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IMMIGRATION

Norway to tap oil fund to pay for refugees

Norway will need to dip into its massive sovereign wealth fund and cut refugee benefits to pay for rising costs linked to the record influx of asylum seekers, the government said Friday.

Norway to tap oil fund to pay for refugees
Finance minister Siv Jensen (left) and prime minister Erna Solberg presenting the new budget proposals. Photo: Haakon Mosvold Larsen / NTB scanpix

The government, which expects 33,000 asylum seekers in 2016 or roughly three times the annual number in recent years, estimated that the large number of migrants would cost it 9.5 billion kroner ($1.1 billion) more than it had forecast in its October 7th budget.

To finance the extra cost, the right-wing government — which includes the populist, anti-immigration Progress Party — proposed to withdraw 1.2 billion kroner from its public pension fund, which is the world's largest sovereign wealth fund.

On Friday the fund, which is made up of Norway's oil and gas revenues, was valued at 7.36 trillion kroner.

The government also plans to redirect 4.2 billion kroner from its international development budget to help cover the refugee costs.

Redirecting funds like that is allowed under OECD rules but is criticised by non-governmental organisations, which fear it will only lead to an increase in migrants fleeing conflicts and hardship.

The remaining 4.1 billion are to be financed by postponing some tax cuts and with other savings, such as slashing refugees' benefits by 20 percent, reducing their Norwegian language class hours and speeding up the deportation of rejected asylum seekers.

The minority government is expected to face thorny negotiations in order to pass its proposal through parliament.

POLITICS

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.

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