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Reasons to smile all-round in Norway

Come 2018, the country should beat its Nordic neighbours by being the first nation in the world to power itself fully through renewable energy

Norwegian is a funny language, and it has few adjectives. It has a sing-song musical quality to it that makes its speakers engage in cheek-massaging pronunciations of words heavy in sharp vowels.

There is no word for ‘please’ and instead Norwegians would ask each other for salt, “vaer sa snill” or “be so kind”. The Norwegian word for ‘happiness’ is “lykke”, and since March of this year, the annual international rankings of countries lists Norwegians as the happiest people on Earth, their nation up from fourth last year. The ironic thing is that Norwegians have every reason to feel unhappy, given what has happened to the price of oil.

Since the early 1970s and the discovery of vast quantities of oil and gas in the North Sea that separates it from the island of Great Britain, Norway has funded its generous cradle-to-grave social programmes on revenues generated from its energy fields. But Norwegians also continued to pay high income, consumption and luxury taxes, while a succession of mostly Social Democrat-led coalitions squirrelled the bulk of the revenues away in its sovereign wealth fund for the inevitable rainy day when it runs out. For every £1 (Dh4.95) the United Kingdom generated from North Sea oil revenue, the Norwegians made £410 more. Put it another way, by June of this year, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund was the world’s largest, was worth almost a trillion dollars — $980 billion (Dh3.6 trillion) and is worth two-and-a-half times the size of Norway’s annual gross domestic product. Norway’s 5.3 million people still pay an average of 45 per cent personal income tax on their earnings, the Value Added Tax rate is at 25 per cent and incomes are taxed on an average four times higher than those in Hong Kong or at twice the rate of Americans.

But they are still the happiest people in the world. What’s more surprising is that Norwegians have endured some pretty hard blows over the past three years. The collapse in the price of crude oil saw 50,000 — or 20 per cent — lose their jobs in the oil-and-gas industries. Government revenues from the oil-and-gas sector also fell by 40 per cent and overall unemployment rose from 3.3 per cent in May 2014 to the current rate of 4.5 per cent.

At the height of the refugee crisis in the summer of 2015, an estimated 31,000 refugees were taken in by Norway — an influx that resulted in heightened anti-foreigner feelings and tighter immigration rules.

And still Norwegians remained happy.

For Norwegians, playing an active role in the local community is essential, and special weekend days once or twice a year are designated as “dugnad” — where all the apartment dwellers in a building would turn out and voluntarily tidy the place up. It’s a concept that has been embraced by the newly-arrived refugees, and are only too glad to get out and meet neighbours and break down barriers as they paint common areas, plant shrubs tidy the place up.

And with all this happiness going around, there really was never any serious threat to the centre-right government of Prime Minister Erna Solberg, which was returned by voters in national elections on September 11. Her party had campaigned on its record of handling immigration, the energy sector, the economy and employment — and taxes — and Solberg, in conjunction with the small-government and lower-tax Progress Party, were given 89 seats to govern in the 169-seat unicameral house with the backing of two other centrist parties. Given the splintering of parties across the political spectrum, it’s pretty impossible for any single party to govern outright. What the election did do, however, is confirm the shift to the right that had occurred in the 2013 elections that brought Solberg, 56, to power initially. That ended eight years of Labour Party rule, with Labour winning only 49 seats — down from the 55 it had captured in 2015. If there was a reason for Labour party leader Johas Gahr Store to be happy, it was in knowing his party finished with one seat more than Solberg’s Conservatives.

Even women now have reason to smile, with 40 per cent of the seats in parliament reserved for female members.

On the campaign trail itself, the Green party, which opposes further oil exploration in the Arctic, seemed to gain ground. It went into the vote with one seat — and ended up with one seat in the new parliament. If anything, the Greens have reason to smile and by happy because its policies have been largely adopted by those in governments.

As it stands now, 98.8 per cent of Norway’s energy is from renewable sources, mostly hydroelectric, but with wind and wave sources now coming fully on-stream. By 2018, Norway should beat its Nordic neighbours by being the first nation in the world to power itself fully through renewable energy.

If there is anything on the horizon that is likely to wipe the smile off the face of Norwegians, it will likely come down to its future relationship with the rest of Europe. Norwegians narrowly rejected joining the European Union (EU) in 1994 and similarly voted against joining its precursor, the European Economic Community in 1972. Norway, however, along with Leichtenstein and Iceland, is part of the European Economic Area (EEA), meaning that they abide by the principles of free movement of goods, labour and services along with the full 28 members of the EU. That will all change, however, come March 29, 2019, when the United Kingdom leaves the EU proper.

Oslo has always retained close ties with the UK, and with Britain yet to reach any deal or even commit to remaining inside the EEA, Norwegians are on the edge. Trygve Slagsvold Vedum and the Centrist Party campaigned for Norway to renegotiate a new deal with the EU. His party won 19 seats, up from the 10 it had on the dissolution of parliament — yet another Norwegian with reason to be “lykke”.

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