HERE COME THE FUNNY FARMERS
Tony Samstag on Norway's
Oslo AS THE Swedish Prime Minister, Mr Carl Bildt, was heard to remark mischievously just the other day, the so-called Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO is conclusive proof that 'nothing is impossi- ble . . . even for Norwegians'. Subsequent- ly, the diplomatic genius of the nation that launched the word `drittsekk' into global parlance was applied brilliantly to the merely difficult, ending Norway's first ever international hijack, peacefully, in a mere five and a quarter hours.
But it is in this month's parliamentary elections that the Norwegians have pulled off not only the incredible but the impossi- ble. The voters in their wisdom have man- aged to return to power a government committed to joining the European Com- munity while at the same time creating, out of the blue, a reactionary agrarian opposition that will almost certainly scup- per the membership application, creating in the process an oligarchy of know-noth- ing peasants in one of the world's richest countries.
I refer here to the Monster Raving Loony Farmers' Party (MRLFP), which prefers to be known, inaccurately in my view, as the Center Party. This formerly small band of zealots has almost trebled its mandate in the 165-member Storting (Par- liament) to 32 seats, displacing the pro- Europe Conservatives, with a humiliating 28 seats, as the second largest party.
The farmers' leader, Mrs Anne Enger Lahnstein, is a fresh-faced rustic with a deceptively bashful, lop-sided smile. She has already served notice that there will be 'hand-to-hand fighting' in the Storting should the minority Labour government of Mrs Gro Harlem Brundtland, with 67 seats, pursue Norway's EEC membership application, to which the MRLFP is rabid- ly opposed. Even the European Economic Area agreement, under which the non- member Efta countries endeavour to do business with the EEC, is anathema to the MRLFP, which will try to revoke it. Mrs Lahnstein would be prepared (she adds bashfully) to form a new government were Labour to go under.
Public opinion as a whole has been run- ning roughly two-to-one against EEC membership for some time, which is why the farmers did so well in the first place; and overall support for joining is now at its lowest ebb since the traumatic referen- dum of 1972, when a previous application was aborted after a viciously xenophobic campaign compared by those who lived through it to a civil war.
Even if a new referendum did approve entry, the Storting would then have to approve the application by a three-quar- ters majority. Including the Center Party, about 75 MPs are now committed to opposing membership, as against perhaps 90 in favour, far fewer than required. Sub- stantial anti-EEC factions in what until this month were the mainstream parties are already calling for the referendum to be dropped and for Norway to break off negotiations with Brussels. EEC negotia- tors have been heard musing sotto voce in the vicinity of journalists that Norway is now a lost cause as far as they are con- cerned.
Agriculture, in the Nordic context, includes fisheries and timber extraction as well as farming. In Norway the entire sec- tor accounts for no more than 3 per cent of GDP and 5 per cent of the workforce. The baleful influence of the farmer on national life has always been totally dis- proportionate to his minority status; now, with Center Party MPs accounting for roughly a fifth of the Storting, his strangle- hold on the economy can only tighten even as his isolationist approach to Europe condemns yet another generation of Norwegians to lives of quiet desperation on the margins of the industrialised West.
Agricultural subsidies have already cost Norway perhaps $20 billion since 1980. In return for all that money, Norwegians are privileged to subsist on a range of food- stuffs so meagre and yet so overpriced as to turn the stomach even of an English- man. The profligacy of the subsidies is matched only by the stringency of protec- tionist import regulations and distorted pricing policies. One of my favourite exam- ples is the annual cost to the taxpayer of $38,000 for every man or woman working in the Norwegian tomato industry, the product of which often retails for £2 per pound.
Quite apart from keeping Norway out of the EEC, and doing its best to wreck the EEA agreement, the Center Party will be yet another powerful force for reaction in a country that is already something of a Stone Age relic. The farmers will resist any attempts to ease Norway's draconian restrictions on alcohol, legal sales of which now account anyway for less than half of the total consumed. The MRLFP will seek to increase personal taxes, already crip- pling, in order to 'level' incomes, at least those that do not derive from agriculture. They will insist on Christianity as 'the ideo- logical platform' in education.
They will strive, they promise, for poli- cies of low economic growth, for reasons of environmental conservation, while pro- moting what the party literature calls 'self- sufficiency'. One practical example of both is the suggestion made during the cam- paign that Norway should start manufac- turing washing machines: these would be hopelessly uncompetitive abroad, but they would sell to captive consumers at home once imports had been banned or taxed out of the market. As for foodstuffs, according to party literature total self-suf- ficiency in meat, milk and milk products, eggs, potatoes and 'vegetables suitable for long storage' would be reinforced by 'a strong border protection for agricultural goods produced in Norway'.
Despite the verbose commitments to its various 'green' policies, however eccentri- cally defined, the MRLFP will encourage its constituents to continue their war of extermination against virtually all wild predators, which it perceives as threats to crops and livestock, while even the most primeval forest will be subject to harvest- ing like any other exploitable life form. Commercial whaling will continue, proba- bly increase; destructive overfishing of all marine species will resume as if the catas- trophic population crashes of recent years had been just a bad dream.
As I write, about 80 Bosnian refugees are petitioning an astonished Norwegian government to send them back to the war zone because they are so unhappy here. Somebody must have told them the Mon- ster Raving Loony Farmers were coming.