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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Støre faces rough summer ahead

NEWS ANALYSIS: Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre went on the offensive when he could finally hold his half-year press briefing before the summer holidays begin. He quickly had to go back on the defensive, though, when faced with tough questions over his leadership, record high prices and all the other issues that remain unresolved.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre faced lots of tough questions at his annual pre-summer press briefing on Thursday, which had been delayed because of more problems within his government. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Kaja Schill Godager

The annual summer gathering in the garden of his official residence in Oslo had been scheduled for late last week. It had to be cancelled when his Labour Party colleague who served as minister of culture and equality suddenly resigned over conflicts of interest. Another one of Støre’s ministers from the party he leads had also run into controversy over her own conflicts of interest just a week before that, but hasn’t had to resign, at least not yet.

So after Støre’s lengthy prelude highlighting what he views as his government’s accomplishments over the past six months, the first question he faced was why his party’s ministers seemed to have a harder time than others in following rules to avoid conflicts of interest in their work. Things went downhill from there as Støre was challenged over his claims of “secure economic management” at a time when most Norwegians are facing the highest inflation in 40 years, an extremely weak currency and rapidly rising interest rates.

“It will take time to bring down price growth,” Støre admitted. “That’s frustrating many, and I understand that. There are no quick solutions.” Støre, whose grandfather owned the Jøtul oven factory, is himself is a wealthy man because of family inheritance, even reportedly taking out dividends from a family company last year that amounted to more than his state salary. He didn’t go into politics for the money, though, and has worked for years to appeal to Labour Party voters.

The Norwegian press corps grilled Støre on another unusually hot day in Oslo. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Kaja Schill

Støre had problems, meanwhile, answering “yes” or “no” to whether rising costs for proposed offshore wind power projects will reach a level that his government won’t be able to accept or help subsidize enough to satisfy investors. “We believe it’s important that we get going” on offshore wind, Støre said. Norway, with huge interests in oil and gas, has been lagging behind other countries’ efforts to generate more climate-friendly power but Støre insisted his government “will take its share” of financial support for offshore wind projects. He claimed his government was closely following the cost situation but wouldn’t say whether high costs would prompt further postponement.

Then came questions over the summer political campaigns before municipal elections in September. Støre wouldn’t say which local elections in Norway were the most important for his embattled party, which has plummeted in public opinion polls since the last national election in 2021. Its results were the lowest ever at 26.3 percent, but enough to allow Støre to form a minority government coalition with the protectionist Center Party. They’ve since fallen to as low as the mid-teens, with the Støre government so unpopular that it’s affecting Labour all over the country.

Støre insisted that “all” of the municipal elections are important and he wants better results than in the last round. Current polls indicate Labour is likely to lose, though, in Oslo and Bergen and several other cities as voters defect to the Conservatives’ side.

There are other challenges that mean Støre probably won’t be able to take much if any time off this summer. In addition to all the time and money that Russia’s war on Ukraine is demanding (Støre recently returned from meetings with all the other Nordic prime ministers and then another NATO gathering), his Labour-Center government is being sued once again by environmental organizations furious over its ongoing commitment and further expansion of the oil and gas industry, even as Norway is struggling to meet its climate goals. More on that later, but Norwegian governments (both Labour- and Conservatives-led) have become so dependent on the money pouring in from oil and gas that they simply won’t or can’t cut it off. More expansion of Norwegian offshore oil and gas production is underway, instead of the contraction sought by those worried about climate change and, not least, the United Nations.

Støre making a point during his pre-summer briefing. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Kaja Schill

Støre’s government also faces huge costs over the long-proposed electrification of the troubled Melkøya gas plant off Hammerfest in Northern Norway, pressure from the EU to get tougher on emission cuts and other climate measures, and over preservation of forests that timber-owners want to cut down and cash in on. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reports that Støre’s government had aimed to address such issues involving climate cooperation and carbon fees but Labour couldn’t get the pro-oil- and pro-landowners Center Party to agree. Støre and Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who also serves as Norway’s much-criticized finance minister, only won a mandate to come to terms behind closed doors.

“Some of these issues take time because they raise questions and demand evaluations that can lead to new proposals,” Støre confirmed to DN, “but they will be landed in the days and weeks to come.”

He hopes for the same in the debate over the electrification of Melkøya, expected to cost at least NOK 13.2 billion and cut carbon emissions by around 850,000 tons. It’s not just the money at issue, but the fact that the project will consume lots of the electricity needed elsewhere in Northern Norway. Center doesn’t want to electify Melkøya, while Labour does, since it’s one of the only ways to significantly cut Norway’s emissions.

‘Will find a solution’
Støre, as always, told DN that he has faith his government “will find a solution,” just like he hopes Labour will prevail in municipal elections despite polls indicating otherwise. “Our goal is to get through these times,” Støre said at the press briefing, whether it’s the war in Europe, the urgent need to improve defense and preparedness, the high prices and high interest rates or how the Conservatives’ side is winning away voters. Støre’s delayed summer party and his optimistic prelude stressed “secure economic management,” the need to keep supporting Ukraine and the 50,000 Ukrainian refugees who have come to Norway, and government support for Norwegians, too.

“We just have to do what politics in reality is all about: setting priorities,” Støre said. He predictably chose to stress the positive, like Norway’s low unemployment rate, high levels of investment in business and high business profits. He still vows improvements in elder care and social welfare services and, he added, “imposing measures that create jobs and cut emissions so we can meet climate goals. These are big demands, solved best together.” Berglund



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