INGA Magistad prefers not to pick favourites when it comes to projects supported by Norway through the EEA/Norway Grants in Slovakia, since for her, “projects that have helped disadvantaged Roma children in eastern Slovakia to go to school and to develop their abilities are as notable as the more visible projects of restoration of venerated historic monuments”. As the Norwegian ambassador to Slovakia, she plans to further pursue projects through the EEA/Norway Grants. The Slovak Spectator spoke to Magistad about gender equality achievements in her homeland, environmental challenges and Norwegian medical students acquiring their degrees in Slovakia.

The Slovak Sectator (TSS): Last year the European Commission proposed legislation with the aim of attaining a 40 percent objective of women in non-executive board-member positions in publicly listed companies. While some countries support the idea of gender equality, they are rather cautious about quotas. What challenges do quotas bring and how has Norway handled these challenges?
Inga Magistad (IM):
Norway’s main strategy for achieving gender equality and women’s participation in social, political and economic life has been to strengthen women’s economic independence through facilitating their participation in the labour market. This has been achieved through favourable maternity leave, access to kindergartens, part-time jobs, etc. The Gender Equality Act of 1978 prohibited all discrimination on the basis of sex in all aspects of society. Over time, the law has had positive effects, and today Norway is considered one of the most gender equal countries in the world. Political parties have made it their policy to have approximately 50 percent women in their governments, as is the case in the present conservative government. Parliament and municipal institutions strive for the same, but are lagging somewhat behind with a representation of close to 40 percent of women.

In the business sector developments were slower, and encouragement from the government to voluntarily improve the gender balance of the company boards gave meagre results. Thus, in January 2006 the Norwegian parliament passed a law obliging limited companies (ASA) to have at least 40 percent female representation on their boards. The law regulates approximately 2,000 public limited companies in Norway, but not the 250,000 small and medium-sized companies, many of them family-owned. The companies were taken somewhat by surprise, but were given an appropriate time to adapt to the new rules and thus gradually implemented the law according to the timeframe given. Some companies were reluctant and complained that there were not a sufficient number of competent women to choose as board members, and admittedly some additional effort had to be put into the board selection process. But companies succeeded, and soon the critical voices were silenced. The result, very much feared by some, has been positive. Research has showed that the stock market reacted positively to the introduction of the quota, partly because the board got a better gender balance and partly because it broke the traditional links of company men on the boards, and opened up not only for women, but also for more external and foreign representation in the boards.

The companies experienced that this new composition of the boards brought more new ideas and meetings became more focused on creativity and innovation than before.

TSS: The Norwegian military proposed a vegetarian diet once a week for its members in order to combat climate change. Is this a publicity gimmick or will the measure have a real impact?
IM:
I would not say that the decision taken by the Norwegian military is a publicity gimmick, even though it has gotten some attention. The argument of the military was they want the service to reflect societal trends increasingly geared towards consuming more environmentally friendly and healthier food. The Norwegian military is a big consumer of meat, serving 35,000 meals per day, and by introducing “Meat free Mondays” they can save 150,000 tonnes of meat from being produced. This brings clear benefits to the environment in the form of reduced greenhouse emissions. The decision is also a follow-up of the military service’s policy to gradually introduce more and more ecologically produced food. The Norwegian parliament has decided that in Norway 15 percent of all food consumed should be ecologically produced by 2020, and the military service has been working towards this goal. The second argument is health-related: people in western societies, including Norway, eat far too much meat, according to nutrition and health experts, so the clear official nutritional advice from Norwegian authorities is to reduce the consumption of meat.

TSS: What are the most significant environmental challenges your homeland faces?
IM:
The main environmental challenges faced by Norway are not very different from those faced by other European states, except that we have fewer challenges related to energy production and consumption on mainland Norway, as more than 95 percent of our electricity comes from renewable hydroelectric power generation. We do however face environmental challenges related to our oil and gas production offshore, where we are seeking solutions like the capture and storage of CO2s under the sea shelf to reduce the emissions from this production. Land and air transport make up approximately 25 percent of our greenhouse emissions and are thus another significant challenge. My country, a close neighbour to the Arctic and the snow caps of the North Pole, is also experiencing the general climatic changes from melting ice and changing temperatures in the sea.

TSS: Norway’s unemployment rate is below 4 percent in spite of a rather strict labour code. How has your country managed to keep this balance, since in Slovakia stricter labour codes have been associated with a higher jobless rate?
IM:
Let me say at the outset that Norway, even though hit by the financial crises, has been quite fortunate to have moderate, but good economic growth, also during the last years, with much thanks to a strong petroleum and gas industry and services related to this sector. Thus, employment has been fairly stable and even new jobs have been created. In addition, Norwegian governments pursue an active business and employment policy which includes economic, financial and welfare mechanisms aimed at securing a favourable business environment and a favourable labour policy. Full employment, meaning very low unemployment rates, has been a major goal for Norwegian governments for decades, and different economic, financial and welfare mechanisms have been implemented to achieve this aim.

At the core of the Norwegian welfare model lies the tripartite dialogue between the state, the employers’ organisations and the labour unions, which has secured a stable framework for working relations over many decades. Backed by relatively strict labour laws and strong employment protection, the Norwegian labour unions have seen merit in engaging in dialogues with employers’ associations, and with the active involvement of the state, have been able to secure decent working conditions and wages. Briefly, favourable economic conditions, a well-educated workforce, a highly developed welfare system, progressive gender policies and a favourable labour-business-state relationship have secured a high employment rate and welfare to people living in Norway.

TSS: Norway and Slovakia successfully cooperate in education while Norwegian students study medicine and veterinary science at the university level here in Bratislava, Martin and Košice. Why are Norwegian students interested in Slovakia?
IM:
Norwegian universities only offer admission to very few students of medicine and veterinary medicine every year. So a large number of Norwegian students in these disciplines have to go abroad to get their diplomas. Traditionally they went to Denmark, the UK, Ireland and some other EU countries. When Slovakia and the other new EU members entered the stage, new possibilities for studies in these countries were created. Universities in Slovakia, and particularly in Martin, established international studies with an English curriculum and engaged in an active promotional campaign to attract students from Norway. The universities in Slovakia have a good reputation in Norway and the living conditions are favourable, so, in the case of Martin the number of Norwegian students soon increased from a handful to around 500 over a few years. An additional factor stirring the interest of Norwegian students to go to Martin could also be its location and opportunities for skiing and hiking, which are favourite sports for many Norwegians.

TSS: Norway, along with two non-EU countries, Iceland and Lichtenstein, launched the EEA Grants, while Norway also launched the Norway Grants to contribute to reducing economic and social disparities and to strengthen bilateral relations with 15 EU countries in central and southern Europe. Slovakia has already received millions of euros through these channels. Which are, in your opinion, the most notable projects your country has supported?
IM:
I am pleased that Norway, as a non EU member but a party to the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Common European Market, can take part in the European solidarity project aimed at reducing economic and social disparities in Europe. Within the first EEA/Norway grant scheme of €70 million for the years 2004-2009 we supported more than 100 larger and 200 smaller projects. The projects covered many areas of society from support to local non-governmental organisations working for social inclusion and the strengthening of the judiciary, to larger municipal projects for flood prevention, modernisation of electric lighting and energy efficiency, as well as restoration of important cultural heritage. It is very difficult to single out the most notable ones. For me the projects that have helped disadvantaged Roma children in eastern Slovakia go to school and develop their abilities are as notable as the more visible projects of restoration of venerated historic monuments. Many of the cultural heritage projects supported by the EEA/Norway grants have received well justified praise, like the Reduta in Bratislava, the Wedding Palace in Bytča and the town hall in Skalica. The restoration work has made it possible to again put these important cultural heritage buildings and monuments into public use, open them for tourists and provide employment and new life in surrounding areas.

TSS: Several Norwegian companies, like Norsk Hydro and Orkla, have chosen Slovakia as an investment destination. Which areas of Slovakia’s economy are of interest to Norwegian investors and where do you see potential?
IM:
The Hydro and Orkla investments are in aluminium (Slovalco and Sapa), and these have been important and beneficial investments both for the companies and for Slovakia. Norwegian investors are also involved in electronic production (Eltek), some manufacturing (Timms) and the automotive production (Kongsberg automotive) as well as service providers like DNV (risk management systems, quality control and certification). In these areas Slovakia can provide a well-qualified work force with high productivity, competitive wages and a competitive tax regime. I believe these sectors still to be the most promising for attracting new investors. Renewable energies, where we today have an EEA programme on biomass production, is another area of some potential.

TSS: You started your diplomatic mission in Slovakia earlier this year. What are the major areas you plan to focus on while serving here? What has surprised you the most after your arrival in Slovakia, something you have not expected?

IM: I believe we have already touched upon most of the important priority areas for my mission here in Slovakia. The embassy’s work and follow up related to the nine new programmes under the EEA/Norway grants 2009-2014 is clearly one of these areas. Working with Norwegian businesses and investors to promote and facilitate Norwegian-Slovak cooperation is another. I will also focus on cooperation to promote Norwegian culture and values both linked to projects in the EEA-field and the business area and as individual projects within art, literature and music. Priority will also be given to work for the strengthening of bilateral political cooperation within the EU/EEA context and international organisations like NATO and the UN.

As to your question on surprises encountered here in Slovakia, I cannot think of any big surprises or unexpected events. My former impression of Slovakia as a pleasant and friendly country in the middle of Europe with an interesting history and beautiful nature has only been confirmed. Cooperation with our partners in the public administration and elsewhere in society has proved to be easy and result oriented, and the mentality of punctually, to meet on time, is very much appreciated by a Scandinavian.

TSS: Has the tourism potential between Slovakia and Norway been fully explored? In your opinion, do Slovaks and Norwegians know enough about each other?
IM:
The short answer to this is “no”. For Norwegians, as for many other European nations, Slovakia still remains a “well preserved secret”. I believe there should be great opportunities to develop tourism between our countries, not least in the area of adventure as well as cultural tourism. Your beautiful Tatra Mountains are perfect for skiing in the winter and hiking in the summer, biking along the Danube and in the forests should be attractive to Norwegian people who often like to combine vacation and sports. All the beautiful castles and villages, vineyards and other attractions around the country also have great potential for increased tourism, and not to forget, your excellent spa resorts. I hope that the direct flights that Norwegian Air Lines now has opened between Oslo and Bratislava can contribute to placing Bratislava and Slovakia more firmly on the travel map of Norwegians, and thus open their eyes to the interesting cultural heritage and recreational possibilities that exist in this beautiful country.

I think Slovaks know about the wonderful scenery and the famous fjords of Norway, and many of them are familiar with Norway as an El Dorado for fishing, not least the salmon fishing in the famous rivers along the coast. There is, however, a strong belief that Norway is very expensive, and thus not that attainable as a tourist destination. A fact that of course cannot totally be denied, since we have a high standard of living and high prices in my country, but not for everything. Staying in smaller hotels and cottages around the country is, for example, not expensive compared to many other countries. I think the main impression of Norway’s costliness comes from the high prices of wine, alcohol and tobacco, especially when bought in restaurants. So I hope that Slovaks will also venture a visit to the land of the fjords, the mountains and the midnight sun, and with some good planning, it can become affordable and not least worthwhile.