Brende wound up challenging week

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After making his first trip to the Middle East as Norway’s new foreign minister, Børge Brende ended the week in London, where he was accused of promoting “Winnie the Pooh” politics. Norway’s goals of trying to save the climate while also exploiting oil and gas resources in the Arctic just don’t mesh, claim environmental critics.

Foreign Minister Børge Brende (left) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during Brende's first official trip to the Middle East earlier this week. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartmentet

Foreign Minister Børge Brende (left) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during Brende’s first official trip to the Middle East earlier this week. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartmentet

Meanwhile, after becoming the latest Norwegian government official to visit Syrian refugee camps in Jordan following his diplomatic dialogue with both Israeli and Palestinian officials, Brende had to admit that Norway’s relations with China are still frozen solid. Earlier signs that the Chinese were warming up to Norway three years after erupting in anger over the awarding in Oslo of the Nobel Peace Prize to one of its dissidents, the Chinese won’t even accept sperm from Norwegian cattle to help them breed cattle. “Relations with China are, unfortunately, at the freezing point,” Brende told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday.

It was a challenging week indeed, but Brende of the Conservative Party seemed to take it in stride, and he did settle at least one issue while in the Middle East: Norway won’t be moving its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, like the Conservatives’ government partner, the Progress Party, has proposed. Brende thinks that’s a bad idea.

Brende also opened a football field for girls supported by Norway at the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Ragnhild Imerslund

Brende also opened a football field for girls supported by Norway at the Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Ragnhild Imerslund

“The main lines in Norway’s Middle East policies are firm,” Brende told news bureau NTB. Despite speculation that Norway’s new conservative government will carry out what the Progress Party has called “more balanced” policies towards Israel after years of criticism that Norway is pro-Palestinian, Brende chose to stress that he hopes the Israelis and Palestinians will finally get peace talks back on track. He visited both Israeli leaders and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Brende was also optimistic that the “historic” agreement with Iran over its controversial atomic program would bring new stability, although the Israelis opposed it. He said he hopes it will have a positive effect on peace negotiations.

‘Egotistical and irresponsible’
After the side trip to Jordan, Brende flew to London, where he spoke at the legendary Royal Geographic Society, where such Norwegian polar heroes as Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen have spoken before. Erlend Tellnes of Greenpeace Norge wasn’t at all impressed with Brende’s message, in which the foreign minister confirmed that he thinks it’s important to invest in both climate measures and extraction of the natural resources found in the Arctic areas.

To read a text of Brende’s speech at the Royal Geographic Society, click here (external link).

“We know that two-thirds of the coal, oil and gas we have found (in the Arctic) must be left untouched out of consideration for the climate,” Tellnes told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He contends that Norway thus portrays itself as “egotistical and irresponsible, if we nonetheless drill all the way up to the North Pole.”

Nor did he buy Brende’s argument that it would be best if Norway can increase its exports of natural gas, because it could replace the use of coal. Brende noted that gas is “twice as environmentally friendly as coal,” which much of Europe still uses.

“When Brende says ‘gas is twice as environmentally friendly as coal,’ it’s like saying the plague is twice as good as cholera,” Tellness told NRK, noting that gas often competes against alternative forms of energy instead. He thought Brende should have acted more in the spirit of Nansen and Amundsen, and advocated protection of the most vulnerable areas in the Arctic against oil drilling other “destructive industries.”

China on his mind
During his visit to London, Brende also met his British counterpart, William Hague,  former Labour prime minister and US special envoy Gordon Brown and Norwegian business leaders. But the China challenge was on his mind.

“It’s important that relations between China and Norway normalize,” said Brende, who told DN that he ate dinner with China’s prime minister just eight weeks ago, when he was still working for World Economic Forum. He also has been deputy leader of the China Council and is widely considered to be Norway’s best chance of melting the diplomatic freeze, given all his successful relations with China earlier.

But as soon as he became Norway’s foreign minister, he’s also met closed doors and been given the cold shoulder by Chinese officials who earlier were friendly and cooperative. Brende notes that Norway was one of the first countries to recognize the People’s Republic of China. How long will China blame or at least rebuff the Norwegian government for a prize it has no direct control over, but a long tradition of needing to support? “I don’t think we should expect that relations will improve in the short term,” Brende said, “but I hope they will during the next four-year period.” That’s the length of a parliamentary and government term in Norway.

Brende is resigned to realizing there’s no “easy fix” to the problem. “If I had the opportunity, I’d sit down on the first flight to Beijing tomorrow,” he told DN. “But I don’t think that will happen any time soon.” He said he preferred to keep his own strategy for dealing with the Chinese conflict to himself, because the media attention already has caused problems.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund