Prime Minister Erna Solberg was grilled by members of the opposition in Parliament on Wednesday, over her new immigration minister’s controversial hard line against asylum seekers. By the end of the day, one of her two support parties claimed it would now vote against all 40 proposals to toughen asylum and immigration rules.
Solberg, from the Conservative Party, admitted she didn’t agree with everything Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug from the more conservative Progress Party has been saying. That wasn’t enough to stop the Liberal Party, which had expressed willingness to go along with stricter asylum rules, to abruptly change its mind. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported late Wednesday afternoon that the Liberals would vote down all of Listhaug’s proposals, which may rob the minority coalition government of the support it needs to get the proposal through Parliament.
“The government has gone too far,” Trine Skei Grande, leader of the Liberals, said after a group meeting. “We’re going against the whole package.” Like many other politicians in Parliament, Grande has found Listhaug’s torugh proposals and remarks far too provocative in recent weeks.
Spreading ‘fear’ didn’t work
Among Listhaug’s provocative comments recently was one in which she told newspaper Aftenposten that she “feared” for her own children’s future in Norway, if the refugee influx wasn’t contained.
“Leading politicians don’t fear the future,” claimed MP Terje Breivik of the Liberals earlier in the day. “We see possibilities and find solutions.” He claimed Listhaug was behaving like a “spin doctor from a radical opposition party, “and not like a spokesman for a responsible government party that’s in the minority.”
Breivik also accused Listhaug, during Question Hour on the floor of Parliament, of stirring up even more unrest in Norway after 31,000 asylum seekers arrived late last year, “instead of fostering the collective leadership we need in such a serious situation.”
MP Audun Lysbakken from the Socialist Left party (SV) asked Solberg whether she was comfortable with Listhaug’s increasingly harsh rhetoric and proposals aimed at curbing immigration to Norway. Solberg responded that she “has been clear” that she “did not agree with … some of the comments (Listhaug) has made, both before she became a minister and after.”
The Liberal Party’s grassroots members has already declared a lack of confidence in Listhaug, and on Wednesday, its youth organization urged the party to form a majority with the Labour Party to halt several of Listhaug’s proposals that would further restrict immigration. Others in the party were urging the party to reject all of Listhaug’s 40 proposals to tighten asylum and immigration rules that earlier seemed assured of winning approval but now face lots of opposition. The party followed through with that.
Earlier in the day, Solberg had been accused by the leader of the Labour Party, the biggest in opposition, of demonstrating weak leadership after allowing Listhaug to make provocative remarks for weeks. Jonas Gahr Støre, Solberg’s main rival for the prime minister’s seat, claimed Solberg had been too quiet in the immigration debate, and let Listhaug and her Progress Party run roughshod over the opposition.
“After we reached a compromise, deep doubt has arisen over the government’s willingness and ability to manage it,” Støre said. The opposition’s stated willingness to compromise came before Listhaug presented her anti-immigration proposals, and before many of their consequences emerged. Several professional organizations, including state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) have challenged Listhaug’s facts during the proposals’ hearing process. Among them are the numbers Listhaug used in claiming that the influx of asylum seekers will get far worse if all their family members are allowed to join them in Norway.
“We have in turn been criticized for waffling, even putting our country’s borders in danger,” Støre told Solberg in Parliament. He also didn’t like how Listhaug has criticized Norway’s state church, accusing it of threatening the social welfare state by questioning Listhaug’s facts and favouring a more humane approach to asylum and immigration.
‘Following up on intentions’
Solberg, faced with seeing her coalition’s immigration reform halted or at least watered down, responded that her government is following up the intention of the asylum compromise reached last fall. She rejected Støre’s claim, and similar suggestions from the leaders of the Center and Liberal parties as well, that she’s been a weak leader. She acknowledged that questions have been raised over the proposals that have been out to hearing, “and we all must tolerate debate and criticism.”
Political commentator Arne Strand, writing in newspaper Dagsavisen, claimed Listhaug now has a majority of politicians against her. The consequences of her specific proposed changes to immigration law are too extreme, Strand wrote. Listhaug herself isn’t giving up, repeating her claims that Norway needs a “strict but fair” immigration policy that her proposals will produce, with a long-term vision and in compliance with international conventions.