EU post sacrificed in favor of foreign aid

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Of all the changes resulting from her goverment reshuffle, Prime Minister Erna Solberg was getting perhaps the most kudos for her decision to replace a ministerial post responsible for EU issues with one aimed at monitoring foreign aid. It’s forcing a major reorganization within Norway’s foreign ministry, but commentators on both the left and the right applauded the move, even in the height of the EU-Brexit negotiations that will affect Norway.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, who retained her post amidst this week’s government changes, will not only be working with her counterpart at the EU, Federica Mogherini, on international issues but will also now be directly responsible for Norway’s relations with the EU itself. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

The switch will put Norway’s foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, back in charge of EU relations and issues, after four years of having a separate Europa Minister.

“It seems most sensible to let the foreign minister concentrate on Norwegian interests and relations to our neighbours and allies,” newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) editorialized on Thursday. Foreign aid, meanwhile, represents the foreign ministry’s single biggest budget post, DN noted, adding that the new bistandsminister (development minister), Nikolai Astrup of the Conservatives, “will have enough to do, keeping an eye on the billions of kroner devoted to foreign aid.” Norway long has ranked among the top donors in the world on a per capita basis.

DN also noted that Solberg’s earlier creation of a ministerial post devoted entirely to EU issues “had seemed artificial,” likening it to having “one minister for the neighbourhood and the foreign minister responsible for the rest of the world.” Former Foreign Minister Børge Brende also wound up spending much of his time on trips tied to Norway’s foreign aid projects.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg (far left) appointed Marit Berger Røsland to take over Frank Bakke-Jensen’s job as EU minister within the foreign ministry last fall. Now Foreign Minister Søreide (far right) will take over responsibility for the EU as part of a government reshuffle. Berger won praise from both Solberg and Søreide for the work she did during the past three months, but she’s now left the government. Bakke-Jensen retained his post as defense minister. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/MB Haga

Now his successor, Søreide, will regain responsibility for EU issues and, not least, the monitoring of Brexit negotiations, how they will affect Norway’s own trade deal with the EU and formation of Norway’s own trade policy with Britain in cooperation with the trade and business ministry. As late as last fall, Solberg insisted that the Brexit process made it more important than ever to have an EU minister, and appointed Marit Berger Røsland from her Conservative Party to succeed Frank Bakke-Jensen as EU minister when he became defense minister.

The addition of the Liberal Party to Solberg’s non-socialist government coalition clearly prompted the prime minister to change her mind. Foreign aid is an important area for the Liberals, so it can help keep them happy, while its own minister will also help exert more control over it. At the same time, many feel Norway will be better served by having its foreign minister, a more prestigious post, directly involved in EU issues and being the one to visit Brussels.

Foreign Minister Søreide welcomed Nikolai Astrup to the ministry Wednesday, after he was named to a restored minister’s post in charge of foreign aid. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

Newspaper Dagsavisen, which has historic ties to the Labour Party that often had its own development minister when it held government power, agreed, and even called Astrup a “good choice” for the restored foreign aid ministerial post. “It was wise to replace the EU ministry and restore development as a separate area within the foreign ministry with its own minister,” Dagsavisen editorialized on Thursday. “The EU and the EØS/EEA (European Economic Area) agreement are a completely natural and extremely important part of the foreign minister’s field. Foreign aid policy, with all its billions, can also need its own minister.”

Astrup himself wrote in Dagsavisen on Thursday that “we need to make the UN’s sustainability goals a high priority, we need better coordination of development policy and we need to mobilize business in the fight against poverty.” As the wealthy heir to a shipping fortune, the 39-year-old Astrup has  plenty of ties within business and a career in politics that can help him combine the two.

Norway is also a powerful force within international aid, after having boosted its already substantial aid budget from around NOK 19 billion to NOK 35 billion (USD 4.5 billion) in the past 10 years. Norway, with its population of just over 5 million, was the world’s ninth-largest donor in terms of actual amounts of financial aid, Astrup wrote, and topped the list for donations of humanitarian aid on a per capita basis.

EU issues have by no means been downgraded as a result of Solberg’s government changes, believe the commentators, and even upgraded with Foreign Minister Søreide assuming control. Former EU Minister Røsland may even retain a post in the ministry and keep working on EU issues, using contacts built up since she was named a minister last fall.

It’s all launched the foreign ministry itself into a reorganization that prompted it to cancel a meeting Friday afternoon between Søreide, Røsland and foreign correspondents in Oslo. Røsland told newspaper Aftenposten before the government reshuffle, meanwhile, that Norway will be prepared to deal with either a new agreement between Britain and the EU (which it hopes will be “tight and good”) or even a breakdown in talks (“to prevent goods from getting stuck at piers and harbours”). She didn’t think an eventual pact between Britain and the EU will unleash any major changes in Norway’s own EU deal: “Our main wish is to uphold as much cooperation as there is today,” she said, with both the EU and Britain.

A foreign ministry spokesman, meanwhile, rejected a report earlier this week in the British newspaper The Guardian, that Norwegian officials have warned the EU against entering into a deal with Britain that’s too generous, because that could set off renegotiations of Norway’s EU deal (known as the EØS/EEA agreement). “That anonymous claim that Norway will influence the EU into giving Britain a worse deal that they otherwise would have received is not correct,” said Frode Overland Andersen, communications chief at the ministry.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund