Probably the most important ongoing debate in Norway has taken place over the advantages and disadvantages of joining the European Union (EU), a debate that has occupied the attentions of leaders and the public alike. In 1990, a Labor government under Brundtland took power, and decided to press for Norwegian membership in the EU. To those worried about Norway's failure to sustain economic growth, EU membership held out the promise of greater access to the European market and a voice in EU decision-making. The country was already a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), which provided a restricted measure of access to the EU market but did not subject independent-minded Norway to the EU's regulatory machinery.
As part of the price of membership, the EU was demanding that Norway open its waters to fishing by fleets from current member countries. In addition, cheaper agricultural products from the EU would compete with the more expensive products from Norway's rural population. Neither fishing nor farming plays a major role in the country's economy, but virtually every Norwegian has a strong cultural link to the sea and to the land. This link to the purportedly simple and pure values associated with the hard lives of fishermen and farmers appeared sentimental to some, but to many Norwegians, coastal communities and rural villages express the ethos of Norway's sense of tradition and independence, thereby playing a strong role in forging the national identity. EU membership was defeated for a second time in a 1994 referendum by a majority of 52.4%; the first vote on EU memberships was in 1972.