‘The image of Sweden in Germany is quite old-fashioned’

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.

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

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. 

READ ALSO: Five ways to cure homesickness as a German in Stockholm

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.

READ ALSO: Germany rebuts Sweden travel warning

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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EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

Borders within Europe's Schengen area are meant to be open but several countries have checks in place but are they legal and will they be forced to scrap them? Claudia Delpero explains the history and what's at stake.

EXPLAINED: Which Schengen area countries have border controls in place and why?

The European Court of Justice has recently said that checks introduced by Austria at the borders with Hungary and Slovenia during the refugee crisis of 2015 may not be compatible with EU law.

Austria has broken the rules of the Schengen area, where people can travel freely, by extending temporary controls beyond 6 months without a new “serious threat”.

But Austria is not the only European country having restored internal border checks for more than six months.

Which countries have controls in place and what does the EU Court decision mean for them? 

When can EU countries re-introduce border checks?

The Schengen area, taken from the name of the Luxembourgish town where the convention abolishing EU internal border controls was signed, includes 26 states: the EU countries except for Ireland, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia and Romania, plus Iceland, Norway, Lichtenstein and Switzerland, which are not EU members.

The Schengen Borders Code sets the rules on when border controls are permitted. It says that checks can be temporarily restored where there is a “serious threat to public policy or internal security”, from the organisation of a major sport event to a terrorist attack such as those seen in Paris in November 2015.

However, these checks should be a “last resort” measure, should be limited to the period “strictly necessary” to respond to the threat and not last more than 6 months.

In exceptional circumstances, if the functioning of the entire Schengen area is at risk, EU governments can recommend that one or more countries reintroduce internal border controls for a maximum of two years. The state concerned can then continue to impose checks for another six months if a new threat emerges. 

Which countries keep border checks in place?

Countries reintroducing border controls have to notify the European Commission and other member states providing a reason for their decision. 

Based on the list of notifications, these countries currently have controls in place at least at some of their borders: 

Norway – until 11 November 2022 at ferry connections with Denmark, Germany and Sweden. These measures have been in place since 2015 due to terrorist threats or the arrival of people seeking international protection and have sometimes extended to all borders.

Austria – until November 2022 11th, since 2015, at land borders with Hungary and with Slovenia due to risks related to terrorism and organised crime and “the situation at the external EU borders”. 

Germany – until November 11th 2022, since November 12th 2021, at the land border with Austria “due to the situation at the external EU borders”.

Sweden – until November 11th 2022, since 2017, can concern all borders due to terrorist and public security threats and “shortcomings” at the EU external borders. 

Denmark – until November 11th 2022, since 2016, can concern all internal borders due to terrorist and organised criminality threats or migration.

France – until October 31st 2022 since 2015, due to terrorist threats and other events, including, since 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic.

Estonia – until May 21st 2022, from April 22nd 2022, at the border with Latvia “to facilitate the entry and reception of people arriving from Ukraine”.

Norway, Austria, Germany and France also said they are operating checks on non-EU citizens. 

Can Schengen rules survive?

Despite the exceptional nature of these measures, there have been continuous disruptions to the free movement of people in the Schengen area in the past 15 years. 

Since 2006, there have been 332 notifications of border controls among Schengen countries, with increasing frequency from 2015. In addition, 17 countries unilaterally restored border controls at the start of the pandemic. 

In December 2021, the Commission proposed to reform the system to ensure that border controls remain an exception rather than becoming the norm. 

According to the proposals, countries should consider alternatives to border controls, such as police cooperation and targeted checks in border regions. 

When controls are restored, governments should take measures to limit their impacts on border areas, especially on the almost 1.7 million people who live in a Schengen state but work in another, and on the internal market, especially guaranteeing the transit of “essential” goods. 

Countries could also conclude bilateral agreements among themselves for the readmission of people crossing frontiers irregularly, the Commission suggested. 

If border controls have been in place for 6 months, any notification on their extension should include a risk assessment, and if restrictions are in place for 18 months, the Commission will have to evaluate their necessity. Temporary border controls should not exceed 2 years “unless for very specific circumstances,” the Commission added. 

At a press conference on April 27th, European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the EU Court ruling about Austria is in line with these proposals.

“What the court says is that member states have to comply with the time limit that is in the current legislation. Of course we can propose another time limit in the legislation… and the court also says that it’s necessary for member states, if they would like to prolong [the border controls] to really do the risk assessment on whether it’s really necessary… and that’s exactly what’s in our proposal on the Schengen Border Code.”

Criticism from organisations representing migrants

It is now for the European Parliament and EU Council to discuss and adopt the new rules.

A group of migration organisations, including Caritas Europe, the Danish Refugee Council, Oxfam International and the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have raised concerns and called on the EU institutions to modify the Commission proposals.

In particular, they said, the “discretionary nature” of controls in border regions risk to “disproportionately target racialised communities” and “practically legitimise ethnic and racial profiling and expose people to institutional and police abuse.”

Research from the EU Fundamental Rights Agency in 2021, the groups noted, shows that people from an ‘ethnic minority, Muslim, or not heterosexual’ are disproportionately affected by police stops.

The organisations also criticize the definition of people crossing borders irregularly as a threat and a new procedure to “transfer people apprehended… in the vicinity of the border area” to the authorities of the country where it is assumed they came from without any individual assessment. 

The article is published in cooperation with Europe Street News, a news outlet about citizens’ rights in the EU and the UK.