Ambassador of Norway:”The challenge for the Greek economy is its competitive edge and its business climate” [interview]

Norway has been assisting Greece in its efforts to deal with the refugee crisis, as well as combat poverty and social exclusion through the EEA Grants. Futhermore Norwegian experts stand ready to offer their know-how in key areas of the Greek economy, such as entepreunership and trade, innovation and energy efficiency.

The Ambassador of Norway in Athens, His Excellency Jørn Eugene Gjelstad, spoke to and commented on the current developments in Greek and European politics, the economy and the impact the refugee crisis has had in Greece and in Europe.

Interview to Eleftheria Pantziou

EN: Norway has been very active in Greece through the EEA Grants. This can be seen as part of a much broader Norwegian international engagement. Why this engagement and what are the key areas of priorities of your EEA-program for Greece?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: For a small country like Norway international engagement and solidarity are key issues. I believe this is rooted in a profound wish to participate in and contribute to the international society at large. Most Norwegians have a cross-cultural curiosity and are receptive to external impulses. I believe these qualities are key to the development, enlightenment and prosperity in any society. So first of all there is a strong connection between Norway and its outer world.
Second, Norwegians have a strong fascination for Greece. This is not only due to nice weather, excellent wine and a beautiful landscape, but in particular to the strong, vibrant and impressive cultural heritage of Greece. With Greece we have had many cultural meeting points throughout history. Even though the Norwegian Constitution is the second oldest written Constitution in the world still in existence, we are strongly indebted to the influence from the founding fathers of the democratic tradition in this country. Our authors, such as Henrik Ibsen, are just as much indebted to the dramaturgical geniusness of the Greek tragedians, such as Sofokles, Evripides or Aischylos.
And our music has been strongly informed and modelled by ancient Greek modes like the Dorian, Frygian and the Lydian. In particular we can find this influence in the instrumental part of our folk music tradition as well as in our contemporary jazz.
And third, our engagement in development aid, humanitarian aid, peace and reconciliation has almost become a trademark.
Regarding the current situation in Greece, we stand ready to assist and we have the opportunity of using a large part of EEA Grants for that purpose. So far, the strengthening of the capacity for migration and asylum management has been a core issue for Norway. We have used approximately 1/3 of the funds available for the current period for developing facilities and strengthening the services. We have also contributed with experts for that matter, bilaterally as well as through the EU system. This will be a priority also for the coming program period. In addition we fund several programs designed for the empowerment of civil society, programs to strengthen the environmental sector as well as projects to combat poverty and social exclusion.

EN: Could you please provide us with some more information on Norway’s initiatives to deal with the refugee crisis, as well as its future plans in supporting Greece in this area?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: Being a country at the receiving end of the migrant flow, Norway can easily empathize with the challenges Greece is confronted with. Last year Norway received more than 30,000 migrants, which is a pretty high figure for a nation consisting of approx. 5 million people. Additionally, we also signed on voluntarily to the relocation program of the EU. In the coming two years we will receive 1,500 migrants from Italy and Greece. It is a humanitarian imperative and we have to contribute in any way we can.
Regarding Greece, we’d like to be part in the ongoing efforts to strengthen or expand the capacity for the migration and asylum management system. This is a key issue for how this crisis can be dealt with. If you look at the situation now, with the logistic connection between the most migration affected islands and Piraeus mostly frozen, while migrants on the mainland are still accumulating, you can easily understand the problems Greek authorities will be called to confront if they don’t come up with an efficient asylum and migration management system.
I guess that the closing of the borders along the Western Balkan route has changed many migrants’ calculations and created a particular socio-psychological situation. Many believe that moving from Idomeni to other facilities will reduce their chances of passing on to other and far more preferred European destinations. Migrants seem to discard the legal track as a non-viable option. New and rapidly erected facilities with an acceptable level of services, and an effective asylum program to deal with the future of each single migrant, seem to be the only way out of this difficult situation. A more structured management of the refugee population in Greece will also strengthen the promotion of legal options of each individuals.
We have also financed a new vessel that supports the rescue missions of the Hellenic Rescue Team, which is doing a marvellous job. Their new rescue boat “Norway 2” was recently launched and named in Lesvos, in the presence of Deputy President of the Norwegian Parliament Marit Nybakk.
We put a strong priority on improving the conditions for unaccompanied minors. We are running shelters in Athens through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), involving a number of Greek NGOs as service providers. I think it is extremely important for young people to have a secure and a safe place to stay that might give them some hope for the future, such as educational opportunities.
There is also the re-admission program, which stands as a key for a credible asylum policy. We have been supporting IOM and we hope to look into further cooperative initiatives, because we need an effective re-admission program for the people who are not eligible for a refugee status or asylum in Greece.
Returning to your question on the EEA Grants, for the period until 2020-21 I believe that we also have to do something for Greece’s economic situation. We are saddened by the fact that many high-level educated, young people with a lot of creativity and energy are leaving Greece. We can understand why. If your prospects and hopes are not met and you fear for your future, you are looking into alternatives. But for Greece as a nation this is disastrous. We have to look into what would make Greece more attractive to people. Here is my argument: We have to see how our EEA Grants could be used in a more instrumental way to support entrepreneurship, innovation and incubation. I think we should in particular focus on women and entrepreneurship.
I think The Netherlands are doing a great job with Orange Grove by stimulating young people to channel their energy, their enthusiasm and their optimism towards innovation and development. We hope that the continued dialogue with the Greek authorities will result in more Norwegian funding being directed towards such activities and interventions in the forthcoming support period.

We really hope to see Greece and the Quadriga embracing the same kind of strategy in order to bring Greece out of this economic difficulty and lay the foundation for future growth. We see many people within government circles that take an interest in the Nordic model.

EN: Do you think that the closure of borders is really a solution to the refugee/migration issue?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: This is a most sensitive issue. I can understand the hesitation of countries to continue previous policies of inclusion and openness. The influx level in pure numbers have significantly changed calculations and parameters.
Migration and asylum management is no longer considered as a strict humanitarian issue. It has currently become a matter of national security with huge implications for the public finances and emergency allocations of required resources. It has become a topical issue for tax payers. It has provoked crispy calls for safeguarding national and cultural integrity. And there is no denying that the mass influx of refugees is aggravating many of Europe´s other looming problems. Migration and asylum management has become high politics.
Even the most decent person with a highly developed humanitarian mind-set is now asking, “how many refugees should Europe take?”
But the core issue is of course to balance the humanitarian imperative with the national economic requirements. Additionally, a well prepared system of integration must be developed.
In meeting such a challenge, Europe has to develop a cohesive and comprehensive strategy that everybody should respect. We can easily see how the migration issue has over time challenged common EU positions. I believe it is important to deal with this issue collectively and look into what should be a fair burden-sharing. The burden-sharing issue has been strongly debated in Athens as well as in Brussels and various capitals. I thing there is a lot of good will in Brussels and I really hope to see the EU succeed in developing a common and cohesive strategy for the migration management, that will reinforce and re-unite available capacities fully. The migration crisis is definitely not a national phenomenon. It has since long been translated into both a regional and global challenge.
The Syrian crisis has changed the mindset of people living in fear and under great strain. They decide to move if they see no hope or opportunities. And they move to Europe. I think that is the most important social-psychological impact of the Syrian crisis. Irrespectively of any political solution in Syria, we will see people in the future fleeing from all kinds of crises developed by climate change – drought for that matter – or local wars and other situations that make life unbearable. This great vision of Europe as the land of values, principles, opportunities, possibilities stands out as the attractive destination for many. I really do hope that the reality of this vision will prevail. But this means, however, that Europe not necessarily will succeed in bringing the migration pressure to a halt, even after a peace deal in Syria has been struck.

EN: Do you thing the EU-Turkey agreement was a right decision, and will the deal hold?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: This s a highly debated issue. I believe that a decision had to be made in order to make the migration route from Turkey to Greece less attractive. So far the agreement has had a significant impact on the figures of people arriving on the Greek islands, as they went down from thousands a day to double or even single digit. So, you can say it has been successful when it comes to figures.
One important motive was to stop the smuggling of people and that has worked to a large extent. However, smugglers always find other ways, other routes, whenever huge money is involved. Whether it will continue to work, remains to be seen. It depends partly on whether the agreement on visa liberalization will go forward, as well as on the effectiveness of the Greek asylum system and its capacity to uphold basic legal principles. The legal imperative is not only about effective case processing, but also about the right to appeal. If you take the right to individual treatment seriously, things will take time. Norway stands ready to assist the Greek authorities in this regard. I think it is important to bear in mind that what Greece is doing with regard to the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement, is something Greece does on behalf of us all. Targeted assistance is therefore imperative.

EN: Moving to the Greek economy: There are significant Norwegian companies currently operating in Greece. Which sectors in particular?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: There are currently 15 Norwegian companies or subsidiaries in Greece. Eleven are established in the maritime sector, we have a fertilizing company, an airline, an oil and natural gas company and a company of toll collection systems. So, there is a diversity in our business activities. Some companies are solid, robust subsidiaries and they have a certain potential for employment. They have been here for quite sometime, they’ve faced the challenges, they’ve established a network and they know how to deal with the situation.
The challenge for the Greek economy is both its competitive edge internationally, as well as its business climate on the national level. There is a current need for a strategic framework on trade and business activities to stimulate the productive capacities of the economy. An increased and sustained level of value creation is key, and innovation and entrepreneurship within a small and middle-sized formats should be encouraged. I guess it is more than obvious that the Greek people cannot live on reforms or austerity measures in the long run. An extensive readjustment of the fiscal structure is obviously needed, but this process must be matched by improved conditions for economic growth. Therefore measures should be taken to expand productivity and value creation on both local and national level, that also connects Greece to foreign investors and resource communities. Licencing procedures take too long, it can frustrate the most ambitious and energetic people, you know! If you don’t do anything about it, no one will come and invest. Bureaucratic procedures and management controls must be overhauled so that new initiatives are facilitated and not discouraged.
Another issue is of course the unpredictable taxation system. It is constantly changing! Businesses need a stable, predictable taxation system that they can relate to.
We really hope to see Greece and the Quadriga embracing the same kind of strategy in order to bring Greece out of this economic difficulty and lay the foundation for future growth. We see many people within government circles that take an interest in the Nordic model. We recently had a group of distinguished personalities from the University of Oslo visiting our Embassy , representing various areas of competence such as governance, national health, gender issues and labour market. I briefed them on the political and social situation and I told them that people within the governmental circles are quite fascinated by the way the Scandinavian countries have created an arena for consensus-building and agreement between the governmental and private sectors. In particular when it comes to key issues like wage settlement, gender issues, pension system and public health. The parties have their own way of dealing with complicated issues and there is a political requirement to agree at a certain point. And what they agree on is implemented.

EN: The maritime sector is an important force in the Norwegian economy. Renewable energy sources are steadily growing too, especially in the wind market. How can Greece benefit from Norway’s know-how?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: Developing new technology for renewable energy purpose is another Norwegian priority. I believe our contribution to technological innovative capacity could be an asset for Greece, since the country has to transform its energy supply sector and get in line with the requirements set by the EU by 2020-21. We would be happy to assist on that.
There is currently a debate in Norway on how we should achieve the balance between fossil based energy and the renewable energy sector. We have a heated debate when it comes to the operationalization of newly discovered oil and gas fields. But I am happy to see that even though we are depended on fossil fuel, we have a very strong will to make progress in developing the “green” energy as well.

EN: Low oil prices are hurting producers in all major regions. What is the impact on your economy and how Norway is dealing with the situation?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: This is a difficult issue. The availability of natural gas is larger than oil, and natural gas is also our main export product when it comes to energy. The drop in oil prices is a problem for Norway, as it is for all other oil producers. It has affected the state budget and frustrated expectations regarding salary increases and a further expansion of services within the public sector. We hope we won’t see pressure on basic consensus agreements as regards welfare. We have a decrease of revenues on the one side and a high increase in migration expenditures on the other, so both issues strain the economy. Up til now we have been privileged to maneuver quite smoothly through both the international financial crisis as well as the euro crisis. Now we have to make adjustments and reduce costs as everybody else.
However, the level of development aid seems not to be significantly affected. On the contrary, it has actually increased and it has now reached a peak of 1.11% of the GDP. That kind of money is allocated for a number of causes: to sustain economic growth, eliminate hunger, strengthen education and public health services, increase humanitarian support and contribute to conflict management and resolution. If you look a bit eastwards, to the neighbouring countries of Syria, during the “Supporting Syria and the Region conference” in London, Norway promised to contribute with 10 billion Norwegian NOK or more than 1 billion euro in humanitarian aid in the next four years. For the current year we will step up our contribution to Syria and Iraq to 2,4 billion NOK or more than 240 million euro.

EN: Greece is a favourite tourist destination to the Scandinavians. How could Greece attract even more tourists from Norway?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: For some Norwegians plans have been affected by the migration situation and there might be a reduction in interest from tourist operators for the northern Aegean islands. I recently spoke to the Mayor of Lesvos and he said that there was a decrease in the interest for some parts of the island, especially in the northern part. So, Lesvos is highly affected but other destinations remain high on the agenda.
I hope to see more Norwegians visiting Greece to experience the cultural landscape, and not just enjoy the sun and the nightlife, but really explore what Greece is like. And I really hope that Greece will improve its marketing capacity in presenting itself like the interesting area to explore that it is. This is the origin of the European civilization and you’ve got so many fantastic remembrances of your ancient past!
It is also the whole influence from the East and the Romans and the Byzantine times. Greece is a cross cultural junction for three continents: Africa, Middle East/Asia and Europe. So, it has to use its own resources in a sufficient way.

EN: The Embassy has been promoting the Norwegian culture through music, cinema, theatre and other activities. What are some of the most important events scheduled to take place within the next few months?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: We recently presented a young, very talented Jazz musician, saxophonist Marius Neset at the Athens – Technopolis Jazz Festival. We will have the honor of opening the Nafplion Classical Music Festival on June 24 with a Norwegian artist, the tuba virtuoso, Øystein Baadsvik.
We are working hard to connect Norwegian and Greek artists. For instance, within the context of a theatre performance, there will be an exchange of artists, while a series of performances will be staged in Athens.
We are also participating at local Film Festivals in Athens and Thessaloniki. We’d like to present contemporary Norwegian films, as they also contribute to a broader understanding on the way the Norwegians think and live. Movies represent a most direct way of communication.
Also the artistic director of the Sani Festival of Chalkidiki will travel to Bergen to attend the Bergen festival and more specifically its jazz section. We’ve got so many jazz artists. Jazz has become a global brand for Norway. Our music academies provide high level education and our musicians perform worldwide. Norway is about peace and reconciliation, development aid and jazz! (laughs). When I handed over my credentials to the President of the Hellenic Republic, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, he said he hoped that we could develop a cultural exchange program for young, energetic, skillful people. This is one of my main priorities.

EN: Norway is a pioneer in designing and implementing energy-efficient, eco-friendly projects. The Embassy of Norway 1 new Embassy in Athens is one of them. Please provide us with some information on the new premises.

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: The main purpose for this domestic architecture is to ensure a feeling of inclusiveness. You can see it in the large open areas, that are separated with glass. It’s building up a kind of collective feeling, which is very important. Staying behind closed doors does not foster a basic feeling of unity
and develop a common staff culture.
We have a sufficient energy supply system. The large windows let the day light in the building, while the glass walls help reflect the light to the inner spaces. Furthermore, the lights go off automatically, if there is no activity in the room. Great attention and investments have been devoted to technology that keeps energy consumption for lightening, heating or cooling to a minimum throughout the year.
When we moved in we decided that we would wait two months before we proceed with any modifications. Based on the staff’s opinion and level of adaptation we will decide if we will proceed with any changes. Our employees are free to respond and we will try to address their needs. The staff also participated in the designing process, as we held Embassy of Norway 2several meetings to discuss the details. It’s been an open inclusive process and I think people feel happy about it!

EN: You’ve recently been appointed Ambassador of Norway in Athens. How easy or difficult has it been for you to adjust to the way of life in Greece? Do you see any similarities between Greeks and Norwegians?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: I’ve been around and I’ve held many speeches in connection with Norway’s EEA Grants activities. I’ve met a lot of people and I feel this country is very friendly and I find the people very open-minded. I think it’s fair to say that you have a lot of passion. I can sense it when I enter a political discussion. People do not necessarily disagree but they convey their arguments with strong emotions. This can also be the case in Norway as well, but there a passionate argument or dialogue normally is linked to a certain level of disagreement. In Greece, however, you don’t need the disagreement to argue passionately!
The life in Greece has also become more of a drama for many citizens compared to the situation in Norway. We can observe up heated debates on the financial situation, the pension reform system, the cuts in spending and what the futures holds. So, I can easily understand that emotions, which are put into play, are strong and inform the discourse in Greece right now.
But the Greeks are also curious like the Norwegians. The Norwegians also want to explore. This is why the meetings between Greek and Norwegian artists have been so successful.

EN: Have you had the time to go around Athens, visit places of interest? Is there a favorite place in the city?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: It’s a bit early to say. I haven’t had much time to go around. I’ve been to the Acropolis and the Acropolis Museum. The hill of Lycabettus is also a great spot to view the city. I would like to visit Crete, Patras, the islands of Rhodes, Corfu and Kos. I’d like also to travel to Thessaloniki and other places on mainland Greece.
With my family we have visited Greece many times. We have been to Mykonos, Delos and Lesvos and I’ll be happy to travel more.

EN: Is there a favorite Greek dish?

Ambassador Jørn Eugene Gjelstad: Well, I am a great fan of your lamb chops! (laughs) And the fish is very tasteful too! I also think you have a great wine production. You are very good at producing wine but you are lousy marketeers, so you have to step up the efforts there! Norway should have the opportunity to taste more Greek wines, because they are of a superb quality. The white wine from the wineries of Thessaloniki, the Peloponnese or Santorini is first class, while the red wine is also very competitive.

Main photo: Eleftheria Pantziou
Photos of premises: Embassy of Norway