UPDATED: Norway, most concerned with securing NATO’s help in protecting Arctic areas, appeared skeptical this week towards efforts aimed at drawing NATO into the refugee crisis. NATO ministers and its Norwegian secretary general Jens Stoltenberg nonetheless agreed on Thursday to help fight illegal trafficking and migration in the Aegean.
Stoltenberg stressed that the mission “is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” but rather to contribute “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.” NATO, he said, would cooperate closely with national coast guards and EU efforts in which Norway, among other countries, already has taken part.
Norwegian Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservative Party had been among those skeptical to getting NATO involved in efforts to handle the refugee crisis. “I’m not immediately in agreement that this (securing borders as thousands of refugees attempt to enter Europe) is a job for NATO,” Søreide told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. “The most important initiatives for handling the refugee influx are political (not defense-oriented).”
Søreide has been in Brussels this week for a NATO ministerial meeting held to lay long-term plans for new security situations. The meeting of defense ministers from NATO member countries is also meant to strengthen the alliance’s ability to mount a collective defense.
Problems with Turkey
Ministers including Søreide reportedly were caught off-guard earlier this week, when Germany and Turkey decided that NATO should get involved in handling the refugee crisis. Confusion reigned over how that might happen, at a time when questions are flying in Norway over whether Turkey can even continue as a member of NATO given its crackdowns on freedom of the press and human rights. Turkey, under its increasingly authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is “showing signs of becoming a dictatorship,” reported Aftenposten, after its own correspondent was denied press credentials and denied residence permission in the country. “Turkey is a problem for NATO,” editorialized Aftenposten on Wednesday, while Norway’s foreign ministry has also delivered negative evaluations of democratic conditions in Turkey.
Regarding the refugee crisis, “it’s very difficult to see what NATO could contribute,” one NATO source told Aftenposten, “since it involves control of borders between the alliance’s own allied countries.” Norwegian Defense Minister Søreide’s skepticism was shared by other ministers who claimed that NATO doesn’t have a mandate or the framework to handle “these types of situations” that can involve conflicts within the alliance.
Others strongly disagree, with think tank Carnegie Europe claiming that NATO should have involved itself in the refugee crisis long ago, not least in helping poor Balkan countries handle overwhelming amounts of asylum seekers crossing their borders, or trying to. With the EU seemingly unable to reach agreement on border controls, it appears German Chancellor Angela Merkel was ready to turn to NATO for help.
Merkel played a major role in hiring NATO’s Secretary General Stoltenberg for his top job, and he’s obliged to answer calls for help. Carnegie Europe notes that NATO has taken part in humanitarian operations before, and this time, the crisis is on many of its members’ own home turf.
Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister for the Labour Party, said earlier this week that it was too early to comment on any proposals or requests for NATO assistance in dealing with the thousands of refugees entering or trying to enter NATO countries.
“We have to work with this within the alliance,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. More details of how NATO can assist in patrolling the Aegean were to be forthcoming.
‘Concrete proposals’ for NATO aid in the Arctic
Søreide remained keen on not getting NATO sidetracked at a time when it already faces huge challenges in the Middle East, Ukraine and with Russia. Norway is chiefly interested in securing more naval presence from NATO in its northern areas that border on Russia.
“We face fundamental changes in the security situation, which to an increasing degree is challenging NATO in its own areas,” Søreide said before leaving for Brussels. “From the Norwegian side, we’re actively working to strengthen NATO both as a political and military alliance.” She stressed that NATO must be able to handle security situations in its own ares, “also in the northern areas.”
Norway was due to put forth “concrete proposals” for more naval presence in its northern areas at the meeting in Brussels. Norway also wants to continue cooperating with Germany and the Netherlands with preparedness of quick reaction forces through 2019.
When the NATO meeting was finished, Søreide was traveling on to Munich where she, Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Børge Brende would be attending the Munich Security Conference Friday and Saturday. Its agenda included the Syrian and refugee crises, along with the challenges they pose for Europe.