Vidar Helgesen: Asia’s Important Role for Norwegian Business
By Eric Baker, for Thai-Norwegian Chamber of Commerce
One of the keynote speakers at the 2015 Norway-Asia Business Summit was H.E. Mr Vidar Helgesen, Norwegian Minister and Chief of Staff at the Office of the Prime Minister with responsibility for the European Economic Area (EEA) and EU Affairs. While outlining government priorities, Mr Helgesen made it clear how crucial Norwegian businesses in Asia are to the country.
“I first visited New Delhi in 1988 when it was little more than a village,” he said. “Now it is a symbol of the transformation of the country.”
“Norwegian investments in India have increased eight-fold in the last decade. Just two days ago the IMF raised its growth projection for India this year to 7.5% and lowered its outlook for China to 6.8%. India is Norway’s eighth-largest trade partner and Norway believes its technological expertise can help lubricate Indian growth.
“One key will be a free trade agreement between the European Free Trade Association and India, which we are trying to conclude as soon as possible. Both sides agree that free trade is in their best interests.
“Norway also wants to increase its investments in Asian infrastructure, including as a founding member of China’s new infrastructure bank. Some USD 8 trillion is projected as needed for infrastructure in Asia, and Norway wants to be part of the Asian century. In fact, this very week the prime minister of Norway is visiting Vietnam and Indonesia.
“It is true that Europe will always remain our most important market. Indeed, Norway is even more integrated into the EEA than many EU member countries.
“But we would lose enormous opportunities if we didn’t look beyond Europe’s borders. We need to remove restrictions against free trade, and we’ve just done that in pacts with Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong.
“Innovation Norway has nine offices in Asia and the Norwegian government now views economic diplomacy as a priority for the country. We want Norway to be seen as an international magnet for talent.
“Norway is a small, open economy. As such, it is dependent on being able to trade and our ability to compete. We are trying to promote Norway as a location for education, excellence and research.
“The recent drop in oil prices has not gone unnoticed. Our dependence on oil has passed its peak and we need a more diverse, knowledge-based economy. But this is not a crisis, rather a move to a new normal.
“The offshore industry is already adapting to this new environment, as 26 offshore technologies have been applied to different fields such as medical, automotive and aerospace.
“The Norwegian government’s top priority in adapting its economy is improving competitiveness, making it easier and less expensive to do business in Norway. We have four policies designed to accomplish this.
“First is to reduce taxes to stimulate private ownership. Next is infrastructure, building up roads and railways. We need to do this quickly. As we say in Norway, no one is in such a rush as a dead salmon.
“Third is less bureaucracy and finally investing in knowledge and innovation. This last point is key as the government has already made significant increases in the budget for research and innovation. The foreign service has added science diplomacy to its agenda, pushing for more joint ventures in science because we see a high return on investment in this field.
“India is one of Norway’s 10 target countries for R&D partnerships, with a particular interest in the fields of ICT, nanotechnology, and biotech in medical research.
“What the Norwegian businesses at this summit are doing in Asia contributes to our ‘economic diplomacy’ as well. It is important to Norway that you learn from these other countries. Even in the European innovation rankings, Norway is not doing good enough because there is fierce competition.
“But even more important is the role you play in showing Asian communities that doing business with us is good for them. And hopefully we are showing people back in Norway how important Asian markets are for us as well.
“I just finished a TV interview with a station back in Norway where half of the interview was taken up with questions about whether we should feel shame in doing business in Asia. I told them no, Norway doing business here is good for human rights and labour rights. The Norwegian business model can help better these societies. The goal is doing business with Norway should be good for both us and them.
“And as a minister, I am encountering fierce opposition to the EEA agreement back in Norway, with people stating that it is ‘brutalising’ our labour markets, with especially strong resistance from labour unions. But as I’ve stated before, Norway needs to remain an open economy in order to be successful.”