Conference lands Haakon in trouble

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UPDATED: Crown Prince Haakon, heir to the Norwegian throne, has been accused of overstepping the bounds of his mostly ceremonial role and ignoring his political neutrality. His decision to arrange a conference that questions both business and tax policies has even led to calls for his abdication, but the monarch-to-be seems to have no regrets .

Crown Prince Haakon wants to do more than just clip ribbons at opening ceremonies, but his hosting of a conference on entrepreneurship has sparked criticism. PHOTO: Det kongelige hoff/Sølve Sundsbø

Crown Prince Haakon, now age 41, wants to do more than just clip ribbons at opening ceremonies, but his hosting of a conference on entrepreneurship has sparked harsh criticism. PHOTO: Det kongelige hoff/Sølve Sundsbø

“By arranging a conference on Norway’s future, he’s gone beyond his neutral role and should consider abdicating,” Trond Nordby, a professor of history and political science at the University of Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen over the weekend.

Nordby is an avowed republican who has criticized Norway’s monarchy for years, so his comments didn’t initially spark many headlines in other media. He has support from one of the rising stars in the Labour Party, however. Jette Christensen, a Member of Parliament who sits on the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, told Dagsavisen that Haakon “is giving himself power but can’t be held accountable. That in itself is a problem.”

On Tuesday, Norway’s largest newspaper, Aftenposten, ran an unusually strong editorial that questioned Crown Prince Haakon’s judgment. It also lashed out at his decision to arrange the conference that includes discussion of a report that found Norway plagued by “rigid labour regulations” and “relatively heavy bureaucratic processes” that can “hinder Norwegian entrepreneurship.”

Aftenposten wrote that it could understand “Crown Prince Haakon’s need to redefine the monarchy’s place in modern society.” The young royal crossed the line, however, by backing a conference that takes up various issues on which there is political disagreement in Norway, according to Aftenposten. “He hasn’t understood his role,” the newspaper intoned.

‘Gripping opportunity and exploiting potential’
The conference, entitled “SIKT 2014 – A conference on Norway’s Future,” was attracting nearly 200 participants in the northern city of Tromsø both Wednesday and Thursday. It’s based at a stylish new hotel in the Arctic city and features several Norwegian business celebrities plus downhill skier Aksel Lund Svindal  along with a professor from Stanford University in California. With his photo prominently displayed on the conference’s webside, the crown prince rhetorically asks “how can we grip opportunity and best exploit the potential found in people’s heads, hearts and hands? SIKT is a meeting place where we try to exploit the energy and optimism found in young leaders aged 20 to 40. The goal is to be a relevant and fun arena for new thinking and discussion, free of prejudice across various sectors.”

Nordby claims that’s a clear violation of Haakon’s role, and that the crown prince “is trying to take on a leadership role that’s above politics.” While Haakon’s intentions may be good, and he often wants to help people build networks, Nordby pointed out that the report from Boston Consulting Group to be discussed at the conference suggests that Norway’s tax system contributes to drawing wealthy investors away from risky upstart projects. Since the crown prince is exempt from paying taxes in Norway, Nordby calls this unfortunate.

“There is political disagreement over property tax,” Nordby told Dagsavisen. “That means the crown prince is walking right into a political minefield. It’s clear that Haakon and (Crown Princess) Mette-Marit want to modernize the monarchy and give their roles more meaning. The problem is that this violates the king’s role when it was redefined during the transition to a parliamentary system.”

Palace rebuked, prince defends himself
Christensen said she also understands that Haakon is engaged in social issues and “wants to make a difference, but the problem with that is that a ceremonial role is the monarchy’s nature, and the democratic balance is difficult.” Christen thinks that’s a good enough argument to abolish the monarchy in Norway, which ran into widespread criticism earlier this year as well.

Haakon himself still sees no problem with arranging the conference, telling Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) outside the conference as it began Wednesday evening that “it’s not the political questions that are the main focus of the conference, but getting people together and learning something new. I don’t think that’s politically controversial.” He stressed that he was only part of helping create the “meeting place,” adding that it was up to the participants to provide the content.

“I apologize for my enthusiasm,” he said with a note of sarcasm, “but I think this is positive, fine and exciting.” He said it was important to work with business and that part of his job “is to meet all of society.” He avoided answering a direct question about the criticism of stepping beyond his role, smiling and saying only that “it’s incredibly fine to be here,” in Tromsø. Asked whether he was prepared for the criticism, though, he said “Yes, it’s part of the branch I’m in.”

Officials at the Royal Palace, which lent its email address as contact for the conference, had no comment on whether they evaluated the conference as problematic, with a spokeswoman saying only that “the crown prince wants to create meeting places for important conversations. SIKT is one of these places.” Asked by Dagsavisen whether the conference’s themes of innovation and entrepreneurship conflict with his role, palace spokeswoman Marianne Hagen said “that’s not up to us to evaluate.”

That prompted a rebuke from Aftenposten. “If there’s anything the palace must evaluate regularly, it’s which roles the crown prince can take on,” the paper wrote. “Crown Prince Haakon is the royal family’s most important person after the king. If the palace abdicates taking a position on problems concerning him, the foundation can be laid for another and bigger abdication, even though that wasn’t the intention.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund