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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: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

The campaign so far suggests that Sweden's image as a paragon of virtue on the environment might be at risk, says David Crouch

OPINION: Sweden’s incredible disappearing climate election 

Four years ago next month, a 15-year-old girl sat down on the cobblestones outside parliament in central Stockholm. She refused to go to school until Sweden’s general election that September, to draw attention to the climate crisis.

July 2018 had been the hottest in Sweden since records began 262 years ago, and forest fires had ravaged large parts of the countryside. Greta Thunberg’s school strike gave voice to a pent-up feeling that something must be done to curb global warming.

Within months, she had become one of the world’s best-known figures in the climate debate, leading mass protests for immediate and radical action. 

But this Friday, July 1, Thunberg was back on the cobbles outside parliament with just four supporters, repeating her message of 2018. She might be tempted to ask, after all her campaigning: why doesn’t the climate have a higher profile in this year’s Swedish elections? 

There is every reason for it to do so. According to the latest report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change, the world has “a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”. Some damage was already irreversible and ecosystems were reaching the limits of their ability to cope. Their findings were an “atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership,” said UN secretary-general António Guterres. 

Sweden’s self-image as a leader on green issues is undermined by recent slippage, delay and prevarication. In 2017, left and right came together to agree that the country should become “the world’s first fossil-free welfare state”, with zero carbon emissions by 2045 and negative ones thereafter. Sweden became the first nation to enshrine this target in law. However, the country is not on target to achieve this goal. In its latest assessment, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency said more measures would be necessary to prevent progress from slipping further behind on its climate transformation. 

As for other environmental targets that the country committed to achieve by 2020, 15 out of the 16 goals have not been reached. Growth, prosperity and consumption are taking precedence over the environment, researcher Katarina Eckerberg told Dagens Nyheter: “It’s the elephant in the room. No one dares to tell the truth, we are [just] trying to polish the surface a bit.” 

At the party-political level, climate policy seems to have stalled. Since Magdalena Andersson took office in the autumn, the “climate collegium” (klimatkollegium), set up in 2020 as a place for ministers to discuss essential climate initiatives, has not met. Party leaders debated energy and climate in public in early May, but the focus was on the hit to citizens’ pockets caused by rising fuel prices, with left and right united on lowering taxes. What we do for the climate in Sweden won’t bring down the temperature in India, said Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson, whose party rejects the 2045 zero-carbon target. The Green Party, who left the government in November, has seen its ratings sink steadily lower in the polls. 

Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 4% in 2021 – partly because the economy bounced back after Covid, but still a worrying trend. Almost 80% of wind power projects in the country were vetoed by local municipalities, as the kommuner increasingly say no to wind power, putting a spoke in the wheels of Sweden’s green transformation.

This all adds up to climate taking a back seat so far in this year’s general election campaign. This is in sharp contrast to Norway’s “climate election” last autumn, which saw the country’s reliance on oil come in for sharp criticism and success for parties campaigning on green issues. The climate dominated the campaigning in Norway after the IPCC published a “code red” warning on the climate. For Germans also deciding whom to vote for last September, alarming events at home and abroad drove home the urgency of the climate crisis, with deadly heat waves, wildfires and devastating floods that left more the 200 dead.

More recently, the Australian election in May became essentially a climate election, with the victorious centre-left putting climate change and environmental policy firmly back on the agenda. Closer to home, a feature of elections in Denmark and Finland in 2019 was that the climate also enjoyed a profile higher than ever before.

Meanwhile, however, the world seems to be going backwards on the climate. This week, the US Supreme Court ruled that the country’s main environmental regulator has no power to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, demand for coal has shot up. Just months after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, there is a backlash in business circles against so-called “woke capitalism”, with the idea of environmental investment coming under attack from populist politicians and financiers.

Swedes themselves are consistently well-informed and concerned about the environment. The environment and climate are around fifth on the list of voters’ main concerns, after crime, health, schools and inflation. Immigration and refugee issues, which have long dominated the Swedish debate, are in sixth place, while defence and security – despite the debate over Nato – are down in seventh place, according to an Ipsos poll in June.

But at the polling booth, when it comes to casting their vote, it seems that most Swedes have little faith that political parties will make much difference. Despite the fact that the climate had such a high profile in 2018, the issue did not even end up among the top 10 reasons for choosing a party to vote for, according to polling station surveys commissioned by SVT. Instead, voters feel this is a global problem rather than a Swedish one. “It wouldn’t matter if every Swede held their breath so as not to emit a single molecule more of carbon dioxide – progress would still be negative,” the head of polling company Novus told Svensk Dagbladet last month.

So Sweden seems set to continue to make slow but unspectacular – and even disappointing – progress on the climate in coming years. It would be a shame if the country, with its solid record on the environment and its fondness for grand declarations about the future, were to become a byword for greenwashing rather than a beacon for a better world. Greta and her supporters have work to do here at home.

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.

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