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Europe: Debate Over Border Controls Threatens Norwegian Government

Copenhagen, 10 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Norwegian government is engulfed in a serious crisis after a heated debate over whether Norway should join the Schengen agreement on border controls.

The centrist three-party coalition of Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik may have to resign unless it convinces key coalition members that Norway's standing in Europe will be damaged if it refuses to join. Schengen establishes common immigration and police policies and travel without passports among member countries.

Ironically, Bondevik's government plunged into the current crisis soon after it reached a budget compromise with the right-wing parties in Norway's parliament, or Storting.

The problems for Bondevik began when Per Olaf Lundteigen, a leader of one of the government's coalition partners, requested that the prime minister oppose joining Schengen for fear it would involve a "considerable" loss of sovereignty. In principle, all three coalition partners are against Schengen, but the government has begun the discussion because a parliamentary majority favors it.

The divisions in Bondevik's government have become so deep that he has to cope with what appears to be an impossible dilemma. If he urges support for Schengen, his government may fall apart if some key ministers resign. If he does not support it, his government may be forced out of office by a majority in the Storting.

Observers point out that Bondevik has to find a compromise before early January when the Schengen agreement is expected to be fully discussed in parliament.

Norway is one of Europe's richest nations, mainly due to the large oil fields it has in the North Sea. The country is a founding member of NATO but it has opted out of the European Union through a series of referendums. The latest took place in 1996 when a slim majority of voters rejected EU membership. However, current opinion polls indicate a majority would support joining.

Schengen is a very sensitive issue throughout the Scandinavian countries for two reasons. First, many Scandinavians object to the establishment of common police practices and the harmonization of immigration policies for fear they will lose control of matters vital to their interests. In addition, some citizens object to the establishment of Schengen's computerized data bank where details of all the residents of member states are kept.

The five Nordic countries - Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland - have for 50 years lived with their own Nordic Passport Union, an agreement similar to Schengen. For the time being, Denmark, Sweden and Finland are members of the EU while Norway and Iceland are not. None are currently members of Schengen but Denmark, Sweden and Finland are on the verge of joining. When they do, it will likely bring an end to the effective functioning of the Nordic Passport Union.