The tasks line up before Nils Kristian Sørheim Nilsen (50). One and a half month ago he assumed his position as Managing Director of the North Norway European Office. He has not had a quiet day since. One of his priorities in the time ahead will be to build up a political ‘mobilisation army’.
- It has been full speed ahead. I arrived in a busy period for the office so I had to hit the ground running, Nilsen says to High North News via phone from the EU capital.
It has been six weeks since the 50-year old from Tromsø assumed the lead seat on Palmerston Avenue.
Earlier this week, the director of the European Office attended the Agenda Nord-Norge conference in Mo i Rana, Norway. Today he is in Tallinn to speak about geopolitics and the Arctic, attending a seminar organized by MEP Urmas Paet.
- Urmas is an important spokesperson on Arctic questions, Nilsen comments.
The EU’s Arctic policy is vital for Norway’s High North.
Paet, who is former Foreign Minister of Estonia, was one of the writers of the European Parliament’s Communication ‘A New Integrated EU Policy for the Arctic’, which was adopted in the spring of 2016.
Continued lack of knowledge
Creating a bigger understanding of what the Arctic is and consists of is one of the main tasks of the North Norway European Office.
Nilsen sees the same as his predecessor Trond Haukanes saw:
- The MEP’s knowledge of this is more or less absent. We have to visualize to them that we are a region of resources that creates and gives a lot to Europe. We have to show them that our mutual relationship is one of inter-dependency and spread knowledge about everything from our ice-free coast to the quality of our universities, he says.
Because there are still many, both in Europe and the rest of the world, who believe that the Arctic is all about desolate and icy areas, polar bears and penguins. Even though the latter live on the South Pole.
The fact that the Arctic is a large, abundant and vital region where hundreds of thousands of people reside is a message that the representatives of the North Norway European Office have to repeat – time and again.
Profiling everything, from the traditional Barents cooperation to Bodø as a potential European capital of culture and Tromsø as an Arctic capital is also on the task list. There are many messages that the office’s employees are to bring out to Europe, and they can hardly to the job alone:
- We are also following the major discussions in Northern Norway, and right now we are building a little ‘mobilisation army’, Nilsen says.
- We need such an ‘army’ to maintain the North Norwegian interests outside the region, he comments.
Nilsen and his colleagues have already had several meetings with the MP’s from Nordland County at Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament. In the near future they are scheduled to meet the MP’s from Troms and Finnmark Counties.
- It is important to link them up with their sister parties in the European Parliament, Nilsen argues.
- North Norway may lose billions
The EU’s regional policy is still being revised, as is the EU’s infamous regulations on state support.
The revision processes are expected to take time, and the outcome will carry vast significance – both for North Norway as well as for the country in general.
With Norway being a non-member of the EU, Norwegian MP’s and regional politicians will have to actively use the contacts and channels they have, such as e.g. their European sister parties.
- The reduced payroll taxes is still the key issue, that is the future ‘x’ factor. If the reduced payroll tax for the northern regions is not maintained it will cost local business billions of Norwegian kroner, Nilsen says.
The North Norway European Office has worked for a long time with the question of differentiated payroll taxes.
This particular Norwegian arrangement, which means that the rates employers pay varies according to where their business is located, is illegal according to the EU’s regulations on state subsidies.
Affecting competition vs regional policies
The differentiated payroll taxes scheme essentially reduces payroll taxes in rural areas, so that e.g. Troms and Finnmark counties have a tax of zero percent whereas businesses in more central areas of the country pay up to 14 percent payroll taxes.
The EU argues that this affects competition in an unfair way. Norwegian authorities, on the other hand, argue that this differentiated tax is the most extensive rural policy tool there is, and that it contributes to maintaining jobs and habitation in rural areas.
The payroll taxes constitute NOK 13.7 billion this year.
In order for Norway to keep its exemption from the EU’s state subsidy regulations, the North Norway European Office must be alert so that the scheme is allowed to continue.
The outcome of the on-going revision of the EU’s regulations is not given. The answers will only come in the spring of 2018, when the EU’s economic framework plan is presented.
- Only then will we know if there will be adjustments of if it will be continued, Nilsen says.
- Unique opportunities to influence
The North Norway European Office collaborates with the North Sweden European Office, the Central Sweden European Office and the North and East Finland European Office. Together they have formed the Northern Sparsely Populated Areas’ network.
- We cooperate really well within this network, and we will strongly appeal to the North Norwegian municipal and county politicians. Here they have a unique opportunity to influence through the Swedish and Finnish MEP’s, the new Director says.
- We work together on everything, from transport to digital infrastructure and smart specialization, says Nilsen.
- There is a high pressure right now, both from the Finnish side and from Sweden, he comments.
A fiber-optic ‘superhighway’
The office also works for North Norwegian business to get the opportunity to connect to the planned subsea fiber-optic cable, which the Finns have taken the lead on. If all goes according to plan, such a cable will provide a considerable higher capacity than there is today, with digital highways towards both the USA and Asia.
- And, again, this will have regional political ramifications, says an engaged Nilsen.
In order to show more of Northern Norway, he and his office will in February bring European politicians on a tour in the High North.
- We will bring a large delegation with parlamentarians and advisors, he says, before adding that the itinerary will bring them to a.o. Mo i Rana, Bodø, Svolvær, Tromsø, Hammerfest and Kirkenes.
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