Elisabeth Vik Aspaker is Norway's Minister of EEA and EU Affairs, and the Minister of Nordic Cooperation. She comes from Troms, Norway's northernmost county and is used to working across the Cap of the North. She has enjoyed a solid career in local politics, has been an advisor and state secretary in several centre-right governments and is well prepared for 2017. That is when she will be in charge of Nordic cooperation. What will be her priorities?
Elisabeth Vik Aspaker smiles and laughs. She has a sense of humor and a temper, especially when she talks about what opposition politician Trygve Slagsvold Vedum has said about the need to renegotiate the EEA agreement in the wake of Brexit. She would rather talk about the Nordic region and how it can influence Europe and be seen by the rest of the world.
What is the most important political fight you have had?
“That’s quite a question,” she says, clearly surprised and in her clear northern Norwegian dialect.
Being an experienced politician, she keeps the conversation going while her brain is figuring out the answer.
“I think I would have to say the fight for the quality of Norwegian teachers.”
Education politics? Elisabeth Vik Aspaker is the Minister of EEA and EU Affairs and the Minister of Nordic Cooperation in Erna Solberg’s conservative coalition government. After the 2013 election victory she became the Minister of Fisheries and Minster of Nordic Cooperation, and she has held her present posts since 2015. This means she will be leading the Nordic cooperation when Norway takes over the Presidency in 2017. But she is not after a victory for herself as a government minister.
“The new five year long master degree for Norwegian elementary school teachers might be the most important change we are now making for our children's future.”
Do you have a particular stake in that?
“Yes,” she answers firmly. She sat on the parliament’s education committee and was the Conservatives’ educational spokesperson when this was passed and ‘fought through’ parliament.
“Knowledge and skills is our future, and that is why teachers represent the most important building block for every child when they start their education. As a government we are now carrying this through, and a five year master degree for teachers becomes a reality from next autumn.”
Elisabeth Aspaker comes from Troms, Norway’s second northernmost county. She trained as a teacher and started her political career in local politics. She is used to working across the Cap of the North. She has been a political advisor and state secretary in several centre-right coalitions.
The Nordic Labour Journal meets her on the day the leader of the opposition Centre Party Trygve Slagsvold Vedum launched a fierce attack in the Dagens Næringsliv daily, criticising the Government for not seeking a closer dialogue on Brexit with Great Britain.
“It looks like Norway would rather avoid provoking the EU than putting Norwegian interests first,” he told the paper. His claims were later refuted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But since this interview took place the same day his statement was printed, the Minister of EEA and EU Affairs was agitated.
“I have to say I am quite shocked that the Centre Party is willing to put Norwegian jobs at risk. Because this is about having access to what is the most important market for Norwegian fisheries, for Norwegian minerals and for many other industries. They all need the EEA agreement for all it is worth.
“So let them carry on, but this really is to undermine Norwegian industry’s market access, and I hope Norwegian workers see this.”
It makes you cross?
“No, but it makes me really upset when a party which says it cares about the districts wants to cut what is safe and good access to the internal market in such an efficient way.”
The British Prime Minister Theresa May says “our laws should not be written in Brussels, but in Westminster”. You have said that around 70 percent of Norwegian legislation comes from Brussels.
That is food for thought?
“Yes, but we see that Norway gains a lot from an EEA agreement which has created many new jobs, and given us access to an important market. This is a cooperation which works very well for Norway.
There has just been a review of Nordic labour market cooperation in order to see how this can become more efficient. It identified life-long learning as one area where Nordic countries could work better together.
What are your thoughts?
“I think we must learn from Finland and what they have achieved in Finnish schools. Look at the status Finnish teachers have gained. We will never be the cheapest producer. We need to be the smartest, we need good teachers who provide a firm basis when you start school, but also good educators who can provide life-long teaching. Whether we are surgeons carrying out keyhole surgery or welders, we have to relate to digitisation and automation and that means we have to have life-long learning.”
Do you have a victory you are proud of when it comes to Nordic cooperation?
“I’m thinking of what is happening in the Nordic region now, the focus we have for the Norwegian Presidency next year where we will follow three main paths: a changing Nordic region, the Nordic region in Europe and the Nordic region in the world.
“A changing Nordic region and the Nordic region in Europe is about our important shared agenda and the shared agenda between the Nordic countries and the EU. If we want to protect the Nordic welfare state which we have become used to, we must manage to create new jobs, do more research, share knowledge. We have very exciting cooperation and the world outside is looking to us.”
She calls it “exciting”, although the refugee crisis did upset that cooperation with the introduction of new border controls?
“It was an emergency situation which arose last year. I think all countries felt the flow of refugees at the time meant there was a danger of loosing some control.”
She has just been to Sweden where she met Minister of EU Affairs Ann Linde and the Minister of Nordic Cooperation Margot Wallström.
“I heard that in Malmö alone they are building 26 new schools to take care of the unaccompanied minors who arrived last year. I believe gaining control of the situation, creating good integration, helps our Nordic societies develop in a good direction. The temporary border control is just that, temporary. The Nordic passport union is something we shall protect carefully.”
But the emergency situation has not gone away?
“Yes, until we know that the outer Schengen borders work the way they should. You need to know who enters Europe, you must process applications and make sure the safety of the border control is well looked after.”
The border between Norway and Russia in the north is also part of the outer Schengen border. Norway is currently constructing a fence between the two neighbouring countries. It even had to be torn down and moved because it was too far into Russian territory.
“Norway feels it is important to uphold our obligations when it comes to Schengen, also in Finnmark. That is why we are building a fence.
Don’t all these fences being built everywhere worry you?
“I see that Europe has some way to go to before achieving shared responsibility and getting the asylum and migration politics back on track. But Norway must live up to our Schengen responsibilities and we have a border in Finnmark where this must be dealt with. I think that is important. We must not forget about the importance of maintaining good control there.”
The Nordic region in Europe is one of the slogans for Norway’s 2017 Presidency. What is important here?
“We are all part of the internal market as EEA and EU members. It is in our interest to influence other areas of EU development too. It can be energy, migration or digitisation. In areas where the Nordics have done smart things and are ahead of the EU, it is useful to be able to stand together in the region and gain an even clearer voice in the EU. We can drive the agenda together with the three countries who are at the table in Brussels. So Norway’s ambition is to continue the work started by the Finnish Presidency, to try when it is relevant for the Nordic region to get in early enough in Brussels to be able to influence things. Digitisation is one such area, climate is another.”
There have been repeated requests for a Nordic personal number which would make it easier to move between the countries. Is this part of the cooperation on digitisation?
“That question has been aired, but there might be other ways of getting these systems to talk together than having a common Nordic personal number. We must try to find systems which manage to handle different personal numbers, also digitally.
“New digitisation solutions could be to introduce more efficient welfare services, more efficient geriatric care, more effective education systems. When it comes to migration, we could imagine that the Nordics developed digital learning aids which could cross borders and be used in several countries. Or ticketing systems. Our imagination is the only limit.
“The Nordic countries Estonia are frontrunners when it comes to digital organisation within the EU. We are now looking at how the Nordic region and Estonia can accelerate this development.”
What can Norway bring to the table?
“We have expertise on the digitalisation of the public sector. No other country beats us when it comes to tax returns for instance.”
What other work started by the Finnish Presidency will Norway follow up?
“Migration. Both Finland and the other Nordic prime ministers have taken important initiatives in this area. They are also focusing on gender equality, that the Nordics share a culture of women being able to be part of the labour market and that we help families.”
What do you like the best?
"I think we have created a very exciting programme for our Presidency, and I am looking forward to the Prime Minister’s presentation at the Nordic Council of Ministers on 1 November. We have areas where we excel, and we can carry the baton after Finland and keep building on the good work they have done."
Nordic cooperation is often criticised for being an inefficient gathering that does not achieve much.
Is there something in it?
“I feel that is very unfair. I think we should look forwards and also see what we have achieved. We have modernised the administrative system at the Nordic Council of Ministers to make it more streamlined, which means we can work in a way which makes us able to address topical issues. During the Norwegian Presidency the new changes to the structure of the Council of Ministers will come into force, allowing us to be even more up to date.
"We have also argued for establishing ad hoc councils, so that we don’t need to establish new permanent cooperations between ministers but choose areas where it is important to act immediately. It is absolutely my ambition as leader of the Norwegian Presidency that we will make sure the Nordic Council of Ministers remains as politically relevant as possible.”
“Yes, we will work in a way that allows us to raise topical issues. Even if they don’t fit into one of the permanent ministerial councils. Migration is one such issue. It is a complex area which includes health and education among other things. We have initiated work in the Council of Ministers to address this issue because it is so important to establish cooperation between the Nordic countries here.
It is the day before the government presents its budget to parliament and to the Norwegian people. She need to learn the context. Our time is up.
You got married this summer? I add at the end.
“Yes,” she says with a broad smile. Better late than never, said Elisabeth Vik Aspaker and ran.
What are you reading?
What is your favourite tool?
What did you want to become when you were little?
A teacher, and I did.
What is your hidden talent?
I am dead good at DIY, painting and wallpapering and stuff.