EØS- og EU-minister Frank Bakke Jensens tale i møte med EU-landenes ambassadører i Oslo 21. februar.
I have been looking forward to today's meeting with all of you.
This meeting is an excellent opportunity for the kind of direct and open contact I wish to continue with your countries.
I am very grateful to Helen for inviting us here. And I am sure you will have discovered by now, when we Northerners from Finnmark talk of frank and open dialogue, we really mean it!
In my introduction, I wish to present my government's main priorities for our co-operation with the European Union for this exciting year, 2017.
I will also give you a few pointers to our current chairmanship of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Finally, I want to give you some information on the EEA Financing Mechanisms and the ways we contribute to Europe.
After my intervention, I will be very happy to take your questions and comments.
The current situation
We are certainly living in interesting times! Crucial elections have been held last year, and more crucial elections will be held this year.
First and foremost, of course, I have the elections to the Storting in September in mind - - -.
Joke aside, these elections are of course very important for my country and the government, and with a grateful audience like yourselves, I can possibly manage to mobilize a certain interest.
But in all fairness, truly there are elections in Europe this year where much more is at stake for the future of the EU. I feel that we are very much in the same boat here: in several member states, the core ideas underpinning European co-operation are being questioned.
Should we seek common solutions to wider challenges even where it comes at some cost to each country? Or should we be guided exclusively by economic self-interest at the expense of everybody else? Is it legitimate and necessary to let other needs and aspirations guide our policies for the sake of stability and greater prosperity for all?
I am hopeful that in this room we can agree on the answers to these questions. And this is why I believe we are in the same boat. In Norway also many people are challenging our model of integration with Europe.
Government priorities in 2017
Excellencies, I see my role in 2017 as quite similar to Helen's: emphasizing the benefits of integration and co-operation with the European Union and its member states.
And I have a feeling there is work enough for both of us! Besides, my starting point is a bit different:
I promote the Single Market of 31 EEA states for my own country's sake.
I support European co-operation because I am convinced more of it is essential for Norway.
And this is the key – more Europe is in the national interest of every one of us.
In 2017 my highest priority will be to promote and defend the EEA Agreement among the Norwegian public. Opposition to the agreement has been a there for a long time. But the debate surrounding Brexit and the increased challenges facing Europe has inspired some to highlight what they see as disadvantages of the agreement.
In fact, I feel almost as I will be on the campaign trail for the EEA Agreement this year. As your own leaders experience, travelling around the country to sell the benefits of decades of European integration can be surprisingly hard sometimes. It seems too easy to take for granted many of these benefits.
Still, I have made it my mission to tour as many places as I can.
To remind the young of how easily they can go to study or work in other EEA countries.
To remind the employed how many of their jobs directly or indirectly depend on access to EU markets.
To highlight examples of companies doing well in these markets.
To bring attention to R&D successes with EU funding.
And most importantly: to remind us all that in troubled times – when all else seems afloat – we need more than ever to be part of a strong European society, upholding dignity and universal rights and values.
Our concern for the well-being of the EEA Agreement takes several forms. Another is to ensure it works as it is supposed to do, taking on board new European legislation.
My government is continually striving to reduce the backlog of legal acts not yet adopted into the agreement. I myself had very good talks with our Icelandic partners on this issue when I visited Reykjavik recently.
Negotiations on trade in processed agricultural products in accordance with Article 19 of the EEA Agreement are another way to keep the EEA agreement in good shape. These have been constructive in our view.
But let me stress that the Norwegian Parliament has decided to phase out export subsidies for agricultural products before 2020. Cheese export is today the most important product to receive such subsidies.
The phasing out implies that around 9% of the present Norwegian milk production will be withdrawn from the market. This process is going to be difficult and painful for the agricultural sector and farmers.
This situation implies that there is limited room for concessions on cheese in the present round of Article 19 negotiations.
Our import of agricultural products from the EU continued to rise also in 2016. The increase was approximately 10% from 2015 to 2016, around 7% for cheese. Our import of agricultural products from EU has more than doubled in the last 10 years.
Overall, I am very happy to note that the EU agenda largely coincides with Norwegian priorities. EU legislation and initiatives to improve competitiveness and value creation, including by investing in education and research, are in fact an excellent starting point for our own efforts.
The same goes for ambitious energy and climate targets, the digital single market and the focus on better regulation. Which of course must not weaken standards for health, environment, consumer protection and food safety.
The EU's increasing emphasis on the Blue Economy is another area holding great potential for co-operation. The sea has always been fundamental to Norway's economy, and still holds great promise for future harvests, provided we continue to take our stewardship role seriously. Norway has invested continuously in developing technology and knowledge for a Blue Economy.
Trade with both the EU as well as the UK is of enormous importance to Norway. After brexit, it is in Norway's interests to maintain as close trade policy co-operation with the UK as possible. At the same time, we will maintain the EEA Agreement and Norway's other agreements with the EU.
We will therefore be directly affected by the negotiations and their outcome, as a closely integrated member of the internal market. It is in Norway's interests to maintain the closest possible trade policy co-operation with both sides.
We would like to have the possibility to be included in EU-UK arrangements concerning the internal market, - permanent as well as transitional. I am pleased with the willingness to consult closely with us on coming negotiations about the internal market.
Norway is strongly committed to the Nordic and the Nordic-Baltic
This year, Norway chairs both the Nordic Council of Ministers and the informal co-operation on foreign and security policy in the Nordic and Nordic-Baltic circles.
Our presidency for the Nordic co-operation has three main pillars:
- Through the first pillar, the Nordic Region in transition, we want to promote Nordic competitiveness in the transition to a green, low emission economy.
- The second pillar, the Nordic Region in Europe, is designed to facilitate closer co-operation on European policy.
Nordic co-operation is a part of European co-operation, not a competitor. The Nordics need a strong Europe and Nordic co-operation strengthens Europe.
Nordic countries share a fundamental interest in the future of the internal market through our membership of the EU and the EEA.
- The third pillar of our presidency is the Nordic Region in the World.
We want to further develop our strategic foreign policy partnerships to meet the big global challenges facing the world today.
The Nordic countries have a long-standing history of working together on foreign affairs. We have learned that through joint efforts and cooperation, we get better solutions and far more influence than any of us would have managed on our own. To get a leverage you need to be unified. This lesson goes beyond the Nordic group- it is valid for us all.
This year Norway is also the chair of the Nordic-Baltic foreign policy
co-operation (NB8). A political dialogue, which, since its start more than 25 years ago, has focused on the important and pressing issues for the eight Nordic and Baltic countries.
Among the broader strategic issues, the Norwegian chair will focus on subjects such as transatlantic relations, the future of Europe, Russia, UN issues as well as terrorism.
EEA Financing Mechanisms
I believe building on the close Nordic co-operation is a way to strengthen Europe. I also strongly believe in the effect of our financial commitments to reduce economic and social disparities in Europe.
The agreement with the EU for the next period of the EEA and Norway Grants (2014-2021) for a total allocation of 2.8 billion euro was signed in Brussels on 3 May 2016.
The Grants are an important part of my Government's active policies in Europe. We will focus on common European challenges under the slogan "Working together for a Green, Competitive and Inclusive Europe."
We have already finalized and signed MoUs  with Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Malta. Negotiations with the remaining 11 countries are going well, and we hope to finalize them by the end of this year. I appreciate the interest and efforts of those among you who are directly involved.
The MoU's signed so far include important areas of co-operation for European competitiveness – such as programmes for business development and innovation, research and education.
Moreover, we have strengthened the focus on the justice sector for both Romania and Bulgaria, including funding for asylum and migration.
We also put emphasis on strengthening efforts within climate change mitigation and adaptation, environment, energy efficiency and energy security.
EU and Norway: shared interests
Norway remains a partner for the European Union also in many other areas. We commit considerable funds to the development and integration of countries in the Eastern Partnership as well as in the Western Balkans.
We have been increasing our support to stabilize areas affected by conflict and disasters in the Middle East, Libya and the Sahel region.
We furthermore aim to work closely with the European Union on the migration challenge confronting our continent. To seek durable solutions.
We have committed to the relocation scheme from Italy and Greece, and we are taking in another 3000 Syrian quota refugees from neighbouring states this year.
"Alignment of interests". A "value-based community". All these are words that can describe the close relations behind my governments EU priorities. And I believe they also belong in my part of the world: in the High North.
Roy Jacobsen, in his novel "The invisible", describes the constant toil on an island in Nordland exposed to the elements. He writes: "Having a stranger visiting is a many-sided affair", "Once he leaves they remain all alone, thinking to themselves that is perhaps not enough".
I wish that we will find similar emotional, elegant, evocative words to speak about the beauty and necessity of close relations among ourselves in Europe.