Foreign minister gets a grilling

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Norway’s constantly traveling foreign minister, Børge Brende, had to fend off a barrage of criticism on Monday as both government and business cranked up again after the summer holiday season. Brende and Norway’s conservative coalition government were accused of being too passive regarding immigration issues and Norway’s relations with both the EU and Russia.

July 2015

Foreign Minister Børge Brende, photographed on one of his several trips to Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Critics claim, among other things, that Norway nonetheless now lacks a clearer strategy for its northern areas. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartement/Ane Lunde

Brende, from the Conservative Party, was the first top Norwegian politician to appear at Arendalsuka, the weeklong political festival of sorts that kicked off Monday and runs through Saturday. He opened a “Global Outlook” conference to discuss world challenges at present, was visiting a local turbine technology company in Arendal that seeks to generate tidal electricity, speaking about how Norway’s seafood industry can help battle poverty and hunger, and speaking again on panels discussing foreign aid, international development and job creation in Africa.

All told, Brende would be taking part in six events between 10am and 6pm, not unlike how Brende is also known for visiting six countries for talks with their top officials in almost as many days. After his busy day in Arendal, Brende was due to travel to Trondheim to take part in matriculation ceremonies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) on Tuesday before traveling to Iran on Wednesday. He’s due back in Oslo on Sunday for a meeting with the French environmental minister, Sergolene Royal.

Brende’s breathless schedule and his government’s foreign policy both may be spread a bit too thin, suggested the leader of the Parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, Anniken Huitfeldt. She claimed Monday that the government was too careful, too unclear and “trying to be everywhere” instead of setting clearer priorities.

“The foreign minister’s account of foreign policy in March was more a description of a more demanding international situation than clear thoughts on how the new situation around us should be tackled,” wrote Huitfeldt of the opposition Labour Party in a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten on Monday morning. She went on to claim that Norway “can and should be an international player with clear policies and clear goals. Players in the middle of the field seldom bring the world forward.”

Huitfeldt thinks, as does Iver B Neumann, a professor at the London School of Economics and researcher tied to the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, that Norway needs stronger and clearer foreign policy, especially with regards to Russia, the EU and the immigration crisis. Neumann called on the government to set clearer goals and stronger priorities.

Norway continues to be heard by other world leaders, like here when Brende met German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the UN, but calls are going out for firmer strategy and priorities. At right, foreign policy advisder Christoph Heusgen. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Norway continues to be heard by other world leaders, like here when Brende met German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the UN, but calls are going out for firmer strategy and priorities. At right, foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“They (government ministers) just respond to events from day to day in an ad hoc manner,” Neumann told newspaper Aftenposten. He complained that the Norwegian government doesn’t want to rock any boats, and simply aims to carry on as it always has. “Stability has many advantages,” Neumann said, “but what do you do when something new happens?”

Henrik Thune, another foreign policy researcher and former diplomat who was named deputy director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre last fall, agrees with Neumann. He thinks Norway’s foreign policy lacks strategy and can seem unclear.

“The goverment has responded well to several of the new challenges, but hasn’t presented much new in several important strategy areas like the Arctic,” Thune told Aftenposten. “At the same time, relations with Russia have at times been driven more by individual events than putting weight on long-term stability.”

Brende’s defense
Brende himself, who needed to defend the government’s foreign policy at various public events in Arendal on Monday, disagreed with the academic experts that Norway lacks ambitious goals and firm strategy. He pointed to the success of the peace process that Norway has nurtured in Colombia, Norway’s ongoing work in the Middle East and Norway’s contribution to transporting chemical weapons out of Syria and being involved in the nuclear agreement with Iran. He stressed how his ministry is working on a new strategy document of sorts that will be presented to Parliament, about setting Norway’s foreign policy course further.

“It’s based on how we’re experiencing a more unpredictable Russia, that the rule of law is being challenged in (fellow) NATO member Turkey and that North Africa, Syria and Iraq are plagued by instability and violent extremism that must be fought,” Brende told Aftenposten. “This will challenge us over time.”

While the former left-center government experienced Russia as a cooperative ally and neighbour, relations changed when Russia annexed Crimea and intervened in Ukraine. Brende is also worried about a more polarized US, expressing for the first time that he “deeply disagreed” and was “uneasy” with positions expressed by the Republican candidate for president of the US, Donald Trump.  He thinks Britain’s decision to leave the EU will cause problems for years.

Brende needs a ‘big victory’
Roald Berg of the University of Stavanger, thinks Brende so far lacks a “big victory” like the one his predecessor Jonas Gahr Støre and former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (now head of NATO) had when Russia agreed to set territorial borders in the Barents Sea (known as delelinje in Norway). That was historic, said Berg, who agreed with Thune and Huitfeldt that Norway now lacks more active policies in its Arctic areas.

Brende claims the rest of the world is simply “more demanding” at present, which is perhaps why he’s always flying off in all directions and clearly had little summer holiday himself this year, given the weekly accounts of his movements issued by the ministry. Challenges to the rule of law, violent extremism and losses of human rights threaten peace, stability and international development, Brende said. He claims, though, that Norway is “well prepared for the new reality.” Thune didn’t seem convinced.

“When the crises and drama become permanent, it’s difficult to develop a clear and long line,” Thune conceded. “But it’s also exactly when long-term goals are needed more than ever.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund