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Thursday, May 19, 2022

Stoltenberg asked to stay on at NATO

Norway’s finance ministry may have found a perfect way out of the uncomfortable situation that’s arisen around its looming choice of a new central bank chief. It could save face not only for a former prime minister and NATO boss, Jens Stoltenberg, but also for the ministry itself, which asked two strong candidates to apply and ended up creating a political drama.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s nightly newscast Dagsrevyen has also followed the drama around Jens Stoltenberg’s bid to become the head of Norway’s central bank, when he ends his term as secretary general of NATO. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Stoltenberg, due to wind up his second extended term as secretary general of NATO, suddenly emerged as a candidate for central bank chief last fall. When his name did appear on the list of applicants that the ministry is obliged to reveal, Stoltenberg made it clear he’d been asked to apply for the post of governor of Norges Bank, for which the finance ministry is responsible.

Stoltenberg reportedly had also made it clear that he didn’t want to stir up any controversy over the job, but that’s exactly what happened. The woman long viewed as heir-apparent to retiring central bank chief Øystein Olsen (and also asked to apply), Ida Wolden Bache, suddenly had a very powerful rival and many Norwegians rallied to her cause, not Stoltenberg’s.

Political opposition to Stoltenberg began rising as well, precisely because Stoltenberg had been a career politician in Norway for decades before heading for Brussels and his NATO post, and the central bank chief’s post is supposed to be non-political. Stoltenberg also headed Norway’s Labour Party, which won last year’s national election and was able to form a coalition government. That raised numerous questions over looming conflicts of interests.

Critics also pointed out that Stoltenberg himself used to be, as Norway’s prime minister from 2005 to 2013, boss for both current prime minister (Jonas Gahr Støre) and Norway’s current finance minister, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. Støre, who’s also a personal friend of Stoltenberg, immediately declared himself inhabil (unable to be involved in the hiring process) and as having potential conflicts of interest down the road.

Other critics claimed that despite Stoltenberg’s impressive experience, Ida Wolden Bache is by far the better candidate for the job. She already serves as deputy chief of the bank, is an expert on monetary policy and has no political ties that could bring her decisions into question.

It’s turned into an awkward situation for all involved, as debate flies over the hiring process with some even implying that Stoltenberg’s candidacy was the result of lengthy high-level maneuvering involving powerful behind-the-scenes players. In short, exactly the situation no one wanted.

Now there may be a solution at hand. Newspaper VG reported during the weekend that Stoltenberg is being called upon to  to stay on at NATO given the particularly troubled times at present. With tensions between Russia and NATO higher than they’ve been in years, it’s not the best time to be searching for a new NATO boss.

VG reported that both the US and Germany are among NATO members wanting Stoltenberg to continue in his post, beyond his current term that ends on October 1. He’s already extended his term as NATO chief twice. He was initially hired for a four-year term in 2014, but NATO members asked him as early as 2017 to stay on until 2020. Then they asked him to extend his term again, until October 1 2022. Stoltenberg has always been known as a likeable guy and clearly capable. It’s also flattering when other prime ministers and presidents don’t want him to leave.

No ‘political energy’ to search for a new NATO boss
VG reported that “central sources” within the defense alliance have confirmed that several major NATO countries are urging Stoltenberg to continue as their secretary general. “I can see the logic in that, to ask Stoltenberg to stay on for a short period,” Karsten Friis, a researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told VG. He leads NUPI’s researchers’ group for security and defense, and follows NATO closely.

“It’s always a problem for 30 member countries to agree on a new secretary general,” Friis added, “and it’s perhaps not something anyone wants to use a lot of political energy on right now. Then it can be easier to buy some time and ask Stoltenberg to stay on for a while.”

VG reported that the last signal Stoltenberg himself gave was that he would not be available for  any new job until after October 1, 2022. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) has also reported that even then, it would not be optimal for NATO to lose its secretary general.

“Since last summer (2021), important allies like the US, Great Britain, Germany and Canada have tried to get Stoltenberg to continue,” DN commentator Sverre Strandhagen wrote last week. VG reports that Stoltenberg has, however, so far declined to evaluate another extended term in Brussels.

Ministry accused of creating the drama
The finance ministry, meanwhile, remains under pressure to appoint a new central bank chief, since current chief Olsen will leave by the end of next month. Questions remain as to why the ministry, which normally is supposed to avoid controversy in its selection of a new central bank chief, opted to ask not one but two top candidates to apply for the job. Also that politicking should be avoided.

The ministry itself was accused last week of creating the drama that’s been unfolding since mid-December. It has fueled “an unusually broad and intense debate,” wrote Eivind Thomassen in a commentary in newspaper Aftenposten. He also wrote the central bank’s centennial book Norges Bank 1816-2016. Thomassen wonders why the ministry broke with normal practice in such a way that it put both candidates and the government in a “very demanding situation.”

A decision on a new central bank chief was expected last week, but has been delayed.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

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