A hard-pressed Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg admitted, under tough questioning in Parliament on Wednesday, that it was an error to have the country’s defense chief, and not King Harald, award Norway’s highest military medals of honor to new war heroes at the government’s first Veterans’ Day ceremonies on Sunday.
The decision to have Defense Chief and General Harald Sunde pin Norway’s prestigious War Cross with Sword on two veterans of the war in Afghanistan, and present a third to the son of an officer killed by a road bomb, “was the division of labour we agreed upon,” Stoltenberg told Parliament. “The Defense Chief would present the medals, and then there would be one speech from a representative of the Parliament and one from the Government.”
Stoltenberg said that now, in hindsight and after a day of critical headlines and claims that he’d snubbed King Harald, he sees that the arrangement “was wrong.” The intention, he said, “was to offer united support and recognition to the veterans. And the king of course has a place in that.
“The division of labour we had this year was not good, therefore it’s clear that it will be different next year.”
It’s ironic that an event Stoltenberg actively promoted, to recognize the efforts and bravery of Norwegians caught in battle overseas, ended up turning into a messy political conflict. He has said earlier his government simply wanted to honor Norway’s veterans, and award the first War Crosses since World War II, also to reverse a spell of government and political negligence in recent years regarding returning veterans. Stoltenberg’s government was harshly criticized last year for failing to be present when returning military personnel were awarded medals for service in Afghanistan. Now he was being criticized for allegedly dominating the past weekend’s Veterans’ Day ceremonies, and excluding King Harald.
“The attention has been around those who presented the War Cross instead of those who received it,” Stoltenberg lamented to members of Parliament. “But even though the king has an important role to play, it is also important that we as the Parliament and the Government, who stand responsible for what we’re doing in Afghanistan and Libya and other operations, get the opportunity to express our support for the soldiers.”
King Harald will be in place next year, when veterans are honored and receive medals, and he also plans to invite this year’s medal recipients to a special audience at the Royal Palace. The king, traveling on state visits to Slovenia and Croatia this week, has confirmed that the Veterans’ Day ceremonies on May 8 (also known as Liberation Day) were conducted in agreement with Stoltenberg’s government. Reports persist, though, that he wanted to attend but was excluded.
Neither Stoltenberg nor King Harald would reveal details of their talks, or whether there was any disagreement before they agreed on the ceremony’s format. Norway’s monarch and prime minister meet at least once a month for private talks, but they are held confidential and no records are kept of their content.