Foreign minister in the hot seat

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Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has consistently ranked as one of the most highly respected members of the government, sometimes getting higher scores among voters than his boss, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. That made it all the more noteworthy when Støre suddenly was being accused of favouring an old friend when a local shipowner won state funding for a venture in Northern Norway.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has been among the stars of the Labour Party but has been busy lately fending off charges regarding a possible conflict of interest. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

On Monday, Støre was called into the Parliament, along with shipowner Felix Tschudi, to answer questions from members of its disciplinary committee. The session got a bit noisy at times, as some opposition politicians think Støre should have officially evaluated his habilitet (impartiality) when Tschudi, an old childhood friend, was granted NOK 6 million (more than USD 1 million) in state funding through Støre’s own ministry for what’s called the Centre for High North Logistics (CHNL).

Støre has a deep interest in Northern Norway and his country’s Arctic territory and neighbours, and has placed what he calls nordområdene (the northern areas) high on his agenda since he took over as foreign minister in 2005. When the ministry was approached by the Norwegian Shipowners Association for support for CHNL, the ministry went along. CHNL is now financed by both the ministry and Tschudi Shipping Co, along with backing from the development agency Innovation Norway, Veritas and the Barents Secretariat.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Monday that CHNL seeks to be a driving force in boosting ship traffic and transit operations through northern shipping routes. CHNL leader Bjørn Gunnarsson told Aftenposten that the center is “open for everyone” and that its board wants many other shipowners to get involved in efforts to help open new shipping routes through the Arctic.

“Understand there are questions…”
The problem is that some politicians worry Tschudi may have received unfair advantages for his shipping company and the center because of his links to Støre, and that Støre should have evaluated his role in the case. “I understand there are questions about my impartiality in this case,” Støre said on Monday, but he told members of the committee questioning him that when he evaluated his position at the time, in 2008, he decided he wasn’t favouring Tschudi nor was there any conflict of interest.

Støre said he informed the ministry of his acquaintance with Tschudi as early as 2005, because Tschudi’s company was a major player in Northern Norway.

Tschudi admitted he’s known Støre since they were both children in Oslo, “but we are not close friends who have a lot of contact. We’re part of a large circle of friends, and don’t get together on a one-to-one basis.”

He also denied his company has had a business advantages from the ministry’s funding of CHNL. “We have, on the contrary, invested NOK 6 million in the project ourselves and not even declared a (tax) deduction for it,” Tschudi said.

Asked whether he had used his friendship with Støre to get state funding, responded Tschudi: “That I can categorically deny.”

Now it’s up to the committee to decide whether it will pursue the matter. Per-Kristian Foss, a veteran Member of Parliament for opposition party Høyre (The Conservatives), said he still thinks Støre should have formally asked ministry lawyers to determine whether he was impartial or vulnerable to conflict-of-interest charges.

“What I miss most is an admission on that, that maybe he (Støre) should have handled this differently,” said Foss. “It’s often fine to admit a mistake.”

Støre doesn’t seem to think he’s made one. A new public opinion poll by TNS Gallup for TV2, however, indicated that one in three voters think the CHNL issue has hurt Støre. Only 2.9 percent think it has strengthened him, whle 63 percent said their confidence in Støre is unchanged.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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