Norway’s new High North Strategy could help bring focus to the country’s economic development efforts, even if many details have yet to be worked out, writes Arne Holm, editor of the High North News.
By Arne O. Holm
I FEARED THE worst when the prime minister and three government ministers recently described northern Norway as “the land of opportunity,” a curse repeated indefinitely since the 1970s.
On April 21, the same politicians took the stage in Bodo, Norway, and removed the worst part of that fear. Northern Norway is not an opportunity; it is the solution. That’s according to the Norwegian government’s new High North Strategy, a 68-page document subtitled “between geopolitics and developing society.”
A National Project
The strategy was unveiled with Prime Minister Erna Solberg at the fore, followed by Foreign Minister Borge Brende, then Minister of Local Government and Modernization Jan Tore Sanner and, finally, European and European Economic Area Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen.
The strategy did not receive standing ovations. The High North Strategy has been mulled over too many times for that to happen, since Labor Party leader Jonas Gahr Store brought the strategy thoroughly into civil society, following an idea by former Foreign Minister Jan Petersen of the Conservative Party.
Nevertheless, the strategy was presented and received polite applause, as is suited for a presentation with speakers from a line of Conservative members of government.
The Progress Party’s ministers were not present, despite the fact that they manage both fisheries and transportation policy, two areas that were emphasized as important parts of the High North Strategy. The variety among those present at Stormen Library in Bodo, Norway, nevertheless reflects the contents of the new strategy in a good way.
The prime minister’s presence emphasizes that this is a national project, not a regional political tool. Northern Norway is defined as an engine of the future national economy. The fact that the rest of the country hardly notices this is problematic. However, it’s also something to live with.
The foreign minister stressed that the new strategy is also a geopolitical and international project, as did the minister for the E.U. and the European Economic Area.
On the one hand, the strategy is about both security politics and international cooperation in the north. That is a cornerstone. Northern Norway shares borders with Russia. The north Norwegian population is the guarantor for continued peaceful development in the High North.
On the other hand, the strategy is also about an industry with a strong international focus. It is about market access, about customs rates and trade agreements. According to speculations in the Norwegian daily VG, Jonas Gahr Store is considering closing down the E.U. department should he become prime minister. That may be a poor idea if he consults businesses in the north.
From Strategy to Action
The new, major initiative, which in reality was launched by Prime Minister Solberg early on, is bringing the Ministry of Local Government and Modernization into the game. This is a solid initiative, in particular because it involves the regional level in the north. It permeates the new strategy document in a good way. However, the present document is a strategy, not an action plan with all the funding provided.
That is why the description of the region’s challenges may be the most important part of the strategy. It hits close to home in its description of a region where population figures turn from growth to decline. Any growth that may still exist, and that is nevertheless argued in the strategy, is due to immigration. And that immigration has halted, not least as a result of the government’s politics.
A Correct Description
The strategy describes a biased gender balance, in particular due to lack of high-competence jobs. The latter is also a key feature of the description of northern Norway.
It furthermore describes another consequence: Women, in particular those with high levels of education, choose their permanent residence outside the region.
It describes a population where the average age increases dramatically.
These characteristics also limit the nation’s opportunities to benefit from future economic growth in the High North.
This is why the new High North Strategy is a good platform for delivering initiatives and measures that strengthen local businesses, communities and knowledge institutions.
At the same time, the strategy invites a political fight over which measures and initiatives are required to achieve the long-term goals. Many will warrant new measures in the government’s High North Strategy; nevertheless, that is not necessarily the way to renew strategic plans. The most important part is their being fulfilled.
Industry on the Sideline
A lot of work remains, in particular in the industrial sector. So far, oil appears to be the only thing placed at the core of the economic growth. I know a lot of north Norwegian industry leaders who will use the new High North Strategy to claim that they are the solution to many of the challenges, as long as the conditions for further growth are established.