Norway, Switzerland and EU laws

2 March 2016
What was claimed

Norway and Switzerland have to accept EU laws despite not being members in order to trade with it.

Our verdict

This is about right. Both Norway and Switzerland keep out of some EU activities, such as the Common Agricultural Policy. But they bring many of their laws into line with EU rules, on the single market in particular. Norway incorporates single market rules as they’re made, while Switzerland accepts EU law from time to time in return for more market access.

“The government has published an analysis of the UK's options if it left the EU… the document says Norway and Switzerland's trading arrangements outside the EU require them to… be subject to other EU laws.”

BBC News, 2 March 2016

“In practice… Switzerland has a similar position to Norway – it is obliged to follow EU rules in its own laws.”

Government report, 2 March 2016

Norway and Switzerland aren’t members of the European Union. But they both access the single market.

This does involve accepting rules set by the EU.

Norway has full access to the single market, and continuously changes its laws about it as and when they’re changed by the EU. Switzerland has more limited access, and has to accept new chunks of EU law only if it negotiates more access.

Many Leave campaigners say that the UK could negotiate its own unique deal with the EU if we left, better than what Norway or Switzerland have.

EU rules in Norway

Norway has to abide by EU rules that it doesn't formally decide, as part of the European Economic Area. This extends the EU single market to Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein without making them EU members.

A major report for the Norwegian government, called “Outside and Inside”, has said that "Norway is in practice bound to adopt EU policies and rules on a broad range of issues without being a member and without voting rights".

As EU rules are made, they’re passed through a committee, and in significant cases considered by Norway’s parliament, to put into its own laws.

Norway doesn't get to help make the rules it "downloads", the way EU member countries do. But it can try to influence them from the outside.

Norway has “plenty” of opportunities to make its voice heard when the EU makes decisions, a 2015 paper for the think tank Civitas argues. In particular, it can try to influence proposed laws at an early stage.

Civitas also points to the fact that Norway can in theory refuse to apply EU laws in extreme cases, although others say this is “politically unusable”. In 2011 the Norwegian government said that it would use this power over an EU postal directive. It held off from passing this law until 2013 when a new government decided to reverse this decision.

In much the same way, our own Parliament could pass a law explicitly going against EU rules, but there would likely be political consequences. 

The House of Commons Library, in its research on the subject, concludes that for all that Norway can “attend and talk at various meetings”, it has “little say”.

Norway also takes part in EU programmes beyond the single market, such as the Schengen passport-free area and police cooperation.

It isn’t involved in all things EU, though. For example, it doesn't take part in the Common Agricultural Policy, which accounts for a lot of the EU budget.

How much influence does the EU have in Norway overall?

The government’s report today says that:

“An independent study commissioned by the Norwegian Government in 2012 calculated that, in return for its access to the EU market, Norway has had to incorporate approximately three-quarters of all EU laws into its own domestic legislation”.

This is a reference to the Outside and Inside report. It looked across the various ways that Norway cooperates with the EU—in the single market, energy, environment, science, etc.

While emphasising that this isn’t an exact calculation, it concluded that Norway is roughly three quarters integrated into the EU compared to a typical EU member country.

This is put differently in the introduction translated into English, which says that:

“Norway has incorporated approximately three-quarters of all EU legislative acts into Norwegian legislation”.

Other researchers have suggested this figure refers to analysis later in the report which said that around 70% of EU directives—one kind of law—also applied to Norway.

The report said that the figure is around 28% if you include more types of law, not just directives.

The Norwegian campaign against EU membership arrived at a figure of 9%.

These calculations suffer from the same flaw as trying to work out how much of UK law comes from the EU. Some laws are very important, and some are insignificant.

Leaving the numbers aside, the overall point the Outside and Inside report makes is that the EU has a great deal of influence over what Norway does.

Switzerland voluntarily adapts to EU laws from time to time

The Swiss relationship with the EU is different to Norway’s.

It’s also got a trading relationship through the European Free Trade Association, without being part of the European Economic Area.

This also involves taking on EU laws.

But instead of laws constantly flowing into its legal system, it negotiates new treaties or amends old ones in return for access to the single market and other EU activities.

Some of the important treaties are linked, so that if Switzerland or the EU pulls out of one, the others also collapse.

This system means that Switzerland doesn’t formally lack control over its own laws.

It’s under strain, though, after a Swiss referendum vote to cap immigration from the EU.

This has been criticised by the EU as against the rules of the treaty dealing with free movement of people, and led to the suspension of talks over cooperation in research funding.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about how to resolve this. News outlets report that the current Swiss deal with the EU could be under threat.

And the EU has previously said that it’s concerned about the way this system is working in general.

Full Fact fights bad information

Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.