UK’s close friendship with Norway remains strong
The United Kingdom’s close friendship with Norway, forged in the dark days of Norway’s occupation by the Nazis, remains strong despite the passage of time since 1945 and the dramatic change in Norway’s situation now that oil and gas have made it one of the richest countries in the world. Indeed, our recent BGIPU delegation to Norway found that the wartime experience was still a strong factor in Norwegian perceptions of the UK, and that Norway was happy to be investing parts of its wealth in the UK.
Our delegation consisted of Sir Alan Beith (leader), Paul Farrelly and Gisela Stuart from the Commons, and Richard Faulkner and Diana Maddock from the Lords. We were most helpfully supported before and during the visit by Dominique Rees, who is herself half Norwegian. We were unable to secure any Conservative participants because the visit coincided with the Conservative party conference.
After a briefing from our newly appointed Ambassador, Sarah Gillett, we headed for where the money is – in Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, administered by the Central Bank but with a team of staff in major financial centres, including London. With enviable administrative costs of 0.05 per cent, it works within ethical guidelines determined by parliament but makes day to day investment decisions. There is currently discussion as to whether it should disinvest from heavy carbon producing industries, notably coal. It does not invest at all in Norway. It now invests up to five per cent in property, including half of Regent Street.
We found from parliamentarians in the Finance and Economic Affairs Committee that, although the Progress Party had at one time advocated spending more than the current limit of four per cent of fund revenue supporting the state budget, it no longer took that view, and a Progress Party minister holds the finance portfolio on the coalition government . We found that neither the Progress Party nor the parliamentarians of other parties thought it should be seen as in any way equivalent to UKIP or to the right wing parties in other Nordic countries.
A second theme of our visit was to gain an understanding of Norway’s relations with the European Union. There is now, for the first time, a Minister in the Prime Minister’s office with EU responsibility, and he told us that Norway has incorporated over 10,000 pieces of EU legislation in the last 12 years. The acknowledged authority on Norway’s EU position is Professor Fredrik Sejersted of Oslo University, and he gave us a lively presentation on the issues. The unavoidable conclusion is that if your problem is having so many policies decided in Brussels which you then have to implement, Norway does not have the answer. Their calculation is that it is vital to be in the single market, that the population will not vote to join the EU, so the politicians have to make agreements in which Norway carries out almost all EU policies without any real say in deciding them. Immigration is part of this, but is not as controversial as in the UK, and Norway, with its small population, needs workers. It is, however, taking steps to prevent forced marriages and is looking at UK models of detention centres for illegal immigrants. Norway is a Schengen member.
The Minister was keen to draw our attention to the situation in Hungary, where Norway has withdrawn some of its financial support for civic programmes because it has serious concerns about civil rights and the extent to which it believes the Hungarian government is seeking to exercise political control over NGOs.
Another of our themes was development in the Arctic region, and we had a useful meeting with the Chair of the Storting delegation for Arctic cooperation. Future energy exploitation in the Arctic will raise major issues.
A fourth theme for our visit was defence, and we met with most of the members of the Storting’s Defence Committee as well as visiting the new NATO Joint Warfare Centre in Stavanger. It was during the week if our visit that a Norwegian, Jens Stoltenberg, became NATO Secretary General. Defence Committee members spoke of Norway’s role in removing chemical weapons from Syria: participation in air strikes was, they said, not the best way they could contribute at a time when they were changing their base structure. While keen to stress the importance of good relations with Russia, they reminded us that most of their military resources were in the North of Norway, where they border Russia.
The NATO Joint Warfare Centre has been built in a magnificent location outside Stavanger. We were welcomed there by the German Major General Reinhard Wolski and the senior British officer there, Colonel Stephen Wilkinson. We were able to meet about thirty UK service personnel working there, and we had a thorough briefing. This included meeting the team which works on simulating the active media context in which any threat to a NATO member would inevitably be played out. Given recent events in the Ukraine and the nervousness of NATO’s Baltic members states, it was important to gain an understanding of several aspects of NATO’s preparedness.
While in Stavanger, in meetings and informally, we were able to get a picture of how the oil and gas industry has developed there, and also of how the area is planning for a future when it will need to find other sources of employment. Stavanger is expected to see its population rise to half a million – virtually doubling in a generation. There is significant UK participation in the economy of the Stavanger area, and it is only an hour’s flight from Newcastle or Aberdeen (a benefit felt by two if us while the rest if our colleagues faced delay and transfer to get to fog-bound Heathrow!) In our various meetings other topics were raised – Norwegians were keen to hear from us about the Scottish referendum, and we were told about their plans to reduce significantly the number of local authorities in Norway.
Every courtesy was extended to us, including a very wide ranging discussion during our courtesy call on Deputy Speaker Marit Nybakk, which included the shared problem of dealing with radicalised young people who may return from Syria – up to 60 in Norway’s case. The State Opening of the Storting by King Harald took place while we were in Stavanger, and two of us were able to attend the service in Oslo Cathedral which marked the opening. We had good support from the small team at our Oslo embassy, from staff at the Storting, and from the NATO staff at Stavanger. We were welcomed as friends by a country and which feels close to Britain in so many ways.