Espen Barth Eide had been branded the “eternal state secretary” before he finally was tapped to be Norway’s new defense minister last month. After five years in the number-two post at the ministry, and then a relatively short stint as state secretary in the foreign ministry, Eide could hit the ground running.
Or even flying, as the case may be. In a recent interview with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), Eide fondly recalled being at the controls of one of the Swedish fighter jets that Norway opted against buying. “You just have to admit that flying a fighter jet is really fun,” Eide told DN. “I’d recommend it to everyone. You feel, for a short while, that you’re the chief over natural forces. You aren’t, of course. But there’s a lot of power and agility in modern fighter jets.”
Eide also recommended being at the controls of a submarine, even though there’s not much of a view.
Most folks don’t have the opportunities Eide has for such experiences, but he doesn’t seem to take them for granted. He’s known as a hard worker, super-smart, boyish, clever at debating and somewhat of a nerd. At age 47, he’s spent most of his life active in politics, at least since, at the age of 15, he was recruited to join the Majorstuen chapter of Labour’s youth organization AUF by none other than now-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Eide studied political science, worked as a researcher and ultimately led the international division at the foreign policy institute NUPI. He also led Norway’s pro-EU movement in the early 1990s, before Norwegians voted for the second time against joining in 1994.
He was also part of Stoltenberg’s first, short-lived government in 2000-2001, as state secretary in the foreign ministry. When Stoltenberg took over as prime minister again after the election in 2005, Eide was asked to be state secretary in the defense ministry. On November 11, he finally became defense minister. He told DN he’d been in Brazil on a trip for the foreign ministry when Stoltenberg called, because of a looming reshuffle prompted by Knut Storberget’s resignation as justice minister. Eide immediately said ‘yes’ and flew back to Norway, landing in Oslo just minutes before his appointment was formalized by King Harald V at the weekly Council of State at the Royal Palace.
Eide needed to be able to take command right away, and was as prepared as anyone could be. He quickly set off for a meeting of Nordic, Baltic and Atlantic military brass in Sweden, accepted a massive report on proposed restructuring of the military at home, got to work on changes needed after the July 22 terrorist attacks and headed for Afghanistan, to name a few of his immediate jobs.
He’ll be responsible for overseeing Norway’s withdrawal from Afghanistan over the next two years. He also intends for Norway’s defense establishment to cooperate much more closely with the police in Norway, to be better prepared for terrorist attacks. One of Eide’s own sons was on the island of Utøya when a Norwegian right-wing extremist launched a massacre there last summer, in a direct attack on AUF. Eide has expressed huge relief his son survived, but otherwise doesn’t want to talk about the tragedy on a personal basis.
On the homefront, though, Eide is married to a Spanish woman he met when they both worked in the EU movement in 1988, and they live with their three sons in his childhood home at Vinderen on Oslo’s affluent west side. His parents live in a house the family built in the garden.
Given his busy career, Eide may not be home much but he and his wife make the best of it. She’s an avid jogger and Eide told DN that they both ran from Asia to Europe in October, while on a trip in Istanbul.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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