Government critic now set to join it

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One of Norway’s most vocal government critics, especially regarding immigration and integration issues, is reportedly poised to become a government minister himself. Per Sandberg’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric shocked government partners and sparked a coalition crisis earlier this year, but now he’ll reportedly join the government when Prime Minister Erna Solberg announces a reshuffling of her cabinet.

Per Sandberg said he'd simply "lacked motivation" to continue in a top post for the Progress Party. Others wonder if he had other motivations for quitting as a deputy party leader. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

Per Sandberg has long been one of Norway’s most controversial politicians because of bluntly stated concerns over immigration. Now he’s reportedly set to take government control of both immigration and integration. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) surprised listeners early Tuesday morning by initially reporting that Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party would appoint Sandberg to a newly created ministerial post in her government. It would combine, according to NRK, government responsibility for immigration issues now split between the justice ministry and the ministry currently in charge of issues involving children, equality and social inclusion  (Barne-, likestillings- og inkluderingsdepartementet, BLD).

Both of those ministries are currently headed by politicians from the Progress Party, of which Sandberg is deputy leader. NRK later retracted its initial early-morning report, announcing that Sandberg would not take over as Norway’s new so-called “immigration minister” himself, but that he would take on another ministerial role, possibly in charge of fisheries. Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party, who currently serves as agriculture minister, was being tipped to take on responsibility for asylum, immigration and integration issues, at a time when Norway is dealing with the arrival of more than 30,000 asylum seekers in the past few months. NRK reported that details would be confirmed Wednesday, when Solberg is expected to announce a long-anticipated cabinet reshuffle. It’s likely to include several other changes at the highest levels of government.

Major role shift
The prospect of Sandberg as a government minister surprised many because he’s earlier said he did not want ministerial responsibility and because he’s known for being a “loose canon” within Norwegian politics. He belongs to the most conservative faction within the Progress Party and usually has been the one “playing the immigration card,” when the party feels a need to appeal to its important contingency of voters characterized by what the Norwegians call fremmedfrykt (fear of foreigners).

Sandberg currently is a Member of Parliament from Nord-Trøndelag and many in his party feel he’s been most effective in his agitator role as an outspoken critic of immigration and his own government. The Progress Party won a spot in government for the first time at the last national election in 2013, but later lost voter support when those on its farthest-right side complained it had to make too many compromises and concessions. Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who serves as finance minister, has been under pressure for not having enough clout in the government coalition led by Erna Solberg.

Now the Progress Party is doing much better in public opinion polls, and making Sandberg a minister may actually quiet him down, since he’ll have to take on some form of the dignity and decorum and goes with the role. Instead of constantly lashing out at others, often offensively, he can only blame himself if he fails to practice what he’s long preached.

Avoiding more conflict
Prime Minister Solberg will also likely expect him to temper his remarks, not least to avoid another noisy and headline-grabbing conflict like the one he got into with Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats, in February. That conflict sparked speculation that Solberg’s government was on the brink of collapse, since the Christian Democrats are among her minority coalition’s most important supporters in Parliament. The normally mild-mannered Hareide was so angry at Sandberg over his verbal assaults on Muslims and the Christian Democrats themselves that the government had to huddle in what was widely branded as a crisis meeting, to settle the conflict, after Sandberg had only half-heartedly apologized.

Just four month later, however, the government coalition faced another crisis over how many refugees Norway would take in from Syria. Sandberg himself, as deputy leader of the Progress Party, declared on national radio that the party could withdraw from the government coalition if forced to take in too many refugees. The coalition eventually struck a deal with Parliament to accept 8,000 UN-registered refugees from Syria over the next three years. Those numbers now pale in comparison to the 30,000-plus who since have made it to Norway on their own. Sandberg once again based the deal, however, after earlier claiming it would be financially irresponsible for Norway to take in so many.

Now the country is faced with accommodating not only the 8,000 UN-registered refugees but all those who have arrived in recent months and the thousands more expected to arrive next year. One political source told NRK that Solberg’s goal now is to coordinate the huge integration challenges facing Norway, and Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen tipped the current agriculture minister Listhaug to take on the job. She’s already challenged several sacred cows within Norwegian agriculture and now may be tapped to take on the thorny issues within immigration and integration. As speculaton flew Tuesday over which other ministers face losing or transferring posts, Culture Minister Thorhild Widvey was high on the list of those likely to be replaced. Solberg was due to announce her first cabinet changes, after two years in government, at an extraordinary session of the Council of State on Wednesday.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund