One of the most active ambassadors in Serbia and an outstanding expert on the situation in Serbia and the region, Swedish Ambassador H.E. Christer Asp, is leaving to take on a new role after six years in Belgrade. With his departure imminent, but also on the eve of the National Day of this friendly country, CorD spoke with the ambassador about his experiences and observations, as well as future relations between the two countries. The tradition of celebrating the National Day of Sweden began 100 years ago, on the day honouring the coronation of King Gustav Vasa in 1523, which is considered as the event marking the foundation of modern Sweden.
As part of this year’s celebration, the Embassy of Sweden will mark 250 years of media freedom, when the first-ever constitution came into force in Sweden, laying down this fundamental right.
Sweden celebrates its national holiday this month. To what extent do you think Sweden is still considered a well-regulated state with a strong feeling for social justice?
– I hope that Sweden is perceived like that outside our borders because our aim is to be a well-regulated state with equal opportunities for everybody and with a strong social welfare system. We will celebrate our national day on 6th June and every year we have a different theme for the celebration. Last year we celebrated 20 years of membership in the EU and this year our theme will be freedom of speech and freedom of media because we celebrate 250 years of Sweden’s first-ever constitution, which laid down this fundamental right.
One of the changes that took place in Sweden is the government deciding that the country wasn’t able to take in economic migrants anymore. How much has the migrant crisis served as a test of the tolerance and democratic values for which Sweden is known?
– We do not accept economic migrants because there is no such thing, but we have a very open policy regarding political asylum seekers, for people seeking protection from conflict and war. Last year Sweden took more refugees than any other country in Europe per capita; a total of 180,000 refugees. And the year before that we accepted around 90,000 refugees, so we have a very open policy.
But what happened is that we had too many refugees coming and we had to find a shelter for all of them and to manage this great inflow. So we didn’t change the policy for those who seek protection, but we did introduce certain restrictions in the sense of the refugees who are not able to identify themselves since our whole asylum system was under great threat. Of course, everyone coming to Sweden will be sorted out, if they are political refugees they have the right to stay, but economic refugees will be sent back where they came from.
It has been announced that Sweden will take in three times fewer migrants this year. The Swedish government has also changed laws in order to exercise more efficient control over refugees’ whereabouts and accommodation. Do you think that the refugee crisis can be resolved?
– We didn’t set a fixed number of refugees that can enter Sweden, because our policy is that if you need protection, or if you say that you need protection, then you have the right for your case to be resolved, also according to European laws and international conventions, and we will continue to do that. We have introduced rules for people coming so we can identify them.
We have much fewer refugees coming in the last few months and we don’t know what is going to happen in the future, as there are so many refugees – about 60 million in the world – and we need to deal with the situation depending on how many people appear on our borders. But what we do hope and what are we pushing for from the Swedish side is to have a European solution and a common European approach this crisis. We don’t have that today and I regret that very much.
Do you think that tougher migration criteria will also affect the people who are not war refugees, but rather economic migrants from countries like Serbia who want to immigrate to Sweden?
– We introduced a visa-free regime for Serbia in 2009, that occurred actually during Sweden’s EU presidency, of which we are very proud because that was a really important step in bringing our countries closer together. Since then we had a large number of false asylum seekers, who asked for asylum based on the economic situation and not the political situation. In principle, there shouldn’t be political immigrants from a democratic Serbia entering Sweden or the European Union generally. Numbers have come down significantly. We still have some people coming, but in the majority of cases, they will be sent back to Serbia.
How much has the migrant crisis fuelled the right-wing in Sweden and is there any danger of these forces gaining more influence in relevant institutions?
– We have seen development when it comes to the nationalist type of parties, as we have seen in many other countries in Europe. I think that is something we need to take very seriously. I think that the governments of Europe, along with my own, will have to be able to deal with this, to isolate the reasons and try to counter that, because these are often parties that are looking for a more closed kind of policy, and Sweden’s traditional policy is to be open to the rest of the world when we talk about refugees, economic relations and so on. I think that we cannot neglect this.
Sweden is the third largest bilateral donor to Serbia and one third of the funds that we set aside for Serbia are aimed towards solving environmental issues, which is going to be a very important chapter in the EU accession process
The British people are debating whether their country should be in the EU and they have been questioning the purpose of further EU enlargement since, allegedly, countries like Serbia, Macedonia and Albania would only bring problems to the EU. What is Sweden’s stance on this issue?
– First of all, Sweden wants Britain to stay in the EU because it is an important country and the UK can continue to contribute to the development of the Union. I think it is an absolutely false the argument that suggests that countries like Serbia, Montenegro and other newcomers only create problems; I think the opposite. I think that a country like Serbia will bring benefits to the European Union.
Serbia plays a key role in this part of Europe; whatever happens in Serbia impacts on the rest of the region. That means that Serbia plays an important role in ensuring the long-term stability of the Balkans. Of course, Serbia will be an important partner in trading and economy, so I think it is completely false to say that these countries of the Western Balkans will be a problem, rather I think they will be an added advantage to the EU.
From the Swedish side, we look at the enlargement of the European Union with strategic eyes, and for the reasons, I mentioned this is why we so strongly support Serbia’s efforts to gain membership in the EU.
What do you think about Croatia’s decision to block the opening of Chapter 23 in Serbia’s accession negotiations? Is it really true that Croatia is the only EU member that is deliberately slowing down the EU accession process for Serbia, or does Croatia have tacit support from other EU members in doing so?
– Basically we have the situation where 27 member states are ready to open up Chapter 23, regarding justice and home affairs. We decided to open the chapter for negotiations, but we, of course, need to have a unanimous decision form all 28 member states. In this case Croatia has some concerns that they want to solve before opening this chapter; we still have time to deal with this and hopefully, you should be able to open chapters 23 and 24 in the near future.
We are working really hard in Brussels to find a key to unlock the concerns of Croatia, and I frankly think that if we are not able to find that key we are all stand to lose. The opening of that chapter means that we will intensify dialogue in that area with the candidate country and I think that is very important. Serbia is ready, from the Sweden point of view. We still have time and I hope that process will continue soon.
What do you think is the most important task for the new Serbian government in order for Serbia to continue moving along the EU accession path?
– First of all, you must continue economic reforms. That is difficult for any country, but for Serbia it is fundamental. Another issue that I talked about with the Serbian prime minister is the importance of environmental policy. Sweden is the third-largest bilateral donor to Serbia and one-third of the funds that we set aside for Serbia are aimed towards solving environmental issues. It is going to be a very important chapter in the process of EU accession for Serbia. I would love to see more focus on this. The third area is judicial reform. The EU is a legal entity, and different legal systems in the 28 member states need to be compatible in order for them to be able to work together.
Sweden is an EU country, but not a NATO member. Do you think the same is possible for Serbia, or is NATO membership a prerequisite for candidate countries aspiring to join the EU?
– The same goes for Serbia as it does for Sweden. There is no condition whatsoever that Serbia needs to be a NATO member. Serbia is already a member of Partnership for Peace, as is Sweden, and over the years here I was surprised with this recurrent discussion. Serbia doesn’t have to be in NATO. If that condition would come up then my country would also have to join and we don’t have that as a topic in Sweden. But we do have really close cooperation with NATO within the same programme that Serbia is already in.
Preparations are underway in several locations in Serbia for construction of IKEA department stores, the famous Swedish brand. Since the arrival of IKEA has been announced and postponed several times, do you think that you will have the opportunity to visit an IKEA store here during your term?
– Not as ambassador, since my time here will be over in two weeks. But during the six years that I have been here, the most common question to me was that. And finally IKEA will come and I participated in the groundbreaking ceremony a couple of weeks ago on Avala. I must say that we received very good support from the current government in overcoming all obstacles and getting all permissions for IKEA to start working here.
Sweden giant company TetraPak marks the 50th anniversary of its successful production in Gornji Milanovac. It is currently one of the strongest performers in TetraPak’s production network
Do you think IKEA’s arrival can boost economic cooperation between Sweden and Serbia, and which other areas could prove interesting for advancing this cooperation?
– In the short-term, I don’t think it will have any significant impact on the trade between Sweden and Serbia.
I think that when a global company like IKEA decides to set up business in the country it means that IKEA believes in the economic development of that country. That is a powerful signal to other investors about the future of Serbia when it comes to economic development. But what happens when IKEA comes to a new country is that they gradually start working with local industries. In Serbia, IKEA has had cooperation with the SIMPO furniture factory for many years. So I think this is a benefit, apart from the employment of people in the stores that IKEA will establish.
It is also important to say that Sweden giant company TetraPak in 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of its successful production in Gornji Milanovac. With a big number of customers supplied from this site and 91 per cent of production being exported to Europe and Central Asia, it is one of the strongest performers in TetraPak’s production network.
You have helped with holding a conference about the importance of public broadcasting in informing citizens and strengthening society’s democratic capacity, which took place in Belgrade recently. People working for Swedish national radio and TV claim that they are not pressured or influenced by any interest or political groups whatsoever. Since you come from Sweden, what is your view of public broadcasting in Serbia?
– We look at this from the perspective that we have in our country, and we believe that independent public broadcasting is an important part of our democratic development. So we had a seminar, where some other countries also took part, along with Sweden, where we explained how we are organising public broadcasting. That’s because we think that is important to have it here in Serbia at the same level as we have it in my country. But how will you structure it and organise it is of course upon to Serbia to decide. I think that the notion of having a public broadcasting service is extremely important.
Do you believe that journalists can be autonomous in this day and age when their work is hindered all over the world, both in democratic and undemocratic societies?
– I think that there is a major concern about violence against journalists all over the world. Journalists are considered to be the fourth estate, and independent journalists play an extremely important role when it comes to democratic developments, and it is the obligation of every government to enable journalists to work under these independent conditions.
This year Sweden was again the host of the Eurovision Song Contest. Do you think that the festival has become a sort of stage for showcasing different political interests? Do you think that Ukraine’s victory is a triumph of music or politics?
– I don’t think so. Ukraine won this year, last year it was Sweden, the year before that Austria and so on. I think that certain countries sometimes win with support from other countries, but music is not a homogenous kind of thing in Europe. People in different parts of Europe like different types of music and this diversity has been a strong point in Europe.