Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, set off a political uproar over the weekend when she suggested that if local governments refuse to take in more refugees, the compromise her government struck with Parliament to do so may not be carried out. Jensen’s party opposes taking in more refugees, and now she’s being accused of sabotaging the compromise agreement.
During a campaign speech in Ålesund tied to upcoming municipal elections in September, Jensen launched her party’s effort to revive its fortunes at the local level by seemingly offering advice on how to get around the agreement struck in Parliament in June. It calls for Norway to take in 8,000 more UN-registered refugees from Syria over the next three years.
“It’s up to the kommuner (municipalities) to carry this out,” Jensen said from the podium. “Many have expressed that this will be a challenge. The more local governments that say ‘no,’ the greater the possibility that this agreement won’t be carried out.”
Her party was not part of the agreement hammered out first by its government coalition partner, the Conservatives, and their coalition’s two smaller support parties, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. It was that agreement which was later approved in Parliament, again without the support of Jensen’s party, which has a long record of being skeptical towards immigration to Norway.
Jensen made it clear no local municipal government should feel pressured into accepting more refugees into their community. At the same time, she seized the opportunity to repeat her own party’s preference that refugees be helped with financial aid where they are. “Taking in 8,000 refugees is the least efficient way of helping them,” she claimed again in her Saturday campaign speech.
By Sunday afternoon, both of her government’s support parties were protesting loudly, as were some members of her Conservatives partners. “This is, in reality, a desire to sabotage a measure that Parliament has adopted,” fumed Knut Arild Hareide, leader of the Christian Democrats, who initially wanted Norway to take in at least 10,000 refugees.
“I can’t ever remember a finance minister doing this before,” Hareide told newspaper Aftenposten. He claimed it was Jensen’s duty to follow up measures approved by a majority in Parliament. Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre agreed, and both demanded a clear answer from the government on its intentions. Støre claimed Jensen’s remarks illustrated the split she faces within her own party, between those members in government who are expected to loyally go along with compromises and many Progress Party voters who don’t want to make any compromises for the sake of government unity. With the Progress Party slumping in the polls, several political commentators suspected Jensen was merely trying to win them back.
‘Went too far’
By Monday, the professor and political commentator Frank Aarebrot was chiding Jensen for stepping over a line. “She can absolutely say that her party opposes taking in more refugees from Syria, but to actively encourage elected officials at a lower (local) level to sabotage a parliamentary measure is going too far,” Aarebrot told Aftenposten.
Others suspect Jensen’s remarks were cleared by the prime minister’s office. Some of Jensen’s government colleagues in the Conservative Party think it’s fine for her party (which dropped out of negotiations on the refugee issue) to promote its own views. Others disagreed, and welcomed the support of Aarebrot. He claimed Jensen’s remarks broke parliamentary rules, and hoped that would be addressed during Monday night’s first major party leader debate of the autumn.
Jensen herself seemed undaunted, with the Progress Party campaign continuing to promote her views on Monday and noting on its own website that “it’s not decided whether Norway will take in 8,000 Syrian refugees in the coming years.” Jensen maintains that will be decided by the voters and Norway’s local governments. She was also due to take part in Monday night’s debate.