Listhaug, who visited Sweden this week ostensibly to learn about migration in the country, has been criticised for misrepresenting internal security in Norway’s neighbour as part of her election campaign, and has in the past used Sweden as a cautionary tale while calling for tighter immigration policies at home.
On Tuesday, Sweden’s Migration Minister Heléne Fritzon cancelled a meeting with her Norwegian counterpart at the last minute, after judging that Listhaug’s visit to Sweden was part of her campaign.
Bildt, a former leader of the centre-right Moderate Party and prime minister of Sweden in the early 1990s as well as foreign minister from 2006-2014, has now given cross-party backing to Fritzon, saying that Listhaug’s representation of Sweden does not represent the reality in the country.
“Sweden is a well-functioning country and we have had progress with our immigration policies. There are absolutely areas where there are problems, as we have seen that there always are in a transitional period,” Bildt told Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
“When [Listhaug’s Norway visit] happens during an election campaign with harsh words about ‘Sweden’s situation’, it is not for the purpose of learning, but for campaigning,” he added.
The former PM said that Sweden’s record showed that refugees could be integrated.
“I remember during my time as prime minister, when we had to take in a large group of Bosnians after their war. It was not simple and we experienced gang crime, smuggling and shootings in Sweden. Nonetheless, we now see that this group of immigrants is almost as well-integrated as normal Swedes,” he said.
Heidi Avellan, political editor of the Sydsvenskan and Helsingborgs Dagblad newspapers, told NRK that she considered Listhaug's visit to Sweden, which took in the Rinkeby neighbourhood of Stockholm, to have very little to do with learning.
“My impression of Listhaug is that she is good at PR and sees that she can gain attention in Norway by giving an incorrect picture of Sweden and Sweden’s immigration policies,” Avellan said.
The editor added that political visits to Sweden for the purposes stated by the Norwegian minister were unusual.
“It is not normal to come here to see and learn, nor do I think that was Listhaug’s intention. I think she came to point the finger and say ‘that’s how things can go’. [Progress Party leader] Siv Jensen has previously said that parts of Malmö are under sharia law. Silvi Listhaug is not the first person in history to come here and do this, and it is clear that she is doing it for her own sake and not to learn for Norway’s,” she said.
Fritzon’s decision not to “meet Listhaug and take part in Listhaug’s election campaign” was the sensible choice, Avellan told NRK.
In an interview with newspaper VG on Tuesday, Listhaug said that her visit to Sweden was not a campaign stunt.
“I think that whenever I had visited, it would have been interesting. [Swedish newspaper] Aftonbladet said that I should come and see what it’s like. I have been on maternity leave and before that I was pregnant. There has not been a convenient time to visit. It has not been possible for me to do it until now. It has to be done during the campaign because of the baby and breastfeeding,” she said.