Prime Minister Erna Solberg, whose leadership has been directly challenged this week on several key issues, went on the offensive Friday as she opened her Conservative Party’s annual national meeting. She was tough on Russia, vowed a military build-up and attempted to win control over the refugee tragedy in the Mediterranean.
It’s the refugee issue that has put the most pressure on Solberg, as an equally offensive Labour leader, fresh from his own party’s national meeting last weekend, vowed to fight for acceptance of 10,000 more refugees from Syria. That may pit a majority in Parliament against Solberg’s government, and then Labour’s Jonas Gahr Støre also took the lead in organizing support for more search and rescue efforts for the thousands of boat refugees fleeing North Africa the Mediterranean. That forced Solberg to first agree to send a Norwegian ship to the area and then to send it faster.
She’s in a tough situation, with a government partner (the Progress Party) that doesn’t want to take in 10,000 more Syrian refugees since more than 6,000 already here are waiting for resettlement. Solberg, who faced harsh criticism last week for being to slow to react to the refugee crisis, also has concerns over how so many can be settled in Norwegian cities and towns around the country. Ironically, studies show that the communities most reluctant to agree to take in more refugees are led by the Center Party (generally keen to boost and retain population in rural areas) and many Labour mayors. “Under our government, there’s been record amounts of settlement,” claimed the Conservatives’ Rogaland County leader Sveinung Stensland to newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this week, in defense of Solberg and her Progress Party minister Solveig Horne who’s in charge of resettlement and integration. Many of Stensland’s party colleagues agreed that Labour and the Center Party haven’t done a good job at the local level of taking in refugees now languishing in Norwegian asylum centers.
Solberg claimed on Friday that she still wants to put the most effort into helping refugees where they are, and she stressed that Norwegian merchant ships already have saved around 5,000 refugees during the past year. She urged providing more aid to what she called “a belt of instability, poverty, conflict and oppression” south of Europe, from where people are fleeing. “We must contribute to stabilization, development and democracy in Europe’s neighbourhood,” Solberg said.
Addressing an ‘aggressive’ neighbour in the North
It’s in Norway’s own neighbourhood that Solberg sees the biggest challenge for Norway itself at present. She lashed out as “Russian aggression,” adding that it was “sad to see that this country, which has given the world so much, is now developing in a negative direction. In Russia, democracy and freedom of expression are under heavy pressure. Russia has broken international law, annexed part of another country and is destabilizing Ukraine. Homosexuals, volunteer organization and political opponents experience harassment and assault.
“Russia has much to be proud of in its history. Today’s developments give no reason for pride,” Solberg said, to thunderous applause from her party members.
Because “we don’t know” what Russia will do next, Solberg went on to claim that Norway will continue to be a “reliable and predictable” partner of NATO but that Norway must also improve its own defense. She was pleased that Norwegian youth have been flocking to voluntary military service and keen on military careers, “but even when personnel is motivated, the ability to react quickly and hold out over time must be improved.” She said the government proposed on at the weekly Council of State on Friday to upgrade its fleet of Leopard tanks and boost defense from the air. “We have increased the defense budgets and will continue to do so,” Solberg said.
The prime minister, whose two-party government coalition has sunk in public opinion polls, also delivered a rapid fire list of what she sees as her government’s accomplishments so far (from initiating labour reform to cutting or eliminating some taxes) and she claimed she looked forward to the local election campaign this fall. She boasted of various health care reforms and more funding and initiatives for roadbuilding and public transportation. She declared there’s “no crisis” in the Norwegian economy, but the fall in oil prices that fuel it have highlighted the need for diversification and new job creation.
There were a few new proposals, for example free day care for families with household income below NOK 400,000 (USD 50,000). Mostly, Solberg was keen to assert her leadership as it’s increasingly challenged by an opposition Labour leader eager himself to take over her job. The Conservatives’ annual national meeting, being held at Gardermoen north of Oslo, runs through Sunday.