Norwegian solidarity

INGA Magistad, the Norwegian Ambassador to Slovakia, offers a long list of projects that have come to fruition thanks to the EEA/Norway Grants, including that of a community centre in Moldava nad Bodvou run by a local Roma woman who tutors children from the Roma settlement, as well as reconstructed cultural heritage monuments, a swimming pool for the disabled and shelters for abused women. Her homeland has so far allocated more than €150 million to support projects for social and economic development.

Norwegian Ambassador Inga MagistadNorwegian Ambassador Inga Magistad (Source: Jana Liptáková)

INGA Magistad, the Norwegian Ambassador to Slovakia, offers a long list of projects that have come to fruition thanks to the EEA/Norway Grants, including that of a community centre in Moldava nad Bodvou run by a local Roma woman who tutors children from the Roma settlement, as well as reconstructed cultural heritage monuments, a swimming pool for the disabled and shelters for abused women. Her homeland has so far allocated more than €150 million to support projects for social and economic development.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Magistad about fighting extremism, gender equality, business and tourism links between the countries as well as Norway’s take on EU membership.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Norway released an action plan to fight extremism and radicalisation among young people. What was the impetus behind this? What are the key points of this plan?
Inga Magistad (IM):
Today we are experiencing an increase in extremist actions around the world. Before, extremists in Norway were very few, and mostly ethnic Norwegians connected to a right-wing extremist environment. Today, extremist groups are more ethnically diverse and the areas where people can be radicalised have expanded: it is easier to travel and we have the internet, which is difficult to monitor.

In Norway there are now two small groups of extremists: one is inspired by Al Qaeda and largely recruits young people, while the other is right-wing anti-Islamic extremists. Currently, the greatest terror threats come from a few individuals connected to a multi-ethnic, extremist Islamic environment. There is concern that these groups could grow.

The action plan addresses this challenge as it concerns itself both with those who are at risk of radicalisation and those who already have been radicalised. The overarching aim of the plan is early prevention, which means fewer persons that can be a threat to our society in the future. It can also prevent young people from making mistakes that have consequences for the rest of their lives. It also focuses on people already linked to extremist groups and aims to help disconnect them from those and reintegrate into society.

The action plan is based on the same principles as normal crime prevention: emphasising knowledge and cooperation between different sectors of society, for example, the police and municipalities, while research establishments are involved as well. International cooperation is another important element of the plan, while Norway is interested in sharing knowledge and cooperating with other countries, particularly the other Nordic countries and the EU.

The internet is an important arena in preventing radicalism. A dedicated website has therefore been established to publish up-to-date information about the action plan, recommend actions and provide guidelines for people who have concerns about someone close to them, whether it be a friend, family member or a colleague.

TSS: In 2014 the Norwegian Constitution celebrates its 200th anniversary. What is the significance of Constitution Day and what makes this event timely today?
The Norwegian Constitution, signed on 17 May, 1814 paved the way for Norway’s independence and the development of a democratic society based on the sovereignty of the people and the rights of individuals. Already a few years after its adoption, initiatives were taken to celebrate May 17 as a national day and a day of festivity. Children’s parades with brass music bands, national costumes and flags became the prominent features in the day’s celebrations all over Norway. Popular support for the celebrations is broad, and the people appreciate these participatory and festive celebrations, which are quite different from military parades and grand speeches that are more common in other countries.

The core values of the constitution of 1814 - sovereignty, separation of powers and individual rights - are still key values in our society today. They safeguard the rights of minorities and secure equality, non-discrimination and inclusion. They guarantee freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and the rule of law. In short, these are the values that laid the foundation of our modern and egalitarian welfare state today. However, such values can never be taken for granted. That is why we need to continuously focus on them and commit ourselves to protecting them.

TSS: The EEA/Norway grants represent a key area of cooperation between Slovakia and Norway. Could you name some of the notable projects that these grants supported or progress that resulted from them?
As a non-EU member, but a party to the European Economic Area Agreement and the Common European Market, the grants are our contribution to solidarity and cohesion in Europe. Since 2004, we have allocated more than €150 million to support projects for social and economic development in Slovakia. We have now finalised the first programme period, and we can already see many positive results from the more than 300 smaller and larger projects implemented. I will not be able to mention them all, but the most visible might be the reconstructed cultural heritage monuments. We have supported more than 16 cultural projects, including: the Slovak Philharmonic Reduta building in Bratislava, the Wedding Palace in Bytča, the Slovak Village Museum in Martin, Topolčianky Castle in Nitra Region, the Mining museum in Banská štiavnica and the town hall in Skalica.

We have also contributed to the modernisation of street lighting in more than 40 municipalities across Slovakia, saving up to 30 percent energy. We have provided solar panels for heating water in a prison in Nitra Region, and supported flood prevention measures in eastern and western Slovakia. A multifunction swimming pool with a hydro-therapy facility for physically and mentally disabled children and adults was built in Bratislava Region. In the border area with Ukraine we supported cooperation projects that resulted in new partnerships and exchanges between municipalities and civil societies on both sides of the border.

We have also supported many projects in the social field; for example, building shelters for domestically abused women and children. Support has been given to employers’ and employees’ organisations to improve labour relations and promote decent work, and to NGOs for advocacy work within the area of active citizenship, the judiciary and transparency.

Furthermore, through our grants to a Slovak NGO, 10 community centres were established in Roma settlements in Košice Region. One of the most successful is a centre in Moldava nad Bodvou, now run by a Roma woman who grew up there, obtained an education and is now tutoring children from the settlement. Through our project, a summer academy for talented kids as well as a Roma festival were organised in Eastern Slovakia. Two newer projects benefiting the Roma population include one for developing farming skills in a small village in eastern Slovakia, and another specifically targeted at improving education and facilitating the integration of Roma pupils in schools, inter alia by developing special and adapted curricula and textbooks.

Many of the projects I have mentioned have Norwegian partners and this has proved to be beneficial for the implementation and the success of the projects. The variety of the projects we have supported and the partnerships made have resulted in the EEA/Norway grants becoming an excellent platform for promoting bilateral cooperation between Norway and Slovakia.

TSS: Norway, Finland and Sweden keep toping gender equality indexes. Is there an ongoing discussion of gender gaps in your homeland? Are there still challenges in this area?
Norway has a long tradition of promoting equality through welfare and family policies. A number of welfare arrangements enable both parents to participate in both working life and the family. This includes the statutory right to kindergarten, paid maternity and parental leave, the right of parents to stay home when children are sick, the right to part-time work and so forth. It is also interesting to note that our favourable policies on work-family balance are seen as a major factor behind Norway having a higher birth rate than the EU average.

The government’s policies to reduce gender differences have also led to a high percentage of women in higher education and in better-paid jobs. In fact, women today outnumber men at university level. In political life no political party today would venture to present a government with less than approximately 50 percent women ministers, and in parliament close to 40 percent are women. Even in business women are now more visible. In 2006 a new law was passed requiring publically listed limited companies, ASA, to have at least 40 percent female representation on their boards. These policies have resulted in a significant reduction of Norway’s gender gap over the last two decades. It has also kept Norway consistently in the top three in the OECD’s annual gender gap reports.

Although we have come far in our efforts to achieve gender equality and reduce the gender gap, challenges still exist in this area. Women’s choices of employment, their representation in senior positions in private businesses and equal pay are issues particularly high on the agenda. We still have a considerable pay gap in Norway, mainly reflecting the different choice of employment by women, but we also see pay gaps between men and women doing the same job or in similar professions. Another factor is our gender-oriented labour market with more than 80 percent female representation in occupations like pre-school teachers, nurses and secretaries, while other jobs, like construction workers, mechanics and chauffeurs are held nearly exclusively by men. To address this problem, efforts are now being made to encourage young students to choose education and professions not exclusive to their gender, like encouraging more girls to become engineers and more boys to become nurses or pre-school teachers.

TSS: Norway has not joined the EU. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being outside the EU? Is the issue of EU membership still alive in Norway?
Although Norway is not a member of the EU, we are part of the Common European Market through the European Economic Area Agreement, and Norway is a full member of the Schengen Agreement. These agreements provide free market access for Norwegians products and services, with a few exceptions, as well as free movement of persons and capital. Travel and work in Norway and in EU countries are facilitated by the border and visa-free Schengen area and the right to employment and benefits in all EEA/EU countries. The EU is by far the most important market for Norwegian exports and around 80 percent of our exports go to EU countries. Today many thousands of EU citizens are working in different sectors of our economy, such as the petroleum industry, construction and services. When travelling around Norway you will meet Slovak bus drivers and nurses, Polish carpenters and painters, Portuguese and Spanish engineers, Swedish shopkeepers and waiters, just to mention a few of the EU nationals making the wheels turn in Norway.

Most Norwegians are content with these agreements and do not want full membership in the EU. The question of membership has, since the two referendums on the EU in 1972 and 1994, been politically divisive and none of the coalition governments we have had over the last decades have been united on the membership question. EU membership is thus not on the agenda in Norway, but strong and close cooperation with the EU and its members states is.

As for the disadvantages of not being a full EU member, I would point, for example, to the fact that as a non-member we cannot take part in the discussions and decisions made within the EU on rules, regulations and directives that also apply to Norway and other EEA countries. We do, of course, have the right to consult and make proposals, but the final decisions are made without us. There are also some exceptions in the EEA agreement that, for instance, hamper market access for important export products from Norway, like smoked salmon, which is levied a high tax if imported to EU countries. As for the benefits of being outside the EU, Norway has, of course, more control and authority over national policies and resources. Let me also add that as an independent, non member of a group, it can be easier to be elected to international positions or receive roles as mediators and honest brokers.

TSS: Has the potential of Norwegian-Slovak economic cooperation been fully explored? In which areas do you see room for further ties?
Economic cooperation between Norway and Slovakia has developed steadily over the years, but is still modest. However, opportunities for increasing trade and investment exist. At present our annual trade stands at €350 million, and there are around 40 small and large companies with Norwegian interests in Slovakia. One of them, a company in the IT sector, was established just recently. I am also pleased that the Norwegian Pension Fund Global, the so-called Norwegian Petroleum Fund, for the first time this year will make investments in Slovakia. Research, innovation and development is another area with possibilities for increased cooperation. Only a few weeks ago a joint Slovak-Nordic conference on research and development was arranged in Bratislava, and useful contacts were established between research institutions and businesses from our two countries.

TSS: Last December, the Norwegian Day was held in Žiar nad Hronom. What was the idea behind the event and why Žiar? Will similar events follow?
The idea behind this event is to make Norway and Norwegian culture and values better known in Slovakia. The venue of Žiar nad Hronom was chosen because this is the area where we find most Norwegian companies. In cooperation with the companies and the municipality, we arranged a seminar on Norwegian business values focusing on Corporate Social Responsibility and Decent work. The cultural part of the programme included a photo exhibition presenting Norway, Norwegian music, Norwegian films and Norwegian food specialties. As the event was well received by businesses and the general public alike, we are considering repeating the event later this year.

We also have plans for Norway Days in other parts of Slovakia. In less than two weeks we are arranging a Norway Day for the students of the Faculty of Philosophy at Comenius University in Bratislava. The focus will be on Norwegian literature, the history of our constitution, Norwegian films, and, of course, Norwegian food delicacies. Later in the year we are planning to arrange Norwegian Sea Food Days, focusing on Norwegian salmon and Norwegian music.

TSS: In your opinion, do Norwegians and Slovaks know enough about each other? What aspects of Slovakia would, in your view, appeal to Norwegian tourists? How do Slovaks respond to your homeland?
The short answer to your first question is “no”. Although knowledge about our respective countries has improved over the last few years, thanks to tourism both ways and Slovaks working in Norway, many Norwegians and many Slovaks still know fairly little about each other’s countries. With weekly direct flights by the Norwegian airline to Bratislava we have seen, however, a steady increase in visits, mainly tourists but also business groups. This will undoubtedly help put Slovakia more firmly on the map for Norwegians, and vice versa for Slovaks.

I believe Slovakia has a lot to offer a Norwegian tourist. Many Norwegians are “active tourists”, wanting to combine vacation and sports. Hiking in your beautiful Tatra Mountains in the summer and skiing in the winter would appeal to this group. Biking along the Danube or canoeing or rafting in rivers like the Vah and the Hron are other options for active tourism. There are also ample possibilities for cultural tourism in Slovakia. The many historic palaces and castles, picturesque villages, vineyards and caves are very attractive to a large group of Norwegians. The same can be said about your well-known opera performances and classical music concerts.

Slovaks in general see Norway in a positive light - as a well-functioning welfare state with petroleum resources, beautiful fjords and delicious salmon. In fact, I am often asked about possibilities of going salmon fishing in our rivers. People are also curious about the Northern light, Midnight sun and bright summer nights in Norway. Others are more interested in discussing work opportunities and the cost of living in my country. Many have the impression that Norway is an extremely costly country for tourists. This is of course true, but with proper planning and careful spending, both travelling and living in Norway will be affordable to Slovaks.

TSS: You arrived in Slovakia in 2013. What has surprised you either in a positive or negative way?
I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the economic progress and modernisation of society that Slovkia has achieved since the fall of the Iron Curtain, especially after entry into the EU. This is further underlined by the fact that Slovakia is one of the few countries that did not experience any real downturn as a result of the financial crises that hit most EU countries. That Slovakia produces the most cars per capita in the world was also news to me.

I am also impressed by the fact that so many Slovaks today know about Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and express their appreciation for what he did for Slovaks in their struggle for their national identity and language in the early nineteen hundreds.

Apart from that, I believe 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 public administration and elsewhere in society has also proved to be easy and result-oriented, and the mentality of punctuality – to meet on time – is very much appreciated by a Scandinavian.

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