As Swiss Economics Minister Doris Leuthard prepares for a visit to Norway on Thursday, swissinfo.ch finds that both Switzerland and Norway have much in common.
The two countries are wealthy, mountainous, enjoy political stability and are sceptical about the European Union.
“The Norwegian press is featuring Switzerland quite a bit these days. It’s very interesting and new,” political scientist Ulf Sverdrup said.
“The debate over the continuation of the bilateral approach with the EU has not gone unnoticed in Norway. It’s perhaps something of a coincidence that the visit of the Swiss president is taking place now. I would never have imagined that a year ago.”
Sverdrup is head of the secretariat for the Europe Review Committee, set up by the Norwegian government to take stock of Norway’s membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992. Switzerland refused to join the same year.
Sverdrup notes that those Norwegians who are sceptical of the EU are looking closely at the bilateral route taken by the Swiss with Brussels.
United in their suspicion of the EU, the two countries have certainly not made the same decisions, which could be explained by their geographical locations, one in the heart of Europe, the other at its northern limits. But in both countries there is a conflict over relations with Brussels.
Sverdrup knows Switzerland well enough to have co-authored ten years ago an article comparing the two countries. “I always thought that the comparison between these two rich mountain countries was fascinating, but few people paid any notice until now.”
The Swiss media are also mentioning Norway a great deal right now, with EEA membership having resurfaced as an alternative to the bilateral accords, whose future seems unclear.
There are not many Norwegians in Switzerland, nor many Swiss in Norway, but they have similarities, says Ketil Djonne, an expert on trade matters with the EU.
“I’m struck by the similarities of our countries: the size, the population, the countryside, the mountain mentality, interest in the environment and also concerns about democracy and human rights,” said Djonne, who spent his youth in Switzerland.
“Of course Norway is a monarchy but historically the structure of the two countries has mainly been very stable since the Middle Ages. Today they are for the most part Eurosceptics because they are rich countries.”
This view is shared by Gilbert Casasus, director of the Centre for European Studies at Fribourg University.
“If there are two countries which say ‘no’ to the EU, they are Norway and Switzerland, the two countries which have the highest standard of living in Europe.”
“The economic strength of the two countries is comparable: one has gold in its strong-boxes while the other has black gold at the bottom of the sea. They are refuge states that don’t want to share with others and are very stable compared with the rest of Europe,” he added.
Sverdrup went further: “Very high gross domestic product (GDP), an odd resemblance in their ‘offshore’ (oil and banking) activities, and much lower unemployment than elsewhere, are obvious reasons for not joining the EU.”
And both heavily subsidise their agricultural sectors, he added.
But their economic structures are very different, explains Rodolfo Laub from the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (Seco).
“Norway is much more industrial (44%) than Switzerland (27%),” he said. “One quarter of this is oil and gas production. This explains why Swiss trade is twice as significant with the other Nordic countries, whose industry is more diversified.”
Development of “new right”
The political similarities are more subtle, however.
“Switzerland has a referendum system while Norway is preoccupied by democracy, participation and equality. Switzerland is more attached to their independence, more individualistic and a lot less tied to their state than the Norwegians,” said Sverdrup.
The political scientist explains that historically Norwegian rightwing parties have backed EU membership, unlike in Switzerland.
“We don’t have a Christoph Blocher or Jean-Marie Le Pen, who are anti-EU, because the Fremskrittpartiet (FrP) [the conservative-liberal party] supports the free market and free trade and therefore an open European market.”
But both countries are witnessing a development of the “new right”, says Casasus.
“The FrP, the second largest party in Norway and main opposition party, won 22.9 per cent of parliamentary seats during the 2009 election. Its ideas are very close to those of the Swiss People’s Party – national values, rejection of the states and fight against ‘rampant islamisation’. They focus on the fears of the middle and working classes, and use a very politically correct language.”
But each state functions differently. In Switzerland executive power is held by a committee and governed by a magic formula for sharing out cabinet seats, while Norway is like European systems, with a majority and opposition.
“Norway is rather left-of-centre, unlike Switzerland and the most EU states, which are on the right,” added Casasus.
Leuthard’s state visit
Swiss President Doris Leuthard is travelling to Norway on October 14-15, 2010, for an official state visit at the invitation of King Harald and his wife Sonja.
Since 1847, trade relations between the two states, neither of which are members of the EU, fall under the European Free Trade Association (Efta) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Bilateral trade remains modest – Switzerland is Norway’s 19th largest trade partner.
Constitutional monarchy: head of state is King Harald V
Population: 4.6 million, including 2,123 Swiss (Switzerland’s population: 7.3 million of whom 1,643 are Norwegians)
Unemployment: 3.2% (Switzerland: 3.7%).
GDP per inhabitant: $56,875 (Switzerland: $43,100).
Public debt: 60.4% of GDP (Switzerland: 38.8%).
Exports: $120.5 billion (82.8% to the EU); first producer of gas and oil for Europe; supplies 30% of French, British and German annual consumption.
Signed up to the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, comprising 27 EU countries, Liechtenstein and Iceland. (Switzerland refused in 1992).
Rejected EU membership in referendums in 1972 and 1994. According to recent polls, 70% of people are still against joining the EU.
(Seco 2009 figures)
(Translated from French by Simon Bradley and Robert Brookes), swissinfo.ch