Photo of incoming Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Longearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen by Marte Kristiansen / Norwegian Labor Party
Norway’s government is changing as the Labor Party is set to replace the Conservative-led coalition after last Monday’s election. But the governing of Svalbard likely won’t change in most matters despite climate and environmental issues dominating the campaign, according to local officials and others familiar with the archipelago’s politics.
Still, potential changes in environmental and/or economic actions such as oil exploration in the waters around Svalbard could have significant long-term impacts – but analysts are at polar opposites predicting if that will happen.
Numerous policy decisions and proposals from the central government have been controversial among Svalbard residents in recent years, ranging from the dismantling of most mining operations to the proposed elimination of local voting rights for foreigners who haven’t resided on the mainland for at least three years. Such actions aren’t likely to be altered in any notable way and future governance will continue in the same vein.
What may make some difference in addressing specific concerns of locals when taking on big issues is the leadership at the national and local levels will both be Labor-led coalitions.
“Svalbard policy is fixed, there is broad agreement on it anyway,” Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, who is also the leader of Svalbard’s Labor Party, told Svalbardposten after the votes were tallied. “But we are dependent on a good dialogue with the government, and the opportunities for cooperation will be better when it is our own party colleagues who are in government.”
That potentially may make a difference with a commonly voiced complaint by locals that their input is largely ignored when decisions are made in Oslo – although hearing that input might not significantly alter the results.
An overall idea of incoming Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s thoughts about Svalbard were offered during a visit in 2019 shortly before Longyearbyen’s municipal elections. In an interview with High North News he emphasized the need for a more regulated working life, energy restructuring as coal is quickly phased out and “a more robust business community” – although the latter didn’t refer to expanding current or new industries.
“We do not need to focus on growth, but measures to ensure quality and robustness in the business community that exists,” he said.
That might mean the government won’t go out of its way to support ventures such as seafood processing plants that have been proposed in the wake of mining shutdowns.
In last week’s election the Labor, Center and Socialist Left parties won enough seats (48, 28 and 13 seats respectively) to form a five-seat majority in Parliament. The same parties formed a coalition before the Conservative party prevailed, but Labor has fewer seats this time which means the other two parties can make firmer demands in coalition negotiations.
Generally speaking Svalbard policies are set with longer-term goals in mind by Parliament and the central government (primarily the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, which has administrative oversight of the archipelago), although short-term and/or emergency measures addressing issues such as avalanche-protection infrastructure and Svalbard-specific COVID-19 aid have been prominent recently. All decisions generally occur with widespread agreement among differing parties (although opposition by specific parties on specific issues – such as the Green Party on resource exploration – is also common), with local input possibly influencing some details.
Since the key thing most politicians and observers agree on is a general long-term consistency among parties in overall policy goals for Svalbard, the question becomes how they may act on local issues whose fate is still being determined. Svalbardposten, in its pre-election coverage, asked each party about a few key issues including a proposal to limit support for public education for special-needs students.
“The Labor Party had not considered the matter, while the Center Party did not respond,” Editor Børre Haugli wrote in a post-election analysis. “Green, Socialist Left and Red are crystal clear in their feedback: All children shall have the same right to education regardless of whether they live in Svalbard.”
As for limiting voting rights to residents who’ve lived at least three years on the mainland, “here, too, the Labor Party replies that they have not dealt with the case…parliamentary representative Sigbjørn Gjelsvik (Center) says the party is ready for the Norwegian population to be strengthened, but we did not get a clear answer. Green, Red and Socialist are clear, they want to maintain the right for all to vote.”
While the issues that dominated the national campaign – economy/society and environment/climate – are also dominant issues in Svalbard, a third major priority may result in ongoing actions by the new government that are at odds (hypocritically so, according to some) with national tendencies: Svalbard’s value as a strategic asset (and potential vulnerability) on the global stage.
Among the biggest current controversies is a sense Norway is trying to strengthen its control over Svalbard by discouraging the presence of foreigners – both individuals and nations. Advocates say it’s necessary to preserve the character of Svalbard and its value as a strategic asset in the wake of a huge surge in foreigners the past decade, while opponents argue it violates the open-access spirit – and possibly law – of the Svalbard Treaty.
Støre, during his 2019 visit, suggested he’s in favor of continuing the current tread toward increasing state control.
“Many countries and alternating economic interests throw their eyes on the activities of the archipelago,” he wrote in a post on his Facebook page. “A steady Norwegian presence and exercise of authority is crucial. It requires that the Norwegian authorities have great attention to the needs here and have the capacity, people and equipment to enforce Norwegian sovereignty.”
A prominent part of Støre’s visit was meeting with the relatively few remaining coal miners, as well as other longtime residents and leaders concerned about the transition resulting in a large influx of people working short-term jobs for low pay with no benefits (part of a broader “social dumping” that pro-labor groups highlighted in protests). In his interview with High North News he made it clear he sympathizes with that viewpoint.
“It is a clear development in Svalbard that you have people inside and outside the regulated working life,” he said. “This is a challenge that I perceive has increased in recent years as well, partly due to increased migration of people from areas without a regulated working life.”
In seeming contrast, Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg made increasing privatization a focus during her eight years as head of the government – at least nationally. But while debates about the impact of such policy emerged in Svalbard – with mixed opinions – the government ultimately showed a strong inclination towards stronger control through actions such as the state-owned State Norske acquiring Hurtigruten Svalbard’s tourism operations.
Nationally, Solberg oversaw a tightening of immigration controls and support of lower taxes to boost economic growth, but faced a backlash over economic inequality and unpopular public sector reforms that eventually resulted in her majority coalition shrinking to a minority-led government.
She also took some dubious actions involving Svalbard, including appointing a series of short lived justice ministers with highly controversial political opinions and/little knowledge of the archipelago they’d be presiding over. Norway’s increasingly rocky relationship with Russia during her tenure also contributed to numerous incidents and failings such as multiple military-related intrusions into or near Svalbard, and the first-ever cancellations or near total loss of North Pole expedition seasons for the past four years (although 2020 and 2021 were obviously due to COVID-19).
The government’s aggressive push of northern oil exploration right to Svalbard’s maritime boundaries – and arguably past them in the case of seismic tests conducted a ship at the request of the Norwegian PetroleumDirectorate – was also controversial nationally and globally. Among other things, it fueled accusations of hypocrisy since Parliament was also ridding the country’s oil wealth fund of fossil fuel investments as part of a call for aggressive actions to reduce climate change – an accusation also made about the government’s support of coal mining and power generation still ongoing in Svalbard.
As for whether Norway’s “green” parties are now likely to win concessions from Labor on issues such as halting Arctic oil exploration, consider the following two headlines from European media immediately after the results were known:
• “Will Norway’s oil industry topple under the new left-wing government?” (Euronews)
• “Norwegian election set to hand big oil a win” (Politico Europe)
Støre, during a pre-election debate, said the green transition will take time and cash from oil could help finance Norway’s renewable energy industry, particularly wind turbines at sea.
“I am worried that if we stop all activity, then the investments will disappear,” he said.
The Politico article, which seems to represent the prevailing mentality little will change in Norway’s push for Arctic oil, quotes Green Party activist Stephan Reichter comparing Norwegians to “the worst pupils in the European class” on climate change who need to change their ways, but he understands why they don’t want to.
“We have got used to having all this money, and it is hard to lose what you have,” he said.
The possibility of a less-aggressive policy, suggested by Euronews, is based on their assertion “most of Norway’s oil and gas still comes from mature areas in the North Sea, but most of the country’s untapped reserves are in the Barents Sea, above the Arctic Circle. That is a red line for environmentalists, who could play a crucial role in securing a majority government.”
The Green Party did worse than polls forecast, but Johannes Bergh, who studies national elections with Norway’s Institute for Social Research, told Public Radio International the party still has momentum
“I would actually say that the political winds in Norway are blowing towards the Green Party’s,” he said.
But that appears to be a minority viewpoint, with most politicians and observers arguing since Støre can form a majority coalition without the greenest parties those hoping for less Arctic oil activity (or none) will likely be left out in the cold.
Also intriguing from a national/global perspective are questions about security and foreign relations, most notably Russia and the European Union which both are in the midst of bitter disputes with Norway. Arne Holm, editor of High North News and a longtime expert on Svalbard/Arctic policy, notes in a post-election analysis “everyone’s worried” about the future of the region, but there’s little certainty about what decision-makers want.
He notes Støre admitted after falling short in the election four years ago “Labor had failed in its Arctic policy and promised that it would not happen again. He has kept that promise.” Meanwhile, for the Center Party as part of the new coalition “the High North barely exists as a term in the party’s program. Its policy is largely about reversing reforms, combined with an increased outtake of resources from the state’s treasury chest.”
“If one considers politics as an outcome of party programs, Labor is to govern with one or two parties who in their programs have stated that they want to withdraw Norway from the EEA agreement and, in addition, the Socialist Left Party wants to leave NATO and to send U.S. troops on Norwegian soil packing,” Holm wrote. “I am therefore far more curious about who will govern the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and that of Defense than of who will try to deliver on all the regional policy promises through work in the relevant sector ministries.”