Meeting with the ambassadors from the EU countries

'It is crucial that European governments work closely together to meet common challenges, such as climate change, migration, unemployment, violent extremism, and instability in Europe’s neighbourhood', Minister of EEA and EU Affairs Elisabeth Aspaker said in her speech at a meeting 18 March with the ambassadors from the EU countries in Norway.

Thank you Helen (Ambassador Campbell) for your kind introduction, and for inviting me here.

Minister of EEA and EU Affairs Elisabeth Aspaker met with the ambassadors from the EU countries in Norway on 18 March 2016. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Ambassadors - and fellow Europeans,

It is a great honour and pleasure to be here, and to share with you some thoughts and truths from my daily work as Minister for EEA and EU Affairs and to discuss current European issues.

The timing could perhaps not have been better, as what happens at today’s meeting in the European Council in Brussels is an important matter to all of us. Although we are not a member of the EU we are no less a European country – and Europe’s challenges are our challenges too.

It is my government’s “mantra” that our foreign policy begins in Europe. I therefore feel myself placed at the heart of many important matters. And so are all of you, as you are our close partners and first points of contact to the many capitals of Europe. I truly appreciate the efforts you put in everyday, come rain or shine here in Oslo.  

[Norway’s European policy]

Let me start by sharing some general comments on Norway’s European policy.

Our cooperation with the EU is truly important for Norwegian interests.

We have longstanding and close ties with the EU, not least through the EEA Agreement and the Schengen Agreement. These and various other agreements allow Norway to take active part in the European cooperation and to provide input in key policy areas.

I think we can all agree that European cooperation is more important than ever.

It is crucial that European governments work closely together to meet common challenges, such as climate change, migration, unemployment, violent extremism, and instability in Europe’s neighbourhood. The present Norwegian Government has argued this point strongly ever since it came to power in 2013.

In 2014, we adopted a four-year strategy for Norway’s cooperation with the EU. It contains three key messages:

  1. We will focus on policy areas where enhanced cooperation at European level represents value added, both for Norway and for the EU.  
  2. We will seek to engage in the European debate as early as possible whenever new policies and rules of importance to us are being developed.  
  3. We will pursue an open and inclusive European policy in cooperation with a range of stakeholders in society. 

Against this background, the strategy sets out the main priorities for the period 2014–2017: increased competitiveness and growth, higher quality research and education, an ambitious climate and energy policy, a global approach to migration, and enhanced security.

The strategy is being implemented through annual work programmes. The 2016 programme builds on the efforts from last year and sets out how we will continue these in the year ahead. The English version of the programme will be available in English very soon. Meanwhile, let me highlight some of its key points:

The European single market is at the heart of our cooperation with the EU. My Government will communicate Norway’s views on the EU’s Single Market Strategy at an early stage. We will also follow up relevant parts of the Circular Economy Package and its action plan.  

The Commission’s Digital Single Market Strategy will also be followed up closely, and we will present concrete proposals later this year. The aim of this strategy is to boost confidence in cross-border e-commerce, promote universal design of ICT solutions and modernise copyright rules.

Against this backdrop, my Government will present a white paper on Norway’s digital agenda. Our measures at national level will be coordinated with the processes taking place at European level.

Climate and energy policy is another key priority in our cooperation with the EU.

Norway is a major energy supplier to the EU, and part of the internal energy market under the EEA Agreement.  We support the EU efforts on increasing energy security in Europe and appreciate the strong emphasis on developing efficient energy markets.  

Norway is a long-term, reliable supplier of natural gas to the EU and according to new gas production profiles, Norwegian gas exports will remain at a stable, high level until at least 2035. We follow the establishment of the Energy Union closely and appreciate that the Commission accords an important role for gas in the future energy mix in the Sustainable Energy Security package recently presented.

The role of natural gas as well as renewable energy production, were also main topics when the Commission Vice President, Maros Sefcovic visited Norway in February. I had the pleasure of showing him Norway’s largest hydro power plant, which in a few years will be providing balancing power to the UK through a subsea cable.  

On climate change, we have entered into a constructive dialogue with the EU on our intention to fulfil our 2030 climate commitments jointly with the EU.

We already take part in the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and look forward to cooperating with the EU in the non-ETS sectors as well.  

We must commend the French presidency for their outstanding diplomatic craftsmanship landing a climate agreement in Paris. Norway aims to sign it during the ceremony in New York on 22nd April. I have great hopes it will materialize into a turning point in the international collaboration on climate change and encourage the private sector to go further green.  

The private sector is crucial if we are to achieve our climate finance goals. Continued follow up and collaboration on the key points that the Nordic Statement highlighted in Paris on COP21 is necessary if we are to mobilize private financing at the scale that is required. This obviously includes our development finance institutions, export credit agencies and institutional investors.

[Migration]

Of course, it is not possible to talk about our European policy without saying a few words about migration.

It is clear that no European country can deal with the migration situation alone. This crisis must be addressed through common European efforts.

Norway will continue to play an active role in seeking effective European solutions through our participation in the Dublin system and our membership of Schengen.

One way in which we are already contributing is through the EEA and Norway Grants.

For example, we provided 24.1 million euros to Greece in the period 2009-2014, which included support for a programme on asylum. We hope to continue to support asylum efforts in Greece in the next funding period. 

We have increased our humanitarian budget to approximately 5 billion NOK.

A lot of our funding is channelled through the UN, the Red Cross movement, and other humanitarian organisations. The main focus is emergency aid and protection. Norway also pledged 10 billion NOK over the next four years at the recent donor conference for Syria in London.

For Europe, it is essential to reduce the migration pressure, combat smuggling, to gain control at external borders and to have a fair distribution of responsibility between European countries. Norway will play an active role in finding effective European solutions, not least through our participation in the Schengen cooperation.

Norway supports efforts to build partnerships with third countries to prevent irregular pressures at our external borders.

For 2016 Norway offers to resettle 3 000 displaced Syrians, including from Turkey. At the donor conference in London in February, Norway pledged nearly 1.1 billion euros for displaced Syrians in the region over a four-year period.

Norway has also offered to relocate 1 500 asylum seekers during 2016 and 2017 from Italy and Greece, as part of the European relocation scheme adopted in September last year.

The humanitarian situation in Greece is of deep concern. We have decided to increase our humanitarian support in addition to EEA grants. I went to Greece recently. Visiting Lesvos and seeing the migrants arriving made two things very clear to me: the magnitude of the challenge, and the fact that this is about people, not numbers. We must not lose focus on the human dimension.

Turkey’s role in stopping the migration flow towards Europe is of key importance.

We welcome the progress of discussions between EU countries and Turkey recently, aiming at a reduction of the migration flow to Greece, while noting that there are still important elements that need further work and clarification. Norway will be prepared to participate in the implementation of the agreement that is reached.

I also want to point out that we must comply with our international obligations on human rights and refugee law. Those who are in real need of international protection must be given such protection.

[EEA grants]

The EEA grants call for specific mention here. It is our contribution to stability and cohesion in Europe. The Grants also provide a unique opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations – both as an overall objective of the financial mechanisms and as a platform for further bilateral cooperation.

We are pleased to have reached an agreement with the EU for the next period of the EEA and Norway Grants (2014-2021). We are now waiting for the internal EU procedures before signature of the agreements – and we hope that this can take place before the summer. Formal MOU-negotiations with each beneficiary state will begin as soon as possible after the signature of the agreements.

Separate funding for bilateral cooperation will continue. There is a potential for further developing the strategic use of the Grants, in particular through the use of bilateral funds, for strengthening political, cultural, professional and academic relations. I would also like to encourage the embassies here in Oslo to engage in the EEA and Norway Grants and keep close contact with your national Focal Points.  

[Nordic cooperation]

Last, but not least, I would like to say a few words about my role as Norway’s Minister for Nordic Cooperation. The Ministers for Nordic Cooperation are responsible for coordinating intergovernmental cooperation on behalf of their Prime Ministers, under the umbrella of the Nordic Council of Ministers. This cooperation is broad in scope and covers nearly all aspects of civil society. Next year Norway will chair the Nordic Council of Ministers, and we are in the process of setting our priorities. Key issues will be the mutual challenges we are facing regarding the economy, environmental issues and climate change, as well – of course – as the huge challenges related to migration.  

I also attach great importance to strengthening Nordic cooperation in the field of European policymaking and in EU matters.

I believe the Nordic countries could have a stronger voice in the EU on issues of mutual interest, and that this could also benefit the continent as a whole.  

[Final remarks]

Ambassadors,

I will stop there. I would just like to say once again what a pleasure it is to be here, and that I look forward very much to working with you. I will try to keep an open door, - as far as my government duties permit me to. So please stay in touch. Meanwhile, I wish you every success in your important work and in our common challenge of trying to ensure a prosperous and stable Europe.  

Thank you.