The Diplomatic Dispatch

The British Ambassador to Sweden blogs on The Local

Archive for November, 2010

I’m feeling better already, thanks Doc

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Prime Minister Reinfeldt visited London on Thursday.  After the meeting at No10 the Prime Minister joined David Cameron for a visit to Bart’s Hospital in the East End of London.  This was not motivated, I’m pleased to say, by the need for an unplanned trip to the Emergency Room for either Head of Government.  But rather to see at first hand a great example of UK/Swedish cooperation that’s both good for business and good for the community.

The reason for this is that Bart’s is undergoing a huge refurbishment project under the leadership of the Swedish construction contractor Skanska.  And it’s an extraordinary project.  This is not just because it is turning a building that was somewhat the worse for wear into a bright, modern hospital.  But it is also because of the ways that Skanska has thought about how it makes a positive impact on the people and places around Bart’s.  And this is impressive.

Get this.  Skanska reduced its deliveries to the site by 78% by using a specially designed offsite consolidation centre that reduced considerably disruption to local residents and the community.  Fully 92% of the waste from the project is reused or recycled.  Skanska have brought jobs to the area, employing over 20,000 people at various stages in the project and giving priority to workers from the local community (in fact 15% of the jobs went to locals).  Bart’s was also part of the Skanska Project, an initiative that the company undertook to work with the long term unemployed – to assist them into sustainable employment in the construction industry and to up-skill the existing workforce. 96 candidates completed the initial pre-employment training and 55 then gained employment through the Skanska supply chain.  Meanwhile Skanska assisted a diverse work force to gain 123 NVQs. It’s not for nothing that the project was the Winner of European Business Award for the Environment 2010 and the City of London Considerate Contractor Environment Award 2010.  And Skanska was the winner of the 2010 Sunday Times Greenest Company award.

The Prime Ministers – and indeed all of us that visited – saw for ourselves what a difference it makes when a company thinks more widely about what it can achieve.  And this is a great model for the future. We plan for UK infrastructure investment worth some £200 billion over the next five years. In the same period Sweden will be spending £45 billion on rail and road infrastructure.  This means jobs and investment and opportunities for British and Swedish companies that think green and think big. I’m feeling better already, thanks Doc.

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Northern lights

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

For those of you that missed it – not hard amid the flood of news from Ireland and the waves it sent rolling across Europe – the governments of the UK and the five Nordic and three Baltic countries this week announced a new and quite different form of cooperation.

New? Well, yes. Although we are partners in a number of international organisations we’ve never before got together to talk about what makes us tick. And different? Well, again, yes. Because this will be a group not just of Prime Ministers but also of business leaders, policy wonks and entrepreneurs. And the meeting – which will take place in London in January – will focus not on agreements and communiques but on ideas for improving the way our societies work.

So, rather than negotiating we’ll be listening, debating and thinking, sharing ideas and looking for new ways to promote wellbeing in our countries. This sounds like it might be fun. But it has a deadly serious purpose. The Nordics are among the most competitive and innovative economies in the world. Right now we’re talking a good deal around Europe about the relationship between income equality, social wellbeing and growth. The northern liberal countries outperform most of the rest of the planet in getting this right. But the UK too is a powerhouse of ideas and entrepreneurship. We’ve a lot to learn from each other. Here’s a new way to do it.

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Just listen up

Friday, November 19th, 2010

I spent this morning in the company of some extraordinary young people at the Royal Palace in Stockholm.  The occasion for this gathering was the inaugural meeting of the World Child and Youth Forum, a body established by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia to provide inspiration and support to children’s organisations and to promote the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Aside from Ambassadors from many nations the gathering brought together organisations that work for children’s rights, schoolchildren and experts from Sweden and abroad under the watchful eye of the King and Queen, The Crown Princess and Prince Daniel and Princess Madeleine.

There are not many people who’d argue with the sense of working to protect child rights.  It is, to apply a metaphor, motherhood and apple pie.  But this was no ordinary event.  It was enlivened not by august adults and lofty promises but by the voices and testimonies of children.  The heart of the event was a panel discussion via videoconference with young people from around Sweden.  And they told us – in no uncertain terms – that they didn’t wanted to be treated like kids.  That we should stop talking to them like children.  The Queen told us that what mattered was dialogue between the generations.  And the kids agreed.  But for it to be a dialogue it needed us to listen.

It’s not for nothing that Sweden is a leader in the protection and promotion of human rights around the world.  This event today brought that home once again.  But I took a rather more personal lesson too.  I’m going home tonight to do less talking and more listening.

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Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

From one side of the world yesterday we watched the pictures of Rachel and Paul Chandler emerging from the Somali bush after 13 months as hostages. From another part of Asia we saw the euphoric scenes of the release of Aung San Su Kyi. Both have been the subject of terrible injustice. And even if we find it hard to imagine the suffering of the Chandlers and Aung San Su Kyi in captivity it is not hard to feel the appalling injustice that lies at the heart of their experience. There is something instinctive in the feeling that depriving a person of their freedom as a means to an unjust end is simply and fundamentally wrong. The release of the Chandlers and of Aung San Suu Kyi is long overdue.

On her release, Aung San Suu Kyi said, “I think it’s quite obvious what the people want; the people just want better lives based on security and on freedom.” And the idea of freedom is a powerful one. We remember Nelson Mandela. We remember the floods of East Germans crossing the crumbling Wall. So we can perhaps share the hope that the Burmese regime will now begin to release the other 2,100 political prisoners and begin a genuine dialogue with Aung San Suu Kyi and all opposition and ethnic groups. These remain the crucial first steps to solving Burma’s many problems and addressing the pressing needs of its people.

Every public tragedy is also a personal one. I remember talking to someone who had lived for many years imprisoned by a regime that wanted him out of the way and out of sight. He told me that release was a sort of freedom, but a limited one. The experience of detention continued to live with him as a psychological restriction on his liberty. My thoughts are with Aung San Su Kyi, the Chandlers and the detainees of Burma and Somalia today.

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A chip off the Nordic block

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

How often have you heard an expert economist say recently that innovation is the key to Europe’s future in the global economy? Pretty often, I’d bet. In fact it has become so much of a commonplace that I suspect most of us tune out when we hear the line. This doesn’t however alter the fact that it’s true. Nor should it disguise the need for us to talk a little less about innovation and do a little more instead.

So it was refreshing to see just such an initiative in action last week. The Nordic Embassy in Berlin was the futuristic venue for a meeting of European innovation policy makers to discuss the European Innovation Partnerships. The Nordic Embassy is a joint representation for the five Nordic countries in Berlin and includes a communal meeting house, instantly recognisable as a chip off the Nordic block for its wooden panelling, clean lines, and, most remarkably of all, building layout that exactly replicates the geographical locations of the five countries. How’s that for planning?

The Berlin event brought together policy-makers from countries with proud innovation credentials – Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France, the UK and Germany. The event was organised by the UK Science and Innovation Network and centred on how to extract the greatest value for the European economy from new European Innovation Partnerships.

The EIPs – for those encountering these beasts for the first time – were launched in September as an initiative under the European Commission’s Research and Innovation Strategy and aim to take a practical view of how to link innovation and competitiveness by solving real world problems.

The Berlin meeting talked about how the EIPs could best be shaped to drive European competitiveness and growth by addressing both the big social changes and the major competitiveness challenges that Europe is facing today. The meeting talked about how we can increase the active and healthy life of increasing numbers of elderly people in Europe, what to do to improve the provision of clean water and how to make our cities smarter, greener and better places for people to live. The EIPs will focus on bringing social policy problems and business solutions together and will learn from public private partnership, centres of excellence and other models to create the best interaction possible between the science, the real-world solutions and the finance needed to kick these off.

This, of course, is one of the ways that the Nordics have been so successful as innovators. We could all do with a bit of that.

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Making a Montreal difference

Monday, November 1st, 2010

Cluster munitions are a real and serious problem in many parts of the world, particularly in poorer countries recovering from conflict. Unexploded ordnance can remain in the ground for decades.  They threaten the lives of civilians and become a real obstacle to post-conflict reconstruction and development. And it is so often civilians that suffer the consequences. So today marks a small but important step forward in the journey towards a global ban because on 1 November the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM) enters into force in the UK.

As many of you reading this will know, the Convention bans the use, development, production, stockpiling or transferring of cluster munitions. Those signing up to the Convention also commit to clearing cluster munitions remnants from the territory they control and destroying munitions stockpiles. The Convention opened for signature in Oslo in December 2008 and over a hundred countries have so far signed, including Sweden, while 43 States, including the UK, have ratified.

We are around half way through the process of destroying the UK stockpile of cluster munitions and are on target to complete the process ahead of the deadline, in 2013. Meanwhile we are doing what we can to support efforts to end the suffering and casualties caused by cluster munitions around the world by contributing over £10 million a year to clearing landmines and other unexploded ordnance, including cluster munitions. But the process doesn’t stop there. The UK is committed to working towards a global ban on cluster munitions and putting an end to a weapon that continues today to cause so much suffering for civilians. The first meeting of the states that are part of the Convention takes place in a week’s time in Laos.

A further thought on this. The UN gets a lot of criticism when the world fails to pull together to act as one. But there are no other organisations that have the scope and legitimacy to put together a global agreement to end cluster munitions. And when this works, things really happen. I remember in the 1980s listening to what seemed like daily news reports of shifting and growing holes in the ozone layer, a cataclysmic vulnerability that threatened widespread and adverse effects for human health and the environment. The Montreal Protocol put a stop to the problem. It’s a problem that we solved with a UN agreement.

So my hope today is that our ratification of the cluster munitions convention will make a Montreal Difference. But I have another hope. Because the negotiators are now in the process of putting together a new Arms Trade Treaty to stop weapons reaching those who try to undermine stability and democracy, harm development and abuse human rights. The arms trade also needs a Montreal Difference.

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