Stoltenberg ends debate over merger and drinks

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Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has called a halt to debate, also within his own Labour Party, over whether several of Norway’s small municipalities should merge, to cut costs and offer better public services. He also is dropping an attempt to force bars to close at 2am.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg is struggling to maintain peace within his government's ranks, and halted debate over municipal mergers. PHOTO: Statsministerenskontor

Debate over municipal mergers has gone on for weeks, climaxing last week when two top bureaucrats, one of them from the health department, made a public appeal for municipal mergers. They feel mergers would make delivery of welfare services such as health care more efficient and less costly.

Labour’s own deputy leader, former fisheries minister Helga Pedersen from northern Norway, had helped launch the debate, saying she favoured mergers among some of Norway 430 municipalities that are “too small” to offer attractive jobs or “good enough schools,” for example.

Pedersen’s position, however, sparked immediate opposition from Labour’s government coalition partner that champions rural interests, the Center Party, raising the possibility of yet another issue to divide the government. The Center Party rejects any suggestion of forced mergers.

Many of the municipalities themselves (called kommuner in Norway), also have resisted mergers, fearing loss of public sector jobs and even their local identity.

Stoltenberg, already beleaguered by division within his government, thus drew the line on debate, stressing in a document obtained by newspaper Dagsavisen that the coalition government’s platform calling for only voluntary municipal mergers still stands, and that recently agreed cost estimates for municipal operations in Norway won’t be changed.

Several members of Parliament also noted that any proposal setting a minimum of 20,000 residents needed for municipal status would leave places like the northernmost county of Finnmark, for example, with only three kommuner, creating huge distances within each that would hardly cut costs.

Meanwhile, Stoltenberg’s government won’t try to tell municipalities when local bars should close, by passing a state law that would override local regulations. Complaints have flourished about drunkenness and violence for years, much of it tied to bar closing times as late as 4am in Norwegian cities.

But internal pressure and public opinion polls negative to state-mandated closing times got Stoltenberg and his fellow government leaders to change their minds. They’re dropping a proposal to instill a 2am closing time nationwide, after protests from within their own parties and a lack of public support.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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