Norway: An Introduction to Norway


About Norway

Norway is a Scandinavian country that lies to the north of continental Europe on the western seaboard. It has a border to the east with Sweden, but also has a shorter border in the north with Finland and another in the far north with Russia. Norway also has administrative responsibility for the territories of Svalbard and Jan Mayen and asserts a territorial claim in Antarctica [Queen Maud Land and its continental shelf.]There are three official languages in Norway – Bokmål and Nynorsk are used throughout Norway and Sami is found in the north. However, most Norwegians also speak some English and many speak excellent English.

The country is generally rugged, with a high central plateau dissected by deep, long, narrow fjords and fertile valleys. The south-west [Vestlandet] in contrast, is generally of much lower elevation and much less rugged. This area is very important agriculturally. As the percentage of arable land in the country is only 3% of the total, the significance of the region to the agricultural output of the country can be appreciated.

Norway is an hereditary constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected government. The country gained its independence in 1905, celebrated on its national day on May 17. The constitution is from 1814. The Head of State is King Harald V. Although the monarch’s position is largely ceremonial, the Government – Council of Ministers or Regering [Kings’ Council]- is selected from the members of The Parliament [Storting.] The Storting has 165 members. The national government operates through Departments of State – Defence, Foreign Affairs, etc. Local government is organised into Counties [19 Fylke)]and Local Authorities [Kommune.] Elections are held every four years and selection is by a complicated system of proportional representation; there is universal sufferage at 18.

Norway voted against EU membership in a 1994 referendum. However, except for agriculture and fisheries, Norway enjoys free trade with the EU under the EEA agreement. Many of the EU’s directives on goods, persons, services and capital have been adopted by Norway. The country is not a member of the Economic and Monetary Union and does not have a fixed exchange rate, although government policy has been to align the Norwegian krone with European currencies, now the Euro.

The unit of currency is the Norwegian Krone [NOK, Kr] of 100 øre. However, as the smallest coin is the 50 øre piece, prices in shops are rounded up or down to the nearest 50 øre. GDP in 2003 [est] was $171.6 billion with a growth rate of 0.6%. Norway is one of the world’s richest countries in per capita terms. A net exporter of oil and gas, the third largest exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia and Russia. Norway has established a ‘Petroleum Fund’ [Oljefond] using the excess revenues from its oil and gas resources. The Fund stood at $ 119 billion in 2004, but Norway has still been able to expand its social welfare system.

Employment by sector: Services 74%; industry 22%; agriculture, forestry & fishing 4%.

GDP by sector: Services 61.2%; industry 36.2%; agriculture 2.5%.

Natural resources: Oil, gas, fish, timber, hydroelectric power, mineral ores.

Agricultural Products: dairy, livestock, grain [barley, oats, wheat], potatoes and other vegetables, fruits and berries, furs, wool.

Industry: Petroleum and gas, refinery products, food processing, shipbuilding, pulp and paper products, hydro electric power, metals [zinc, aluminium, nickel], fertilizers, timber, mining, textiles, electronics, fishing, fish farming.

Trade [2003]: Exports $62.27 billion. Major markets: U.K. [21.3%], Germany [13%], Netherlands [9.6%], U.S. [8.7%], France [8.32%], Sweden [7.4%].

Imports $40.19 billion. Major suppliers: Sweden [16.1%], Germany [13.3%], Denmark [7.9%], U.K. [7.2%], U.S. [5.2%], Netherlands [4.5%], China [4.4%], France [4.3%], Italy [4%)]

The climate in Norway shows quite marked regional variations. Along the coast, even in the far north-west, the maritime Gulf Stream influence produces a somewhat milder climate than further inland with wet winters and warm summers. Inland and to the east the climate is more extreme, with heavy winter snowfall over the whole of the inner plateau and hot, dry summers. In the north, and on the high ground, winter snows can last well into early summer months. Remember also that much of Norway is the land of the midnight sun during the summer, so summer days can be both hot and long. Conversely, in the winter the days are short – and the land of the midnight sun becomes the land of 24hr night. There is a Norwegian saying that is well worth bearing in mind when deciding on appropriate clothing: ‘There is no bad weather, just bad clothing’. Norwegians don’t let any sort of weather stop them going about their daily lives.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church is the state church, but Norway has complete religious freedom. Most Norwegians are confirmed at age 16 and are thus members of the Church. Although church attendance has fallen in recent years, Sunday is still very definitely the Sabbath and one should respect this. Unlike many other parts of Europe and Scandinavia, most shops are closed on Sunday and there is very little Sunday trading.

Education is free up to university level and is compulsory from ages 6 to 16. Before age 6, children are cared for in ‘barnehager’ – kindergardens or nursery units. Post-16 children attend ‘videregående’ a high school where both academic and vocational courses are taught. Many Norwegians continue their education at college or university after videregående. There are universities in Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen, Bodo and, most recently, Stavanger. A significant number of Norwegian students continue their studies at universities abroad.

Norway retains a form of National Service. At least 12 months of military service and training are required of every eligible male. If military service is not completed, two years of social service is required.

Norway’s health system includes free hospital care, cash benefits during illness and pregnancy, and other medical and dental plans. Emergency treatment is available at hospitals and at the ‘legevakt’ – emergency treatment centre, staffed by a doctor. However, these are not always open 24hrs and are sometimes difficult to locate. For EU citizens, the relevant health care document should be carried [E111 or its equivalent.] Outside the major towns and cities there may be a considerable distance between treatment centres. A charge is made for consultations, treatment and prescriptions. Most medicine is only available from a chemist / pharmacy [apotek], though there are limited supplies of some common pain relievers [parcetamol, for example] at supermarkets.

The Norwegian legal system is headed by the special High Court of the Realm that is the only court qualified to hear impeachment cases. The normal court system includes the Supreme Court [17 permanent judges and a president], courts of appeal, city and county courts, an industrial relations court, and conciliation / arbitration councils. There is a great emphasis in the lower courts on seeking a settlement agreeable to both parties, often involving the payment of compensation. However, for many offences a prison sentence is possible, though punishment and rehabilitation is a major theme.

Norway has a relatively low crime rate. Most crimes involve the theft of personal property and are generally committed by criminals known to the police. Violent crime is rare, though not entirely absent. Visitors should take normal precautions to protect their person and possessions. The phone number for the police in Norway is 112.

Public transport is very good, with regular bus services covering all urban areas, the wider countryside and linking all major centres. The railway system is somewhat limited, but the trains are fast and the service efficient. The roads are generally good, especially in or around urban areas. Remember, however, that there are many toll roads in Norway [the tolls being used to finance road improvements.] As journey times by road or rail can be excessive, most Norwegians, and all business travellers, prefer to hop on a plane. Almost any place in Norway can be reached via an internal flight. The service is frequent and reliable, though some routes are not direct and involve a trip via Oslo or Stavanger, leading to an increase in both cost and journey times.

Most roads outside urban areas are two lane, but in rural areas may be single-track. Roads throughout Norway may be winding with many tunnels. Remember that in the winter part of the year Norwegian motorists have to use studded tyres or winter tyres. On some mountain roads [winter roads] chains also have to be carried, and many mountain passes are closed by snow in the winter.

All drivers must carry a valid driving licence with them while driving. The police and traffic department carry out random checks of vehicles and drivers and you may be stopped at any time. Norwegian speed limits are in kilometres per hour and are low by European standards. The penalties for exceeding the speed limit are, at the same time, the highest in the world. Speeding by as little as 5 kmh is enough to attract a significant fine [currently 500 NOK around £40 or $70], payable on the spot or by bank transfer within 3 days. In the same way, the penalties for driving whilst under the influence of alcohol are very severe, even by European standards. Fines are based on monthly salary and are levied according to a sliding scale. The blood alcohol limit is 0.02%. Most Norwegians do not drive if they intend to drink. A good host will call a taxi for his / her guests. It is worth remembering that one can be stopped the ‘morning after’ with a residual alcohol level that is still over the limit.

Norwegian law requires car headlights to be switched on when the vehicle is in motion and seatbelts must be worn by driver and passengers. There are two classes of road in Norway with a different rule for determining ‘right of way’. On main roads [so-called ‘diamond’ roads, indicated by a yellow diamond road sign] vehicles joining the road from the side have to give way [yield.] On other roads, drivers have to give way to vehicles from the right. This can be confusing at first, especially as Norwegian drivers often exercise their right of way without checking left first.