The Kingdom of Norway adopted its current Constitution 206 years ago and became a modern parliamentary monarchy. This day is celebrated in Norway and around the world as the most important national holiday – Constitution Day or Syttende Mai (17th of May).

On this occasion, we spoke with His Excellency Mr Jørn Gjelstad, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Norway to Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro about the rule of law and freedom of the media in the region, Norway’s assistance to the region in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and the role of civil society in the democratization process.

European Western Balkans: Today the Kingdom of Norway and Norwegians celebrate the Syttende Mai or Constitution Day. What does this day mean to you and the citizens of your country?

Jørn Gjelstad: Celebrating our Constitution is about celebrating our national belonging, values and long-standing experiences. This is important for any Norwegian. But this celebration does not limit itself to that. Celebrating Constitution day is also about the celebration of our strong connection and relationship with the outer world. On such a day, every single Norwegian acknowledges that we, as a nation, have been shaped and developed first and foremost by external impulses and ideas.

For a small country on the northern fringe of Europe, extroversion like openness, inclusiveness, curiosity and cross-cultural engagement is key. We have to reach out in order to develop.  Even though the Norwegian Constitution is the second oldest written Constitution in the world still in existence, we are strongly indebted to the indirect but imperative influence from the founding fathers of the Greek democracy as well as the political culture of Europe.

So these celebrations remind ourselves additionally about how Europe has transformed and will continue to transform people’s lives for the better. Norwegians are proud to be Europeans and be part of the larger space of Europe. This space represents a community of shared values that defends and further develops international law and promotes democracy, human rights, gender equality and the rule of law. And these fundamentals are by every Norwegian perceived as integral parts of the very foundation of the Norwegian society.

EWB: The rule of law is the cornerstone of the constitution in democratic societies, and full commitment to rule of law being the most important criteria for Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro to join the EU.  How close are our societies to the EU and Norway when it comes to the rule of law standards?

JG: I believe that the resolve and capacity to create trust between citizens and their institutions are key for any societal development. In order to achieve sustainable social stability and cohesion, citizens have to feel that “the authorities care and stand up for me”.  In this sense, independent institutions, inclusive parliamentary procedures, media freedom, anti-corruption, equality, innovation and environmental protection are the fundamentals for this trust-building. And these fundamentals are still the most challenging issues between the EU and the countries of Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro.

There are still some miles to go for all these countries in order to reach full convergence with EU principles and values, to which Norway fully subscribes. But I am happy to see, that there is a declared political will among these countries mentioned to align themselves with these values and principles. Personally, I would like to see this process becoming accelerated and politically even more focused than we have seen so far.

EWB: Civil society has been one of the most important stakeholders in the Western Balkans when it comes to the process of democratization and EU integration. How would you assess the cooperation of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade with the civil society in Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro?

JG: Cooperating with Civil Society in Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro stand out as a priority for the Embassy. The CSO sector is important to any country. Norway has a long-lasting tradition of prioritizing civil society, to make it robust and influential. Every Norwegian government, irrespective of party composition, perceives the civil society sector as a strategic partner in strengthening democratic values and welfare. Without the active engagement of the civil society and their organizations, the necessary consensus and trust for rational and inclusive governance would be more difficult to achieve.

The CSOs should be encouraged to advocate views that inform and shape the public debate. Mutual respect and professional connections should, therefore, be developed between CSOs and the authorities, provided that the roles are well defined and the relationship transparent. In terms of effective contribution to the process of democratization and EU integration in the three countries, my experience so far is that Civil Society is doing a most important contribution.

And this is why Norway is actively supporting a wide range of projects carried out by Civil Society organizations in all the three countries through the Balkan Trust for Democracy.  These projects are all specifically designed to expand democratisation, increase transparency and to improve the quality of life at the local level.

EWB: The Kingdom of Norway is the best ranking country on the Reporters Without Borders 2020 World Press Freedom Index among 180 countries in the world, while North Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro are positioned in the second half of this list. What lessons these countries could learn from Norway’s experience in order to improve overall media freedom?

JG: Together with the EU and the OSCE, Norway has assisted the Serbian Government in developing the New Media Strategy. In that regard, the Embassy organized a Conference on Free Media and Society in the Norwegian Residence in early March with Prime Minister Brnabic and Alf Bjarne Johnsen, Chair of Norway’s Independent Press Complaints Commission, as key-note speakers. Most of the Serbian media participated.

Norway believes indeed that a free and competent press will serve as the cornerstone of any democratic system. Every society needs high-quality, pluralistic, independent and responsible media that can hold the authorities accountable, provide adequate information and contribute to increased transparency.

In order to answer more directly to your questions, I will give you seven reasons why Norway, according to my view, has achieved this high-ranking position:

First, a robust Public Regulatory Agency with a mandate not only to monitor and guide, but also to enforce the media landscape that tends to become increasingly more complex. This is about press ethics and press competence;

Second, the necessary independence of Governing Bodies or Boards of Public Broadcasters;

Third, the importance of public media service also to take part in investigative journalism. For that purpose, clear provisions in the law which make this activity both acceptable and desirable has been agreed on;

Fourth, the necessary empowerment of the Press Council, given its essential role in facilitating self-regulation of the media itself. The Press Council and the individual news outlets should take on the role, according to the Norwegian paradigm, as a combination of the Ombudsman and the Courtroom;

Fifth, full transparency when it comes to media ownership and funding;

Sixth, the availability of financial funds to secure minor media outlets which contributes to a pluralistic and independent media structure;

and Seventh and last, ensuring non-discriminatory and equal access to all political parties without preferential treatment during an election campaign. This is key in order to provide factual and relevant information to the citizens so they can make decisions according to their own interests.

Norway will continue as a predictable partner and supporter of media reform activities in these three countries.

EWB: The Kingdom of Norway recently made a pledge to donate 1 billion euros on the conference organized by the European Union in order to help the development of coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine and treatments. Also, Norway has been actively helping the region in fighting against COVID-19. What would you point out as the most significant assistance of Norway to Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro in this regard?

JG: First of all, let me dwell a bit with the lead-in to your question. Yes, effective combat against the COVID-19 pandemic requires global coordination and cooperation. The world quickly needs to develop and deploy effective diagnostics, treatments and a vaccine. As long as the virus is active somewhere, we are at risk everywhere. To protect ourselves, we must also protect others. And that is why Norway is strongly supporting initiatives to mobilize relevant professional capacities in order to fight the COVID-19 pandemic as effective as possible. For this reason, we are contributing significantly with funds for research and development of a COVID-19 vaccine, and for improving diagnostics and treatment.

The second point, by making available a multi-million support program for Serbia, North Macedonia and Montenegro for their combat against the pandemic, we, first of all, focused on how to strengthen the capacity to save lives. Because of this, we decided on providing high-quality, life-saving clinical respirators for sensitive care units. By doing so, we are also minimizing the risk of secondary mortality due to other causes. Norway has supported these countries with a variety of other measures as well, but I believe that this contribution has been the most significant one.

EWB: What activity of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade are you most looking forward in the future?

JG: When the pandemic situation eventually has normalized, I am looking forward to regaining my engagements and consultations-activity with a representative from a broad spectre of these societies concerned, to continue our cooperation within areas that can develop and modernize these societies even further.