Espen Barth Eide was a busy member of Norway’s former left-center coalition government, serving as both defense minister and foreign minister. This week he made his debut as a managing director of the World Economic Forum, welcoming movers and shakers from all over the world to his new home base in Switzerland. Narrowing the gap between rich and poor was at the top of his agenda.
“What will happen if the differences between people increase, and confidence in the state and the whole system fall?” Eide asked rhetorically when meeting Norwegian reporters in Davos. That was the sort of topic participants at the World Economic Forum were discussing, as top politicians, business leaders and activists gathered for three days of speeches, seminars, sharing ideas and simply mingling. The highest level of networking goes on at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, and Eide was among the hosts.
He was also ready for an encounter with the man with whom he swapped jobs, Norway’s current Foreign Minister Børge Brende, along with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, Finance Minister Siv Jensen, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit, and a long list of Norwegian business leaders who were also taking the time and paying the fees necessary to be part of it all.
“It’s expensive but it’s worth it,” investor and businessman Jens Ulltveit-Moe told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), who said he paid around NOK 340,000 (USD 55,000) in member- and participant registration fees. Norwegian companies like Yara and Statkraft are paying around NOK 2 million each, but they see value in the chance to meet other CEOs and the likes of Bill Gates, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, and the head of the Bank of England.
Among other Norwegians attending: CEOs or board leaders of Telenor, DNB, Orkla, Hydro, the head of Norway’s oil fund Yngve Slyngstad and Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Council of Europe and the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Eide hoped they’d all come away with new contacts and new inspiration, and he saw no conflict between the meetings of the rich and powerful and his own Labour Party’s social democratic ideals.
Blending capitalism and responsibility
“Social democrats in Norway aren’t against capitalism,” Eide told newspaper Aftenposten, adding that it dominates the world economy and has shown an indisputable ability to create value in society. “But in a capitalistic world, we must have responsible countries that offer their residents welfare and security, like what we have in the Nordic welfare states.”
There were signs of optimism at the meeting that the global economy, also in hard-hit Europe, is moving on from the finance crisis. The crisis-mode of recent years was said to be replaced by concern over what’s been inherited from the crisis years.
“The world after the finance crisis is quite different from the world before the crisis,” Eide told Dagsavisen. A widening gap between rich and poor is part the crisis’ dubious inheritance, he said.
“Both the authorities and business must understand the risks of differences that are too great, and what they can mean for economic sustainability and the political system,” Eide said. Many people, he added, have lost confidence in their political leadership, not least in countries like Italy, Spain and France. The issue was high on Eide’s agenda at the forum that ran through the week.