September 20, 2014
North Sea oil giant’s turn to celebrate 200
Today Norway celebrates its bicentennial almost four years after Argentina — marking the 1814 Constitution (Europe’s oldest constitution still in existence) which Norwegians see as the real birth of nation-building, according to Ambassador Janne Julsrud.
Not the only choice available for Norway’s birthday — alternative dates could make the Scandinavian country seem both much older and even younger than Argentina. There was already a united Viking kingdom of Norway some time in the 10th century (with various overseas possessions, including parts of both British isles) but this eventually gave way to four centuries of union with Denmark — partly because of the ravages of the Black Death. The independence following the 1814 break with defeated Napoleonic ally Denmark also giving rise to the Constitution was short-lived — within a year the victorious allies had placed Norway under the Swedish instead of the Danish crown, a dynastic link which was not broken until 1905 (foreign policy was one of the few areas where Norway was not self-governing but a vast merchant shipping fleet required its own consuls, explains Julsrud).
And yet today is celebrated as Norway’s national day, not 1905 or 1,000 years ago. And celebrated with unique fervour, adds Julsrud (also in North America where some six million are of Norwegian origin) — for small children it tends to be their first appearance in public, an unforgettable moment.
But enough of history lessons — the interview turned to Norway’s present. And much of that present (and also potential ties with Argentina) can be summed up in just three letters — oil. Even more than 1905, the key date defining today’s Norway was Christmas Eve of 1969 when North Sea oil was first struck.
The Herald asked the envoy about recent press reports that the end of the oil boom was threatening the prosperous welfare state, subjected to high cost and price pressures.
Nothing that Norwegians themselves have not been discussing for decades, replies Julsrud, well aware of the dangers of “Dutch disease” spreading up the North Sea (and also the sense of entitlement in the general population). Yet Norway’s dependence on an oil which cannot last forever (although known reserves continue to climb with improved technology) is not as great as its image identification with it, Julsrud argues — not only do oil and gas account for no more than 20 percent of the economy but it has been argued that the spin-offs from massively educating women and upgrading them in the workforce outweigh the entire energy sector. Which does not stop them from averaging 1.92 children, she adds proudly — indeed she thought that the demographic problem which many other countries suffer more acutely was ultimately more serious.
Meanwhile Norway was not waiting for the oil to run out but moving ahead and constantly pushing back the technological frontiers — both with offshore technology and in other technological areas too.
Before turning to ties with Argentina, there was just one non-oil question about Norway prompted by this month’s European Parliament elections (even if Norway is famously not a European Union member although “joined at the hip”) — is Norway part of Europe’s general trend towards populism with the strength of its Progress Party founded by Karl Hagen? While to the right of any other Norwegian party, Progress was a multi-issue party which was not anti-immigration in contrast to the likes of France’s National Front, Julsrud replies — its creed is basically small government.
How much interaction could be expected between Norway’s Statoil and Argentina’s newly nationalized YPF with the excitement over Vaca Muerta shale (even if Norway’s strength was offshore rather than fracking)? Statoil was active in the United States so that fracking fell within its technical capacity, Julsrud answers — it was still early days for anything concrete but Statoil was reviewing its portfolio in a a globalized world and Argentina might well be a future priority.
Statoil’s current importance for YPF is perhaps more as a model — it is interesting that its state ownership extends to 51 percent of shares, exactly the percentage which YPF chose to expropriate from Repsol. Statoil is a well-run company, says Julsrud, with a strong accent on ethics and transparency — it has to be because the people who own it want to know what is going on.
Otherwise relations with Argentina are “very close” — especially in all the multilateral areas and in human rights which Norway would like to see globally present and not just in the developed world. And, of course, the cultural ties are excellent with such a culturally outstanding country as Argentina. Many Norwegian students come to Buenos Aires (a free education is offered in the other direction but Norway is expensive) and these student networks are more lasting than the political. But while there is research co-operation in areas like nutrition, health and anthropology, Julsrud would like it to focus where it could really make a difference — giving Argentina a momentum similar to Norway where research constantly pushes back technological frontiers.