Minister of EEA and EU Affairs, Vidar Helgesen in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times
Born in 1968, Mr. Helgesen, a Conservative, is the Minister of EEA and EU Affairs and Chief of Staff at the Office of the Prime Minister. Mr Helgesen is also responsible for coordinating work on EEA matters and Norway’s relations with the EU at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In an exclusive interview to The Oslo Times, he said that Norway is all set to up its support to Ukraine with financial and technical assistance in implementing domestic reforms the strengthen justice sector and fight corruption over there. Sine Norway is not a member of the EU, but is a member of the EEA which entered into force on 1 January 1994. This membership allows Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein to participate in the EU’s single market. Helgesen talked about this issue and also about extremism and human rights.
Here is the full and interesting transcript of the interview:
TOT: May you tell us regarding this annual party conference?
Helgesen: Well, this is the annual conference of the ‘Conservative Party’. We are now preparing for the local government elections, this autumn. And this is clearly the agenda of this conference. The policies discussed were pertaining to local government elections. Education, welfare, health and infrastructure came under discussion. But we are also meeting on the backdrop of an international situation, which is very troubling, that’s why the Prime Minister emphasized on a new security plan yesterday, vehemently. The Russia behavior is also very trouble-making.
TOT: How do you see Norway’s relations with other members of EU?
Helgesen: They are closest partners. They are allies. And we all have good trading relations. All EU members are close friends as well as the United states. Some trans-Atlantic relations are very important for Norway. Most of the EU countries are natural countries. And Norway is an exception in that regard. Though Norway is not an EU member but we are deeply integrated. We have a far higher immigration than most of the European countries do. We trade more with the EU countries than most EU countries can do. Through European Economic Area Agreement (EEAA), we import three quarters of EU legislation. So we are deeply integrated. We need and depend on access to a single market. We have a close cooperation and friendly foreign policy for the EU.
TOT: What’s your view regarding Russia’s aggression against Ukraine? As Norwayand Russia also share a long border therefore do you see any threat to Norwayfrom Russia?
Helgesen: Yes we worry deeply about the annexation of Crimea and what Russia is doing in easternUkraine to destabilize the desire of the Ukrainian people to Europeanize. Therefore supportingUkraine is of highest importance for the Europe and the credibility of the European integration process. And that’s why Norway has stepped up support to Ukraine. Now we are one of the biggest donors in Ukraine.
TOT: Could you explain what kind of support it is? Military support is also there?
Helgesen: No, no military support. We are supporting there some liaison functions between Ukraineand Nato. But it’s more about diplomacy and politics. But our substantive support is partly goes through the IMF. It’s the support for strengthening justice sector and fighting corruption. And we also support Europeanization of civil services in Ukraine. Norway has a great experience in Europeanizing from opposition outside the EU. We are supporting for example in the field of energy, liberalizing energy market and Norway has significant experience is this. There is a wide range of measures we undertake. And of course a big humanitarian support as well given the desperate humanitarian situation over there.
TOT: May you tell us about the achievements of the current government in education sector?
Helgesen: We have put a huge emphasis on quality education. This doesn’t only pertain to quality of teachers as we have outnumbering committed teachers, but we have seen under-investment in education and additional training for teachers, which is why we said that training, and crash courses for teachers, is a greater priority.
"We might be able to reverse the social inequality through the education system."
Based on the last but latest numbers we saw five doubling in the number of teachers and now they will be offered such training as compared to two years ago. We are also emphasizing on the quality of course subjects, particularly Norwegian language, Mathematics and English so that we can equip children with necessary tools to enable them to lead their lives as well-equipped people. Therefore we are proud of the results of the Oslo school because we have been covering Oslo uninterrupted since 1995 where we have put in place a huge priority to the education system. Actually now we are seeing kids in Oslo are doing better school than their family background would suggest. We have these international statistics. We might be able to reverse the social inequality through the education system. And that’s a massive achievement that we are seeing that immigrants areas in Oslo have better output than other major cities. Even Nostrand town is doing better in schools than Trondheim city. So we are very proud of the Oslo school. And in Oslo these local elections are very much important to us. We are putting emphasis on Oslo as a demonstration of what we can do through our education policies.
TOT: We would like to pick your brain on Islamic extremism and political extremism. Some media reports say that some Norwegian nationals have joined the ISIL? What’s the strategy of the current government to counter this threat?
Helgesen: The first thing we did after coming into power is we started working on a new strategy against radicalization. There was different strategy of the former government and we didn’t feel that was adequate so we developed that strategy. It’s a very inclusive and comprehensive strategy which put a lot of emphasis on the work to be done on local level because ministries in Oslo wouldn’t be able to spot cases of radicalization that can be spotted in schools or in football clubs.
"We are member of the Schengen therefore the evolution of radical groups within Europe is shared challenge."That’s why we need local authorities and local services to work together. We also need to put legislation in place criminalizing foreign fighters that’s an obligation under the security resolution of the UN Security Council. We also need to work on European Cooperation. We are member of the Schengen therefore the evolution of radical groups within Europe is shared challenge. Finally the most important tool or quality as a society is the positive forces, the shared values we have, and the expression for example the ‘Solidarity Ring’ around the Synagogue in Oslo the fact that Norwegian young Muslims rallied against the ISIS. Those are the kinds of positive mobilizations that we really need to build.
TOT: We ask one particular question from all our guests and the question is about Human Rights. So, may you tell us what Human Rights mean to you?
Helgesen: Human right for me especially as a politician it is a very important principle basis for my engagement. I am also a lawyer and I would like human rights lawyers to meet of course international rules, international instruments. It’s much a guideline for national and international policies. It’s a commitment to uphold human rights. I take it very seriously. And more than that we are facing a more diverse Europe and we are facing a multicultural Europe.
“Human right must be the basis for Norwegian society when we become more diverse. In fact we are traditionally a Christian country but in our schooling we have lessons in Christianity and that has changed of course as we need to be unprejudiced”
That’s very important. It means you have different groups coming in person as individuals and groups with different backgrounds and seeking a unified platform for all those communities are doing it and human right must be the basis, the shared human aspirations. And more than that it is an international shared obligation. Human right must be the basis for Norwegian society when we become more diverse. One concrete expression of that is in fact we are traditional a Christian country but in our schooling we have lessons in Christianity and that has changed of course as we need to be unprejudiced. That’s human right to mix and combine our traditions and our cultures and our traditional religions with the fact that Norway has become more diverse. And that’s where that’s calibrating that subject in schools. This is a very important political discussion and to me it is evident that whatever we feel about carrying traditions forward we need to have human rights a basis for everything we do.
TOT: Our last question is about immigration. Since too many immigrants are rushing to Norway from across the World and most of them are waiting for asylum. The wait usually lasts for three to five years. Some of the asylum seekers are psychologically depressed. Norway is famous for human rights defense. Don’t you think that it contradicts human rights values when you make people waiting to get asylum in years? People are also criticizing that asylum seekers’ rights are under threat?
Helgesen: We have been very clear as a government and we have agreements with our two partners in the parliament. We want to liberalize policies particularly related to children so that we can give opportunity to more children to remain in Norway even if in some cases they don’t have formal right to asylum or their parents have not gone in a right way but also made it clearer that we need to be firmer in actually transporting those haven’t have their asylum applications granted. I think it’s a firmer policy. But it’s also a UN policy allowing people in the centers to sit for years on hint that when it’s clear that there asylum applications have been rejected, it’s not a good situation for them and it’s not a good situation for our society. And finally we have done a great effort to encourage and support financially. Municipal Councils have been resettling immigrants therefore reducing the number of people who are still lingering in these centers. We are still working harder on that and of course the upcoming discussion about taking potentially more refugees from Syria therefore the capacity of municipalities is really important issue but you cannot govern a country only on good intentions in fact you need to gain the capacity to handle the issue.
(Written and edited by Rooh-ul-Amin, Deputy Bureau Chief for Afghanistan and Pakistan)
All Rights Reserved with The Oslo Times