Opinion: Every country needs an Almedalen Week

Sweden's annual political festival could bring huge benefits to democracy if it were transported abroad, writes Erik Zsiga, director of communications consultancy Kekst CNC.

Opinion: Every country needs an Almedalen Week
People arriving to the festival's first day. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

This week, the epicenter of Swedish politics and business temporarily moved from Stockholm to Visby, on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. Taking place in July every year, the Almedalen Week attracts some 45,000 visitors to the old Hanseatic town, who attend workshops, speeches, debates and receptions in pop-up locations like shops, gardens and warehouses.

It all started 51 years ago when future Prime Minister Olof Palme gave a speech en route to his summer holiday. The other parties soon followed, but for many years it was an event stretching over one or a few days attracting only professional politicians. Journalists came along to report upon what they discussed.

Around the millennium, NGOs and lobbying groups started to come. Companies then saw the opportunity to meet with a range of their stakeholder groups. With social media added to the mix by the 2010s, the week had evolved into its present format – a combination of politics and business, professionalism and party.

One could argue that the Almedalen Week is very Swedish in its forms – equal, consensus driven and based on dialogue. But it is also informal and intimate. And most important, focused on contributing to democracy.

This has drawn some international interest through the years. Foreign delegations have visited to see what goes on, and some countries have created similar venues.

READ ALSO: Malmedalen: New political festival launched in troubled Swedish suburb

Crowds listen to opposition leader Ulf Kristersson during Almedalen week. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

But there could be more. In these times of misconceptions towards the elites, the rural-urban divide and higher tensions in the public debate, an Almedalen Week would be healthy for every Western democracy. The recent political development has proven the need for inclusiveness, established political movements to renew and the public dialogue to be reinstated.

Sweden is by all means no exception to these developments, but the impact is probably less due to Almedalen Week. In several ways, it benefits Swedish politics and business.

For one thing, it gives anyone access to politicians and business leaders. The week could be described as a national mini-Davos Conference, but then again not quite. An almost complete “Who’s who?” of Swedish politics, business, administration and journalism gets on to planes and ferries to go there. But they are not alone. A broad layer of grass-root activists from even the most niche of NGO’s attend the week as well. So do citizens with no affiliation but just an interest in a specific question or society in general.

The seminars are free of charge and open to anyone, and there is no requirement to sign up in advance or get accreditation. In the medieval streets and tight restaurant terraces, these grassroots activists are back-to-back with government ministers and top CEOs. The culture is open-minded, allowing anyone to ask a question or express an opinion.

The discussions develop policies and advance the public debate. With several thousand programme items, it may not come as a surprise that most policy fields, public issues and societal challenges are covered. The seminars are opportunities for the main stakeholders in all fields of Swedish society to meet, and focus on idea creation in a way that is not possible in the daily life.

READ ALSO: Yes, Sweden's Almedalen is still relevant in the digital age

A parade organized during Almedalen to celebrate diversity and tolerance. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

It leads to unexpected meetings and cooperation. The mix of spheres and an open mindset is a terrific environment for unexpected meetings across dividing lines and conventional groupings. It is not only civil society and citizens getting access to politicians and business leaders, it is the other way round as well.

It is a platform for knowledge sharing. Most of the seminars bring more than just one speaker to the stage. Having five panelists or more is not unusual. This means that some 20,000-30,000 expert perspectives and insights are added to the discussion during the week, educating leaders about fields they may know little or nothing about, or about fields they work with already or simply can just get inspired by. It is a marvellous knowledge-sharing exercise, and its effect on Swedish decision making should not be underestimated.

It helps leaders make better strategic decisions. In a time with disruptive technologies, climate challenge and other mega-trends reshaping business, environments like this are crucial.

That's why this could be the next innovative export product from Sweden. An Isle of Wight Week in the UK or Rügen Week in Germany will not be full solutions to the crisis of democracy, but they could be a part of it.

Erik Zsiga is director at Kekst CNC in Sweden, former Press Secretary and Spokesperson to Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Global Head of Media Relations at Electrolux.

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OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

As Sweden prepares to join Nato, we should mourn the gradual passing of a neutral voice in global affairs, says David Crouch

OPINION: We should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality

In the spring of 1999, Russia’s prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, was on a plane to Washington for talks, just as Nato announced airstrikes on Serbia. The bombing campaign, aimed at halting Serb attacks on Kosovo Albanians, targeted Russia’s Slav and Orthodox ally. On receiving the news, Primakov turned his plane around in mid-air and flew back to Moscow. 

This was the first major confrontation between East and West since the end of the Cold War. Russian public opinion swung overwhelmingly behind the Serbs. Moscow liberals warned the conflict would lead swiftly to “a strongly anti-Western, Cold War-oriented regime”. Vladimir Putin became prime minister that summer. And the rest is history. 

This was “blowback” for Nato – the unintended adverse consequences of a foreign policy intervention. This week, Putin is experiencing blowback himself following his invasion of Ukraine, with Sweden rushing headlong to join Nato, whose actions helped unite Russia so suddenly against the West a quarter of a century ago. 

Joining Nato brings down the curtain on a remarkable period in Swedish and European history. The last time the country declared war was in 1810 against the British. Not a single shot was fired, and peace was declared again two years later. Since then, Sweden has pursued a policy of neutrality in all armed conflicts. 

That era ended on Monday. The government confirmed what everyone knew already – that it would apply to join Nato.  

During the Cold War, neutrality gave Sweden the freedom to manoeuvre between the two blocs led by Moscow and Washington. Sweden joined widespread condemnation of the Soviet suppression of Czechoslovakia’s democratic uprising in 1968. 

But its emblematic leader Olof Palme also backed the global movement against the Vietnam war, hosting a tribunal in Stockholm that symbolically put the USA on trial for war crimes in Indo-China. Here was a nation that had found a middle way between capitalism and communism, it seemed, with a diplomatic as well as an economic dimension. 

Sweden became a leading voice against nuclear weapons. Successive leaders pushed for a nuclear-free zone in the Nordic and Baltic regions. Sweden’s self-image was of a “humanitarian superpower”, its independence on the world stage spilling over into anti-colonialism and feminism.

Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Sweden sought to make the most of the “peace dividend” offered by the end of the Cold War, closing military bases, ending conscription and slashing defence spending. By 2012 the head of the armed forces admitted Sweden could withstand a limited attack for only about a week

All this is now behind us. The middle way is to become the Nato way. Sweden may continue to object to nuclear weapons, but it has opted for the US nuclear umbrella to ensure its security. It may continue to champion liberal causes, but it will have to bite its tongue as its allies with conservative Nato states such as Hungary and Turkey, not to mention the possibility of a second Trump presidency in the US. 

Beyond the immediate concerns about Russian intentions in Ukraine, Sweden is contributing to the return of a polarised world. The optimism and hope heralded by the collapse of communism 30 years ago have turned out to be a chimera. New generations will grow up in fear of the enemy and in the shadow of nuclear annihilation. In these bleak circumstances, we should mourn the passing of Sweden’s neutrality in global affairs. 

It is unfortunate that Sweden’s historic pivot is taking place with unseemly haste. While public opinion has clearly shifted in favour of Nato since the invasion of Ukraine, the majority in favour is still relatively slim and is based on fear rather than thoughtful and thorough debate. In a poll at the end of April, 55 percent of Swedish men but only 41 percent of women said yes to Nato. There are signs that opposition to Nato among the young may actually be growing.

But the decision to join Nato is a minor tremor rather than an earthquake. While Sweden may have been non-aligned, it has not been neutral for a long time. 

Sweden’s pro-Western orientation during the Cold War was an open secret on both sides. As early as 1954, Sweden signed a top secret agreement with the US regarding collaboration and intelligence sharing, including spying on Russia, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed. Sweden already makes “particularly significant contributions” to the alliance, Nato says. Accession to the European Union in 1995 came at the cost of the abolition of neutrality as a principle. 

In this sense, joining Nato means Sweden is now shedding its mask of neutrality, rather than adopting a radically new stance.

Sweden in Nato means the post-Cold War era is emphatically over. The world is entering a new and unsettling phase. “Peace, love, Woodstock, Kumbaya, let’s dramatically slash defence spending and enjoy the peace dividend — that’s all over,” said Estonia’s president after Russia annexed Crimea. 

The point of any nation’s defence policy should be to provide its population with a secure space for peace, love and Kumbaya. There is an almost giddy excitement in much of the Swedish media about Nato membership. As we progress towards our armour-plated future, let’s not forget what we have lost.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.