It was another challenging day of being prime minister for Erna Solberg on Wednesday: More than a million union members walked off their jobs nationwide in the afternoon to protest her minority government’s proposed work rule changes, her justice minister is under fire, her government can’t seem to deport an Islamic fundamentalist who has threatened both national security and her personally, and she was accused of dropping goals for carbon emission cuts at home. Solberg chose nonetheless to spend nearly an hour with a group of foreign correspondents in Oslo, and appeared to be as unflappable as ever.
Yes, she conceded, she faces all kinds of challenges, with new ones popping up all the time, but she calmly claimed her minority government was “well-equipped” to handle everything from diving prices for Norway’s major export product (oil) to the change in the “security climate” in all of Europe. A sense of serenity surrounds her speech, at least in public: Solberg rarely if ever raises her voice, chuckles a bit before answering questions and doesn’t seem to have a worry in the world, even though they’ve piled up in recent months.
Both her party, the Conservatives, and her government coalition partner, the Progress Party, have sunk in recent public opinion polls. Labour has firmed its position as Norway’s largest party, now with more than 40 percent of the vote, and more than half of all Norwegians seem to prefer Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre as prime minister over Solberg.
For Solberg, it’s like water off a duck’s back. And she noted that Norway has had a series of coalition, even minority, governments over the past few decades and they’ve mostly survived. “We are quite good at operating in a country that prospers,” Solberg said. It’s only difficult, she claimed, “if the anticipation is that you can’t compromise.” She admitted it can be hard to keep all promises from the 2013 campaign that swept her into the prime minister’s office, because compromise is the nature of coalition rule. “But I think we’ve got through most of our policies over the past year,” Solberg said.
Summarizing the state of the nation
She opened her meeting with the foreign correspondents by reading a statement about economic and foreign policy, stressing as she often has in recent months that Norway’s economy remains fundamentally strong with high employment and low unemployment. The recent dive in oil prices has left the economy “at a turning point,” she allowed, as the oil industry’s demand for goods and services declines, “but this is not new to us,” she declared. Norwegian officials have prepared for such a “turning point” for a long time, she said, and have “several lines of defense,” from the country’s huge sovereign wealth fund known as the “oil fund” to monetary policy that “can react quickly.” The recent weakening of Norway’s currency, the krone, is making Norwegian exports more competitive and even offsetting the decline in the oil prices because they’re set in much stronger dollars that yield more kroner upon conversion.
Solberg still predicts growth for the Norwegian economy, albeit slower at perhaps around 1.2 to 1.5 percent. “Norway will still benefit from a strong oil and gas industry” for quite a while, she predicts, even though that’s causing environmental conflicts. Her government’s recent decision to move forward with opening new areas of the Arctic to oil and gas exploration is fundamentally at odds with any efforts to reduce carbon emissions at home. Solberg argued that gas, though, generates half the emissions of coal, for example, and that her government’s proposal to move the polar ice boundary farther north was based entirely on new factual information. It also conveniently accommodates the opening of new oil and gas fields that are farther north than ever before.
Meanwhile, Russia poses a new and major concern in the Arctic and elsewhere, after it “violated international law” and the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Solberg said. Hopes for progress on cooperation in the Barents have been complicated by Russia’s harsh and unpredictable treatment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) needed to carry out such cooperation.
“We will face challenges in the time to come,” Solberg said, but seemed intent on staying the course, also on an international level. She claimed Norway would continue to promote dialogue and development around the world, along with democratic values, while protecting its own security and economic interests “with, and after, oil and gas.”