We meet the Norwegian prime minister, whose job is to keep her country on an even keel as it tackles extremism and an over-reliance on fossil fuels.
In the light-filled entrance to Oslo’s Statsministerens kontor, where Norway’s prime minister Erna Solberg has her office, a stuffed polar bear stands on its hind legs behind a rope. Her name is Nina, one of the office secretaries tells us, in honour of an outgoing office manager who was here for years. “They shot her because she was attacking people in Longyearbyen,” she says (of the bear, not the office manager).
Inside the prime minister’s office there are no polar bears and the atmosphere is welcoming. Solberg, a Conservative who has held office since 2013, and who formed a centre-right majority government earlier this year, apologises for the piles of papers, reports and books. “This is not a clean desk,” she says as she picks up a handful of items, laughing and flashing a look that says there’s no sense in fighting it. “It always gets like this.” She has an unhurried air about her. She leans back in a grey chair facing the window, seemingly relishing the chance to speak for a while, even when it comes to difficult subjects.
One of those topics is terrorism. As we meet, the attack in Christchurch that saw 50 Muslims killed by an Australian far-right terrorist is still fresh in the news. Norway knows what New Zealand is facing. In 2011 it suffered its own massacre when 77 people, many of them students, were killed by right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik in Utøya and Oslo. “New Zealand is very similar to Norway,” says Solberg. “It’s on the other side of the world but we find it very similar, in size and in system.” In the wake of the Breivik attacks, she points out, Norway worked to steer the conversation toward understanding and addressing the root causes. “We made sure that hatred and revenge weren’t the [key] thoughts.”
But Solberg says that the debate about nationalism has changed in recent years. Norway has grappled with increased migration and subsequent fears about the role of Islam in Norway, which has led to cultural clashes. “On a general basis I think Norway is among the most open countries for refugees,” she says. “But when you ask about Muslims I think approximately one third [of those polled] say they think that’s a challenge in our society.”
Solberg says that she thinks Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, has responded admirably to the Christchurch attacks. But she also points out that civil, measured discourse is a fragile thing. “I think the long-term challenge is how to maintain this.” Though Solberg wasn’t PM when the Breivik attacks took place, she says that combating the root causes of extremism has been a priority for her. She mentions a 30-point action plan that her government put out in 2014. “We have a plan against extremism that, from the start, we underlined should not just look at radical Islam,” she says. “We said we also have to work on other types of extremism, right-wing and left-wing.”
Solberg highlights C-Rex, a centre founded in 2016 at the University of Oslo that is dedicated to research on right-wing extremism and political violence. The government works to tackle radicalisation at its source alongside the centre, the police and other Nordic countries. In 2014, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway agreed to establish a formal network to combat violent extremism.
But grappling with extremism is just one part of a larger challenge facing Norway. As Solberg puts it, the country is dealing with nothing less seismic than “the transformation of our society”. The “green shift” is perhaps the most notable example of that transformation. Norway is embarking on an ambitious plan to move away from fossil fuels and toward sustainability at all levels of society in the next 30 to 50 years; so far everything from electric vehicles (one in three vehicles sold in 2018 were all-electric) to battery-powered ferries have been embraced. It’s a move that is gathering momentum under Solberg but it’s complicated by the central role that the oil industry plays in Norway’s economy. It is, after all, why the country has a sovereign wealth fund that’s worth €900bn.
“The biggest challenge is that oil has so much more value added than nearly any business,” says Solberg. “When I try to make people laugh, I always say that oil and gas has been the most lucrative legal business that a state can do. And since we are not intending on going into the illegal ones, we have to work on our ability to innovate.”
Norway has made progress: the sovereign wealth fund, the world’s largest, has divested some of its oil and gas holdings, though not as many as initially believed. “It’s difficult to see an area of business for Norway that will have the same kind of profits,” says Solberg. “But we know that oil production in Norway has been steadily going down. We have to make this change.”
Norway is better placed for change than most nations as its wealth will provide a cushion against potential economic turmoil. The country has the money to invest in new technology and subsidise its adoption. Diversification of the economy is also possible, thanks to the country’s willingness to invest in its people over the past several decades. Solberg points to its highly educated and highly skilled population – as well as significant technical expertise in areas such as the maritime and ocean industries – as factors behind growing foreign investment in Norway.
But Solberg wants to see more change. “Norway as a whole needs to have more feet to stand on,” she says. “We cannot just have energy, the maritime sector and the oceans [as our main industries], even if that’s going to be important for us.” Her government is working to identify other industries to get behind; so far the health industry has been earmarked as a promising priority for growth.
Unsurprisingly, talk of the economy brings us to the topic of Brexit, and how the oft-cited Norway agreement with the EU might offer an example for the UK. Solberg smiles slightly. “I think we have around 75 different agreements with the EU besides this European Economic Area agreement. Which means that we participate.” As Solberg tells it, Norway’s participation in EU initiatives is significant enough that outside certain protected industries, such as fisheries and agriculture, there is little difference in the range of what’s available to Norwegian versus EU citizens.
“We have a good relationship,” says Solberg. “Not every country would say that. But the basis is that we’re members of the single market; we’re not part of the customs union.” Could such a Norway-style framework be an option for the UK, given the strong anti-EU sentiments of many Brexiteers? Solberg isn’t optimistic. “I suppose Brexit was about freedom of movement for people and not taking decision-making from Brussels,” she says, regretfully. “Well, you get [both] with the EEA agreement.”
So what is it that makes Norway, a country of just over five million people, as sure-footed and innovative as it is? The idea that repeatedly emerges is a nation that has made a series of good choices along the way. This is a small country that cleverly identified the need to watch its back, and to always build on successes by reinvesting in its own development. “When we started to build the Norwegian oil and gas adventure, as we call it, we were building on the maritime competence we [already] had,” says Solberg. “We had a policy of making sure that we had Norwegian benefits [and] development, and [the] employment of Norwegians trying to build up the industry themselves. Now we’re building on the oil and gas competence that we have, turning that into new ideas.”
Ultimately Solberg knows that whether it’s fighting extremism, overhauling the economy or investing in the future, single, grand gestures aren’t the answer. The idea, she says, is “to make sure that some of the small decisions go in the right direction”. If anything, it seems that is something that the Norwegians know how to pull off.