Envoy: Norway keeps €430 billion for ‘generations to come’

Atle Leikvoll.jpg

Tapping the €430-billion Norway pension fund, made up of revenues from the country's gas and oil exports, to boost EU bailout mechanisms is a "non issue" because the fund has a different purpose, Norway's Ambassador to the EU Atle Leikvoll told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Atle Leikvoll is a career diplomat and has been involved in EU affairs since the 1980s. He has served as consul general in New York and has been the deputy secretary-general of Norway's Foreign Ministry. He spoke to EURACTIV Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

How does Norway do in these times of crisis for the eurozone? Did your country experience some hardship also under the wider crisis which started in 2008?

The old English philosopher, John Donne, said ‘no man is an island’ and in a globalised economy no country is an island. Relatively speaking, Norway is doing quite well economically. We have solid state finances. Estimates for economic growth in 2012 are about 2.4 – 2.5%, we have a low level of unemployment, at 3.3 – 3.4%, so obviously we are doing well.

At the same time we are directly exposed to the consequences of the economic crisis in Europe and in other countries. Through the EEA [European Economic Area] Agreement Norway is part of the internal market. Three-quarters of our exports go to Europe so we will be affected by a lack of demand in the markets. The financial sector is a global one and volatility in the financial markets will also affect us.

So the short answer to your question would be that we are directly affected, but until now we have been doing quite well.

The entire world was shocked by the mass murder perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik last July in Oslo and on the island of Utøya. But the shock has been much greater in Norway – is it possible for the Norwegians to overcome it?

Generally, it’s difficult to respond to that kind of question. I think that the shock has subsided but the pain has not. As we speak, the entire media in Norway is full of what will start on Monday [16 April] – namely the trial. So for the next 10 weeks there will be a repetition of all the gruesome details that took place which will be extremely painful to those who have lost someone, but also to many Norwegians not directly involved. So it is still a very challenging period for us.

We are looking forward to the closure of the trial which will be an important step in moving forward, although it will stay with us forever. Let me also add that many Norwegians have noted the outpouring of sympathy and respect from other countries, nations, people abroad – not least from our European friends and the EU.

A stereotype about Norway is that it is sitting on a lot of money proceeding from its oil and gas sales. What do you do in your country with this money?

You are thinking of what we in popular refer to as the oil fund, formally named the Pension Fund Global. The notion is very simple and we are not the only ones who have done it. The fund now has the size of around €430 billion and still growing.

We are not in position to inject all this money into our economy, it would completely destroy it.  Instead we only spend about 4% of the surplus, which is estimated to be the long-term profit of the fund. The rest is set aside in order to pay – not only my pension when I retire – but for the generations to come. It’s a transfer of natural wealth in the ground into money that will balance our wealth over many generations to come. It’s a challenging exercise, but it has a broad political consensus and I think that’s the strength of the entire construction.

Is it possible to use these huge amounts to help boost the EU funds designed to prevent new crises from happening the EFSF [the European Financial Stability Facility] or its successor ESM [the European Stability Mechanism], or the IMF?

The key point with the Pension Fund is that it’s strictly a financial vehicle, not a strategic vehicle for Norwegian interest in different parts of the world. If we were to make investments of more strategic reasons, we would easily end up in situations of second guesses; why didn’t we do this or that …

The fund and its management is probably the most open fund in the world, and this is to demonstrate that the fund is managed strictly for financial purposes linked to the basic role of the fund, namely to take care of the values of many generations. The issue whether the fund should be used to invest to solve [the] immediate crisis in Europe or elsewhere is simply a non issue. In cases where we would like to contribute and where we have contributed, it would be a political decision and by using public money available.

Let me make a reference to the most recent example: as you may recall on 9 December the European Council agreed to strengthen IMF resources by €200 billion and they encouraged non-EU countries to do a similar contribution. Ten days later Norway announced that we were providing a €7-billion additional loan to the IMF as a direct response to the encouragement by European leaders and the European Council. This money was taken from regular sources, in this case guarantees from our national bank.  

So the key point is that the Pension Fund Global is a 100% financial instrument for the purposes I alluded to. Our contributions to the IMF and the close to €2 billion that we contribute to reduce economic and social disparities in the new members of the European Union through the Norway Grants are political decisions taken and financed by regular sources.

What are your priorities with the EU? As ambassador to the Union, what are your three most important agenda items when you come at work?

It’s difficult to put it into three priorities. When I arrive at the office every morning I think about the relations between the EU and Norway – they are extensive, they are complex and they are solid.

They are solid because we are an integral part of the internal market through the EEA. Both sides agree that the agreement has functioned very well, continues to function very well, not only for us but also for the EU. After all Norway is the fifth largest trading partner of the EU. We are full member of Schengen, and I think it’s fair to say that we are a solid contributor to the functioning of the Schengen Agreement which these days is subject to some controversy.

Norway has been and we intend to be a long-term and stable provider of energy to the European Union. We provide 20% of the Union's imports of gas and 15% of the oil imports. We continue to contribute to reduce social and economic disparities with close to €2 billion over a five-year period. And we engaged in a large number of other areas where we cooperate closely with the European Union. If you look at Norway’s global engagement – we never do that alone. Our closest partners would be the union, its member states or some member states. So the priorities would really be to further promote a relationship that is extensive and solid – politically, economically and culturally.

Your country is known from many years as a discreet mediator in difficult conflicts. It still appears to be an important feature of your country's global role. Could you provide some insight?

There has been a number of cases in the past where Norway has been asked by parties in a conflict to assist as facilitators and honest brokers if you like. We did that in the Middle East in the beginning of the' 90s. We are still engaged in the Middle East, but the key point now is our role as chairman of AHLC, the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, which is the donor coordination group to the Palestinian Territories. There was a meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks back chaired by Norway’s foreign minister and hosted by the High Representative [Catherine] Ashton. So we are still involved in that conflict but now from a different angle, if you like.

We were involved for many years in the conflict in Sri Lanka. We were asked by the parties to act as a facilitator, we did that over the years but then at some point the parties decided they wouldn’t continue to negotiate a peaceful solution and decided – to put it bluntly – to go to war.

Since we have done it a couple of times we received this reputation as a country which is ready to participate as facilitator without having national interests that could distort the parties perceptions about us as an honest broker, a facilitator. We have developed expertise on how to do it, but really each case is individual, each case is unique. The question is if people believe in you and if you can do the job – but they will still have to do the negotiating themselves.

In the cases I referred to I think you will see that we could make a difference, but in the end it’s up to the parties to decide whether that particular path is worth pursuing or if they would go in different directions. To me this kind of contribution is really part of a larger understanding in Norway, namely that it's important to us to contribute globally beyond our direct interest and that’s also in our interest in the long run.

Then as you said, it’s very important to do this in a discreet way.  And I would break this tradition if I were to say that currently we are engaged here or there.

The Cyprus EU Presidency will begin in a few months from now. Is Norway mediating to help the reunification of the island?

What we have done in Cyprus over the years is that we have supported the PRIO Cyprus Centre run by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). The centre is committed to research and to organise and facilitate dialogue between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. It aims to contribute to a public debate on key issues relevant to an eventual settlement of the Cyprus problem. Through the EEA and Norway grants, we also support an NGO project called the House of Cooperation, a bi-communal activity centre in the UN controlled buffer zone in Nicosia.

Therefore Norway is not doing anything in parallel with the UN role of mediator to the reunification talks?

I have nothing to say on that question. What we have done in the past is open, as I just said. These efforts are aimed to be a modest but concrete contribution to bring people together, which again is in line with what people would like us to contribute to.

We started with the economic crisis. But there is in Europe also a moral crisis, you alluded yourself at the controversies around Schengen. We see more and more populism, calls for protectionism, and outbursts of xenophobia. Is it a matter of concern for your country?

I would phrase it differently. If you look at the past as a whole, I think it’s fair to say that we have gone a long way. Obviously we will never be in a situation where everything is ideal. So in individual countries – Norway being one of them – we will always have to argue for the basic values and defend those values.

In times of crisis it might be different in different countries.  Norway is among the countries that would stand up and defend those values, which I think we are doing every day inside the institutions together with other European countries. 

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