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EUROPEAN UNION

Birgitta Ohlsson – A maverick in a ministerial suit

Sweden's Minister of EU Affairs Birgitta Ohlsson talks to The Local's Peter Vinthagen Simpson about freedom of expression in Sweden and Europe today; the euro and Sweden's status outside of it; and what can be done to encourage and promote universal European liberal values.

Birgitta Ohlsson - A maverick in a ministerial suit
Photo: Roland Karlsson

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.

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.”

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Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU’s minimum wage plan?

EU labour ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the European Commission's planned minimum wage directive. Why is the proposal causing such unease in Sweden?

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU's minimum wage plan?
Customers visit a branch of McDonalds in Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What’s happening on Monday? 

EU ministers responsible for employment and social affairs, including Sweden’s Eva Nordmark, will meet in Brussels for a two day meeting at which they hope to adopt a European Council position on a directive imposing “adequate minimum wages” on all EU countries. Once the Council, which represents member states, has agreed a common position, it will begin negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

What’s Sweden’s position on the minimum wage directive? 

Sweden has been, along with Denmark, one of the most vocal opponents of the directive, arguing that it threatens the country’s collective bargaining model, in which unions and employers set wages without government interference. 

But on Friday, the government dropped its opposition, together with country’s umbrella union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, arguing that a compromise proposal put forward by the European Commission would protect Sweden’s wage autonomy. 

A majority of the members of the Swedish parliament’s employment committee are backing the government’s new stance, but three opposition parties, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats, are opposed to the change in position. 

“I am extremely happy that there is broad support and majority backing for us to continue with the negotiations, to stand up for what we have come to so far, and do everything we can to protect the Swedish wage-setting model,” Sweden’s employment minister Eva Nordmark (S) said after a meeting with the employment committee on Friday. 

READ ALSO: Why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage and how to ensure you’re fairly paid

Why did Sweden make its dramatic last-minute u-turn? 

Sweden’s government judges that, after the compromise, the directive will no longer mean that Sweden is forced to bring in a statutory minimum wage. 

“I consider, together with experts in the civil service and experts in the unions and employer organisations, that there is no requirement for Sweden to bring in a statutory minimum wage,” Nordmark told TT. 

She added that agreeing to sign up to the directive would give Sweden the ability to take a deeper part in the negotiations giving it the power to make sure that important exceptions are made for Sweden. 

Denmark, however, is still resolved to say ‘no’ to the directive. 

Surely a minimum wage is a good thing? Isn’t Sweden supposed to be a high-wage economy? 

Sweden is certainly a high-wage economy, but that is largely thanks to its model of collective bargaining, under which wages are generally set by negotiations between employees and employers for each sector. 

If the directive sets a precedent allowing governments, either at a national or EU level, to interfere in this process, or for those who disagree with the result of the collective bargaining agreement to appeal to government entities, it could undermine the Swedish system. 

Who is still worried? 

More or less everyone. While the Swedish Trade Union Confederation is supporting the government’s decision, its vice chair Therese Guovelin, described the European Commission’s compromise proposal as simply “the least bad compromise proposal” the union had seen.

She has previously described the European Parliament’s position that the directive should apply to the entire European Union as “a catastrophe”.

“That would mean that a disgruntled employee who is not part of the union, could take their case to court, and would then end up at the EU Court, and it would then be them who would decide on what should be a reasonable salary,” she explained. “In Sweden, it’s the parties [unions and employers’ organisations] that decide on that.”

Tobias Billström, group leader for the Moderate Party, said he was concerned at the role of the European Court in the directive. 

“There are big risks with this,” he told TT. “The EU court might decide to interpret this directive as applying across the board, and then we might end up with what we wanted to avoid. The Moderates have as a result been against this development, and it’s important that Sweden gets to decide itself on the Swedish labour market.”

What might happen now? 

The European Parliament might try to remove the wording and the exemptions which Sweden hopes will allow its employers and unions to retain control of wage-setting. 

Mattias Dahl, chief executive of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents employers’ groups, said that the government needed to stand its ground in the upcoming negotiations, reiterating that he would have preferred that the European Commission had not sought to give itself such a role in the Labour Market.  

Nordmark said that Sweden did not intend to back down to the parliament. 

“These are important red lines for us. If there are demands from the European Parliament that push in a different direction, we can lean on the Swedish opinion and what we stand for,” she said. 

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