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An oilman, a Swedish fishing magnate and a footballer: The curious case of Norway’s tax evaders

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Scandinavian nations are famous the world over for their egalitarian, socially democratic economic models.

The Nordic Model

Despite Denmark and Sweden being the big names on the international stage, especially after their plucky performances at the Euros, Norway is a cut above when it comes to fighting inequality.

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Of the 38 rich countries that make up the OECD, Norway’s wealth and income distribution ranks sixth, beaten only in Scandinavia by Iceland.

Egalitarianism is so engrained in Norwegians that they even publish their tax returns, which are visible online to any nosey neighbour or jealous family member.

This culture of transparency means that three recent tax scandals in the country over the past five years have come as a great shock to the Norwegian public.

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Suddenly, Norwegians can no longer take for granted that all who live there share the same ideal of progressive redistribution.

A crack in the ice

The first scandal broke in 2016, when Idar A. Iversen, a highly successful Norwegian oilman, was sentenced to 20 months in prison for tax evasion.

Iversen was found guilty of not paying income and wealth taxes worth 220 million Norwegian krone, approximately $25m.

Norway’s Court of Appeal ruled that Iversen was ‘wilfully hiding this income and these assets from taxation, and that he has been completely absent in relation to Norwegian tax’.

The former CEO of Odjfell Drilling had been using companies based in tax havens like Cyprus and the Isle of Mann to hide his wealth.

The Norwegian authorities started their case against Iversen as early as 2008, after he sold shares in Neptune Oil & Gas for $155m, but they waited until late-2015 to bring charges.

The Swede

The case of Magnus Roth, a Swedish fishing magnate, was equally controversial in Norway but has not yet resulted in a conviction.

Roth entered the fishing industry in the 1980s in Nigeria but made his name when he took charge of Wittes, a Norwegian fishing company.

Starting in 1999, Roth lived and operated out of Norway for fifteen years and became a director and board member of the Norwegian shipping firm Songa Bulk in 2017.

Yet despite owning a 37% stake in Songa as recently as 2019, by mid-2020, Roth no longer retained any shares in the company.

Songa’s board have not offered an explanation for this, but Roth’s departure did coincide with the surfacing of an investigation by the Norwegian authorities into the magnate’s tax affairs.

Roth has previous on this front, having pleaded guilty to evading import tax on a number of high value horses that he had shipped from the UK in 2002.

Aftenposten, Norway’s most circulated newspaper, reported at the time that Roth was fined several hundred thousand krone for this attempted tax dodge.

However, Norway’s enforcement agencies did not stop asking questions about Roth’s financial affairs, prompting the Swede to move his residency to Hong Kong in 2014, finally settling in low-tax Switzerland in 2019.

Despite his globe-trotting lifestyle, the British investigative journalist David Leppard has reported that Roth is still under investigation in Norway for extensive tax evasion.

Caught offside

The Norwegian footballer John Carew may not be a tycoon like Magnus Roth but successful stints at Valencia and Lyon, as well as 24 goals for the national team, made him a household name.

After retiring, Carew turned his magic touch to real estate, buying and selling luxury properties from Oslo to Florida.

However, Carew’s stock nosedived in June of this year when Norway’s economic crime authority, Økokrim, opened an investigation into his tax affairs.

According to an Økokrim press release, they received a criminal complaint from Norway’s tax authorities, who suspected Carew of having provided incorrect information in his tax returns.

Having decided to act on this tip-off, the police raided Carew’s home in May, seizing his mobile phone in the process. 

The authorities found enough evidence to charge Carew of aggravated tax evasion.

Dagens Næringsliv, Norway’s foremost business newspaper, has reported that the financial authorities had long been suspicious of Carew’s operation and considered seizing his assets in February.

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European elections

Norway vote winner to start coalition talks with climate focus

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Norway's centre-left opposition parties began coalition talks on Tuesday (14 September) to try to form a majority government after winning a decisive parliamentary election victory, with climate change expected to be central in discussions, write Nora Buli and Gwladys Fouche.

Labour leader Jonas Gahr Stoere must address voters' concerns over global warming and a widening wealth gap, while ensuring any transition away from oil production - and the jobs it creates - is gradual.

Stoere's goal is to convince both the rural-based Centre Party and the mostly urban Socialist Left to join him, which would give his cabinet 89 seats, four more than what is needed for a majority in the 169-seat assembly.

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"I believe it's worth attempting to form a majority government," Stoere told reporters after votes were counted late on Monday (13 September). Read more

Reuters Graphics
Reuters Graphics

He must persuade Centre and the Socialists to compromise on policies ranging from oil and private ownership to European Union (EU) outsider Norway's relations with the bloc.

In particular, Stoere must persuade them to compromise on energy policy, including where to let oil firms explore for hydrocarbons while also cutting Norway's climate emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Read more.

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"The likely compromise has to do with restricting exploration, and the less explored and matured areas are easier to stop exploration in," said Baard Lahn, a researcher at Oslo-based climate think-tank CICERO.

"Also the industry has indicated they are less interested in those areas at the moment. That's a possible outcome, but exactly what that will look like, there are many possibilities."

Norway produces around 4 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, accounting for over 40% of export revenues.

But most major parties also believe oil will play a smaller part over time, and hope the engineering know-how of oil firms can be transferred to renewable energy, including offshore wind.

"I think that the new coalition will increase the work on climate issue as both the IEA (International Energy Agency) and IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report underlined the sense of emergency the world is facing, stating a code red," said Thina Margrethe Saltvedt, Nordea Bank's chief analyst for sustainable finance.

Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg said she would step down as soon as a new government is ready, with a cabinet headed by Stoere potentially taking office in mid-October.

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European elections

Norway’s left-wing opposition triumphs in general election

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Norway's Labor Party leader Jonas Gahr Stoere holds a bouquet of red roses at the Labor Party's election vigil at the People's House during parliamentary elections in Oslo, Norway September 13, 2021.
Norway's Labor Party leader Jonas Gahr Stoere holds a bouquet of red roses at the Labor Party's election vigil at the People's House during parliamentary elections in Oslo, Norway September 13, 2021. © Javad Parsa, NTB via Reuters

Norway's left-wing opposition headed by Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Store won Monday's general election after a campaign dominated by questions about the future of the key oil industry in Western Europe's largest producer.

The left-wing unseated a centre-right coalition headed by Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg since 2013.

"We waited, we hoped, and we have worked so hard, and now we can finally say it: We did it!" Store, in all likelihood the next prime minister, told cheering supporters after Solberg conceded defeat.

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The five left-wing opposition parties were projected to win 100 of the 169 seats in parliament.

Labour was even expected to win an absolute majority with its preferred allies, the Centre Party and the Socialist Left, preliminary results showed with more than 95 percent of votes counted.

That eliminated concerns about having to rely on the support of two other opposition parties, the Greens and the communist Red Party.

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"Norway has sent a clear signal: the election shows that the Norwegian people want a fairer society," said the 61-year-old millionaire who campaigned against social inequalities.

Leftist sweep 

The five countries in the Nordic region -- a bastion of social democracy -- will thus all be governed by left-wing governments soon.

"The Conservative government's work is finished for this time around," Solberg told supporters.

"I want to congratulate Jonas Gahr Store, who now seems to have a clear majority for a change of government," said the 60-year-old Solberg who has steered the country through multiple crises, including migration, dropping oil prices and the Covid pandemic over the past eight years.

The Greens had said they would only support a left-wing government if it vowed an immediate end to oil exploration in Norway, an ultimatum Store had rejected.

Store has like the Conservatives, called for a gradual transition away from the oil economy.

Thorny negotiations 

The August "code red for humanity" report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put the issue at the top of the agenda for the election campaign and forced the country to reflect on the oil that has made it immensely rich. 

The report energised those who want to get rid of oil, both on the left and, to a lesser extent, the right.

The oil sector accounts for 14% of Norway's gross domestic product, as well as 40 percent of its exports and 160,000 direct jobs.

In addition, the cash cow has helped the country of 5.4 million people amass the world's biggest sovereign wealth fund, today worth close to 12 trillion kroner (almost 1.2 trillion euros, $1.4 trillion). 

A former minister in the governments of Jens Stoltenberg between 2005 and 2013, Store is now expected to begin negotiations with the Centre, which primarily defends the interests of its rural base, and the Socialist Left, which is a strong advocate for environmental issues.

The trio, which already governed together in Stoltenberg's coalitions, often have diverging positions, notably on the pace at which to exit the oil industry.

The Centrists have also said they would not form a coalition with the Socialist Left. 

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Norway

Norway government faces big defeat in September election, poll shows

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Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg speaks during an Emergency Declaration for Nature and People event after the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at the U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/

Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg

Norway's centre-left opposition parties are expected to defeat the incumbent Conservative-led coalition government by a two-to-one margin in next month's election for parliament, a new opinion poll showed on Tuesday (10 August), writes Terje Solsvik, Reuters.

The 13 September vote could thus end Prime Minister Erna Solberg's quest for a third consecutive term and instead give Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Stoere a chance to negotiate a power-sharing agreement with left-leaning groups.

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Widely praised last year for a swift coronavirus lockdown, giving Norway one of Europe's lowest COVID-19 mortality rates, Solberg nevertheless faces a backlash over economic inequality and public sector reforms that have proven unpopular.

In April the prime minister was fined by police for breaking social distancing rules at her birthday gathering, further damaging her standing. Read more.

The Conservatives and smaller parties on the centre-right look set to win 55 seats in the 169-member assembly, down from 88, while the centre-left could grow to 114 from 81, the survey showed.

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The 2-6 August poll by the Kantar agency for independent TV2 comes just as the election campaign kicks off and confirms a downwards trend shown in earlier polls.

Campaigning on a slogan that it is now the "common people's turn", Labour promises tax relief for low and middle income families, an end to privatisation of public services, more money for hospitals and a tax hike on the top 20% of incomes.

Norway's Green Party is also set to boost its presence in parliament, as is the far-left Red, and both will seek to influence a Labour-led government.

Adding to the complexity, Centre leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum has declared himself a candidate for prime minister, rivalling Stoere, although his party now polls around 16%, lagging Labour's 23.5%.

A growing rural-urban divide, in which many voters objected to the reorganisation of police, healthcare and municipalities, in many cases centralising key functions, has been a boost for Vedum, who got just 10.3% in 2017.

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