Thomas Hylland Eriksen: Norway and the transformation of the EU

This post is part of a feature on anthropologists on the EU at 60, moderated and edited by Don Kalb (Central European University and University of Bergen).

In Norway, the second referendum over EU membership in 1994 resulted in almost the exact same figures as the first one, back in 1972. The proposal to join the European Union—backed by the two largest parties (Labour and Conservatives), the main newspapers, and the private sector—was defeated, admittedly by a narrow margin—52 percent against 48 percent—but defeated nonetheless. I found myself in a tiny minority, as a left-of-center intellectual favorable to membership in the union, losing a few friends in the process. In Norway, leftist movements have been staunch nationalists for decades, and the very term “union” had unfortunate connotations in that it recalled the unpopular, enforced union with Sweden that lasted from 1814 to 1905. A widespread view also held that the EU was mainly an economic union whose sole beneficiaries were the already rich and powerful.

Seeing the EU primarily as a political project, and one of identity, produced a strikingly different image of the union. I had friends who were committed federalists—one would later become the foreign minister for Labour, another a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics—and often spoke about the virtues of multiple identities, occasionally invoking imagery from Barcelona, where, allegedly, you could often see four flags (Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, and the EU) waving next to each other in front of public buildings, indicating that living with overlapping or nested identities was not a source of deep existential problems until irresponsible political leaders decided that it should be so.

These were the upbeat early 1990s; it was a time for celebrating Indian deregulation, US President Bill Clinton’s saxophone, and cultural hybridity. The ambitious if controversial Maastricht Treaty had been signed, and new publications such as the weekly newspaper The European aimed to contribute to the creation of a pan-European public sphere, as did the new mobility programs for students and academics. A word that became familiar to people interested in European matters at the time was the initially Catholic term “subsidiarity,” which refers to the principle that political decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, enabling those affected by the outcome should be able to influence it effectively.

The Berlin Wall was gone; the still embryonic Internet held out a promise of deterritorialized, democratized sharing of knowledge; and as for myself, I had for years carried out research in ethnically complex societies (Mauritius and Trinidad), raising some of political anthropology’s classic questions, including the possibilities for shared national identities transcending or encompassing the segmentary and often volatile instability of religion and ethnicity at the scalar level of the state. My interpretation of Europe and its possibilities was doubtless influenced by my professional work, which implicitly showed the dangers of fragmenting identity politics and the mistakes of conflating class with ethnicity.

Just as the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Denmark had joined at the time of the first Norwegian referendum, Sweden and Finland joined on this occasion, Norway again preferring to stay aloof. Some foreign commentators assumed that Norway—or, to be accurate, a slim majority of its voters—had opted to stay out “because they could afford to,” given that its main export products, oil and gas, were strong bargaining chips and needed no special protection. However, what tipped the scales toward a narrow but loud “No” was probably nationalist identity. Keep in mind that the Scandinavian countries comprise two of Europe’s oldest nation-states and one of the youngest. In Norway, state sovereignty could never be taken for granted. It was gained, briefly, in 1814, but almost immediately lost; it was recovered only in 1905 but lost again a generation later to the German occupation. The exhilaration of having sovereignty, enunciated annually on Constitution Day by the vast majority of Norwegians, reverberates through recent history, continues to be a major source of consensus in the country and kept us out of the EU.

As befits a member of the currently despised class of uprooted cosmopolitans, I read about the referendum outcome in the Times of India, over a black coffee in a Chennai guesthouse. My day was warm and sunny on the outside, courtesy Tamil Nadu, but grim and gray on the inside, like a Norwegian November day.

Fast forward 20-something years. What has become of the EU? On the positive side, it began to expand into the poorer regions of the continent around the time of the Norwegian referendum, thereby confirming its commitment to a continentwide social policy. Yet the main tendencies have been of another kind. Take the euro. Had the Brussels technocrats listened to anthropologists and not merely to economists, they might have realized, before it was too late, that a shared currency would not turn Greeks into Germans, Portugal into France. It was a distinctly dismal idea. While the transformation of the EU into a neoliberal business conglomerate is disappointing, the other main tendency in contemporary Europe provides a major argument for supporting the union malgré tout. As an ambivalently EU-friendly acquaintance muttered, under his breath, on the eve of the Norwegian referendum: “I’d rather live in a market place than a battlefield.”

Those of us who saw the potential of the EU in its multiscalar political mission would not only nod in the direction of the nested Catalonian identities of Barcelona. We would also argue that there is something deeply civilizing about a political entity that forces the Brits to enter into compromises, where the Germans have to accept that they—like everyone—are a minority, where the French realize that most Europeans are not, and do not intend to become, Frenchmen, and where dual, hybrid, or messy identities are seen not as an aberration or an anomaly but as a perfectly normal thing. In Norway, immigrants were more positive to EU membership than the majority; by becoming European, perhaps they might escape enforced Norwegianness (cross-country skiing, inedible food, incomprehensible dialects).

Post-Maastricht Europe was upbeat and optimistic, not least regarding questions of identity. The increasingly aggressive political polarization witnessed today shows that the grandiose European identity project was a failure, but it was an elite-driven top-down project from the beginning. At the 1992 European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) conference in Prague, I discussed a Maastricht brochure with a colleague from a recently liberated East European country. He soon identified the similarities with Stalinism in the imagery—happy young people from different European countries—and rhetoric.

And yet, despite what the Wilders, Le Pens, and Farages of the continent want us to believe, it is not the suspicion of foreigners or the fear of Islam that lies at the root of the current problem of legitimacy. It is the widespread feeling of not being listened to, owing to a widening scalar gap between those deciding and those decided on. The grievances are real and reasonable, but for want of credible alternatives, they have been sent to the wrong address—that is, right-wing, xenophobic populism. This may still be corrected, possibly with the help of a revitalized concept, and comprehensive practices, of subsidiarity.

The European Union as a civilizing and inclusive project of identity, where multiple allegiances are possible and encouraged—and where diversity is taken for granted as a social fact, not as a social problem to be engineered—may seem a more distant and abstract ideal in 2017 than it did in 1994. Precisely for this reason, it needs all the support it can get.

What about Norway? Well, it is unlikely to hold another referendum. A Norwegian political project without a strong nationalist agenda is now not only unrealistic but unthinkable. Nevertheless, we became a member of the union, admittedly without voting rights, through the expensive and impractical European Economic Area (EEA) agreement. In the best of possible worlds, however, Norway would have joined the EU this year, and the benefit would have been mutual.

Thomas Hylland Eriksen is a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo, principal investigator of the ERC project “Overheating: The Three Crises of Globalization” (2012–2017), and outgoing president of EASA. Between 2004 and 2012, he directed interdisciplinary research projects on diversity and cohesion in Norway. His latest book in English is Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

Cite as: Hylland Eriken, Thomas. 2017. “Norway and the transformation of the EU.” FocaalBlog, 27 March.