2 January 2013

Dear friends,

2013 could be a big year for visa free travel in Europe, with important decisions upcoming concerning Turkey and Moldova. It could also be a disastrous year for the cause of free travel if visas are reimposed on the Western Balkans.

It is appropriate, therefore, that the first report ESI publishes in 2013 – on 1 January to be precise – deals with this very question. You will find the full report on our website later this week, but if you want an advance copy right away let me know (write to g.knaus@esiweb.org). Below you find for now the executive summary and some of the most interesting findings as exerpts from this report. We also recently presented these findings to senior officials in Rome, Berlin, Brussels and Stockholm.

In the meantime the whole ESI team and your Rumeli Observer wish you a happy and productive 2013!

NEW ESI REPORT – 1 January 2013

Saving visa-free travel – Visa, asylum and the EU roadmap policy

Executive Summary

Since the visa requirement was lifted for Western Balkan countries in 2009, there has been a sharp increase in claims for political asylum by citizens of the region. Barely any of these applicants qualify for asylum. Rather, they are benefitting from national
asylum rules that provide relatively generous benefits during the application process.

Since 2010, EU leaders have demanded that Balkan governments take measures to stem this tide of asylum seekers. In fact, the problem lies with ‘pull factors’ inside the EU. Now, EU policymakers find themselves under increasing pressure to address the problem directly by suspending visa-free travel for Western Balkan countries. Such a draconian measure would undermine the credibility of the EU’s whole approach to visa liberalisation – not just in the Western Balkans, but also in Moldova, Kosovo, Turkey and the Ukraine. But it is by no means the only solution available.

In the world of justice and home affairs, clear-cut solutions to complex issues are generally hard to come by. There are inevitable trade-offs to be made between controlling borders and allowing the free movement of people; between protecting individual liberties and safeguarding the public. When it comes to visa liberalisation in the Balkans, however, there is a clear solution that reconciles the concerns of all the different constituencies involved. The solution is to make it less attractive for those who clearly do not qualify for asylum to submit speculative or bogus claims.

Under EU rules, all member states provide asylum seekers with financial and material support while their applications are being processes. But there is a sharp difference between two groups of countries: those that take many months to process their asylum
claims, and those that dispose of them within a few weeks. It is the lengthy processing times found in Germany, Sweden and other EU members (up to 8 months with appeals) that acts as the magnet for unjustified asylum seekers. The EU members able to deal expeditiously with asylum claims face a significantly lower numbers of applications.

This paper proposes two possible solutions. One is to address the problem at the national level. Those states that have seen a sharp increase in applications from the Balkans could radically shorten their procedures. They could follow the example of Switzerland, which has recently introduced a 48-hour procedure for applicants from safe European countries like the Balkans. The other option is to tackle the problem at the EU level. The EU should label countries that have completed a visa liberalisation process as “safe countries of origin”, allowing for lighter and quicker processing procedures. We believe that the ideal response would be to pursue both solutions in parallel.

Such a solution would not close off the rights of genuine refugees to apply for and receive asylum. The statistics reveal that countries with shorter procedures in fact accept a higher proportion of their asylum applications. It would, however, help to weed out speculative claims and bring down the costs for European taxpayers. It would also safeguard visa-free travel for the Western Balkans, which has proved a critical step in giving hope and a sense of direction to a troubled region on the EU’s borders.

Update: the full report is now available on our website

Filed under: Balkans,Border revolution,Enlargement,Germany,Sweden,Visa — Gerald @ 12:31 am
5 June 2009

viking-ship1

As Sweden takes over the EU presidency there is a possibility that more Europeans will feel like Andrew Brown, an English expert on Scandinavian idiosyncrasies already familiar to readers of this blog:

“I was little surprised by anything that seemed to me particularly Swedish, but this didn’t mean that I could understand it.”

Expect to hear a lot in coming months about Abba, elks, Vikings and Karlson on the roof, as Europeans who do not speak Swedish (like myself) cling to every cliche in the books to make sense of “their” presidency. I promised myself that I would write about Sweden without ever mentioning Abba (or, even worse, the 1968 shokumentary Sweden – Heaven and Hell). As for other cliches, let me indulge just once. If you like books like Luigi Barzinis’ “The Italians” or “Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong”, read on.

So let me tell you about a book I recently picked up in Stockholm airport. It is called “The Viking Manifesto.” The authors plausibly promise not only to help us outsiders better understand Scandinavia: they also offer their readers a path to salvation, success in business (without ever really competing) and great personal lives all while making money by giving things away.

All this becomes possible by following the “Viking method”, which, we learn, is all about “improving the quality of life, bringing a sense of adventure back to entrepreneurship and corporate culture, and making it all pay.” The Vikings were always good at creating brands (as well as undertake raids), from the longship to IKEA. As for their international outlook the book notes:

“The Vikings carefully picked a target and struck without warning, armed to the teeth and high on mead and mushrooms. They were strong believers in globalisation and bloodshed.”

The thought is compelling that Swedes (and to a lesser extent Danes) are fans of EU enlargement due to this particular history: after all, their ancestors were there (in Kiev, in Constantinople) one thousand years ago, sailing through the Bosporus with their frightening ships. And as this fine book notes, they have changed only a little: “A thousand years ago, Vikings were making wine snifters out of the skulls of their enemies. Today, they’re selling furniture in flat packages.” Generous Swedish development assistance in the Balkans, Moldova and Georgia appears in this light as another expression of “Viking Zen”: “do something that is honest, honourable, and interesting. Then don’t tell anyone about it. Remember: a good story can never be kept a secret.”

Well, sort of. There is not actually a huge number of books on the market (in English) that explain how Sweden itself works today. I have presented a few facts about Swedish exceptionalism on these pages before. This is a modest effort to explain it. So if you are left wanting to know more, having leaved through the Viking Manifesto, where could you go?

AD 42145

If you read German, perhaps you try Antje Ravic Strubel’s Gebrauchsanweisung fuer Schweden (Manual for Sweden). Skip the chapters on Nordic skiing and on the difficulty of running into one of Sweden’s 400,000 elks. Go straight to Volk, Gender, Emotion. There you will learn that Sweden has had an Ombudsperson for children since 1993; that registered partnerships were introduced for gay couples already in 1995 (in April 2009 Sweden adopted a gender neutral marriage law - with an overwhelming majority across all political families in parliament); and that Sweden is a world power in exporting pop, a reflection of the democratic character of this genre of music.

Strubel underlines that in order to understand modern Sweden it helps to know the writing by Erik Gustaf Geijer and Carl Jonas Love Almquist. Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to find out much in any language other than Swedish about Erik Gustaf Geijer (1783 – 1847), historian, composer, ardent fan of Viking culture and creator of a Swedish national philosophy based on the idea of free, independent individuals. If you can help, let me know.

It is a little better when it comes to Almquist (1793-1866), who wrote on the virtues of Swedish poverty (in the early 19th century, when Sweden was one of the poorest places in Europe). He also wrote a lot about love, in a rather modern way. Tintomara, the main character in one of his novels (Drottninges juvelsmycke) aroused both men and woman to fall in love. In It is acceptable a woman lives with a man without being married to him. One of Almquists characters, Sara, makes clear that, while she will love and live with Albert, she wants to remain unmarried, in separate rooms, and without commitments. Romantic love must not be based on utilitarian arrangements, the argument goes; families should be based on the internal autonomy of their members. This was too much even in Sweden in the 19th century; both church and state condemned Almquist as a dangerous revolutionary. Almquist ended his life in exile.

Today, however, many Swedes appear to live by his ideas. Nowhere else in Europe is the number of women in the work force as high. At least some tables seem to suggest (for instance see here) that Sweden also has one of the highest divorce rates in the world today. (Be warned, though: international league tables on divorce are like those on comparative happiness: wherever you look, the ranking changes and other tables show the Maldives, Russia, the US or small Djibouti take first place divorcing. Whatever table one looks at, however, many of the countries in South East Europe, from Turkey to Albania or Armenia, still stand out for their very low divorce rates. That would be an issue for another blog.)

Strubel in her book points out that while the German tax code and legislation encourages spouses to stay at home (to save on taxes, which are assessed on the combined income of both spouses treated as one earner, divided by two), and requires parents to take care of their children until well into early adulthood, in Sweden fewer expectations exist for families to look after each other’s members in a material sense. Even funerals are paid for by the state. At the same time the Swedish language reflects the modern reality of patchwork families much better than German, where those who live together in a long-term relationship without being married are considered to be in a “wild marriage” (Wilde Ehe). Swedish (I trust Radic on this) has the words sambo (for those who cohabit without being married), sarbo (for those who are together but do not live together) and gift (for those who are married). And while German has the ugly word Stiefkinder for the children from an earlier marriage, Swedish speaks of bonusbarn (bonus children).

Almquist is hardly a household name outside Sweden (looking to purchase Sara on the internet I came across an edition on Amazon for $ 409 Dollars). It is therefore fortunate that two Swedish writers – Henrik Berggren and Lars Tragardh – have recently filled the gapping hole in our understanding of their country, producing a more accessible analysis of Swedish social and political culture.

They address the central paradox of Swedish politics as seen from outside: how can a country which is so non-conformist, original and avant-guard also put so much trust in public institutions and the power of the state? Are Swedes individualists or believers in collectivism? What is more important to them: a society where every individual can stand on her own feet, independent of the constraints of tradition or family, of one where the state has an overwhelming role in guaranteeing welfare?

It turns out, according to Berggren and Tragardh, that Swedes are both: and it is this fact which distinguishes the Swedish understanding of the role of the state today from that of their German neighbours.

book-berggren-tragardt

The book which Berggren and Tragardh published in 2006 is called Is the Swede Human? Community and Autonomy in Modern Sweden (Är svensken människa? Gemenskap och oberoende i det moderna Sverige). It argues that far from being “socialist” in their outlook, Swedes are in fact devoted to personal autonomy and radical individualism more than any other people in the Western world. The authors, looking back to Almquist, put this down to a “Swedish theory of love”, according to which true friendship and love is only possible between independent and equal individuals.

This understanding has led to a state whose true function has been to liberate individuals from ties of dependency on charities, churches, even family members. This is very different from the balance struck between individual and state in either Germany or the US. Swedes are hyperindividualists … and the state helps them to be so.

It is a fascinating theory. One element, however, still needs to be added: after all, not all that long ago, even Swedish culture was patriarchal, children were beaten, the death penalty was implemented by the state. Perhaps there is a “Swedish theory of love” – there certainly is a modern Swedish theory of childhood, which affects the values and ideals with which people are brought up.

Before you go to your bookstore, though, let’s go on the road: rent a car, leave Stockholm, drive past the former heart of the Swedish textile industry along the Gota Canal, and head for a formerly deeply impoverished region that has since – through literature – become a universal landscape, familiar to millions of people who might never come to Scandinavia in their lives.

Let’s go to Smaland.

Filed under: Sweden — Gerald @ 10:29 am
15 May 2009

A disclosure at the very outset: since 2000 Swedish governments have been among ESI’s most faithful supporters.

This is hardly a coincidence. On every foreign policy issue important to us Sweden is a strong advocate within the EU, from support for EU enlargement to the Balkans and Turkey to a European perspective for countries in the Eastern neighbourhood.  Being one of the wealthiest member states, having a good record of implementing European legislation, and not being suspected of having a secret agenda of undermining the European project, adds to its credibility.

What would it take for EU-ropeans, old and new, social-democrat, liberal and conservative, to embrace the Swedish outlook on Europe’s future? To share the vision one finds in the speeches of Sweden’s current foreign minister, Carl Bildt, for instance in his presentation delivered in 2007 in Bruges at the College of Europe:

“In Maastricht in 1991, the then European Community decided to transform itself into a more ambitious European Union, and soon this Union was prepared to open up not only to old former ‘neutrals’ like Austria, Finland and Sweden but also – and far more important – to all the countries of Central Europe, the Baltic region and down towards the Black Sea.

There is no doubt that it was the magnetism of the Union and the model it provided that made the transformation we have since seen in all of these countries possible. When – at some time in the future – the history of the Union is written, this might well be seen as truly its finest hour.

Today, we see 10 nations with some 100 million people from the Gulf of Finland in the north down towards the Bosporus in the south creating a new belt of lasting peace, stable democracies and bubbling prosperity in an area that history had otherwise reserved for instability, conflicts and great power rivalry.

Our Union today is a union of approximately 500 million people. It is the largest integrated economy in the world. It is by far the largest trading power of the planet – larger than the second and third put together. It is the biggest market for more than 130 nations around the world. It provides more than 60 per cent of all ODA to the developing countries. And – remarkable as it sounds – the value of the euros in circulation on global markets exceeds the value of dollars.

We certainly have our problems – but we should not overlook the weight and importance that we have in the global economy. Others do not.”

And then Bildt continues:

“What is needed is a profound strengthening of the soft power of Europe. We certainly need to strengthen the hard power as well – but at the end of the day peace is built by thoughts and by ballots more than by tanks and by bullets.

A critical part of the soft power of Europe lies in the continued process of enlargement – a Europe that remains open to those in our part of the world who wish to share their sovereignty with us, accept the rule of law and commit themselves to the building of open, secular and free societies.

There are those who want to slow down or perhaps even stop the process altogether. We have heard talk of the need to define the borders of Europe. And to draw these borders as close to the present borders of the European Union as possible. But drawing big lines on big maps of eastern Europe risks being a dangerous exercise for us all.

Because it means defining firmly not only for whom the doors will remain open, but also slamming the doors in the face of some for whom the magnetism of Europe remains a major driving force for profound political and economic reforms. It means telling them to go elsewhere. And that means doing things differently also in terms of the evolution of their societies. If we put out the light of European integration in the east or southeast of Europe – however faint or distant that light might be – we risk seeing the forces of atavistic nationalism or submission to other masters taking over. And if that happens, no lines on maps will be able to protect us from the consequences.”

At a recent ECFR meeting in Stockholm Carl Bildt reiterated these positions, striking a positive tone that stood in marked contrast to the pessimism about Europe’s future I noticed among many of the other ECFR members.

Strikingly, in Sweden support for enlargement is not controversial. Swedes of all political families believe that European values can be shared by Turks and Moldavians, Ukrainians and Georgians, to the benefit of all of Europe. As Goran Lennmarker, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Riskdag (parliament), told me just this week, the Swedish consensus today is that when any European country meets the conditions for accession, it has a right to be accepted as a member.

Public opinion is also supportive and so far the Swedish political elite have decided not to strike a populist tune on enlargement. 63 percent of Swedes argue that enlargement has strengthened the EU: this is the highest support among the 15 ‘old’ member states, where an outright majority for this view exists only in Spain (59 percent), Denmark (53 percent) and Greece (53 percent). A clear majority of Swedes is in favour of the integration of each of the Western Balkan states (see below the Spring 2008 Eurobarometer results).

SWEDISH ATTITUDES TO FURTHER ENLARGEMENT (Eurobarometer):

Spring 2008

Alb

BiH

Cro

Kos

Mac

Mon

Ser

Tur

For

58

66

71

61

66

66

61

46

Against

32

25

20

29

24

24

30

45

Undecided

10

9

9

10

10

10

9

9

Some years ago, the Swedish parliament passed a resolution offering Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus a European perspective (provided, of course, that they meet the Copenhagen criteria).

All of this raises interesting questions: why is a position that seems mere common sense in Stockholm so controversial in Paris and Berlin? Namely, that previous enlargements have made the EU stronger, and that future enlargements – as long as they are carried out cautiously – will do so as well?

Of course, some might say, Sweden is doing particularly well.  This is true. Until the current economic crisis unemployment was low (it is now rising fast, however, to almost 8 percent in the first quarter of 2009). The country ranks among the 10 richest countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP. Combining GDP per capita with indicators for eduction, literacy and life expectancy, Sweden came 7th worldwide in the latest Human Development Index published in December 2008. Sweden’s economy is highly competitive: in international surveys of competitiveness, Sweden excels, coming 4th in the World Economic Forum competitiveness ranking 2008/2009, just behind the US, Switzerland and Denmark.

Perhaps one reason for the strong consensus in favour of EU enlargement is a general confidence in the Swedish model of balancing freedom and security?  Perhaps Swedes are more prepared to take risks, since failure is not so disastrous, for individuals and for groups in society?  According to this logic it becomes easier to embrace EU enlargement against the background of a public commitment to social welfare. This promises that within society burdens are shared, so the benefits of enlargement do not accrue only to a few social groups.  A domestic welfare bargain appears to underpin support for an outward looking EU: relatively low levels of income inequality, and comparatively high per capita income taxes (in 2006 Swedish wage taxes were the second highest in the world, behind Denmark: see here).

Confidence in the future is also expressed in one of the most striking recent policy innovations: a reform of the rules for labour migration, adopted by parliament in December 2008. As a result of this reform, a Swedish employer is now the one to decide whether a given non-EU foreign worker is needed for hire (before these reforms the Swedish Public Employment Service decided this; for more details go to the website of the Swedish Migration Board).  This is implemented in a country in which 12 percent of residents are born abroad.

How about gender policies? It is certainly interesting that the country with the strongest commitment to European soft power is also the one with the largest number of women in positions of political authority: in the most recent survey by the IPU on women in national parliaments, Sweden comes out second in the world, just edged out by Rwanda.  Or is having low rates of corruption a key to a shared belief in soft power in foreign policy? In the 2008 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index Sweden comes 2nd in the world, only beaten by Denmark.

Transparency in policy making might also help support a pragmatic EU policy.  Sweden is famously transparent in its public administration, making it perhaps harder for theories of elite conspiracies (“enlargement is a capitalist plot”) to gain ground.  Sweden’s freedom of information policies ensure that all external communications with ministers and state secretaries are made public. In principle all items of mail to the government and government offices are public documents, something that has led to clashes between Sweden and the rest of the EU (see here for one example).

Are people who are satisfied with their lives more likely to be open to others? Swedes score well in international happiness indicators: in one table based on the 2005 World Values Survey Sweden also comes in 2nd place. (Behind Iceland, which was probably before its economy crashed! Let me admit, though, that I am not all confident about international “happiness rankings”, with Bangladesh coming out on top in one global happiness survey, and Nigeria in first place in another).

And then there is the structure of the Swedish economy: its openness to the world economy, the large number of Swedish multinationals, traditional support for free trade policies. Sweden’s relatively small population (9 million) lives in Europe’s fourth largest country in terms of land mass; its economy has historically been dependent on export: first of its raw materials, then its industrial goods and finally its ideas, to world markets.

But neither wealth nor exposure to international trade alone explain the strong commitment to globalisation and EU enlargement: otherwise Switzerland, Austria or the Netherlands would have adopted foreign policies similar to Sweden (the contrast with Austria attitudes, when it comes to Turkish accession, is particularly dramatic).

What then are the intellectual and emotional roots of the Swedish approach to foreign policy? And what would a more Swedish EU foreign policy look like?

To answer these questions, I suggest to turning away for a moment from international league tables; and to pick up a very different set of books and travel to a special region south of Stockholm to understand the paradox of the Stockholm consensus on enlargement and the Swedish approach to politics.  But more on this later.

Recommended, if you want to know more about Sweden: Previous blog entry: Silences and the new Sweden. For Jon Stewart’s take on the Swedish model, please go here. It is hilarious and, as always with Stewart, enlightening. Of course, the country The Daily Show presents is too good to be true … a place without conflict, full of attractive and reasonable people …

To counterbalance (somewhat) this approach let me note that there is of course no shortage of critical Swedes who argue that, for all of its comparative successes, Sweden constantly needs further reforms to remain competitive. Some of these critics can be found in Timbro, a free-market think-tank, which has challenged what it perceived as “Suedo-sclerosis” since its foundation in 1978. There you also find an interesting report by economist Mauricio Rojas, Sweden after the Swedish Model – from Tutorial State to Enabling State, which tells “the story of the rise and fall of the old Swedish model” and the transition to what Rojas calls the current Swedish “enabling state”.

In Stockholm this week I also had a long conversation with one of the most articulate and influential representatives of this view, Peter Egardt – Carl Bildt’s former state secretary (in the early 1990s) and now president and CEO of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, member of the national bank, and long-time board member of Timbro (1995-2005). As Egardt put it in an article on how to attract the “creative class” to Swedish cities:

“Abroad, many believe Sweden to be the very showcase for social democratic welfare states. However, ambitious reforms implemented during the past few decades have transformed Sweden into a competitive economy with an increasing degree of economic freedom and strong growth. In the wake of this development, culture, fine food and the arts have all blossomed in Swedish cities. Tourists, as well as businesses, are attracted not least to the capital city of Stockholm. The strategy underlying this development has been based on a sound business-and-growth-friendly policy orientation, not a Berlin style emphasis on public subsidies of culture over families and businesses. Cultural development has occurred as the result of a growing economy, not the opposite.”

For another outsider’s view how in Sweden “high per capita income and open markets go hand in hand with social cohesion” read the latest OECD Report (2008). There is also a lot of information and background reading on Sweden on the website of the Swedish institute: www.si.se.

Finally, let me note that Mark Leonard, the current director of ECFR, first used the concept of a “Stockholm consensus” in his book “Why Europe will run the 21st Century”:

“The Stockholm consensus amounts to nothing less than a new social contract in which a strong and flexible state underpins an innovative, open, knowledge economy. This contract means that the state provides the resources for educating its citizens, treating their illnesses, providing childcare so they can work, and integration lessons for newcomers. In exchange, citizens take training, are more flexible, and newcomers integrate themselves.”

Filed under: Enlargement,Europe,Sweden — Tags: , , — Gerald @ 10:41 pm
10 May 2009

Amberin, a Turkish journalist, noted how quiet it was as we walked through the centre of Stockholm. We had participated in a seminar organised by ESI at the Swedish foreign ministry on EU-Turkish relations, in anticipation of the Swedish EU presidency starting in a few weeks.  It was early evening and Amberin observed that we could hear our footsteps. This, for anybody coming from Istanbul, seemed an unusual experience to have in the heart of a European capital.  We were only a few steps away from busy Birger Jarlsgatan with its buzzing cafes and bars.   

“Lilla Edet was so quiet a town”.  This is the opening sentence of Andrew Brown’s book “Fishing in Utopia – Sweden and the Future that Disappeared”.  I began to read the book the next day, as always looking for insights into this most fascinating of European democracies.  Brown’s rhapsodic mediation, recommended by a friend, is above all about the author’s life: a book about unfulfilled dreams, silences and fishing.  Its outlook is summed up in Brown’s epiphany, elegant, poignant and honest like the rest of his text, which also starts with his meditation on silence inspired by Sweden’s north:

“Huge silence, solitude, and the smell of trees – the very things that had made Lilla Edet torture me when I first lived there, were now, I understood, necessary elements in my life. … Soon the daughter whom I carried on my shoulders round a lake one perfect sunlit day would be grown up.  Soon after that, in the way of middle-aged journalists, I would be sacked from something for the very last time. I understood my own life suddenly as that of a hooked fish, pulling with all my strength against a painful and bewildering destiny.”

 

Spring midnight in Sweden

Most of the destiny the author discloses unfolds in Sweden.  Brown moved here in the 1970s for a marriage (which later ended in divorce).  He first lived in Lilla Edet, a town in the South of the country where the creaking of the wheels of Brown’s bike was “always the loudest sound”. He then moved to an estate in Nodinge, a suburb of Goteborg, in 1977:

“the first thing that struck me was the loneliness.  The roads within the estate were all closed to traffic but pedestrians always seemed scarce.  The houses might be wonderfully warm, and the spacious kitchens of even the most basic flats were equipped with fridges, freezers, and separate coolers, which worked like larders, to keep food warmer than in a fridge, but much cooler than in a centrally heated room. But the public places always felt as cold as November … I have never lived in, nor could imagine, a place where people talked less to each other … faced with all this sterile silence my hair grew ragged and my beard grew melancholy.” 

Early on in the book Brown reminds readers of the very recent history of poverty in Sweden, describing the life of Anna, Brown’s Swedish mother-in-law: 

“She was born in the middle of the 1930s depression, when very little had changed for poor farmers in centuries. Her parents and all their children lived in one room and a kitchen, on the ground floor of her grandfather’s house. They slept on straw mattresses, which they filled themselves … her mother had given birth to fourteen children in twenty years … ”

Anna had left school at thirteen, as so many of her generation in Sweden had done:

“After school, Anna was sent out to a larger farm to work as a milkmaid. All the servants slept in the kitchen there, but when she was fifteen she was sent as a servant girl to a woman named Martha Jacobsson, who gave her a room of her own to sleep in.”

I later read a review which describes Fishing in Utopia as a “lament for a lost Eden“, the supposedly egalitarian, socialist and (comparatively) very rich Sweden of the 1970s, the era of Social Democratic leader Olaf Palme: an Eden later lost to modernizing forces. 

However, this is definitely not the message I took away from the book. It is in the present, not the past, tense that Brown makes Sweden seem most attractive.  It is when Brown writes about what he calls “Stockholm-Sweden” that he becomes most positive: describing a “genuinely sophisticated, cosmopolitan and almost weightless place”.   The Sweden of today that Brown describes is a place undergoing rapid change: open to migration, with more than 400,000 Muslims and Mohammed the most common new name for boys in Malmo. 

The modern Sweden that Brown evokes is a place where popular phone-in-programmes express both “polite and earnest eccentricity” and a sense of what Swedes “mean by democracy: not a voting system, but a recognition of common humanity.”  It is a place where alcohol is much easier to obtain than only a few decades ago, and where the system of state shops which sell it (the Systembolag) are today aimed at “selling not repelling”.  There is crime, and more than there was in the past, but it is still not “Armageddon”, with rates much lower than in England.  If Sweden is no longer ”the promised land to which the world was tending in the Sixties” it is still, by almost any indicator, one of the most attractive and open societies in Europe today. 

Skyline of Stockholm

(Amberin also noted with pleasant surprise that when she stepped out of the Opera Cafe restaurant in the centre of Stockholm a Swede came up to her and asked her for directions in Swedish, obviously assuming that she was a local – her parents are from Bangladesh and Turkey.  This would not happen to her in every European country …)  

Neither Browns’ descriptions of Sweden in the 70s nor his observation of the problems which Sweden faces today suggest that the past is better than the present.  At one point Brown notes that  ”everything about the old weighty grey concrete Sweden seems to have dissolved into the air”. At the end of the book Brown recalls the past, when he used to spend  “delightful hours lamenting the dreary stolidity of Sweden”, this while dining in a restaurant where potato cakes were “made as if woven out of straw, with sour cream and orange caviar” and where a person he met ”had never once heared the word nykterhet, or temperance”.   

Brown underlines that “when foreigners write in praise of Swedish politics, it is from Stockholm that they get their information or their understanding, and this is always influenced by the very great confidence of the ruling class that still run the place.” 

Having met some representatives of this class during this trip – ministers, parliamentarians, businesspeople and civil servants – all explaining the broad consensus in Sweden in favour of a liberal migration policy, European enlargement, and striking the right balance between welfare and individual liberty, I found that this confidence might well be justified. 

But on this more later on this blog.

 

  

Filed under: Books,Sweden — Tags: , , — Gerald @ 8:03 pm
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