Almost three decades ago, Norway voted to stay outside the EU in a referendum but remains closely aligned with the bloc, paying for access to the internal market with hefty grants to 15 economically weaker member countries. The system is called the European Economic Area (EEA) and Norway Grants system. However, in recent years, Oslo has started demanding that in exchange for the grants, the recipients have to respect values enshrined in EU law such as minority rights and the rule of law.
And at times, the nordic country has even gone further than the EU itself when it comes to enforcing them.
In 2014, Norway suspended all grants to Hungary — €214million (£193.6million) for the current 2014-21 funding period — after finding Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government had sought too much control over how the EEA and Norway Grants cash is administered in Hungary, violating the scheme’s rules.
The grants are still suspended.
Then, earlier this year, Norway froze €65million (£58.8million) in funding for a project supporting Polish courts and correctional facilities after becoming concerned about a loss of judicial independence in Poland under the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Moreover, at the end of last month, Norway excluded a raft of Polish towns from a €100million (£90.5million) funding programme after those towns banned what they termed “LGBT ideology”.
Marte Ziolkowski, a political adviser at the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs, told POLITICO: “All the activities financed by EEA and Norway Grants require those involved to respect and actively promote fundamental rights and freedoms, including minority rights.
“We regard funding of Polish state entities that have adopted resolutions declaring themselves LGBT-ideology free zones to be in violation of the regulations of the EEA and Norway Grants.”
Norway’s move does not just sting Hungary and Poland in their finances, though – but also highlights the European Union’s own struggles to act in a prompt and effective way.
The Norwegian move comes at a sensitive time for the EU.
National governments and the European Parliament are currently stuck in a back and forth about how to handle member countries — in particular Hungary and Poland — that stand accused of various failures to respect European values as defined in the EU’s treaties.
In contrast, Norway’s move to cut funding to the Polish towns came relatively swiftly and should soon be enforced, partly because while Oslo can act independently, the European Council must take into account the views of all member countries — including those Brussels might want to sanction.
The Norwegian government said it examined the values set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and judged the Polish declarations on LGBTQ-free zones to be incompatible with those values.
Ziolkowski of the Norwegian foreign ministry said: “The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has stated that these zones are humanity-free zones and that they have no place in Europe.
“And they have no place in our grant schemes either.”