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.”