NORWAY, from the start the most skeptical of its Scandinavian neighbors about the benefits of membership in the European Union, voted ``no'' in a referendum Nov. 28. It was a cliffhanger, but after 96.6 percent of the votes were counted, 52.5 percent of Norwegians had come out against membership and 47.5 in favor.
The country won't take a place next to Sweden, Finland, and Austria as the newest EU members when the group reconvenes on Jan. 1. It will instead join Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Iceland as the only Western European nations outside the bloc. As Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland warned in a forceful pro-membership campaign, Norway won't be able to influence European cooperation and also won't be able to rely on the EU to help maintain its generous social and welfare programs.
But the country's rejection of the EU is understandable. In 1972, Norway voted against membership in the European Economic Community. Government, the news media, and businesses warned that rejection would destroy the national economy. On the contrary, the country has since become the largest oil exporter in Western Europe and has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Norway is experiencing an economic upswing while its neighbors are in the midst of a slump.
The greatest opposition to membership came from the northern section of the country, from rural villages and small coastal communities. There was an enormous voter turnout in these regions -
more than 90 percent. Fishermen did not want to open their waters to larger outside fleets, and farmers feared for their subsidies. Other Norwegians were primarily worried about losing their hard-won independence to a faraway bureaucracy.
Norway's rejection of membership will clearly be troubling to the EU, though it will not likely affect its plans to eventually include such countries as the Czech Republic and Poland. But concern about the EU among some member countries is growing. British Prime Minister John Major went head to head with ``Euroskeptics'' Nov. 28 over a bill to boost the country's contribution to Brussels. Mr. Major had said his Conservative government would resign and call a new election if it failed to win the parliamentary vote. The tactic worked - for now. Just as Norway has taken a position on the EU, Britain must work to reach its own consensus.