By Sigurd Neubauer
On May 31, Norway hosted an informal meeting for NATO Foreign Ministers in Oslo. The event, which was chaired by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg – who is also a former Prime Minister of Norway – focused on preparations for the upcoming Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
The war in Ukraine, Sweden’s future membership in NATO were among the issues discussed.
In a press conference following the meeting, Stoltenberg revealed that the ministers had also discussed the goal for NATO member states to contribute 2 percent of its GDP to defense spending. The Secretary General added that alliance support for Ukraine, including military, had been a key part of the discussions.
In an exclusive interview, we discussed the meeting with its principal organizer, Special Representative for Nordic and Baltic Security Policy Øystein Bø. He previously served as Norway’s Ambassador to NATO (2018-2022), and before that as Deputy Minister of Defense (2013-2017).
“We had a short planning horizon,” the Ambassador explains, pointing out that a meeting of this magnitude normally requires a year of planning. “A decision was made by the Norwegian government for Oslo to take on the responsibility of hosting it in late November of last year, but the planning process effectively started in early January,” he adds.
The meeting was one of the most complex ones Norway has ever hosted as it required stringent security and included multiple events. “At times we had four-to-five thousand people working with us, which included the Norwegian Police.”
A small task force was established within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and cooperation was established with the Police and other security agencies, as well as with a professional event company.
“We had a great team who knew what they were doing, and we were able to make snap decisions, which enabled us to plan this event within record time.”
The vision for the meeting was tied to NATO 2030, an initiative spearheaded by Stoltenberg to transform the alliance to better adapt to the ever-changing global environment and the security challenges that come with it.
At the informal meeting itself, which took place at Oslo City Hall, “no speakers list was provided and the foreign ministers were encouraged to avoid pre-scripted statements. We also dropped the ‘normal’ meeting room table – in order to facilitate an atmosphere for informal, free and candid discussions,” the ambassador says.
A memorial event for the victims of the July 22, 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway was also held. It was dignified, with speeches and laying of wreaths by Norwegian Prime Minister Gahr-Støre and NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg, as well as representatives of the victims
The same afternoon, at the initiative of Stoltenberg and Huitfeldt, a memorial event was held dedicated to the victims of Norway’s largest terrorist attack, which took place on July 22, 2011. It was carried out by a domestic terrorist who carried out a heinous shooting spree killing 69 people on the island of Utøya.
At the time, Stoltenberg was the Prime Minister of a center-left government; he rose to the occasion by serving as a unifying leader who deliberately chose not to politicize the terrorist attack.
“The memorial event was dignified, with speeches and laying of wreaths by Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr- Støre and Stoltenberg as well as representatives of the victims. Additionally, each of the foreign ministers placed a rose at the memorial. This experience contributed to the good atmosphere at the unofficial meeting the following day,” he says.
On what distinguishes a formal meeting from an informal one, Bø points out that traditionally there has, until now, not been a big one, apart from the fact that North Atlantic Council does not make decisions at informal meetings. The intention behind the proposal in the 2030 agenda was to establish a “Fireside Chat” style event where the top diplomats could speak freely without staff present.
“The North Atlantic Council is the principal political decision-making body within NATO. It oversees the political and military process relating to security issues affecting the whole Alliance. It brings together representatives of each member country to discuss policy or operational questions requiring collective decisions, providing a forum for wide-ranging consultation between members on all issues affecting their peace and security,” according to NATO.
In fact, the Oslo meeting was the second of its kind as Germany hosted the inaugural one in Berlin on May 14 of last year. The next unofficial NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting will take place in Prague, Czech Republic, next year.
With the addition of this informal Foreign Ministers meeting, NATO’s normal ministerial meeting cycle will now include three annual Foreign Ministers meetings and three annual Defense Ministers Meetings. Most of these are held at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Then, when there are particular international developments such as Russia’s war on Ukraine, additional Ministerials or Summits are called, the Ambassador explains.
The Oslo meeting served as a venue for the Foreign Ministers to prepare for the upcoming 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius.
“Ukraine and the efforts to ensure full Swedish NAO membership are among the many important topics for the Vilnius Summit,” Bø reveals.
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström attended the Oslo meeting. Following last year’s signing of the accession agreement, Sweden has secured invitee status in NATO, and participates at the meetings of the North Atlantic Council but does not participate in the decision-making.
29 Allies have ratified Sweden’s NATO-membership, but Hungary and Turkey are holding out.
Continues Bø: “At the Oslo meeting, the other 29 Allies fully supported Swedish membership, and stated that Sweden has delivered on all of its commitments outlined in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) brokered last year by Stoltenberg between Sweden, Finland and Turkey.”
Sweden, Finland and Turkey reached an agreement brokered by Stoltenberg, which included Helsinki and Stockholm’s recognition of Ankara’s “legitimate security concerns,” Stoltenberg announced in a statementduring last year’s NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain.
Turkey had initially objected to Sweden’s traditional support for Kurdish rights, which includes hosting various Kurdish opposition leaders in exile, while at the same time barring its defense industry from selling equipment to the country. Ankara, for its part, has long considered the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, also known as the PKK, as a terrorist organization.
Finland joined NATO in early April 2023.
Following the Oslo meeting, Stoltenberg has announced that a trilateral meeting will take place before the Vilnius Summit. “Finland has made clear that its membership is not complete until Sweden has joined,” the ambassador explains as he points out that Helsinki and Stockholm had initially decided to jointly apply for NATO membership.
Describing the Oslo meeting as “successful,” Bø is optimistic about what he describes as the “Oslo Format” continuing to be a pattern for future informal meetings of NATO’s Foreign Ministers
In August, Bø will be off to Warsaw where he’ll serve as Norway’s Ambassador to Poland.