Labour’s leader gathers his flock

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Jonas Gahr Støre, the former foreign minister who now heads the Norwegian Labour Party, will be leading the party’s annual national meeting for the first time this weekend. He’ll need to tackle several key issues that divide his flock internally, and clarify his position on issues where he’s been vague.

The new Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who took over when Jens Stoltenberg became NATO chief last year, will lead his first annual national party meeting this weekend. He's being challenged to clarify his position on a wide range of issues on which he's been vague. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

The new Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre, who took over when Jens Stoltenberg became NATO chief last year, will lead his first annual national party meeting that starts on Thursday. He’s being challenged to clarify his position on a wide range of issues on which he’s been vague. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

Støre is being challenged to make his stand known on everything from oil and gas exploration to asylum policy. Norwegian media has been full of calls lately for the country to take in more Syrian refugees, for example. The conservative minority coalition that booted the last Labour-led government out of office in 2013 has asylum policies that aren’t much stricter than those Labour itself exercised. That’s opened both the government parties (the Conservatives and the Progress Party) and Labour in opposition to criticism that Norway’s biggest parties don’t understand the seriousness of the humanitarian tragedy in Syria, and the need to take in more refugees.

Liberals send a signal
The Liberal Party, one of the government coalition’s two small support parties, passed a resolution at its own national meeting last weekend to take in at least 10,000 more Syrian refugees. Norway now takes in only around 2,000 a year, and neither the Liberals nor their fellow support party, the Christian Democrats, think that’s sufficient.

“It’s important that we send a clear signal on the responsibility that Norway must take,” Tord Hustveit, leader of the Liberals’ youth organization Unge Venstre, told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Taking in 10,000 Syrian refugees is about the right level.”

It remains a fraction of the amount taken in by other European countries, not least neighbouring Sweden, but Norway has been sending hundreds of millions in financial aid to help refugees “where they are,” for example in camps in Jordan and Lebanon. That’s simply not enough, claim many members of Labour itself.

“We’re afraid the party leadership is out of step with the party organizations on this issue,” Truls Vasvik, leader of Labour in Vestfold County, told Dagsavisen.  “Many members of Labour believe the party has been too restrictive in its policies. Now it’s time to clarify what line we’ll take.”

Schools, tax-free liquor and climate at stake, too
Støre is being challenged to clarify his position on a wide range of other issues as well, from whether to allow the children of rejected refugees to remain in Norway (the so-called asylbarn issue) to school and climate policies, and whether Norway should phase out sales of tax-free wine and liquor at Norwegian airports. He’s also under pressure from one of his former Labour colleagues, the veteran diplomat Jan Egeland, who now heads the refugee aid organization Flyktninghjelpen.

“Yes, now Jonas has to show some leadership,” Egeland claimed on the eve of the large Labour gathering at Folkets Hus in Oslo. He has been clamouring for more aid to and acceptance of Syrian refugees for years, even claiming on national TV earlier this week that Norway is only giving pennies per refugee, given the huge numbers of them. “Norway can and must give at least a billion kroner (USD 125 million) in addition to the humanitarian aid the foreign ministry has set aside this year,” Egeland told Dagsavisen.

Trond Giske, the former trade minister who’s due to be confirmed as one of two deputy party leaders along with Hadia Tajik this weekend, believes new, more liberal asylum policies will be approved. “Yes, we’re facing an enormous refugee catastrophe near Europe’s borders,” Giske said. “It’s clear we must take responsibility and not just pass it on to Syria’s neighbouring countries.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund