No soft start for new foreign minister

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Espen Barth Eide, who suddenly took over as Norway’s new foreign minister on Friday, really had to hit the ground running. He was already boarding a jet over the weekend, flying off to New York to oversee the opening of the United Nations and launch a marathon session of meetings with other world leaders.

Espen Barth Eide (right) listened intently during the opening sessions of the United Nations this week. Next to him, fiddling with his mobile phone, is Norway’s minister in charge of foreign aid Heikki Holmås and, at left, Geir O Pedersen, Norway’s ambassador to the UN. PHOTO: Hansine Korslien/UN Delegation

Eide, who had been appointed as Norway’s defense minister just last spring, was tapped late last week to succeed the highly popular and respected Jonas Gahr Støre. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg had sent Støre over to the troubled health ministry to help restore public confidence in state-run hospitals and other health care delivery systems in the run-up to next year’s national elections. Eide, who served as state secretary under Støre before moving over to the defense ministry, was the logical replacement from within the top ranks of the Labour Party.

He had a packed program since landing in New York on Sunday and stepping in to fill Støre’s absence. He needed to lead a meeting of the donor group for the Palestinians, meet with leaders from the EU and the Arab League, have the obligatory photo session with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and attend a long list of meetings with other national leaders, from the president of Myanmar (Burma) to top officials from Indonesia and other nations. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported on Wednesday that Myanmar’s leader, Thei Sein, will soon be making an official visit to Norway, and he thanked Eide for Norway’s early support for development cooperation and democratic reforms.

For Eide, long a diplomat and “minister-in-waiting,” the timing of his trip to New York was perfect.

New Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide taking a break outside the United Nations building in New York this week. PHOTO: Hansine Korslein/UN Delegation

“This is a one huge meeting place for the world’s leaders,” Eide told newspaper Dagsavisen. “It suits me fine to start my job as foreign minister this way. We save many overseas trips to meet so many people together here.”

He received lots of congratulations on his new appointment and seemed keen to do his best to pick up where Støre left off. Støre had been Norway’s foreign minister for seven years and was on a first-name basis with many of his counterparts. Now it’s Eide’s turn to get to know them all as well.

“In a world that’s constantly changing, it’s important to build close relations to countries on their way up,” Eide told Dagsavisen, noting that he looked forward to meetings with leaders from, for example, Brazil and Turkey. He scrambled over the weekend to prepare himself for such meetings during what many consider the most important week of the year for diplomats.

Eide also stressed that he’ll be carrying on Støre’s and the rest of the Norwegian government’s foreign policy. He wants, however, more funding for the UN’s peacekeeping operations.

“I believe Norway should have an even stronger role in the UN, also when it comes to soldiers and concrete contributions to peacekeeping operations,” he said. Eide added that he’s proud of Norway’s financial contribution to the UN in general, which for years has ranked among the highest in the world on a per capita basis, but now Eide wants to see more Norwegians assigned to UN troops.

Eide’s trip to New York comes just as the US is immersed in the US presidential election campaign. Eide, from the Labour Party, didn’t hide the fact that he hopes Barack Obama wins re-election, but he diplomatically told newspaper Aftenposten that Norway’s government can also cooperate with Republican challenger Mitt Romney, even though Romney has claimed the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace and seems keen on Israel’s threats to attack Iran.

“Of course it’s always easier when you stand politically close to one another,” Eide said, referring to Obama and his Democratic administration. “But we have good traditions of cooperating with whoever is elected president in the USA.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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