The annual Arctic Frontiers conference, billed as one of the most important gatherings to discuss Arctic development, opened in Norway’s northern city of Tromsø this week. Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide was among those opening the conference before flying off to Ethiopia after a hectic spate of travel.
Norway’s conservative government coalition has firmly denied it has a “blind spot” in the Arctic, as Tromsø newspaper Nordlys editorialized last week. The paper suggested that Norway’s foreign ministry no longer was making border cooperation between Russia and Norway a high priority, even as the Barents Secretariat (financed by the ministry, but so far reportedly without a new funding agreement from 2018) celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Not so, retorted Søreide’s state secretary in the foreign ministry Audun Halvorsen. Cooperation in the entire Barents Region has been an important element in Norwegian foreign policy since it was formalized in 1993, he claimed, and “any claim the government is reducing this cooperation lacks anchoring in the facts.”
Halvorsen claimed the cross-border cooperation had been “actively continued and developed, both through political attention and concrete, considerable economic support.” It’s a huge, multi-faceted area, he wrote in a statement published on the ministry’s website, covering not just Russian and Norwegian border issues but also those with Sweden and Finland. “The multilateral cooperation takes place at both a national and regional level,” Halvorsen said.
The Russian cooperation remains strong, he claimed, “also in politically demanding times.” The Barents Secretariat itself receives and manages just some of the financial resources allocated. Its current three-year agreement for nearly NOK 143 million runs until June 30, 2018 and a new “robust” one will be ready soon, Halvorsen stated. He called the secretariat “a good partner for the ministry,” that will continue to play an important role.
‘Attention on the Arctic’
Søreide, meanwhile, concentrated on the importance of the seas and sustainable economic development at the conference that has attracted more than 3,000 participants from around 30 countries to Tromsø this week. “The Northern areas are one of the government’s most important areas of commitment,” Søreide stressed before traveling to Tromsø, “and international attention on the Arctic is increasing.”
For coverage of Søreide’s session in Tromsø, click here and to more coverage in the Independent Barents Observer (external links), which has its editor in Tromsø this week. It notes the irony of how a majority of speakers at the conference came from south of the Arctic Circle, which raised questions from the president of the Sami Parliament.
Søreide took part in the opening “State of the Arctic” session on Monday before flying off to Ethiopia to attend an African Union summit on efforts to fight corruption. It’s the latest in a string of high-level meetings for Søreide, who took over as foreign minister just last fall.
She was in the Middle East right before joining Prime Minister Erna Solberg in Washington DC for a meeting with US President Donald Trump, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other top members of the Trump Administration. The meeting with Tillerson was said to concentrate on the US’ new military strategy, the situation in Afghanistan and the Middle East. The US had threatened to cut support to the Palestinian Authority but Norway wants it to continue. “We’ll see where the Americans land,” Søreide told newspaper Aftenposten. Søreide also expressed Norway’s concern over the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with has led to strong and negative reaction from the Palestinians and many other countries around the world.
After the whirlwind meetings in Washington Søreide traveled on to New York to meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, where North Korea was a topic of conversation, and then on to Vancouver, where she met Tillerson again for a mini-summit of sorts on North Korea. That took place just as North- and South Korea started talking again for the first time in years. “The conversations are positive,” Søreide told Aftenposten. “It’s better they speak together than that they don’t.”
Then it was back to Norway for the unveiling of Solberg’s newly expanded government coalition that involves reorganization of Søreide’s ministry, which now includes a separate minister to handle development and foreign aid issues instead of a minister in charge of EU issues. Søreiede will travel later this week from Ethiopia to Davos, Switzerland to also appear at the World Economic Forum.