'I hope there will be adults in the room during Brexit negotiations'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
'I hope there will be adults in the room during Brexit negotiations'
UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her Swedish counterpart Stefan Löfven. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

The Local spoke to Sweden's ambassador to the UK, Torbjörn Sohlström, to talk about Brexit, fake news, and the deep roots of the Swedish-British relationship.


What kind of image do people have of Sweden in the UK?

My impression is that there is a positive image of Sweden in the UK. Not every single individual in the UK has a very clear idea of what Sweden represents and what's happening here, but to a surprising degree people have a sense of Sweden.

They've been here, they watch Swedish TV series – I'm not sure it always gives the right impression, they might think we go around murdering each other all the time! – and of course Swedish companies are extremely present in the UK. People buy their furniture at Ikea, they eat cinnamon buns at their local coffee shop, they buy their clothes at H&M, so whether they know it or not, most people in the UK have some sort of relationship to Sweden.

It's a basic positive image in the sense that there are a lot of similarities, a long history together, extensive trade, a significant number of Swedes living in the UK and an increasing number of Brits living here. Swedes and Brits are not so different.

But obviously, where there is sun, there is shadow. There's been a debate in particular parts of the British press about difficulties in Sweden linked to migration and organized crime over the past couple of years. Some of that is true; we have a number of challenges in these areas, but I think in some cases it has not been a fair description of what actually goes on in Sweden – there has been politically biased reporting that does not present reality. But our assessment, and there have been studies too, and my own experience from travelling around talking to Brits is that the overall impression and attitude to Sweden is extremely positive.

When you travel around the country, is there a specific part of the Swedish image that you try to promote in the UK?

There are lots of things to talk about. I normally speak about the breadth of the relationship and the fact that we are politically like-minded countries. Britain and Sweden are the two countries that voted the same way most frequently in the EU over the past ten years, we have an extremely close cultural relationship. Business-wise, there are about 1,000 Swedish companies in the UK and about 1,000 British companies in Sweden, 100,000 Swedes in the UK and every year the number of British tourists coming to Sweden is increasing. It's an explosion of cooperation and contact in all areas.

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Something I like to mention is that the latest iteration of these business links is a 'tech bridge' between London and Stockholm. London is the European capital with the largest number of companies there but if you look at the per capita concentration, Stockholm is second only to Silicon Valley in terms of the concentration of unicorns. We've started events bringing together Swedish and British companies that are successful in different sectors of the new economy. So that's something we put emphasis on, but the real story is that we are so close in so many areas.

Swedish ambassador Torbjörn Sohlström. Photo: Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet

Have you ever had to take any steps to counter misleading reports of Sweden?

The overall relationship is strong, it has deep roots, a lot of people have real life experiences have Sweden, and I think this will outweigh the negative reporting.

The most important thing is letting the strong aspects speak for themselves, but if we as an embassy saw any serious media or serious politician misrepresent Sweden we would do what we can to correct them. Quite often people who spread exaggerated or inaccurate stories often do so to pursue a political agenda and I'm not sure they'd be open to effort from our side to correct their story.

And are there any areas where you think one country can learn from the other?

For 1,000 years, we learned from Britain. We were a fairly poor, dark country up in the north, whereas Britain was more developed, richer, more populous, way more advanced in terms of science and industrialization.

Over the past 50 years or so we have had a much more equal relationship. We are still learning from Britain, but we also have things to offer in this relationship now, in all areas.

Take the Swedish-British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca: they have three big science hubs in the world, of which two are in Sweden and the UK. There's a plane going back and forward almost every day with scientists going between the two.

In politics, I think that there's a lot of debate about equality and inclusion in both Sweden and the UK. I think Brits are often better than Sweden at inclusion in terms of ethnic minorities whereas I think we've probably come further in gender equality.

So do you think Sweden can teach the UK something in that respect, for example in terms of Sweden's so-called feminist foreign policy?

The UK is very close to us in that respect; it doesn't say it has a feminist foreign policy but we cooperate with the UK in many of the areas which are important to the feminist foreign policy. Like us, the UK pushes equality and gender aspects in international engagement.

The only difference really is the label of feminism that we use. There is a UK ambassador for gender issues, and when the UK hosted the Heads of State of the Commonwealth earlier this year, it made the education of girls a big priority for the commonwealth, which is an important aspect of a feminist foreign policy.

Torbjörn Sohlström and his wife Helena at an embassy event celebrating the Ingmar Bergman centennial. Photo: Mark Earthy/TT

With close ties in so many areas, how would you say Brexit is affecting the relationship?

We will have to see. For us however, it's negative for three reasons. We will risk a degree of friction in the extremely close bilateral ties we have. We might have more friction in trade in terms of customs and trade, there might be more friction in the movement of people. 

Secondly we will lose an ally in the EU. The UK is a big country and it's been important for us to have a big country as a friend, but now we are losing an ally. We will deal with that, but it's a loss.

Thirdly, we are convinced that Europe must work together to deal with an increasing number of challenges that Europe as a whole is facing. We think that we will be weaker collectively by not working together as one. We hope we can continue to do that in many fields, but the UK leaving the EU is a negative.

What is important for us now is that we have an orderly process and minimize the damage from Brexit as much as possible. We absolutely have to avoid these 'no-deal' scenarios, which would be catastrophic. I really hope there are enough adults in the room, on both sides, to avoid this. Looking at the challenges Europe is facing, we can't afford mutual damage of the kind that a no-deal Brexit would mean.

Have you heard from Swedish residents and companies about their concerns?

The uncertainty at the moment is a big problem, and among the people, there are some concerns. There is a preliminary deal on citizens' rights that I think will be a good outcome . I think the British government has done a good job in being much clearer than it was initially that EU citizens including Swedes are welcome, that Britain wants them to stay and they're making a really important contribution. These messages have been extremely important because I think there was a sense that it wasn't clear whether people were appreciated, and people were quite shocked about this because they'd always seen Britain as an extremely open country for foreigners. 

The companies are looking at what sort of economic relationship there will be after the UK's departure. There are companies in basically every sector of the British economy, they have flourished and grown as a result of the single market and the fact they have been able to trade friction-free with Sweden and the rest of the EU. A number of big Swedish companies are really concerned about what a degree of friction at the border would mean for their production. If there will be friction in trade, it will be a minus for the trade between our countries, for the economy, and for our relationship. Britain will still be an extremely close partner, and I will certainly do everything I can to protect and promote the relationship, but Brexit does mean things. Britain is not just leaving the Brussels institutions, it is also leaving a club of which Sweden is a part.


How would you sum up your top priorities in your role as ambassador?

To summarize in just one sentence, I'd say it is to protect or promote our relationship. Protect, because Brexit means that this fantastic relationship, parts of it can be challenged and we need to do whatever we can to minimize the damage. But at the same time, we should not only do damage limitation, we should also develop and promote, so there are areas where we can go further: technology, startup companies, the new economy, security policy, military cooperation, environmental research – these are areas where we are moving forward. We need to make sure that we don't lose things because we are sitting on opposite sides of the Brexit negotiations. 

So far, things are going extremely well. The small regret I could have is that the focus on Brexit negotiations means there are other things we are not doing; we are already paying this opportunity cost. 

If there is a message which is beyond what I usually say, it is really that I hope there will be adults in the room during Brexit negotiations; people talking seriously. This is not a time to create additional damage, it's a time when the UK and the rest of Europe must hold together and fight for common interests. It's so clearly in the interest of Sweden and the rest of the EU and the UK to have an agreed way forward so I am optimistic that we will find that way.

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