‘Regional reform needs a re-start’

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Efforts to merge Norway’s counties, to make them bigger and better able to deliver more public services, have stranded in Finnmark and Troms. A heated battle over plans to merge the two northernmost counties now threatens to torpedo regional reform efforts all over the country: The government minister in charge said as much herself during a debate over Finnmark’s fate on Friday, amidst rising calls to re-start the whole process.

Finnmark covers a vast area with a small population of just 78,000. Residents continue to resist merging with their neighbouring county of Troms. Here, the view over Alta. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Monica Mæland, the state minister in charge of local governments, said during Friday’s debate with Finnmark’s deputy mayor Tarjei Jensen Bech that the entire regional reform program can collapse if the disputed merger between Finnmark and neighboring Troms does.

“I think it can have consequences for the rest of the country, and that’s serious,” Mæland said. “Then the Parliament wil have to draft what we will do.”

The merger between Finnmark and Troms has already ground to a halt, following a referendum in May that showed more than 80 percent of Finnmark’s voters oppose it. Finnmark officials then refused to take part in the formation of a joint commission charged with carrying out the merger process. Troms refused to take part earlier this month, sending the ball back to Mæland for the next move.

She has flatly refused to carry out the merger from Oslo and claims she doesn’t even have the authority to do so. The whole purpose of regional reform was to transfer more power from the state to bigger, stronger but fewer county jurisdictions. The reform effort, approved and thus ordered by Parliament, aims to reduce Norway’s total number of counties from its current 19 to just 11 by January 2020.

“Troms and Finnmark will cease to exist as separate counties on January 1st, 2020,” Mæland, from the Conservative Party, told newspaper Aftenposten late last week, just after Troms also refused to take part in the merger commission. “The leaders of the counties now have to accept that and take on responsibility for their merger.”

But they claim they won’t and say they can’t. There’s been too much disagreement over the most basic issues, with even the joint name of a new huge merged county the subject of disute. A merged county of Finnmark og Troms would be bigger than Denmark in terms of geographic area, but still relatively small in terms of population.

Government Minister Monica Mæland of the Conservative Party is caught firmly in the middle of the battle over a merger of Finnmark and Troms. PHOTO: KMD

Mæland, facing what amounts to local rebellion, has called in the county leaders of Troms and Finnmark for a meeting in her office on Monday August 20. Finnmark’s county mayor Ragnhild Vassvik of the Labour Party refuses to attend that, too. “It’s out of the question to meet the minister with the agenda she has for this meeting,” Vassvik told reporters. “The only meeting we will attend is one where we can discuss how Finnmark can remain as its own county.”

The stand-off has prompted law professor Eivind Smith at the University of Oslo to claim that it means Mæland now must ask the Parliament’s permission to force the merger through. “She has no authority under current law to set up other mechanisms that Troms wants,” Smith told Aftenposten. Troms, for example, has asked for an elections board to conduct local elections in 2019 and set up a budget for the first year of a new merged county.

Parliamentary pause
Most of the opposition parties in Parliament are calling for at least a pause in the merger process, if not a total re-start. Now the centrist Christian Democrats, which holds the swing vote in Parliament on any issues of dispute between the opposition parties and the conservative government’s parties, want to re-think the merger and the entire reform process, too.

“I think the process began at the wrong end,” Svein Iversen of the Christian Democrats, told newspaper Dagsavisen. He thinks the goverment made a mistake in first setting up the new structure for the counties, before deciding what new assignments will be transferred to them. Neither Parliament nor the counties themselves will know what their new duties will be until later this fall.

Others within the Christian Democrats have also admitted that Norway’s overall reform process should first have seen through mergers of the municipalities known as kommuner, before launching county mergers as well. The party, which had a formal agreement with the conservative government coalition at the time, takes its share of responsibility for that mistake, Geir Toskedal of the Christian Democrats told Dagsavisen.

Widespread consequences
“We have to see whether we’re creating new huge new counties without content, or whether the content will be so much that it demands bigger counties,” Iversen said, adding that if content doesn’t meet expectations, he hopes the Christian Democrats will vote to scrap the entire reform process.

That will indeed have consequences for the mergers currently underway. Only Oslo, Rogaland, Nordland and Møre og Romsdal are set to keep their current county status intact. Nord- og Sør-Trøndelag already have completed their merger, forming one larger county of Trøndelag. All the others are in the midst of merger processes:

** Aust- and Vest-Agder will become Agder

** Buskerud, Akershus and Østfold will become Viken

** Telemark and Vestfold will become Telemark og Vestfold

** Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane will be Vestland

** Hedmark and Oppland will become Innlandet

Troms and Finnmark are supposed to become Troms og Finnmark, but Mæland faces huge obstacles to see that through. She was still intending to at least meet with representatives from Troms on Monday. Bech, who met Mæland for the debate on Friday, claims she simply “doesn’t understand Finnmark.” She argued it was all a matter of principle: “You can completely disagree with something, but when the Parliament has made a decision, it must be followed up.”

Asked whether Finnmark County leaders lack respect for the Parliament, Bech told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday that they’ve tried to respect the reform process, “but it hasn’t been possible.” He claims he now has “a strong and clear ‘no'” from the voters of Finnmark, no matter what the Parliament says.

There’s a good chance the Parliament will be presented with a new proposal from the opposition to essentially park the merger process, given all the fuss over it. It’s unclear whether that will also involve a lack of confidence in the government coalition itself, or if the government will merely lose prestige by failing to carry out all its regional reforms.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund