The dance around Andøya Airport continues, though the dance steps are neither elegant nor in line with the music. Furthermore, it reveals a recurring problem: A lack of defense and security policy competence from a northern point of view.
It may appear both self-obsessed and trite to assume that the latter would carry any significance for the developing of Norwegian defense and security policy. It is all a matter of national interest, after all.
I beg to differ.
In the past few months, meddling with the political general settlement on the long-term plans for the defense illustrates a need for a security policy center of competence in the High North. Proximity to conflict zones and military installations would matter to the political debate. It also goes to prove the internal disagreements within the defense sector.
This applies in particular to the question of political credibility, and through that the ability to conduct larger strategic changes in Norway’s defense and security policy.
Defense politics is a slow matter, controlled by our most profiled politicians, often behind closed doors. The media get their comments from reputed researcher communities in Oslo, in addition to North Norwegian mayors.
Only rarely are professional comments picked up from knowledge communities in the High North, like for instance our two universities. These have, on the other hand, not placed much emphasis on defense and security policy. Like so many other issues up north, it drowns in aquaculture and natural sciences.
The recent election campaign Labour Party argumentation for closing down Andøya airbase has revived the problem.
When the Conservatives, the Progress Party and the Labour Party united over the long-term plan for the Norwegian Armed Forces in June 2016, it created havoc – in particular in Andøy. The arguments against closing it down were rejected by the Parliament majority, written off as a district rebellion based on job losses.
The arguments for closing it down were, on the other side, based on completely professional arguments.
Just read what was said when the three parties who agreed on the long-term plan presented the decision to shut down Andøya airbase:
- The long-term plan that we have now agreed upon meets the security policy challenges we have in a forward-leaning and responsible way. (Trond Helland, the Conservatives)
- Making the changes we now make through the long-term plan has been necessary from a defense policy point of view. (Harald Tom Nesvik, the Progress Party)
- When we have made this decision, we have done so based on our conviction that it is the right thing to do from a defense policy perspective, and this is what the long-term plan has to deliver on. (Jonas Gahr Støre, the Labour Party)
In essence, all is based on security policy considerations, not economic arguments.
Too bad for Andøya – Good for Norway
At the same time, the argument was that while this was a sad decision for the local community (Andøya), it was a good one for Norway and Norway’s defense capacity.
However, towards the end of the recent election campaign a new phrase from the agreement appeared, a phrase saying that ‘significant changes to the decision basis’ was to be presented by the government in relation to the revised national budget presented in the spring of 2017.
No such change came up during the revised budget process; however, instead a report ordered by the Centre Party – an agrarian centrist political party – appeared just before the election.
That made the Labour Party open its mind to a re-match, just a few days before Election Day.
Last Monday, Espen Barth Eide of Labour – who is fighting both for and against Andøy, and who is fighting Anniken Huitfeldt for the leadership of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee – in a Klassekampen daily interview forewarned a more stern line in Norwegian foreign and security policy.
- In the unpredictable world of today, there must be room for more disagreement, he says, in an interview where he once again pointed at Andøya.
When asked if the Labour Party was co-responsible ‘when supporting the new long-term plan for the armed forces’, he responds:
- I am not coming home from abroad saying that everything would be different if I were in position. What I will say, is that many people of our national party assembly have later wondered if we were too responsible when it comes to making agreements in general.
Well, that is just what he did during the election campaign. He came home from abroad and hoped that a few mulled phrases about the Centre Party report on Andøya would turn the rather miserable election result that was predicted for Labour in the High North.
Miserable election outcome
He did not achieve that.
However, all of a sudden it was now a matter of economy, not about the phrases that formed the foundation for the agreement.
There is nothing new about questions being asked about defense policy calculations.
The new thing about it all was that it would have consequences for the overall defense strategy as expressed in the long-term plan for the armed forces.
Labour has, for instance, moved the fighter plane base from Bodø to Ørlandet (near Trondheim, central Norway), and I do not think one single calculation has survived the moving process so far. For the record, should anyone be in doubt: It has not grown cheaper than assumed.
There is no other state organization where giant budget exceedances have been larger than in the Norwegian defense. That is the rule, rather than an exception.
I do not know of any exceptions.
‘Even’ the mayors in Nordland County, where Andøya is based, had soon revealed that the closing down of Andøya airbase was based on calculations far beyond any reason whatsoever. Nor did anyone argue against the wrongful calculations claims. Instead, the parties behind the agreement argued time and again that the closing down of Andøya was based on defense policy reasoning.
The lack of alternative competence communities was tangible.
Far down on the priority list
High North News also brings you another example of the need for strengthening the professional community in the north.
And he adds a point about NATO’s maritime strategy:
- We must take a look at the list of priorities, and not just for the Americans. China will be the #1 priority, the Middle East #2. Priority # 3? Maybe Europe, though not the High North. We are beginning to drop on the list of priorities.
We probably are, however, we do so without having much say in the debate.
Nord University in Bodø and the University of Tromsø should perhaps join forces to strengthen the security and defense-political competence in the High North.
If they did, it would be harder to accuse us of speaking of jobs and not security policy when issues like this one are brought to the table.
The timing is ideal.
When the country’s largest party, the Labour Party, places increase emphasis on economy and jobs, it is time to remind them that this is about defense and security politics, just as they said themselves during the agreement.
And that is exactly why it is hard for anyone to understand why Andøya airbase is shut down.
- But we have not changed our minds about Andøya, Espen Barth Eide says just to be sure, in his interview in the Klassekampen daily.
With that, he explains indirectly why so many of us struggle to relate to the security policy debate at all.
This text originally appeared in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.
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