Ambassador of Sweden: “It is of outmost importance to have a joint and coordinated solution to the refugee crisis” [interview]

The Ambassador of Sweden, Her Excellency Charlotte Wrangberg spoke to about the refugee crisis, Europe’s responsibility on the matter as well as the EU-Turkey agreement that she considers a first step and a contribution to a long-term solution of the refugee situation.

Ambassador Wrangberg referred to the refugee situation in Sweden and the measures adopted by the Swedish government. She also indicated Greece’s geographical and strategic position in the business sector and stressed the strong culture ties between Sweden and Greece.

Interview to Demetris Kamaras.

EN: Greece is in front of an unprecedented situation, with refugee crisis growing worse as limits on border crossings remain in place. What is Sweden’s view on the matter? What Europe (and Greece) should do to deal with the situation?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: First of all, I think we need to reiterate that this is the worst refugee situation in Europe since the Second World War. In Sweden, since 2011, approximately 80,000 Syrians have been granted permanent residence permits. This is a huge humanitarian effort, which we are proud of. Having said this, if we consider what we want for the future, we need to stress that all decisions need to be based on international law, the Geneva Convention and EU law. We must respect the rights for asylum and international protection. This is something we continue to demand as regards the decisions within the European Union as well as the decisions outside the EU.

Of course, it is every important that we do get a shared responsibility in Europe and have efficient readmission policies, the establishment of hotspots, as well a fixed timetable for all of these, including relocation, which we have to admit hasn’t worked too well so far.

Then of course we need to stop the smugglers and further, we need to also revise the Dublin regulation, which is also under discussion now. We share this view with Greece. We want it to be replaced with a permanent binding relocation scheme within the EU.

It is of outmost importance to have a joint and coordinated solution to the refugee crisis. Otherwise no solution will work. Some countries have already taken on a huge responsibility in receiving refugees, including Sweden and Germany, just to mention two countries, whilst others have not yet participated. This definitely needs to change. There is no way out of this unless we share responsibility, always in respect for the individual asylum procedure. Greece is certainly under huge pressure and must get the support that is needed.

EN: What is your opinion regarding the recent EU-Turkey agreement? Will it work?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: The agreement can be a first step and a contribution to a long-term solution of the refugee situation. But also here I want to stress the importance of promoting measures that respect EU and international law. The right to seek asylum and individual assessment must be safeguarded. It is going to be very important to monitor the implementation of the agreement regularly.

EN: Recently, the Swedish public opinion was shocked by a series of crimes, which were associated with foreign nationals. How is Sweden currently handling the refugee/migrant issue?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: First of all, I would like to point out that we have crimes committed by Swedish nationals as well as crimes committed by foreign nationals. All of them are tragic and should be condemned. But we should be very careful pointing fingers. Unfortunately we have seen some very worrying tendencies of increased xenophobia in Sweden.

As regards how we are handling the refugee situation in Sweden, I would like to mention that last year we received almost 165,000 asylum applications, including around 35,000 unaccompanied minors. This is a of course a huge challenge for society.

Greece is undergoing a very difficult situation. Recession is on its 8th year. It is extremely complicated for Greece and the Greek people and I know there have been many sacrifices in order to try to come to terms with the situation. But we are not there yet.

That was just too much for Swedish authorities and municipalities to handle. We did our utmost to ensure that we had a good collaboration within the EU, with registration and well-functioning system of asylum procedures and relocation, but when the Common European Asylum System did not work, then the situation became very difficult. Public authorities and municipalities found it difficult to cope with the pressure and reported that they could no longer manage reception in a secure manner. The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) raised the alarm saying that the authorities couldn’t cope with the situation in terms of housing shortage, education, trauma care, medical care etc. Especially in terms of housing, the situation was so severe that some people temporarily had to sleep outside in the winter.

So, therefore the government decided that certain measures needed to be taken so we could continue to receive in an orderly manner. For example we decided to go from permanent residence permits to temporary residence permits for all persons in need of protection except quota refugees. Another measure was that persons with temporary residence permits would only have the right to be reunited with immediate family members. Those measures will know be valid for a temporary period of three years.

I need to stress that these measures were viewed positively and negatively. There was concern that Sweden has been a very generous country as regards refugees and this was about to change. But that is not the case.

EN: Starting on 4 January 2016, Sweden introduced identity checks for certain cross-border travel. Could you elaborate on the rationale behind this decision?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: We have lived without ID controls in the Nordic countries since the 1950s. You can imagine that this was very difficult for us. But, our authorities and the police considered it necessary to maintain order and guarantee security. Identity controls are in effect for six months for people travelling from Denmark and this measure will be reviewed and can be extended. It is of course still possible to apply for asylum.

EN: What Greek government should do to attract more Swedish direct investments to the country?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: We are aware that Greece is undergoing a very difficult situation. Recession is on its 8th year. It is extremely complicated for Greece and the Greek people and I know there have been many sacrifices in order to try to come to terms with the situation. But we are not there yet.

EN: It seems to be in vain though…

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: Effort is still needed. It’s not that strange. This is something Greece has agreed to do. There has been a new agreement in July 2015 in Brussels. This is something that Greece and the European Union are aware of. The implementation of the programme is continuing and of utmost importance.

EN: What the Greek government should do to attract more Swedish direct investments to the country?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: First of all I have to say that there are currently many Swedish companies and subsidiaries operating in Greece. They contribute to the Greek economy, they offer job opportunities. They also contribute to corporate social responsibility, which is very high on the corporate agenda for every Swedish company.

Regarding investments, it depends on the area of every company, and other various parameters. If Greece really makes use of its geographical and strategic position, I think it could act as a hub to a larger extent than today. We have some examples of Swedish companies with regards to this. I also think that there could be a better use of the skilled human capital in Greece.

Then of course it’s about what everyone is mentioning: stability, predictability, the closing of the review, and implementation of the programme – I think these are of the essence. As regards immediate needs, the closing of the review is very, very important, because that will lead to various further results. The long-term goal for Greece is to get access and return to the markets again.

It’s also about modernising the economy and implementing reforms which make doing business easier and more productive. I know that Greece has done a lot already but there is still room for improvement.

Swedish companies are not different from other companies from other countries. Companies do invest – and Swedish companies as well – when they believe their investment is relatively safe and when they can achieve reasonable return. Those conditions apply for every country that hopes to attract foreign investments.

EN: What kind of inquiries does the Embassy receive from potential investors?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: Basically, they ask about the situation in the country. I have to be honest and say that at the moment, the majority of the questions and the dialogue we have with the business community is with the companies that are already established in Greece. We don’t see a lot of new interest at the moment. This is of course something we hope will change. There are a lot of future opportunities in the country.

I would also like to mention that we are in contact with the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Foreign Minister for International Economic Relations, Dimitris Mardas. He recently announced that he is organizing a business trip to Sweden, with a delegation of entrepreneurs. We are looking forward to this. Minister Mardas also had very interesting, useful, successful meetings with the majority of Swedish companies a few weeks ago to discuss their concerns and questions.  It was very much appreciated.

Other initiatives involve the Hellenic Swedish Chamber of Commerce, which we are working very closely with. Last year we had a very successful seminar on Waste Management, presenting Swedish best practices and there is going to be a follow up, a seminar on Waste Management this spring.

We are ready to continue sharing experience in other areas as well. Sweden is for example one of the leaders in investments with regards to startups.

Last year Stockholm was ranked as the city in Europe with the most billion-dollar startups, and per capita only second to Silicon Valley as the birthplace of successful internet companies.

EN: Greece has been receiving many Swedish tourists every year. Do you see this trend being negatively affected by the refugee crisis?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: In general there is a tendency of a stable increase of Swedish tourists coming to Greece. I was impressed and positively surprised by the figures for 2014, a year that Greece received, according to statistics, 750,000 Swedish tourists. I think it’s a huge number considering we are a population of just under 10 million. Last year it increased to 850.000. I definitely think this is a good contribution to the Greek economy. Last year, the summer period was complicated for various reasons but still the number of Swedish tourists increased and this is very positive and encouraging.

EN: Sweden could also be an attractive destination for the Greeks…

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: The numbers are not so impressive actually. Greeks could visit Sweden as a winter destination for skiing. Also, the summers are beautiful, not long as the Greek ones, but the weather is nice and there are a lot of places to visit.

EN: Greece and Sweden share strong cultural ties. The Swedish Institute has been operating in Greece for several years, offering its know-how in archaeology and in relevant research. What are some of its recent and upcoming initiatives?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: The Swedish Institute at Athens is very active and its budget includes collaborations in culture. We are also collaborating with the Hellenic-Swedish Chamber of Commerce and the Swedish Church in the best possible ways to promote Sweden. It is very important for us to underline that it’s not only the Embassy that is working for Sweden. This is something we do together.

The Swedish Institute is a very prestigious organization. Last year the Greek Ministry of Culture granted permits to the Institute to conduct fieldwork in five regions in Greece, and specifically in Hermione, Kalaureia, Malthi, Midea and Makrakomi. They are now also working on an archive and an on line database on all Swedish archaeological work in Greece since 1894. This on line database will be accessible to researchers. This is a huge project.

There is for example a unique collection of material from some excavations in Athens that is now kept at Uppsala University.

EN: The Embassy has been organizing several concerts, film festivals and other cultural events, with prominent Swedish artists, in order to promote the Swedish culture in Greece. What does the 2016 cultural agenda include?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: We continue to work on cultural events. We for example participate in various film festivals in Athens and Thessaloniki, certainly the big ones, but also in for example the Documentary Film Festival in Thessaloniki and the LGBTQ Film Festival. There is right now a photo exhibition in Kavala organized by the Swedish Institute. We also have some initiatives with the Onassis Cultural Centre.

I also want to mention that the Swedish government is pursuing a feminist, foreign policy aiming at implementing systematic gender mainstreaming throughout the foreign policy agenda. This means that there will be various initiatives on gender issues. Whatever we do in regards to foreign policy, we look upon it with a feminist approach. Having said that, last year we started working with the General Secretariat for Gender Equality in the Ministry of Interior on various seminars. Last year we together organised a seminar on “Women and Leadership”. This year we will hold a seminar on “Violence against Women” and a seminar on “Entrepreneurship and Women”.

EN: What was the best food you have tested in Greece?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: It is impossible to mention only one but I am a seafood and a fish lover. And I am obviously in the right place! I also love tzatziki, taramosalata, saganaki etc.

EN: What was the best place you have visited in Greece?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: I have a particular interest in ancient history, so obviously I am again in the right place. I should mention for example Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Messini, ancient Corinth, Vergina, Delphi, Olympia, Knossos that I have visited with great, great interest. We also, for example, went hiking in Olympus, which was very interesting and challenging. Meteora is another, extremely impressive place. I’ve been to many islands. My favorite among the bigger ones I have visited is Lefkada, the scenery and the colours are totally breathtaking. I also enjoy small islands, like Agistri and Hydra.

EN: What was your best experience with Greek people?

Ambassador Charlotte Wrangberg: I am impressed by the kindness and accessibility. This is something striking that I observe almost everyday and in different situations. This is something you should be proud of.


PHOTO: Embassy of Sweden – Sofia Keramida