'The image of Sweden in Germany is quite old-fashioned'

Catherine Edwards
Catherine Edwards - [email protected]
'The image of Sweden in Germany is quite old-fashioned'
Sweden's ambassador to Germany, Per Thöresson. Photo: Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet

The relationship between Germany and Sweden has never been as good as it is today, Sweden's Ambassador to Germany, Per Thöresson, tells The Local, but there are also some misconceptions in how Sweden is viewed by one of its closest neighbours.


What would you say Sweden's image is in Germany?

I am always struck by how popular Sweden is and how much many Germans known about Sweden – many Germans even have summer cabins in here. I would say [the image of Sweden] is a bit old-fashioned, with a lot of the red cabins, Astrid Lindgren, Pippi Longstocking. On TV, [Sörmland-based German TV series] Inga Lindström is very popular, with German actors playing in Sweden and that's all very romantic, with beautiful images.

We work very actively trying to project the more modern image of an innovative country, with lots of solutions, good companies and so on. But it's a privilege to be a Swede in Germany because Sweden is well-regarded.

And how do you project this modern image?

It's always easier if you put it into a context, for instance last year Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Löfven signed an innovation partnership so that's good to talk about: it's about mobility, digitalization, e-health and test beds.

Next year we're the partner country at the Hannover Fair, which is a fantastic opportunity as it's the world's largest industrial fair and we will be projecting this more modern image of Sweden. Already today, Germany is by far our biggest trading partner. 19 percent of Swedish imports come from Germany, so one in five items – that's just amazing. Our idea for Hannover is not just to invite companies for the week to sell products but to start working on partnerships ahead of the event and use this as a seed to present that, and then follow up afterwards. 

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The character of Pippi Longstocking is well-known in Germany. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Are any companies or sectors in particular the showcase for modern Sweden?

Well, I always talk about the startup hub of Stockholm. Berlin is a similar hub, but we do have more ‘unicorn' companies, and most typical Germans have no idea of that.

Spotify is present in Berlin, so is SoundCloud, and a number of others. If we have meetings about trade between the two countries I try to invite them, because they're much more credible than me talking about the startup scene.

Is there any rivalry between the startup scenes in Stockholm and Berlin or can they help each other?

They can help each other out. I think business is starting to change, with lots of hubs and cooperation: there are several hubs in Berlin where you have up to 100 startup companies in one building, learning and collaborating with each other and seeing if they can work together.

Between Stockholm and Berlin, we already have some cooperation and we complement each other. For instance on digitalization, Sweden is way ahead of Germany, but the different [German] states are now introducing roll-outs and they can learn a lot from how we did it and even use Swedish technology. The same goes for mobility, given Germany's standing in the car and truck industry. We have an electric road in Sweden outside Sandviken, which is run by Scania and Siemens together – Scania provides the trucks and Siemens the technology. There's huge potential to learn from each other and that's exactly what we want to do.

And within the EU, would you say Sweden and Germany work closely together?

Absolutely, we're working very actively on that. I've been in Berlin for a year and a half and I know from my colleagues who have been there earlier that it used to be difficult to get Swedish ministers to come to Berlin – in London for example, they can speak the language. But after Brexit, there's been a sharp increase in the number of visits [to Germany]. While I've been there, we've had around 20 ministers visiting and four or five delegations from parliament. This is helped by the fact that we're quite like-minded with the Germans so we work very closely on most of the issues on the EU agenda.

READ ALSO: 'Germany is Sweden's most important EU ally post-Brexit'

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

How have the two countries worked together on EU migration policy?

It's the same there, we work really hand in hand. During the crisis, Sweden and Germany were the countries that took the most [refugees and migrants] and at one stage both countries realized it wasn't sustainable so then we coordinated very closely on the steps towards trying to limit the flow of migrants. Neither country took a decision without first checking with the other so that we could synchronize fairly well.

Of course both countries also worked very hard in the EU arguing that all the member states need to take responsibility. We haven't given up on that, but it's extremely difficult.

How's that progressing now?

Most important is that we continue to push the EU for reform. There is cooperation also between the agencies, Migrationsverket and BAMF, but apart from that I wouldn't say there is a big project.

In integration we can learn a lot from each other. Germany has a system of apprenticeships, so migrants are quite quickly put into work and given language training, and we don't have that tradition in Sweden. There are some fantastic schemes: the Deutsche Bahn takes young refugees into their training, I think even without having first learned German so they can learn it on the job. You can't integrate in a better way than that.

More widely, are there other areas where one country is looking to the other?

I think it's everywhere. If you look at composition of the industries, it's very similar. The Germans look quite closely at our paternity leave policy, they're building a lot of daycare centres now as a high priority and they've looked at how we have done it. In every sector, there's potential to learn from each other.

In terms of gender values and family policy, do you see differences or similarities between the two countries?

There are definitely differences. [In Germany] they have a tax system which makes it expensive for one of the partners in a marriage to work and most often it's the woman who stays at home with the children. Looking at statistics, they are not as good as we are at gender equality in companies, but there is a willingness and desire to improve there.

What happened in Sweden was not just that we changed legislation but it's basically the society that has changed. When I was a young diplomat, bosses then might think a man who took paternity leave was odd. Today it's actually the opposite. If you're a father and you haven't taken it, they would think that's strange. So the whole society has changed, and Germany is not there yet. They are changing the laws and changing the structures, but it's a journey and it will take time.

The approach to paternity leave has changed in Sweden. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT

What's the response in Germany to Sweden's feminist foreign policy?

When you talk about what the feminist foreign policy means, there is great sympathy. They will replace us on the Security Council and I think will work on many of the same issues such as Women, Peace and Security. The problem in Germany is that the word feminism has negative connotations so I doubt that they will call it feminist.

And how is the relationship on security and defence?

That's also very good. Sweden is a very special partner to Nato; we are working together to establish the EU framework Pesco; we have a letter of intent on cooperation between the defence forces in both countries.

There's one problem in our relationship really and that's the language. Too few Swedes speak good German, and the Germans are not as good at English as we are so politicians or CEOs may not speak English. 

German used to be the second language in Sweden, before the war it came before English because we are so close and now I think that well below 20 percent speak it. It's a big problem for industry and also for us as an organization. I'm working together with my German colleague here in Stockholm to encourage young people to study German. Anyone who does will have a fantastic career opportunity in the future. It's also really easy! It's so close to Swedish so it's much easier than French for us. One example of how this is being promoted is a new award from the German-Swedish Chamber of Commerce so that classes studying German get a substantial contribution to go on a study trip to Germany. 

Do you see any misrepresentation of Sweden in the German media?

Absolutely. There was an article about our new legislation on sexual consent in one of the big German newspapers that was totally factually incorrect. So we translated the legislation and we tweeted out the meaning, and that was picked up by a smaller paper and it really went viral. Instead of having this negative picture of our new legislation we started a discussion on press and ethics which I thought was interesting. So yes, we come across that every now and then.

It's not a big problem in Germany, contrary to other places. You can't really respond to everything; if there's a German article in Breitbart we would probably ignore it, but when it's in the serious media then we have to act – it's really important.

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How do you consider your role day-to-day, and do you have any one focus in your work?

As an ambassador, you're always on duty, but my experience after 28 years is that it's best just to be yourself and be respectful.

Apart from that, as I said at the start, we're focusing on Sweden as a modern country: as a design country, as an innovative country, as a country with sustainable solutions.

In modern history, we've never been as close as we are now. There's so much like-mindedness with priorities on the UN Security Council, in the EU, trade is at an all-time high, the number of tourists is growing in both directions, a lot of universities have established collaborations and there are festivals and cultural events almost every week. So it's looking very good.

Read more interviews with Swedish ambassadors around the world HERE



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