Espen Barth Eide had to hit the ground running when he suddenly took over as Norway’s new foreign minister this week. His boss and Labour Party colleague, Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, had opted to shake up his government right in the middle of several international crises but reaction has been generally favourable.
“It can well be called dramatic,” wrote political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim in newspaper Aftenposten. He noted how Eide’s predecessor, Anniken Huitfeldt, had held a “central” position in the Labour Party for 25 years and wanted to finally become foreign minister when Labour assumed government power again two years ago. She didn’t want to give up her post this week, but found herself in serious conflicts of interest late last summer over her husband’s stock investments in Norwegian companies. So serious, said Støre, that he felt he ultimately had to replace her.
Støre has denied that he replaced her as a means of striking out at his arch rival, Conservatives’ leader Erna Solberg, who’s caught in conflicts of interest similar to Huitfeldt’s. “I know Erna Solberg well enough to also know that she wouldn’t let herself be affected by changes in the Labour Party’s government team,” Støre said at a press conference after he’d made seven ministerial changes in his cabinet.
Instead, Støre said, he was mostly concerned over the time Huitfeldt will be needing to devote to the Parliament’s investigation that just got underway into the conflicts of interest. Not only do the conflicts weaken the public’s confidence in their leaders, Støre said, the process to address them will last well into next year.
“In an extemely demanding time regarding foreign policy and national security, with two wars in Europe’s outer zones, the country needs a foreign minister who can devote full attention to the job,” Støre said. He couldn’t risk Huitfeldt being distracted by the need to defend herself before a parliamentary committee for months to come. On Wednesday she also conceded that she “couldn’t rule out” being partial on weapon donations to Ukraine, since her husband had bought shares in Norwegian weapons firm Kongsberg Gruppen. She said she “should have done more” to follow up her husband’s investments.
“I know that this is a demanding situation for Anniken,” Støre said, flatly denying also that there’s been any power struggle between them. “I know she was fully motivated and ready to continue, so this is my decision and it wasn’t one made easily.” He further claimed that he thinks Huitfeldt “has been a good and secure foreign minister for Norway,” but now she’ll return to her seat in Parliament and her job has been transferred to Espen Barth Eide.
Eide and the foreign ministry appear to have been so busy since the government shake-up was announced that the ministry has barely updated its own website or posted photos of the traditional ceremony where an outgoing minister hands over the office key to the incoming. Eide has instead found himself dealing immediately with Russia’s war on Ukraine and, most urgently, the tragedies that continue to unfold in Gaza after war also broke out between Israel and the Palestinian organization Hamas.
Norway has long played a role in Middle East peace talks, and the government is willing to help again. Israel’s ambassador to Norway, however, claims Norway now needs to “take sides.” He was disappointed that Støre also has condemned Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which leaves Gaza’s civilian population with little place to seek refuge under Israeli attack. Støre was also reluctant to refer to Hamas as a “terrorist organization,” preferring instead to refer to the elected Hamas as an organization that has committed terrorist acts.
By Tuesday Eide was already on early morning radio talkshows addressing the crisis in the Middle East. On Wednesday he was out meeting reporters to update how the ministry was “working very hard” to gather information on who was behind an attack on a hospital in Gaza that sparked international condemnation. “This is an absolutely terrible situation,” Eide told NRK, calling the attack on the hospital “completely unacceptable.” He said the “sensitive and important” question of who’s responsible for the attack would ultimately need to be clarified by the UN.
Eide’s sudden move from being Norway’s Climate and Environment Minister, where his work had mixed reviews, to Foreign Minister was made easier by his earlier tenure in the post during Jens Stoltenberg’s government. Before serving as foreign minister in 2012-2013 the 59-year-old Eide was also Norway’s defense minister, so he has government experience, lots of international contacts and, by most accounts, a firm grip on current issues. Huitfeldt herself graciously said she was “so glad” a politician with his experience in foreign policy was assuming the post.
Alstadheim, the political commentator at Aftenposten, said he thinks Støre’s ministerial changes will help lessen conflicts within his Labour Party by bringing in younger ministers (who experienced terror themselves during a right-wing extremist’s massacre at their Labour summer camp on the island of Utøya in 2011) in addition to experienced ministers like Eide. “He can go right back to the job (as foreign minister) even in a situation with war in Europe and crisis in the Middle East,” Alstadheim wrote.
Janne Haaland Matlary, a professor at the University of Oslo who often speaks out on foreign affairs, went so far as to say that Prime Minister Støre had “wasted Barth Eide’s talent” by not making him foreign minister when he took over two years ago. She called Huitfeldt a “weak foreign minister during a dangerous time for Norway” because of the threat now posed by Norway’s neighbouring Russia. She hailed Eide’s competence as a former vice secretary general at the UN, a former UN special envoy to Cyprus, a director of the World Economic Forum and many years as a researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI.
She also speculated that she doesn’t think Barth Eide engages in any stock trading that could land him in the conflicts of interest risking other politial careers in Norway at present. “He understands power and how power is revealed in the international anarchy we now see more and more of,” Matlary wrote in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week, “and that’s a compliment.”
Others have speculated that Barth Eide shares Støre’s support for the EU, whereas Huitfeldt adhered to the Labour Party faction that’s skeptical to the EU. Since Labour is now sharing government power in a minority coalition with the strongly anti-EU Center Party, there’s little chance of EU membership coming into play any time soon. Støre, at least, now has a like-minded foreign minister who can make a good impression in Brussels.