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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Norway Votes Down EU Membership

OSLO, Norway -- European leaders said Tuesday they were disappointed but undeterred by Norway's rejection of the European Union, but added that the door to EU membership would remain open to the Nordic country in the future.

With 96.6 percent of the votes in the two-day referendum counted, computer projections showed 52.5 percent had rejected membership and 47.5 percent had been in favor.

In Bonn, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he regretted the rejection, but emphasized that membership was still an option in the future if the Norwegian people chose.

"I have noted with regret the rejection of EU membership by the citizens of Norway," Kohl said. Germany holds the rotating six-month EU presidency.

"Of course the German government respects the sovereign decision of the people of Norway. But the door to the European Union remains open to Norway despite this outcome. Norway will still be welcome in the future."

Top EU officials in Brussels added that, despite the rejection, Norway could not avoid being integrated into the giant economic bloc.

"We are still linked with Norway," said EU Commission President Jacques Delors.

He pointed out that Norway must play by many of the EU's rules because it is a member of the European Economic Area, which guarantees free movement of goods, capital and people, between the EU and Norway.

"We should not overdramatize,'' added EU Foreign Affairs Chief Hans van den Broek, noting that Norway was firmly anchored to Europe through the EEA, NATO and other international institutions despite Monday's snub to the EU.

The impact of Norway's rejection for Europe is partly blunted by approval by three other countries earlier this year -- Austria, Sweden and Finland -- a development that means the EU next January will expand from 12 to 15 nations.

Norway's rejection was the second time it has opted out of the community. The first time was in 1972.

The biggest personal loser in the referendum was undoubtedly the country's prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who staked much of her political prestige in heading the "Yes" movement.

"It was the people who made the decision, and we as a country have to live with that,'' she said after a tense night of vote-counting that failed to reveal a clear result for hours.

However, Brundtland's overall popularity and the absence of any obvious challenger in her own party would seem to assure her future as premier for at least the short term.

The outcome left EU opponents ecstatic. "With this, we have said 'Yes' to Europe, and 'Yes' to international solidarity, but we don't want to join the union,'' said a beaming anti-EU leader, Anne Enger Lahnstein.

The "No'' side claimed membership would have meant submitting to rule from Brussels, and that open borders would have brought immigrants, illegal drugs and crime.

They pointed out that nonmember Norway, a country of 4.3 million people, is Western Europe's largest oil exporter and has one of the world's highest living standards. (AP, Reuters, LAT)