Few things are less controversial in Norway than the Norwegian, or Nordic, co-operative model. All parties and organised interest groups are in principle in agreement that it is good for the country that we have a lot of trust, small differences, a great deal of co-operation and an extensive culture of compromise. Conflicts in the Norwegian society are to a large extent about how best to preserve the co-operative model and eyes are turned more towards the EU than towards the Nordic Region.
This winter there has been a heated controversy in Norway about the EU temporary agency work directive. The two junior parties in the government have decided that they do not want this directive to become part of the EEA Agreement. An almost united trade union movement also rejects it.
It is well-known that under the EEA Agreement Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have committed to adopting the EU regulations into their own. If we fail to implement a directive the consequence will be that the EU will push Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein a little out of the EU's inner market. For the Labour party (Arbeiderpartiet) and prime minister Jens Stoltenberg that is almost unthinkable. The party is determined to accept the temporary agency work directive to maintain the EEA Agreement.
The strange thing is that the EU's temporary agency work directive is seen as a very good piece of legislation by the trade union movement in the rest of Europe, and in other European countries it is the right-wing forces which are against it. The Norwegian trade union movement agrees with the European right-wing, while the Norwegian right-wing agrees with the EU left-wing.
The reason is that real life in the EU and in Norway is very different. In Europe the trade union movement is losing ground and sees the temporary agency work directive as an aid to counteract social dumping. The trade union movement in Norway is so strong that it has other options to ensure equal pay and working conditions for Norwegian and foreign workers. Thus, it is looking for possible negative consequences of the EU directive, and that could be that there will be fewer permanent jobs in Norwegian industry.
The dispute is illustrated in two ways. On the one hand it shows how strong the Norwegian or Nordic model is in Norway. The trade unions feel confident that they have the most to gain in an extensive co-operation with the employers and the authorities which characterises the Nordic model.
On the other hand, the controversy over the temporary agency work directive shows the pressure the Norwegian co-operation model is under. The Norwegian employers' organisations insist that Norway must take the EU's freedom of movement for workers seriously. This means that we must follow the EU's labour rules to the greatest possible degree. Where the Norwegian working environment law can be claimed to breach the EU regulations, the employers demand a change.
The political parties on the right support the employers' demands, but it is symptomatic of the Norwegian political climate that they are not very offensive. It has attracted attention this winter that the leader of the Conservative Party (Høyre), Erna Solberg, has used a very moderate rhetoric in relation to the labour organisations. The Conservative Party has not changed its views very much but it seems as if Solberg is now trying to lure voters over from the Labour Party. She should do like her Swedish sister party - win power by capturing the voters in the centre.
Some of the Conservatives' ideologists have in recent years been extremely irritated by the Nordic Social Democratic parties claiming ownership of the Nordic model. They point out that the historic development has been steady and almost unambiguously independent of the prime minister, and they point out that the Nordic model is about more than just co-operation between three parties in income and labour policies.
Small differences in income and great participation in society are two other characteristics of the Nordic model. Norway has few, if any, elite. Up to now practically all children attend the same school, the hospitals have been for everyone and there are only a very few private luxury nursing homes. In the small communities that make up Norway, the director and the janitor have both volunteered at the same sports club.
Social scientists who measure trust, social capital or social glue, are exhaustively quoted in public in Norway. They think they have demonstrated that we trust each other more in Norway than in most other countries. Trust in the authorities is also relatively good. Even if the media fuels discontent with schools, hospitals, nursing homes and politicians, it is surprising how many think that the situation is pretty good.
So far so good, if it hadn't been that trust capital was also exposed to pressure - also from the EU. Before the summer last year there was a large public report about how, in a time of increasing labour immigration and breaking down of borders, to prevent Norwegian welfare programmes from being exported abroad. The background was that there had been examples of foreign workers who spent a short time in Norway and then returned to their home country with Norwegian unemployment benefits and cash benefits for children under three years of age.
There were only a few examples and the regulations are tight enough not to open up for extensive abuse. It was, however, a wake-up call for Norwegian politicians. As the political parties now work with their own programmes for the next parliamentary period (which will apply form 2013), they are all doodling different models to ensure that the good welfare models will only apply to those who choose to live in Norway.
An important part of the Norwegian model is that it must be a strong safety net for all those who want to be part of Norwegian society, but the net must not be there for all the EU workers who are here for a short period.
The importance of the safety net is that almost no one in Norway is in doubt about it. There is full agreement that the state must be the individual's most important insurance company - if you become ill or unemployed, when you are old or when children go through education, the state will pay or pay most of it. Knowing this contributes to the relatively high willingness to pay taxes, and it also makes people flexible. When the risk of personal catastrophe is small, the will to venture and try new things increases.
These arguments for the Nordic model are well-known in the Region. There is also a large research project based at the University of Oslo where work is being done to put scientific concepts on the model. Norwegian politicians happily show up with their Nordic colleagues to talk about our success.
But that is about as far as Nordic co-operation stretches these days. Despite freethinking about a new Nordic union, and despite the fact that Jens Stoltenberg's father has produced an interesting report on Nordic defence and security co-operation, there is not much tangible activity in the Nordic arena.
There were some suggestions that Norway could spearhead efforts to create Nordic standards to make the financial institutions more robust in the forefront of a new financial crisis, but this has mostly boiled dry. It is the European perspective that matters. Nordic co-operation is only important at those times when it can help you get something extra in a European or global context.
There is also no sign that public interest for the Nordic Region is on the increase. When the Nordic Council tried to have an open day at its meetings in Oslo in the winter, there was one person who showed up. This meant that there was at least a story about the Nordic Council in the national media.