Solberg tackles new trouble with Poland

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Poland has received billions of kroner worth of financial aid from Norway for years, but now seems to be biting the hand that feeds it. The Norwegians want their funding to support liberal and independent civilian societies, while the Polish government wants full control over the funding to restrict, for example, allocations to gay rights organizations.

Both Prime Minister Erna Solberg and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker are having conflicts with the conservative governments of Poland and Hungary. Solberg took up Norway’s concerns with Juncker when the two met in Brussels last week. PHOTO: EU

“We can’t let Poland, or Hungary, gain full control over the money earmarked for the civilian population,” Prime Minister Erna Solberg told news bureau NTB. “We must have independent organizations (not the government) distributing the money.”

The current problems with Poland are similar to those Norway has had with Hungary, with its government also seeking full control to distribute funding as it saw fit. At issue now is more than NOK 9.7 billion (USD 1.14 billion) in funding to be distributed over the next few years until 2021. Aftenposten reported last month that Norway is committed to funding projects in Poland that, in line with Norwegian and EU policy, are based on “the common values” of “respect for human rights and dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. Among those are projects run by organizations that, for example, work to ensure the rights of  homosexuals and other sexual minorities.

Letter of protest
News bureau NTB reported, however, that around 50 conservative organizations in Poland teamed up to send a letter to Norwegian authorities protesting that funding has been granted to lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and trans-person activists who are lobbying for a new gender-neutral marriage law in Poland. They don’t want the independent organization that managed Norway’s donations to Poland, and distributed funds to groups that fight for gay rights, to continue in the job.

When Norway had its similar conflict with Hungarian authorities in 2014-2015, it resulted in Norway holding back funds. That was because Hungary wanted all the money from Norway to be distributed through government channels instead of through an independent organization, which Norway wouldn’t allow. The same thing can happen in Poland now.

Aftenposten reported that the Norwegians have so far had around eight negotiating sessions with Poland, but they’ve been unable to agree on the distribution of funds through NGOs (non-governmental organizations). NTB reported on Sunday that Solberg took up the problem with the president of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, when they met in Brussels on Thursday. The money Norway sends to countries like Hungary and Poland is part of its obligations tied to its trade agreement with the EU. Poland is the largest recipient of funds from the European Economic Area (EØS, in Norwegian) of which Norway is part (along with Iceland and Liechtenstein) and contributes the most.

Norway won’t back down
Solberg made it clear she wasn’t backing down on principle. Norway, she said, will continue to demand that the funding it sends for civilian projects be managed by an operator or organization that is independent of government authorities. The operator is to be selected through an open round of bidding.

“The civilian sector shall not be controlled by the state,” Solberg told NTB. In today’s political climate in Poland and Hungary, where press freedom and other basic liberties have been restricted by the authoritarian right-wing governments, there are real concerns that groups on the left side of politics, including feminist and liberal organizations and not least gay rights advocates, wouldn’t receive any funding at all if the governments have full control.

Hungary has also been trying to put restrictions on NGOs, leading to massive demonstrations recently in Budapest and elsewhere. It’s now also negotiating with Norway over its next funding period, and once again the right-wing Hungarian government wants to control how Norway’s donations are spent. NTB reported that the next meeting between Hungarian and Norwegian negotiators will take place later this month.

Both Poland and Hungary are also caught in conflicts with EU institutions in Brussels, where the EU believes that the freedom of the courts, the press and NGOs in both countries are all under serious pressure.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund