman Richard Elvin said: "I do believe Norway shows the world doesn't end if you're outside the EU.
"Norway has its own sovereignty, and it can pick and choose who it trades with. Of course it trades with the EU, but it also has agreements with 20 other countries."
But how good an example is Norway?
To find out I was despatched from Newcastle to the Norwegian port of Stavanger - a tough assignment I know.
It didn't take long to find a local who was prepared to back UKIP's arguments up.
Bjarne Kvadsheim is a city councillor in Stavanger. His Centre Party has always opposed any plan for Norway to join the EU.
He said: "Norway and the UK are similar so I understand why they are using us as an example of how you can manage outside the EU.
"We sell things that the EU wants, and that's important, so the trade is good between the EU and Norway today.
"And we have our own democracy, Norwegian politicians make decisions, Brussels doesn't."
Not everyone in Stavanger agrees though with Bjarne. Indeed, even his brother has a different view.
Henrik Kvadsheim has campaigned for Norway to join the EU. And he thinks UKIP is mistaken.
Norway can't just ignore the EU. In order to get access to its single market, it has to adopt many EU laws and directives.
But of course because it's not a member state, it can't take part in the discussions which frame those regulations.
Henrik Kvadsheim believes UK voters would do well to bear that in mind when deciding whether to leave the EU.
He believes while Norwegians might be happy being the "little brother" of the EU, the UK would not be happy with losing influence.
He said: "Around 50% of what the UK produces you export to the European Union.
"You will still need to export that, and you will still need to implement all the regulations from Brussels. That would be your problem as it is Norway's now.
"I don't think the British would accept all the regulations from Brussels without having any influence over them."
And indeed Norway is more enthusiastic than the UK about some of the EU regulations.
Svein Tuastad from the University of Stavanger said: "You cannot use Norway as an example of being outside the EU as we are almost the European champions of implementing EU regulations.
"Around a third of Norwegian laws include European legislation. We are perhaps more integrated than the UK."
And it does seem those regulations haven't inconvenienced Norway's successful economy.
But there may be another reason for that.
It has huge reserves of oil and gas that have helped insulate it from Europe's economic difficulties.
One man who works in that industry is Geordie ex-pat Michael Velle-George.
He moved to Stavanger seven years ago to provide IT services for an oil company and has now set up permanent home in Norway.
He believes Norway's oil reserves give it a bargaining power with the EU that the UK would lack.
And he's not entirely convinced life outside the union is that perfect.
As I and many other visitors discover, Stavanger is an expensive place to eat and live. And Michael believes being outside the EU can affect everyday life.
He said: "I mean you can see here in Norway that basic goods cost a lot of money, and the selection is not so great.
"These are perhaps the ways the normal man in the street might be affected."
Despite that scepticism, UKIP remains convinced Norway is a model to follow.
It points to the freedom that its farming and fishing industries enjoy, and the fact it can make its own decisions.
And it believes the value of UK imports and exports to the EU would give it bargaining power within the same free trade agreement that includes Norway.
And at the very least the Norwegian experience suggests life outside the EU isn't an icy wasteland.
But as the Kvadsheim brothers show, not even the natives agree on whether their country provides an example or a warning for the UK.
We may then just have to make up our own minds, rather than rely on Norwegians to guide us if and when we have our own referendum.