There are several regions in Europe that have a high degree of integration and the Nordic region is certainly one of them. Visa-free travel has always been possible between the Nordic countries and the vicinity – in geographical, cultural and value terms – has enabled, indeed driven, integration efforts.
What makes the Nordic Region Europe’s most integrated region?
– Nordic cooperation has a history of more than 100 years, beginning, if you want, with the agreement in 1914 of the three Kings of Sweden, Denmark and Norway to declare Neutrality during World War I.
The Nordic Council, as a venue for parliamentary cooperation, has existed since 1952, and since 1972 impulses to promote deeper Nordic cooperation are given through the Nordic Council of Ministers. It has an annual budget of more than €100 million, and a Secretariat with some 80 employees in Copenhagen.
Today we even have co-located and partly integrated Nordic Embassies in some places in the world, e.g. Berlin, and the Nordic countries work closely together in various multilateral contexts.
What challenges is the migrant crisis posing when it comes to Swedish attitudes towards the EU and its economy?
– The migrant crisis has indeed been a challenge; during 2015 Sweden received more than 160,000 asylum seekers, which is many times more per capita than, for example, Germany. A total of 35,000 of those were children coming alone. Therefore the Government introduced a number of restrictions on travel to Sweden, as did many countries through which asylum seekers travelled to reach Sweden. This has greatly reduced the influx of asylum seekers, down to 2,000 people in May.
The crisis negatively influenced attitudes towards the EU in Sweden, judging from some opinion polls at the time. Since the situation has stabilised, those with a pro-EU opinion in Sweden have increased in numbers, however.
The Swedish Government remains steadfast in its support towards the EU and EU enlargement. We realise that the only way in which challenges of the kind posed by large-scale migration can be resolved satisfactorily is through European cooperation and burden sharing.
The fact that the Swedish population of nine million is growing by some 100,000 people per year has, despite the integration challenges posed, had strong and positive economic effects, both short- and long-term.
Sweden fully supports Serbia’s ambition of becoming a member of the European Union
To what extent have Swedish governments been able to safeguard the Swedish model during times of global economic slowdown?
– The Swedish model is about a strong and competitive trade-orientated private sector, enabling a good social security network operated by an efficient public sector, open to private initiative and business also in traditionally government-controlled areas, such as schools and care for the elderly. This is not so different from “models” elsewhere in Europe, including in Serbia, I believe.
The Swedish standard of living, as well as life expectancy, is high thanks to a comparatively efficient economy and social system, but we have to constantly develop it and deal with the challenges that come with globalisation. Opening up to private competition through, for example, school vouchers and private tenders of running social care institutions some 15 years ago was in itself a response to globalisation and the need to make schools more efficient. This has created new problems which have to be resolved through additional reforms.
Given that you are fluent in Serbian, do you already feel at home in Belgrade, and what goals will you be pursuing in your new diplomatic post?
– Belgrade is a very special place for me personally, not least since my wife Milica grew up here. Belgrade has throughout history been influenced by many different cultures and has attracted ambitious and creative people. Many, including my wife, are also charming and beautiful! For me, as a chess enthusiast, there are even chess boards in the city parks! Belgrade has become an excellent tourist destination.
As to my goals, I represent Sweden, which fully supports Serbia’s ambition of becoming a member of the European Union. During my years, I and the Embassy shall be focusing on this, not least the challenges in the Rule of Law field, which is crucial to investor confidence.
IKEA shall open its first shop in Belgrade next year, after many years of hesitation. This is great, but there are many other Swedish investors looking at Serbia and I hope to convince some to make the actual investment decision. In the other direction, we would also like to see increased Serbian exports to Sweden.