This week, the Norwegian Ministers of Justice and Trade visited Longyearbyen. Soon, they are to make important decisions regarding the future of the archipelago.
The previous Norwegian government initiated a series of major processes concerning Svalbard. One of them was new regulations that would strip foreigners of their voting rights for local council, new environmental regulations, and field safety.
This week, Emilie Enger Mehl (Center Party) visited Longyearbyen for the first time as Minister of Justice, and hence also as Svalbard Minister. As did Minister of Trade, Industry and Fisheries Jan Christian Vestre (Labor). The two wanted to listen to knowledge and experience about possibilities and challenges the Svalbard community experiences and faces.
In addition, they wanted concrete input to the government’s active Svalbard policy.
Local Council Leader Arild Olsen (Labour) says the meetings were constructive.
“It was very good that two ministers came here together. Svalbard policies, like all other policies, are related and both ministries are key actors for the development of Longyearbyen”, he says.
The Local Council Leader raised the issue of the current Covid situation, in addition to the hearings that are to help give direction for the future of Longyearbyen.
“A lot at stake”
The most debated cases were the hearings about changes to the Svalbard Environment Act and the regulations for field safety.
“We have a common goal with the local community and industry here, we all want regulations that allow serious actors to operate while the door is shut for the unserious ones”, Mehl said to Svalbardposten.
Before Christmas, several local actors protested against the proposals and demanded that they be returned to the drawing board. They were not, but the hearing deadline is extended until 1 May.
Mehl says these are proposals presented by the previous government, and that the new government does not put all its pride in seeing them through. That is the straw at which Svalbard Business Association is clutching.
“We do not want to be difficult, but rather believe that if we manage to establish a good dialogue, we can develop the best tourist industry in the world. The proposal currently on the table does not contribute towards that”, says SBA Manager Terje Aunevik.
The Association was invited to meet the ministers for conversations about the regulations.
Aunevik argues that the ministers’ wanting to listen and be active during hearings is a good thing.
“We have to take their word seriously then. Though we would argue that for a principal point of view, there is a lot at stake. Amongst others the issue of closing major areas for traveling. That would be contrary to the important Norwegian legal principle of right of public access”, Aunevik says.
In addition, the Association has argued its opinion that the certification scheme in tourism should not only be shouldered by the guides.
“I believe we must leave that responsibility with the companies to a much higher extent”, he says.
Longyearbyen is facing a major energy transition, as the Local Council has decided to shut the coal power plant in 2023.
Trade Minister Vestre said to Svalbardposten that the local council, the industry and the state must cooperate about solutions for the future.
“We have to try create a transformation that both creates jobs and cuts emissions, and that places Longyearbyen in a global context as a driver for the Green Shift in the Arctic. Imagine how much we might be able to achieve together”, he said.
According to Olsen, the work on new energy is going full-speed ahead.
“We now need to clarify funding an area use for solar and wind power”, he says.
We got no good answers as to why
Waiting for answers on voting rights
One final proposal that has caused widespread local debate is the one about stripping foreigners of their voting rights at the local council elections unless they have three years’ residency on the Norwegian mainland prior to arriving in Svalbard. A proposal that, if adopted, will have major consequences for the local democracy.
“That was perhaps what we discussed the least in the current meetings. Out of all the hearings introduced last year, this was the only one to come very abruptly. Personally, I do not understand the background for the proposal”, Olsen says.
Did you understand more after meeting with the ministers this week?
“We did not get any good answers as to why, and I think that speaks volumes”, Olsen responds.
The hearing deadline has passed, and the proposal is currently being processed.
Weakened family community
The Local Council Leader also used the opportunity of the ministerial meeting to ask questions regarding Longyearbyen as a family community. The number of children has been constant since 2010, while the number of working professionals has increased. If this trend continues, the family community will be weakened.
“If we want to increase the number of children here, the State must enter into dialogue with Longyearbyen Local Council. It must bring money on the table”, Olsen says.
Longyearbyen Local Council is responsible for kindergartens and schools in town.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.