Parliament opens for business

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Norway’s Parliament

(Storting) was all dressed up for its ceremonial re-opening on Friday, with King Harald in place and the re-elected government literally standing at attention as the monarch read their statement aloud. Politicians may have as much as NOK 3 billion less to work with next year, but the government’s plans are ambitious.It was a busy and festive day in Oslo on Friday, as the government met the king at the Royal Palace, thencongratulated US President Barack Obama on winning this year’s Nobel Peace Prizeand then assembled for the highly formal and traditional opening of the 154th Storting (Parliament). King Harald and Crown Prince Haakon were in full dress uniform, Queen Sonja was by their side, and many Members of Parliament wore traditional national costumes called the bunad .

Dag Terje Andersen made his debut as president of the parliament, delivering a traditional address that outlined the challenges faced ahead and ended with the singing of Norway’s national anthem.

The challenges are many, not least economic. A senior economist at DnB NOR Markets told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv that the government’s spending plans will be far more limited in 2010 than they were this year. Kyrre Aamdal has calculated the government officials will have NOK 3 billion less, because they’ve already used more money from the state Oil Fund than what’s normally allowed, and must make up for it.At the same time, a strong currency is likely to mean lower oil revenues, measured in terms of kroner . All told, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg likely will face tighter budgets than he’d like.

That hasn’t stopped the re-elected left-center coalition government from unveiling a platform for the next four years that involves quite a bit of spending while keeping taxes and fees at roughly the same levels as now.

Among other things, the government has promised to build 12,000 new nursing home rooms and elder care facilities by 2015. Schools will also get a boost, with plans to limit classroom size. Workers with traditionally low salaries, not least women, are due for raises. Massive improvements are planned for both public transport (especially the train system) and highways.

In other areas, the platform unveiled Wednesday calls for maintaining Norway’s military operations in Afghanistan, with troop withdrawal when allies agree to it and the Afghan forces improve.

There will be no oil exploration off Lofoten and Vesterålen in the next four-year session of Storting, based on its make-up determined in last month’s election. The issue will be taken up, though, late next year upon delivery of an impact plan for the area.

The government promises greenhouse emission cuts both at home and abroad, through financing for cuts in poorer countries.

The thorniest area for the incumbent government was immigration and asylum policies. Now it’s clear that they’ll be made more restrictive through concrete measures including speedier repatriation of asylum seekers whose applications were rejected, incarceration of those who break any laws or refuse to leave, longer waiting times for family reunions and a tougher line against the UN in accepting asylum seekers.

While Stoltenberg’s Labour Party prevailed over its government coalition partners in several areas, it faces challenges regarding several EU directives. Both the Socialist Left and the Center Party want to delay implementation of EU rules demanding open competition for postal services. The two small parties also want to reject EU directives requiring data storage as an anti-crime measure, and they want to defy a directive that could weaken decentralized health care services.

This could sour relations between Norway and the EU, something Labour doesn’t want. “This is Norway in a nutshell,” Paal Frisvold of the pro-EU group Europabevegelsen told Dagens Næringsliv . “It makes it look like Norway wants all the advantages of the EU, but none of the disadvantages.”