• Sweden's news in English

Birgitta Ohlsson - A maverick in a ministerial suit

Peter Vinthagen Simpson · 8 Jun 2010, 09:55

Published: 08 Jun 2010 09:55 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

When the Liberal Party foreign affairs spokesperson Birgitta Ohlsson was made Sweden's Europe Minister in February, the country's government gave a signal that it planned to challenge social conservatives in other parts of the continent.

The 34-year-old was first elected to parliament in 2002 and swiftly established herself as a campaigning politician - a keen advocate of feminism, equality and civil liberties issues, she is also an enthusiastic supporter of euro and Nato membership.

Since taking up the post, Ohlsson has kept her campaigning streak, and has been unafraid of challenging less liberal counterparts across the union.

Gay rights have been a major focus during Ohlsson's first months on the job: she risked the anger of conservative eastern European politicians by addressing the opening of Baltic Pride in Lithuania, after courts and politicians had tried to ban the event. She used her appearance to make an impassioned plea for gay equality:

”I would like to urge all European politicians from left to right to get out of the closet. Do not hide behind the LGBT-activists and let them fight on their own,” she told crowds.

For Ohlsson, issues such as the banning of Pride marches are matters of human rights. But what can Sweden and the rest of the EU do to get their point across?:

”There are a range of tools – the Lisbon Treaty contains explicit conditions, and I would like to see more use of naming and shaming of those who don't meet the basic commitments in EU treaties, which as members they have signed up to,” she says.

The path to EU membership has been used as a tool to encourage the spread of universal European values and with many of Sweden's EU neighbours due to join the euro within the next few years, Sweden's status outside of the single currency remains a concern for Ohlsson.

”It will be difficult for Sweden to apply pressure if we stand outside, we will be isolated. But you are either in the EU club or you are not, there are stringent rules and all must live up to them,” she says.

With regard to persuading an apparently reluctant Swedish electorate of the merits of joining the euro, Ohlsson argued that politicians have a role in shaping the debate and explaining the merits of membership, underlining that the Liberal Party's pro-euro stance would not change just because of the current debt crisis.

”It is the job of politicians to lead and not just to react to events. We have to stand up and argue for this,” she says while pointing out that it remains the party's position to hold a second referendum on the issue. 

Despite Sweden's place outside of the euro, the minister argued that the country remained a force for change with regard to equality issues within Europe.

”We are the most radical country in Europe when it comes to equality,” Ohlsson says.

When the EU Commission in February proposed the introduction of mandatory maternity leave for the first six weeks after childbirth, Ohlsson called the intitiative fatally flawed. By not allowing fathers to take the leave instead, she argued that it posed a threat to the generous Swedish model.

”This legislative proposal was framed as a compulsion and not as a right, and it made no mention of the father,” she said. ”I wouldn't have been able to have become a minister, for example,” Ohlsson, who is expecting a baby in July, explains.

The proposal, which has been delayed by the euro debt crisis would, many have argued, constitute an improvement in the rights of many parents across Europe. 

”You have to make a distinction between welfare issues and we consider these to be the rights of the individual member states to decide,” Ohlsson says.

Story continues below…

Ohlsson is happy with what the centre-right government has achieved with regards to equality issues since coming to power in 2006, with housekeeping tax relief, measures to tackle the abuse of women, and the childcare allowance cited as positive inititiatives.

”There is more to do, there is always more to do, but I think we have shown that we are prepared to act,” she says.

While Ohlsson's ministerial post keeps her busy with EU issues, the issue of freedom of expression has brought her attention closer to home in recent months in defence of the rights of the embattled artist Lars Vilks and author Jonas Gardell to express their views.

Birgitta Ohlsson plans to mount a work from Ecce Homo - a controversial exhibition of 12 photographs of different biblical situations in modern surroundings, taken by the Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin – in her Stockholm office in defence of what she considers inaliable democratic rights.

”Freedom of expression shows no compromises...we must never accept that people are intimidated into silence by extremists. Freedom of expression is the foundation of our democracy.”

Peter Vinthagen Simpson (news@thelocal.se)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

05:48 June 10, 2010 by cmbsweden
She's great.
08:24 June 10, 2010 by lurker
I agree. A total breath of fresh air.
16:21 June 10, 2010 by geekgirl
Good vibes, good words.

However, what's with the "controversial exhibition of 12 photographs of different biblical situations in modern surroundings"? I thought Swedes prefer to keep faith to oneself? Is that an exception to the rule because it is part of the freedom of expression proponent's agenda?
10:04 June 11, 2010 by DamnImmigrant
ALL 2nd and 3rd world immigrants to Europe must take classes in European ideals. One of the most important classes would be freedom of expression which covers speech and art.
23:53 June 12, 2010 by billyb362
Yes, Birgitta Ohlsson is "a fresh breath of air" Only thing is, that air is toxic waste!

This woman is dark
15:10 June 13, 2010 by Byggare Bob
Birgitta for president.
03:25 January 24, 2013 by B.olesen
lmao, yeah a real maverick.
Today's headlines
Löfven: 'Sweden will double its number of troops in Iraq'
Stefan Löfven and Haider al-Abadi during the visit on Monday. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has promised to double his country's number of troops in Iraq following a meeting with Iraqi counterpart Haider al-Abadi on Monday.

Will Swedes soon be looking for fairtrade porn?
Should Swedes think fairtrade with porn? Photo: Karin Malmhav/SvD/TT

A fairtrade attitude to pornography would be beneficial, Sweden's health minister told The Local.

Presented by Stockholm University
Nordic fashion in focus at Stockholm University
Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Nordic fashion took centre stage in the Swedish capital last week as Stockholm University hosted the “first-ever” academic conference looking at luxury and sustainability in the fashion industry.

Referee, coach and parents in Swedish youth football fight
File photo of a referee holding a red card not related to the story. Photo: Stefan Jerrevång/TT

A football dad broke his leg in the brawl in front of 11-year-old kids after a Hammarby youth football game.

Illicit abattoir kept more than 100 bulls' penises
A couple of young bulls not related to the story. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Dried cattle genitalia, goats' heads and hundreds of litres of lard were just a few of the many strange finds discovered when police raided a property in Sweden.

This is officially Sweden's most beautiful beard
The most beautiful beard in Sweden. Photo: Memo Göcek

According to a jury of barbers and 'well known bearded profiles', that is.

Presented by Invest Stockholm
One expat's strategy for making friends in Stockholm

You might think it’s hard to make friends in a new city. But if at first you don’t succeed – try something else!

Injured Swedish photographer protected by 'guardian angel'
Swedish photographer Paul Hansen on another occasion. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Photographer Paul Hansen thanked his lucky stars for surviving sniper fire while covering the battle for the Isis-held city of Mosul in Iraq.

How Sweden is trying to smooth relations with Saudis
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven meeting Saudi Arabia's Trade Minister Majid bin Abdullah Al Qasabi. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has visited Saudi Arabia a year and a half after relations turned frosty in a major diplomatic row.

My Swedish Career
'Swedish people love it, but they find it quite odd'
Scottish entrepreneur William Macdonald. Photo: Michael Campanella

Meet the web developer and entrepreneur using traditional Scottish ceilidh dancing to break the ice with Swedes.

Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
People-watching: October 21st-23rd
Sponsored Article
This is Malmö: Football capital of Sweden
Fury at plans that 'threaten the IB's survival' in Sweden
Analysis & Opinion
Are we just going to let half the country die?
Blog updates

6 October

10 useful hjälpverb (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! I think the so-called “hjalpverb” (auxiliary verbs in English) are a good way to get…" READ »


8 July

Editor’s blog, July 8th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, It has, as always, been a bizarre, serious and hilarious week in Sweden. You…" READ »

Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Angry elk chases Swede up a lamp post
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
The Local Voices
'Alienation in Sweden feels better: I find myself a stranger among scores of aliens'
People-watching: October 20th
The Local Voices
A layover at Qatar airport brought this Swedish-Kenyan couple together - now they're heading for marriage
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Swede punches clown that scared his grandmother
Sponsored Article
Swedish for programmers: 'It changed my life'
Fans throw flares and enter pitch in Swedish football riot
Could Swedish blood test solve 'Making a Murderer'?
Sponsored Article
Top 7 tips to help you learn Swedish
Property of the week: Linnéstaden, Gothenburg
Sponsored Article
‘Extremism can't be defeated on the battlefield alone’
Swedish school to build gender neutral changing room
People-watching: October 14th-16th
Sponsored Article
Stockholm: creating solutions to global challenges
Man in Sweden assaulted by clowns with broken bottle
Sponsored Article
Why you should 'grab a chair' on Stockholm's tech scene
Nobel Prize 2016: Literature
Sponsored Article
Where is the Swedish music industry heading?
Watch the man who discovered Bob Dylan react to his Nobel Prize win
Sponsored Article
One expat's strategy for making friends in Stockholm
Record numbers emigrating from Sweden
Sponsored Article
Nordic fashion in focus at Stockholm University
People-watching: October 12th
The Local Voices
'Swedish startups should embrace newcomers' talents - there's nothing to fear'
How far right are the Sweden Democrats?
Property of the week: Triangeln, Malmö
Sweden unveils Europe's first elk hut
People-watching: October 7th-9th
The Local Voices
Syria's White Helmets: The Nobel Peace Prize would have meant a lot, but pulling a child from rubble is the greatest reward
Missing rune stone turns up in Sweden
Nobel Prize 2016: Chemistry
jobs available