Sweden’s Ambassador to Poland: ‘On climate, I hope our children won’t blame us for inaction’

Staffan Herrström

Staffan Herrström

There is still hope for meaningful decisions to be made at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, Swedish Ambassador Staffan Herrström told EURACTIV Poland in an exclusive interview.

EURACTIV Poland’s Karolina Zbytniewska and Krzysztof Kokoszczy?ski asked the diplomat about the recent Swedish elections, energy, environment, gender policies, as well as the Ukrainian crisis.

Sweden has just elected a new government. After eight years of centre-right rule, a new red-green coalition is taking power. Given the change of the government’s politics, do you expect any changes in policy in the Swedish famous welfare sector?

The main goals of the government were presented in the exposé by Prime Minister [Stefan] Löfven, but to answer the question shortly, it is still a work in progress. What is known at present is that the government is planning to take a closer look at profit-making enterprises in this area.

The previous Swedish government have not created quotas for women in the labour market, so there is still a paycheque disparity in this respect in Sweden.

I agree that there is still a room for improvement in this area in Sweden. Yet, the participation of women in the labour market is over 75%, which is not that bad – but could be better, of course.

What you are referring to are quotas in corporate boards – those are still below 30%. The new government has already announced that if they do not reach 40% by 2016, gender quotas will have to be introduced.

Unfortunately, as you mention, there is still a gender pay gap in Sweden, 16% by the most recent Eurostat data. One of the reasons for this is the fact that many women are employed only part-time – which is a problem in itself.

What do Swedes think about the top-down approach to gender inequality, such as quotas?

In fighting gender inequality, one needs both top-down and bottom-up approaches. The latter helps to build consciousness, awareness of the issue in the society, while the former allows wide-ranging, active measures to be taken by the state.

To directly answer your question, I would say that Swedish society’s response to top-down approaches is quite positive, but it can vary on a case-by-case basis. For example, the introduction of paternity leave with two months reserved for fathers resulted in a much higher utilisation of the parental leave by fathers. The debate on quotas in listed companies has been more lively.

There are many Swedes prepared to call themselves feminists. The new Foreign Minister Margot Wallström has clearly said that we will have a feministic foreign policy.

Moving to the broader political culture of Sweden – how do you expect the new government to fare, given it has not secured a majority in Riksdag (coverage of the elections HERE)?

Indeed it is. We have a long tradition of minority governments. In fact, in my whole lifetime I can recall only about ten years – in total – during which a majority government ruled.

Minority governments had worked reasonably well in the past. We have a culture of political compromise, which has been developed throughout our history. This tradition of looking for a common ground, a common solution, has been a significant influence on and a boon for both our political scene and our labour market.

It is further strengthened by our electoral system. We have a proportional system (similar to that in Poland) with a threshold of 4% of votes required to get a seat in Riksdag. Therefore, political parties have to collaborate if the whole system is to work.

One of those parties are the Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), a right-wing, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration party. The SD have seen a rise in popularity in the recent years, and now are the third-largest party in the Riksdag, in addition to having 2 MEPs. Some commentators see their success as a sign of a change to come, of Swedes growing tired with their image of a country welcoming to immigrants and asylum seekers. Would you agree with such view?

No, I would not. It is wrong to describe the rise of popularity of this party as a general rise of xenophobia in Sweden, as a sign of Sweden’s closing itself to immigration. There are polls tracking public opinion trends over the years, and they show that the level of xenophobia has been decreasing. The policy of openness has strong support, both from the previous and the current government.  At the same time, it is important that all European countries do more with respect to the asylum seekers and migrants.

Can we expect then support of the Swedish government to common EU policies, such as Common European Asylum System in this area?

Yes, definitely. There are already some policies in place, but they need improvement. Recent events – conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria – have proven that the current solutions are not efficient in dealing with this issue.

There should be more solidarity among the European countries. It would not require that much from the countries that are not doing enough now. Yet, when taken across all 28 member states of the EU, small changes can produce big results. If all EU countries would receive as many UNHCR quota refugees per inhabitant as Sweden, it would mean that the EU would be able to receive 100,000 more refugees. One thing is certain: we cannot just sit around with closed eyes when these human tragedies are taking place, and pretend that this issue will go away, if we do not pay attention to it. It will not.

As you mention the Middle East… the recent declaration by the Prime Minister that Sweden will recognize Palestine as a country has surprised many. Why make such a declaration now?

In this declaration, not only do we join around 130 countries that have already done so, but we also give our support to a negotiated, two-state solution. And as you know, Sweden has a long tradition of engagement for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What future do you see for the Eastern Partnership? Before the conflict in Ukraine, it had seemed to grind to a halt, but the Ukrainian crisis has revitalised this initiative, and seems to have given it a second life.

First of all, it has to be said that one of the great successes of Poland and Sweden was that our initiative has grown into a pan-European project. We now have three frontrunners in this project: Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. All of them have signed the Association Agreements. But now they have a huge (amount of) work to do, so they would be able to implement the Agreements.

Hopefully, next year’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga will not only reconfirm the commitment and the support for the Partnership, but will also provide a plan for how it can continue beyond 2015.

How would you judge the current situation in Ukraine?

It is still extremely serious. Any solution now will depend on concrete steps taken by Russia. We have already many words about peace from, them but now we need to see them followed by actions.

How did or does the Ukrainian conflict impact the Swedish population? Has it been noticed? Has it changed people’s way of thinking?

It has definitely influenced the security debate within the country. Swedes have noticed the increased assertiveness of Russia on the global scene, not only in Ukraine, and are reacting to it.

And what about current Swedish ties with Russia?

We had been a substantial investor in Russia prior to the conflict. Still, given that, Sweden has never hesitated when it came to EU sanctions. We put the stability and freedom of Ukraine at top of our agenda.

Having said that, Sweden, like Poland, is quite familiar with Russia. We both have lived with them for a long time.

Would you then judge the EU’s reaction to the Ukrainian crisis as sufficient?

This is a question for our Foreign Minister to assess. Still, I would say that we should keep in mind different economic ties various European countries have with Russia. One has to notice that despite these ties, there has been a significant European unity on display in terms of approach to Russia. One could, of course, say that more could have been done – now or a year ago, when the whole conflict was beginning – but given that we are 28 very different countries, we have been impressively unified in this issue. We should focus on keeping this European – and also Transatlantic –unity.

How, in your opinion, has the Ukrainian conflict impacted European energy security? Would you agree that it highlighted the need for improvements in this area?

Definitely. A good example here would be improving energy efficiency –The energy you are not using is not creating any dependence. It has proven to be hugely beneficial for Sweden.

Do you think there is a chance that there will be any meaningful agreement coming from 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change 2015 in Paris? An agreement has to be made, but will it bring any actual change to the world, given that, for example, the Chinese Ambassador to Poland Xu Jian told us last year (HERE) that China will not sign anything?

China is facing a growing environmental impact of pollution on its population. They are still at the negotiating table, so I would not rule out them becoming a part of the agreement. Thus, there is still hope for meaningful decisions to be made in Paris.

I have two daughters. I hope they and their children will not be living in a world blaming us for inaction.

Furthermore, it has to be stressed that the better climate policy is not only a burden – it also brings benefits. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, chaired by former president of Mexico Felipe Calderón, has recently published the Better Growth, Better Climate: The New Climate Economy Report analysing impact of environmental policies on economy. It is a very interesting read that addresses many question and doubts posed by ambitious environmental policy.

Are there any plans for Sweden to adopt the euro?

The adoption of euro is not on the agenda of the current government. Therefore it will not happen within the next four years.  

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