It was an October evening in the Karlskona archipelago when a local fisherman saw something unusual. He didn’t know it at the time, but what he saw was about to cause a dramatic military and political standoff that would attract the world’s attention and influence Swedish foreign policy for years to come. He phoned the Coast Guard and reported what he had seen, which turned out to be a submarine that ran aground not far from Karlskrona’s town centre and naval base. To everyone’s amazement, the vessel was a Whisky class submarine of the Soviet Union’s Baltic fleet that had hit an underwater rock. The story would later be referred to as the 1981 “Whisky on the rocks” incident.
Recalling this incident now, as the EU’s 27 Foreign Ministers are preparing to meet in Stockholm this weekend, is useful since it gives an important historical perspective to the event. After two devastating world wars and a long cold war, Europe is still looking for its role in the new world order. It is clearly a great economic power and a model of stability and prosperity. It is also a leader in many international issues like climate change. Still, when it comes to many of the world’s security problems and international dilemmas, the EU seems either absent or lost. The US, Russia and China are more decisive and influential and many say that the Europeans are too divided and that they lose political power because their many states, institutions and organizations don’t speak with one voice.
Within the EU, Sweden’s situation is a special one. Today, just like other nations, it is navigating the complicated waters of a multi power world, creating alliances and making friends and foes as it goes along. But things used to be different. Since the 19th century Sweden maintained a unique position of nonalignment which defined its foreign policy. This brings us back to the “Whisky on the rocks” affair and other occasions in the 1980s when foreign submarines threatened Sweden’s neutrality; these incidents had long-term political consequences, some of which are at the root of Sweden’s foreign policy today.
In October 1982, following a dramatic “submarine hunt” outside Stockholm, a Parliamentary investigation committee was appointed. The committee’s report said that the Soviet Union was behind the incursion and political repercussions followed. Sweden’s ambassador to the UN was criticized for creating secret channels with Soviet officials. The Foreign Minister, Lennart Bodström, was forced out of office after he openly questioned Soviet responsibility. Both were probably acting on instructions by the newly-elected PM, Olof Palme, who was trying to maintain Sweden’s vulnerable foreign relations. Later on, Palme became furious when a young conservative member of the original committee met with representatives of US intelligence. He called him a security risk and a threat to Swedish foreign Policy. The upcoming MP’s name was Carl Bildt.
This historical anecdote is significant as Carl Bildt is now Sweden’s foreign minister and he will be the one hosting the semi-annual informal meeting of European Foreign Ministers in Stockholm this weekend. In the years since the submarine dramas of the eighties, Bildt has had a decisive role in shaping Sweden’s political landscape and international attitudes. He was MP in the eighties, PM in the nineties, he has been acting as Foreign Minister since 2006 and he’s one of those responsible for changing Sweden’s neutrality and nonalignment policy. Though Sweden hasn’t joined NATO or the euro zone, it is part of the EU (since 1995) and many of its officials talk about strong European and American ties and “solidarity” with neighbouring Nordic and Baltic states, even to the extent of military assistance.
But as the old conflicts between those who want to maintain Sweden’s nonalignment and those who seek closer ties with one of the great powers disappear, what are the new burning topics of Swedish foreign policy? If Sweden once aspired to be an independent bridge between east and west in a divided Europe, what is its mission when Europe is united? And what are its interests in the new world order? Surprisingly, it’s not easy to tell. In a country where every minute detail of employment, health and education policy is discussed in the public arena, foreign policy is often hidden in the back pages.
If this weekend’s informal meeting is any indication, climate change and the economic crisis are the main issues concerning European Foreign Ministers and their Swedish hosts. “The most pressing issues on the agenda”, Kjell Engelbrekt, an associate Professor at the Swedish National Defense College tells The Local, “will likely be the financial and economic crisis, the upcoming Copenhagen summit on climate change, and a variety of topical foreign policy questions”. Engelbrekt adds that since the foreign ministers of Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia are attending the second day, the issue of EU enlargement will probably be discussed too.
Anders Jörle, press chief at the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells The Local that “It is well known that the situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and the Middle East will be among the topics of the meeting”.
He also says that the agenda is not fixed and to some extent it is decided on the spot. “There will be no decisions, common conclusions or resolutions”, he says.
“Success is if there will be an open-minded discussion that brings effectiveness to the foreign policy of the union”. In order to understand this special dynamic, one has to go back to the early seventies and to a meeting that took place in a 17th century castle in West Germany.
Gymnich castle near Bonn is an impressive Baroque building which was used as a guest house for foreign dignitaries by the German federal government. It has seen guests like Ronald Reagan, Queen Elisabeth and Leonid Brezhnev. In 1974, nine EC foreign ministers met there for the first time and since then it has become a tradition – in addition to regular meetings of the General Affairs and External Relations Council, EU foreign ministers meet for “Gymnich meetings” every six months, in an informal setting in the country holding the presidency of the European Council.
This weekend they will meet in Stockholm’s Modern Museum and will be joined by the high representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), Javier Solana, the commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and the commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn. As usual, although no formal decisions will be made, the outcome of the discussions could have a decisive influence on the relationship between Europe and the rest of the world.
These relations are crucial to an understanding of Sweden’s foreign policy, which is itself part of the dilemma facing European policy makers. Judging by almost any parameter, Europe can be a world power, but does it really want to become one? Is the EU a united force striving to influence world affairs or is it content dealing with issues within and close to its borders while leaving the bigger issues to its component states and to other world powers?
Kjell Engelbrekt says: “The EU can be described as a composite actor because of its lack of cohesive policies and executive power toward many parts of the world”. Engelbrekt adds that the EU has a powerful negotiating position in global trade talks and a collection of aid donors more important than those of the US, but its significance on a variety of political issues is only to the extent that it limits the range of views, options and policies that its members endorse, and consequently agree on. Although the EU is expected to help shape the future of Afghanistan, and is engaged in the question of Iran’s nuclear programme and the Middle-East peace process, its power is limited. Other issues like North Korea, Pakistan and other Asian countries, says Engelbrekt, are way beyond the EU’s reach.
It is true that the EU’s EUFOR military deployment is keeping the peace in Bosnia and it was important in similar efforts in Eastern Congo and Chad. The EU was also involved in solving tough issues such as the Ukraine-Russian crises and the January energy cutoff. But is the EU cut out to be a real world power? Many are sceptical. And like the bigger European picture, the Swedish one is ambivalent too.
On some issues, Swedish policy is clear, as Kjell Engelbrekt explains: an international agreement on climate change must be reached in Copenhagen at the end of this year. This is not only crucial to the survival of mankind; it’s also a “key area from which the Union draws legitimacy as a global player”.
Sweden’s policy is pretty clear on the question of enlargement too. “The commitment made by the Union in Helsinki in 1999, to treat Turkey as a candidate country, must be upheld. It is now up to Turkey to conduct negotiations and fulfill its obligations as a candidate country”. The same can be said about the other two recognized candidates – Croatia and Macedonia.
But other issues are more complicated. Some, like the relationship with Russia and energy supply, are politically complicated because of conflicting interests (economic interest vs. environmental concerns and diplomatic relations with Russia, Germany and the Baltic states). Other issues can raise a heated political debate – what is Sweden willing to risk in order to gain more international credibility both in terms of its independence when it concerns adopting the euro or giving away power to Brussels, and in terms of lives when it concerns military involvement in other countries. And there are yet other issues which raise almost philosophical questions.
Sweden’s official neutrality was never really what many thought it to be. It was designed to keep Sweden out of wars but in many cases it meant that different Swedish elements played conflicting roles in world affairs, serving both admirable and sinister purposes. Sweden’s neutrality during WW2, for example, was used to save thousands of refugees from Ghettos and concentration camps throughout Europe but at the same time it assisted the Nazi war machine. Later on, official nonalignment was used by Swedish organizations to spread both humanitarian aid and weapons in developing countries.
Sweden’s current foreign policy can have similar ambivalent effects. It could be used to serve the narrow interests of powerful economical or political elites or it could be used in the service of something greater than Sweden alone, be it a political union or a set of ideals. It’s hard to tell if the current Swedish EU presidency is showing the way to a new leading position in international politics, but the Gymnich meeting is surely a good opportunity to take a broader look at the situation. The world is facing enormous challenges and its inhabitants are making choices every day. Some are joining hands and confronting the challenges, others continue to engage in “old world behaviour”. Sweden and other European countries are making choices too. This time it’s not about chasing submarines or creating secret diplomatic backchannels, it’s about taking responsibility and making history.