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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why are a Swedish minister’s private bills anyone’s business but theirs?

In what strange world is being late in making a payment to the local council for sewage services a possible sacking offence for a government minister?

OPINION: Why are a Swedish minister's private bills anyone's business but theirs?
Swedish Environment Minister Annika Strandhäll. Photo: Lars Schröder/TT

In mid-February, the Dagens Nyheter newspaper – the newspaper that broke the sex scandal story that saw the Nobel Literature Prize suspended for a year – published its latest scoop.

“Environment Minister Annika Strandhäll has had a missed payment sent to the National Debt Enforcement Agency, DN can reveal,” its editor, Peter Wolodarski, announced on Twitter.

The debt, 700 kronor ($75) for the installation of a “sludge separator” which should have been paid at the end of 2021, had grown to 1,350 kronor due to late payment charges.

After more than a decade in Sweden, I still find this idea – that the way a minister handles their private, personal finances should be a matter of public interest – utterly mystifying.

From my British perspective, and the perspective of, I suspect, many other foreigners living in Sweden, it’s her money. If she’s late with her bills, she will have to pay a fine. She will probably get a credit marking. That’s her business and no one else’s.

But Tobias Billström, the parliamentary leader of the leading opposition Moderate Party, was immediately out calling for her to be sacked, denouncing her as a slarvmaja, a woman of sloppy, disorderly habits.

“The Prime Minister cannot reasonably keep this slarvmaja – who has now received several chances and official warnings – in her government. Once is enough, twice is once too many,” he declared on Twitter.

So many Swedes then leapt onto Twitter to censure Strandhäll and boast about how they have never once had a debt sent to the enforcement agency, that Kronofogden, the Swedish name for the agency, ended up trending higher than Sweden’s Olympic gold in speed skating, the first in 34 years. 

The story started at the end of last year when Strandhäll was found to have had nine debts sent to the agency since 2018, as part of the investigation of incoming ministers’ finances that has become a Swedish journalistic tradition. 

Strandhäll is by no means the first politician to get into trouble for what people in other countries might see as private economic matters.

Cecilia Stegö Chilò lasted only ten days as Minister for Culture in the first government of Moderate leader Fredrik Reinfeldt, after it turned out she had not paid her TV licence for at least 16 years. Even Billström himself, who was appointed Migration Minister at the same time, got into hot water after it transpired he hadn’t paid for his TV licence either. He didn’t resign, of course (he’s a man). 

Then there’s the so-called Toblerone Affair which forced Mona Sahlin to withdraw her candidacy to be the next leader of the Social Democrats in 1996.

She had spent 53,174 kronor on private expenses on a government credit card, including the purchase of two Toblerone chocolates, something she claimed was an advance on salary that was standard practice among ministers at the time.

It also later emerged that she hadn’t paid for her TV licence and had 98 unpaid parking fines of which 32 had gone to the National Debt Enforcement Agency. She was later found to have committed no crime. 

Arguably, the much-publicised dispute between Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch and 82-year-old pensioner Esbjörn Bolin, who sold her his house and then tried to go back on the contract, is also a private matter, but this has not stopped it dogging Busch for two years. 

But with all the transgressions above (apart from perhaps Busch’s problems – at least until she formally admitted to defaming the seller’s legal counsel), you could argue there is some legitimate public interest. Not paying your TV licence was a crime, and both Chilò and Billström were withholding payment in protest. Sahlin was using public money to buy private goods. 

The Strandhäll case is unusually petty, even by Swedish standards. It is also rather cruel. 

The first batch of unpaid bills was from a period when she had been left to care singlehandedly for her children and stepchildren, who were at the time 12, 17, and 19, after her live-in partner, or sambo, took his own life.

READ MORE OPINIONS ABOUT LIFE IN SWEDEN:

The argument appears to be that someone who is bad at handling their own personal finances lacks the required qualities to be a minister.

“Why claim to be able to organise Sweden when you can’t even organise yourself?” tweeted Mattias Lindberg, a columnist for the right-wing web newspaper Bulletin. 

This is an argument that might hold water when choosing an accountant or perhaps a lawyer, but for a politician, does it really wash? What counts for a minister is communication skills, vision, leadership.   

There’s something cultural behind it: a shame in not paying your debts, or failing to properly manage your household. 

In Britain, government ministers used to have to resign if they were discovered being unfaithful to their partners, something which is also arguably a private matter. Per Albin Hansson, who built Sweden’s Social Democratic state as Prime Minister between 1932 and 1946, supported and lived between two separate families and joked to journalists that “they accuse me of being a Mormon”. 

If that says something about British attitudes to sex, the Strandhäll scandal says something about Swedish attitudes to debt. 

Personal debt seems to be peculiarly morally loaded. Skuld, after all, means both “debt” and “sin”.

Perhaps there’s some connection to Sweden’s Lutheran heritage, or perhaps it’s a throwback to the Sweden of the 19th century and before, when poverty was widespread and those who didn’t pay their debts were thrown into a debtor’s prison? 

Either way, for a foreigner it’s one of those instances when, just as you think you understand how the country works, you realise you don’t at all. 

Member comments

  1. The article provides the answer itself: Sweden’s Lutheran heritage.

    Or perhaps the days of the debtor’s prison (gäldstuga), although the latter were common in many countries across western Europe in the 19th century and were not unique to Sweden.

    Interesting with Strandhäll though – she hasn’t resigned yet and apparently has no intention of doing so, whereas many other ministers caught in the trap have had to go. Let’s see what happens if Wolodarski can dig up one more unpaid debt…

    But the Mona Sahlin case was indeed much more serious. Fiddling around with the government credit card, 98 unpaid parking tickets, her car was long overdue for the annual technical inspection and shouldn’t have even been on the road, and so the list went on.

  2. Should really get around and realize that they are all in high debt. So, throw the first stone, please do it.
    People telling me they have a lot of money and paying off a morgage for 10mio sek apartments. Lol

  3. The history of the matter notwithstanding, it seems that the contemporary fixation on private matters betrays a tactic by conservative politicians to distract from matters of state and public affairs. After all, if public opinion is concerned with a 1350 kr fine, they might look the other way from slightly bigger issues such as the free school debate.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Racism doesn’t get much more obvious than Sweden’s refugee bias

When you look at Sweden's reception of Ukrainian refugees, it's clear that what was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria, is not considered good enough for white Christians from Ukraine, notes Stockholm University Professor Christian Christensen.

OPINION: Racism doesn't get much more obvious than Sweden's refugee bias

As thousands of Ukrainian refugees began to arrive in Sweden following the invasion by Russia, the headline of a recent opinion piece by the leader of Sweden’s far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrat party spoke volumes: ‘There is a Difference Between Refugees and “Refugees”’

For Åkesson and his nationalist supporters, Ukrainian refugees are “real” refugees. They are from ”a Christian country with a culture that is more closely related” to that of Sweden, while refugees who escaped Syria and Afghanistan were framed as being made up of millions of backward, poorly-educated “professional migrants” (his term) devoid of European values and sensibilities.

With this backdrop, recent comments posted on Twitter by a municipal council member in Sweden’s second-largest city, Gothenburg, provided a disturbing insight into how politicians, not only the far-right but on all sides of the political spectrum, use different sets of standards when considering Ukrainian and Syrian refugees. And how the vision of refugees held by the Swedish far-right has bled into the Swedish political mainstream.

On May 5, Daniel Bernmar, the group leader for the opposition Left Party in the Gothenburg municipal council, sent a series of tweets in which he detailed how fellow council members expressed dismay over the poor services and paltry benefits available to refugees arriving from Ukraine. While on the surface an egalitarian position, the irony, Bernmar pointed out, was that the levels of financial support and services about which they were complaining were set by the very same group of politicians…when the arriving refugees were predominantly Syrian.

In other words, what the local politicians considered to be acceptable support for Syrians was now considered unacceptable support for Ukrainians.

Bernmar detailed a number of the specific concerns expressed by his colleagues.

Members of anti-immigration Sweden Democrats complained that the small amount of spending money given to Ukrainian refugees meant that they could not even afford to take local buses. Why, they asked, had the policy of allowing refugees to ride for free been scrapped? Others asked how without access to public transport Ukrainian refugees could be expected to take their children to school or look for work? And, in perhaps the most Swedish of issues, municipal councilors expressed concern that Ukrainian parents could not send children under the age of three to state-subsidized daycare.

Bernmar noted that he had “never before heard these parties or people address the unacceptable social or economic situation for refugees.” He then addressed the elephant in the room. The dismay expressed by colleagues over conditions facing refugees – conditions the same politicians approved when refugees were Syrian – was unsurprising, he wrote, given that they, “did not previously apply to white, Christian Europeans.”

These revelations should come as no surprise. While seemingly at odds with Sweden’s reputation for openness and egalitarianism, the fact is that political parties at both ends of the Swedish political spectrum have adopted increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Yet, when structural discrimination is presented in such a transparent fashion, it is still jarring.

At the most fundamental level, the case demonstrates how perceptions of the value of human life and human dignity are shaped by ethnicity, religion, and nationality. What was good enough for poor Muslims from Syria just isn’t good enough for white, European Christians. Racism and ethnocentrism don’t come much clearer than that.

But this revelation cuts even deeper and wider. And it applies to nations beyond Sweden’s borders, where immigrants and refugees struggle to construct new futures. What is evident from the comments made by the local politicians in Gothenburg is that they are fully aware of the impact of their policies on the everyday lives of refugees, how the ability to participate in the workforce, for example, is dependent upon basics such as transportation and childcare. That “integration” isn’t just a question of some mythological will, but of available material resources.

To remember that with Ukrainians, but forget it with Syrians, is cynicism of the highest order. It is to amplify the smear that there is a difference between refugees and “refugees.”

Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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