Børge Brende has made at least a personally triumphant homecoming as Norway’s new foreign minister in a conservative government, stressing that he feels “honoured” and that there’s “broad consensus” on the principles of the country’s foreign policy in parliament. That means he’ll mostly be carrying on policy from the previous left-center government, though, with a slightly reduced portfolio.
As he settled into his new job this week, after helping to run the World Economic Forum in Geneva for the past few years, he was using the word “continue” a lot as he talked about continuing to focus on Arctic issues, on Norway’s “good relations” with its Nordic neighbours and Russia, on its “trans-Atlantic relations” and on the “predictability” of policy in which “Norwegian values are driving our global engagement.” He wants to continue Norway’s efforts to help eradicate extreme poverty, nurture global trade and be in charge of “bilateral relations” with countries within the European Union and elsewhere.
Norway’s overall dealings with the EU and its economic agreement, however, will not be Brende’s responsibility. They’ll be coordinated by another new government minister from his Conservative Party, Vidar Helgesen, in the Office of the Prime Minister, who’ll also be sitting closer to new Prime Minister Erna Solberg around the king’s table at the weekly Council of State. Both the loss of responsibility for EU issues and apparent downgrading of the foreign minister’s post has prompted headlines in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week and led Professor Iver B Neumann at the London School of Economics to claim that Norway’s foreign ministry will be “significantly weakened” in the Solberg government.
Neumann, who also is a researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI in Oslo, said the transfer of EU issues and policy directly to Solberg’s office can nonetheless be defended. EU issues are very much a matter of domestic policy, given the lingering emotions and debate over whether Norway should finally join the EU. Brende himself defended the transfer of EU matters at a meeting with foreign correspondents in Oslo on Wednesday.
“The rationale behind the new government is to enhance our work with the European Union,” Brende said. Having a minister in the prime minister’s office with responsibility for the EU and all coordination and implementation of EU matters is “a strong signal” from Solberg, he said, “that she wants to be involved (in EU issues) at an early stage.” Brende sees the change as “a sign of collaboration with the EU,” since Helgesen functions as Solberg’s new Chief of Staff.
“The aim,” Brende said, “is to increase Norway’s influence (at the EU).”
Neumann still worries that Brende, now ranked sixth in command behind Solberg, will lose influence himself. Brende seems undaunted, and made it clear that he still has plenty to keep him busy, dealing with everything from continuing attempts to melt Norway’s diplomatic freeze with China (“something that broken will not be repaired in a day,” he noted) to deciding whether Norway should help destroy chemical weapons on Norwegian territory to promoting a what the new government calls a “more balanced” policy in the Middle East. It’s widely believed Norway will warm up to Israel, with the pro-Israel Progress Party now sharing government power, while still heading the donor group for the Palestinians.
Brende also wants a “very proactive role” in pushing for more multilateral trade agreements, even though trade issues in Norway remain spread over several ministries and he seemed hard-pressed to say who Norway’s “trade minister” is or whether Norway even has a “trade minister” like other countries do. Asked who will be responsible for following through on the government parties’ campaign promise to reverse higher controversial tariffs on meat and cheese, to protect Norwegian meat and cheese and make imports even more expensive, Brende said that would be handled by Helgesen and new Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug.
As Brende prepared to travel to Stockholm later this week to meet his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt and Swedish Trade Minister Ewa Bjorling, he joked about the tray of open-face sandwiches on the table featuring Norwegian brown goat cheese and yellow cheese. “That’s when you really know you’re back in Norway,” he laughed, asking the foreign correspondents present “do you all like this stuff?” It clearly wasn’t on the table at meetings in Geneva.