Prime Minister Erna Solberg set off on her first overseas trip as leader of Norway’s new government on Wednesday, and her choice of destination was far from coincidental. She opted to pay a call on recently re-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made time to meet Solberg in the midst of her own negotiations to form a new government.
The two women have a lot in common. Both come from conservative parties, both have been or are working hard to form a government coalition, and both represent affluent countries on a continent that otherwise has been severely challenged financially and economically in recent years.
The destination of a new Norwegian prime minister’s first overseas trip is seen as highly symbolic, and for years, Norway’s premiers headed for Sweden. By traveling to Berlin, Solberg carried on a tradition set by her recent predecessors Jens Stoltenberg and Kjell Magne Bondevik, who also realized that Germany has emerged as arguably Norway’s most important partner in both trade and politics.
Merkel greeted Solberg in pouring rain on a red carpet rolled out near Berlin’s famed Brandenburger Gate, and state broadcaster NRK reported that Merkel immediately apologized for the bad weather. Solberg responded that it was no problem. “I’m used to this from Bergen,” she said with a smile, referring to her hometown on Norway’s often-stormy west coast.
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported on Wednesday that the visit was also important for Germany, since Norway is a major and secure supplier of energy to Germany and the European continent, and a valued alternative to Russia. Norway and Germany have also cooperated closely regarding the war in Afghanistan, German companies are active on Norway’s continental shelf, and Germany is a huge trading partner.
Merkel hasn’t been receiving foreign guests lately as she devotes full attention to negotiations to form her new government, reported Dagsavisen, but she took time for a working lunch with Solberg. Merkel has been in Norway several times and clearly sees Norway as an important partner as well. It was time to get acquainted with its new leader.
Solberg has earlier said that she’s viewed Merkel as a role model. “Angela Merkel is a hard-working politician who has achieved good results in Germany,” Solberg told news bureau NTB before she left for Berlin. “She’s a politician whom people listen to, and who has had great significance for the rest of Europe.”
The economy and energy were high on their agendas, along with culture, education and, according to Solberg, “the situation in the EU.” The recent US surveillance uproar that’s been unleashed by fugitive Edward Snowden’s leaks of classified documents from the US National Security Agency (NSA) also was a topic of discussion. Merkel was angry last summer after learning that the NSA had tapped her phone along with those of millions of others in Europe. On Tuesday Solberg was faced with similar allegations, until Norwegian military intelligence officials claimed that 33 million registered phone calls reported by newspaper Dagbladet had been compiled by them overseas, and shared with the Americans.
Solberg had said she wouldn’t be surprised if the US actually had registered her calls as well, but maintained that allies shouldn’t spy on one another. Merkel agreed: “I have always said that we are friends and interested in an ongoing, stable relationship. That also means that you don’t spy on one another.”
Merkel said she thought it was “an honour” that Solberg’s first overseas trip “brings you here.” Solberg, who also planned meetings with Norwegian business interests in Berlin, responded that “we want to strengthen our contact with our most important partners in Europe. Germany plays a decisive role in the EU and Merkel personally plays a major role in Europe.”