Paal Frisvold dates his interest in international affairs back to 1979, when, as a 17-year-old national fencing champion, he joined Norway’s boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. “That moment I felt politics scratching my skin. I understood that the world is not only about my little country,” says a man who is now perhaps the most prominent advocate of Norway’s accession to the EU.
Fencing and international affairs continued to shape his path: he chose to study international affairs at the American University of Paris in part because of the training facilities. He became an Olympian in 1984, coming 11th. He put down his sword, but continued with international relations, at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
His master’s in the US followed a stint on a graduate scheme in Norway’s embassy in China, and when he left university in 1990, he worked at the foreign ministry’s Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) desk. He failed the diplomatic corps entrance exams, however, and headed to the OECD in Paris.
There, he assisted the secretary-general of the OECD’s business and industry advisory council, which he later described as “the best graduate studies ever”.
After four years, he left in search of a “new experience”, which he found at the Norwegian Ship-owners Association. For two years, he monitored EU policy and “worked closely” with the European Commission, primarily on guidelines on state aid. “State aid for ship-owners saved the maritime industry in Norway,” Frisvold argues.
His work on maritime policy led, in 1997, to a job offer from the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which groups together Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
Two years later, he was promoted from the maritime desk to the cabinet of EFTA’s secretary-general. But he soon needed a change. “I did one of the most fascinating jobs there”, he says, but “I was really the world’s best-paid postman”, sending policies from Brussels to be transposed into law in Norway.
“I got very frustrated with seeing my country in this position. So I started to battle,” he says. He did so by leaving in 2001 to set up the Brussels Office, which advises (mainly) Norwegians on EU matters.
“I like to consider myself as a bridge between Norway and the EU,” says Frisvold. “I’m in love with this idea,” he says of the EU.
Frisvold has scored many head-to-head victories. “I have had many people enter my office as Eurosceptics and leave convinced that the EU is not that bad after all,” Frisvold says.
It was at this point that Frisvold also became a very public advocate of EU membership and now every other week finds him back in Norway, giving speeches and appearing on TV and radio shows. “Norwegians call me a Euro-fanatic,” he says. “But they are not well informed about how the EU works. We need to change that,” says Frisvold.
“We Norwegians suffer from being outside the EU,” he claims. “We are very international people and we need a voice in Europe.”
This June, he became the voice of Norway’s European Movement, winning the first contested election for the post.
He likens the challenge to fencing, which is more about the mind than strength or speed. “It’s like playing chess with your body,” says Frisvold.
It is a physically and tiring role. He comes back to Brussels “to recharge”, he says. “When I go to Norway I feel like I’m going in to combat and I cannot stay for too long.”
There is plenty of fighting spirit in Frisvold. “I wanted to get more involved in the cause of fighting climate change”, he says and so, while retaining a stake in and a seat on the board of the Brussels Office, he has worked on the board of Bellona Europe since 2004. Now, as one of Bellona’s chairmen, he steers the non-governmental organisation’s efforts “to defend the interests of the environment”.
Frisvold seems undaunted by the challenges: “If there is one thing that being a fencer taught me, it is that, to succeed, one needs to persevere.” The ten-time champion of Norway points out that “I lost 200 duels before becoming a national champion”.
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