NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s Parliament has cleared the way for US military forces to set up their own operations on four Norwegian bases. They’re not entirely welcome, but a solid majority has backed the government’s new “defense agreement” with the US, marking the biggest change in Norwegian base policy since Norway joined NATO in 1949.
The agreement, initiated by the US when the former Conservatives-led coalition government still held power, was signed by former Prime Minister Erna Solberg last year. It was later endorsed by her successor, Labour’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, but because it was considered an issue of “especially great importance,” Norway’s constitution required its approval by Parliament as well.
That was formalized just before the long holiday weekend, when both Labour and the Conservatives voted in favour of it, as did the Center Party, the Progress Party, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. The Labour-Center government needed the support of opposition parties in Parliament, since the controversial base policy change split those on the left.
The Reds, the Greens and the Socialist Left Party (SV) all voted against the deal. They claim it will allow the Americans to ignore Norwegian laws and regulations and set up their own “American zones” with rotating troops over at least the next 10 years at the four bases: Rygge in Østfold, Sola near Stavanger, and at Evenes and Ramsund between Harstad and Narvik in Northern Norway.
Opponents also claim the new pact utterly defies the Norwegian base policy that’s been in place for the past 73 years. It categorically excluded the permanent presence of “foreign powers'” on Norwegian territory in peacetime, as a means of placating the former Soviet Union at the time. Conflicts have flown over the definition of “permanent,” with Norwegian and US officials arguing that no American soldiers or officers will be permanently in place. Opponents of the deal claim the agreement will nonetheless provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has shown his ruthlessness in full force this spring after ordering the invasion of Ukraine.
“We are against the agreement because it gives the Americans too many rights on Norwegian territory, and because Norway is giving up too much of its authority,” Arild Hermstad of the Greens Party told newspaper Klassekampen late last week. “Legal aspects of it are problematic, and we’ve been denied full insight into what can happen on what I’d call (the US’) ‘semi-permanent’ military bases.”
It was no surprise that the Reds and SV also objected to how the Americans can now move into “generally agreed areas” of the four bases and set up their own post offices, banks, shops, entertainment facilities and police authority. US law will apply in the Americans’ new exclusive zones, and they’ll also be exempted from most all Norwegian taxes and fees except for road tolls even though US soldiers’ children can, for example, attend Norwegian schools.
The Americans can also store and use the military equipment they feel they need, without disclosing its particulars. That’s raised fears of nuclear arms in Norwegian territory that SV, the Reds and the Greens firmly oppose.
They’re not alone. A long list of Norwegian organizations opposed to the new defense agreement with the US (and increasing US presence in general) have been actively demonstrating against it. Several chapters of Norway’s largest trade union federation, LO, have also joined various environmental and peace-related groups in claiming that the agreement defies Norwegian base policy, weakens Norwegian sovereignty, raises the nuclear weapons risk and can weaken security instead of boosting it.
“Nonsense,” claim most of Norway’s top politicians who argue exactly the opposite. They firmly contend that more presence of both US and other NATO allies in Norway will further boost national security. That’s more important than ever, they argue, after Putin launched his war against neighbouring Ukraine. Since Norway is also one of Russia’s neighbours, proponents of the deal claim the importance of defense capability has also spiked.
“Defense cooperation with the USA has been fundamentally important for Norwegian security for more than 70 years,” Norway’s new defense minister, Bjørn Arild Gram, declared from the podium in Parliament on Friday. “And for many decades, US training and defense storage in Norway has expressed trans-Atlantic solidarity and common interests.”
Gram claimed the agreement will further development of Norway’s defense cooperation with the US “and is first and foremost important for Norway’s security.” He noted that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and then its invasion of Ukraine stresses the need for closer allied cooperation in Europe in general: “That applies to the framework within NATO and bilateral cooperation with our closest allies.”
He conceded that the base agreement “stretches beyond” former agreements regarding American rights in Norway, but he insisted that it also protects Norwegian interests. He was clearly relieved that the Parliament’s own foreign affairs and defense committee concluded that it doesn’t allow “permanent placement” of US forces in peacetime nor does it have any goals other than defense of Norway and NATO. The US troops will rotate and the agreement is limited to 10 years, after which it can be renegotiated.
In many ways the defense agreement seems to provide for the sort of diplomatic immunity that staff of foreign embassies already have. Diplomats don’t have to pay taxes either, can freely import their own products and they’re not subject to Norwegian law. Gram claims that any crimes committed by US personnel in Norway will be prosecuted, but will “follow an American track.”
Gram also claims that the defense agreement will send “a clear and important signal to the rest of the world” that Norway’s lengthy bilateral cooperation with the US remains strong “and will be even stronger in the years to come.”
He’s also been busy reassuring local officials in the regions where the four bases are located, and defending the agreement in local media. He’s met with local mayors from Rygge in the south to Evenes and Ramsund in the north, stressing that the Americans won’t be able to do whatever they want. Local authorities will also be involved in planning and construction projects tied to the agreement, he said, just as they are in all other local building projects.
“It’s too early to say what types of investments will be made,” Gram wrote in commentaries published in local newspapers, but he indicated that local Norwegian companies can compete for contracts. Both Rygge and Sola will be developed to better accommodate allied air forces, including fighter jets at Rygge. Evenes will be improved to accommodate naval and air forces while Ramsund will become an important center for logistics and supplies.
“The war in Ukraine has unfortunately contributed towards stressing how important it is that Norway works actively with the US, NATO and our Nordic neighbours to protect European security, democracy and freedom,” Gram wrote. Not everyone is convinced.
“There are still too many areas where the USA is allowed to define power and authority,” Gerald Folkvord of Amnesty Norway, told Klassekampen. “We think that’s scary … we have many documented examples of how the US doesn’t respect its allies’ laws even on allies’ territory. The US’ own strategic interests always come first.”