UPDATED: Reports of a touchy, alleged conflict between the government and King Harald were playing out in Norwegian media on Tuesday, after newspaper Dagbladet wrote that Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg wanted the monarch to stay away from the government’s first Veterans’ Day ceremonies on Sunday. The king himself later said he agreed to let Stoltenberg’s government handle the event, and Stoltenberg flatly denied any snub.
“Of course no one has refused to let the king take part (in the ceremonies),” Stoltenberg told news bureau NTB Tuesday afternoon. “There was full agreement on this.”
According to Dagbladet, Stoltenberg didn’t want King Harald to award the medals that were presented to Norway’s new war heroes on May 8, which long was known as Liberation Day. Stoltenberg’s Labour-led government made a concerted effort this year to use the day to honor military veterans and those who have distinguished themselves in battle. Liberation Day was renamed “Veterans’ Day,” in what government officials claimed was meant to give veterans the recognition and credit they deserve.
Instead the government ended up landing in a messy controversy that opposition parties were using for all it was worth on Tuesday. By mid-day, Progress Party leader Siv Jensen was demanding on national radio that Stoltenberg apologize to King Harald, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that there is a “tradition” for the monarch to personally award Norway’s highest military honors, while Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party was calling the alleged royal snub “a scandal.”
That’s because, according to Dagbladet, King Harald was hurt that his presence allegedly wasn’t desired at the government’s Veterans’ Day ceremonies. Dagbladet cited anonymous sources who claimed King Harald had nothing else on his program Sunday afternoon, had wanted to attend the ceremonies and wanted to personally award the prestigious medal called Krigskorset med sverd (War Cross with Sword) to three officers based on their service in Afghanistan.
“This is really the king’s area, in fact it’s part of what’s most important to him,” one source in the military told Dagbladet. “King Harald is very concerned about veterans. He has made it clear that veterans aren’t only heroes from World War II.”
But Stoltenberg didn’t want the king present, according to Dagbladet’s sources. Some political observers speculated on Tuesday that perhaps Stoltenberg wanted his government to get the credit for recognizing veterans, and not be overshadowed or overruled by officials from the Royal Palace. The new Veterans’ Day ceremonies were a government initiative, not the palace’s initiative, so instead of the king handing out the medals, they were awarded by Defense Chief and General Harald Sunde.
Asked why the king was not present at the Veterans’ Day ceremonies, palace spokesperson Marianne Hagen told Dagbladet: “The War Cross was this year awarded on May 8 by the defense chief on behalf of the king.” She added that “the king and prime minister have agreed on this.”
Asked whether it wouldn’t have been “natural” for King Harald himself to award the medals, Hagen said she had no further comment. Asked whether the king had other appointments on his program on Sunday, Hagen said he did not.
Neither Stoltenberg, who has otherwise been on sick leave the past week because of sinus trouble, nor his staff had commented on the controversy by early afternoon, but Stoltenberg later dismissed any notion of a conflict with King Harald.
“I often have contact with the king, among other places in the Council of State, but there is a long tradition in Norway against revealing details of these conversations,” Stoltenberg told NTB. “It may well be that we do things differently in the future, but part of the point here was that it was both the government and the parliament that was honouring the veterans and soldiers. And that’s what happened on Sunday, when both I and Søreide held speeches.”
Defense Minister Grete Faremo, who also played a role at the ceremonies on Sunday, maintained that either the king or the prime minister should be able to award military honors but also noted that perhaps the king will be asked to do so in the future. She insisted, however, that the government, the parliament and the Royal Palace “stand united” behind the recognition of the veterans.
King Harald, who was on a state visit to Slovenia on Tuesday, later seemed to try to downplay the controversy. News bureau NTB reported that the king said Stoltenberg’s handling of the Veterans’ Day ceremonies had been “cleared” by the Royal Palace, and that the king himself would later grant an official audience to the recipients of the medals at the palace.
“What I want to say is that the way (the ceremonies) were handled was something the prime minister and I had agreed upon,” King Harald told NTB. “What I’ll do now is to invite the (medal) recipients to an audience at the palace.”