Profile: Sweden’s new EU minister Birgitta Ohlsson

Birgitta Ohlsson was named as Sweden's new EU minister on Tuesday. An outspoken advocate of feminism, equality and civil liberties issues, as well as a keen supporter of Nato membership, Ohlsson also harbours dreams of a top UN human rights post.

Profile: Sweden's new EU minister Birgitta Ohlsson

“She is in many ways the antithesis of the sort of law and order liberal typified by her party leader Jan Björklund – she’s a true social liberal,” says James Savage, The Local’s political affairs commentator.

Like many high profile Swedish politicians of all stripes, Birgitta Ohlsson first came to prominence as chairperson of her party’s youth league – a post she held until 2002.

Since 2007 she has been chairperson of the Liberala Kvinnor women’s association. The role appears made to measure for Ohlsson, who has positioned herself as a high profile liberal feminist, something of an exception in an area otherwise dominated by the left in Swedish politics.

When the centre-right Swedish government assumed power in the autumn of 2006, Ohlsson was thus in contention for the post of Minister for Integration and Gender Equality.

This post however went to Liberal Party colleague Nyamko Sabuni and Ohlsson has instead used her position as the party foreign affairs spokesperson to argue for full Swedish Nato membership and the adoption of the euro.

A staunch republican, Ohlsson was chairperson until 2005 of the Swedish Republican Association, a group deeply sceptical of Sweden’s monarchy and enjoying broad cross-party support in the parliament.

While Ohlsson had been a hot favourite for the EU minister post ever since it became clear that Cecilia Malmström would become Sweden’s EU commissioner, there was also speculation that she would be overlooked by a party hierarchy unhappy with her refusal to tow the party line on several issues.

Some of Ohlsson’s most vocal objections came within the feverish debates that preceded the adoption of the anti-piracy Ipred law, and the FRA signals intelligence law, at one point threatening to vote against the government.

Ohlsson also argues that the childcare allowance introduced during the current mandate period traps women in traditional gender roles. She also advocates higher quotas for parental leave, a position espoused by the left-green opposition.

On her homepage,, Ohlsson details her support for open immigration, abortion and privatization, as well as opposition to the proposed language test for prospective Swedish citizens.

Asked whether Ohlsson’s strong views, often at odds with her party and with the government, could pose a problem with a general election looming, James Savage says:

“She is an ambitious politician. As such, I think she fully understands the constraints of collective responsibility now that she is part of the government.”

Birgitta Ohlsson is pregnant and is expecting her first child in July. There has been speculation in the media over the past week that this would prove a further hindrance to her fulfilling her role as a government minister.

Ohlsson roundly rejected the assertion in a recent post on her blog:

“I am married to a modern man and not a dinosaur. My husband and I plan to share our parental leave… For the media to refer to my pregnancy is just sad and tritely conservative. Maybe we are still living in 1950 and not 2010.”

Ohlsson is pro-choice on abortion issues and in June 2009 helped to launch the “Make Noise for Free Choice” campaign aimed at Ireland, Portugal and Malta, all Catholic countries that ban pregnancy terminations.

The petition called on the EU to classify the right to abortion as a human right, but Ohlsson later denied that the campaign’s intention was to use the Lisbon treaty to “force” the issue on member states.

With an election looming in October in Sweden, Ohlsson’s established social liberal credentials and radical liberal economic position may provide a boost to a government lagging behind in the opinion polls and seeking to attract centrist voters. Some commentators have voiced suspicions of party political opportunism.

“But make no mistake, Ohlsson is in the government to stay. If the government regains power then you can expect her to remain,” says James Savage.

Birgitta Ohlsson stated in a press conference on Tuesday morning that she wants Europe to be the most important voice for peace in the world.

On her homepage, the outspoken 34-year-old indicates that her ambitions do not rest there. Her dream job? – to work with human rights at the UN in New York.

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‘EU needs to deliver as values crisis looms’

Europe is in the midst of a values crisis, argues Sweden's EU Affairs Minister Birgitta Ohlsson, who believes it's time for European Union and Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to act as he delivers his 2013 State of the Union speech on Wednesday.

'EU needs to deliver as values crisis looms'

In the shadow of the economic crisis we are witnessing a values crisis in Europe. Europe’s major populist, xenophobic, and nationalist parties have, on average, almost doubled in national elections in recent years.

In many Member States during recent years we have seen attacks on freedom of the press, rule of law, and fundamental democratic principles. Pride parades are being banned in EU capitals, the Roma are often treated as second class citizens, and we still have challenges regarding islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and racism.

Safeguarding the values of the European Union is more crucial than ever.

A year ago, you presented, as President of the European Commission, your 2012 State of the Union address. You emphasized, very importantly, the need for a Europe with strong support for human rights:

“It is time to learn the lessons from history and write a better future for our Europe. A Europe that stands by its values…A political union also means that we must strengthen the foundations on which our Union is built: the respect for our fundamental values, for the rule of law and democracy.

Last year, you also had the courage to criticize the sad development in some EU Member States.

“In recent months we have seen threats to the legal and democratic fabric in some of our European states. The European Parliament and the Commission were the first to raise the alarm and played the decisive role in seeing these worrying developments brought into check. But these situations also revealed limits of our institutional arrangements.”

And you presented an idea for a solution:

“We need a better developed set of instruments– not just the alternative between the “soft power” of political persuasion and the “nuclear option” of article 7 of the Treaty.

Some of these European values have become victims of the crisis. Just as we need rules to stabilize Member States’ budgets, we need to improve respect for human rights, rule of law, and fundamental values.

As early as in 2003, the Commission tabled a communication on article 7, with an ambition to monitor the respect for human rights and swiftly react to violations.

This issue was discussed twice in the General Affairs Council during the 2013 Irish Presidency, and several Member States have requested the Commission to come up with a new communication on how to improve monitoring of human rights and rule of law.

I look forward to listening to your speech today. It’s time to deliver, President Barroso!’

Birgitta Ohlsson

Minister for EU Affairs, Sweden