STOCKHOLM – Swedish foreign policy has been unique for many years in Europe. The Scandinavian nation hasn’t joined military alliances since it was a military power in the 17th and 18th centuries, and hasn’t been involved in a war for over 200 years (with the exception of occasional peacekeeping missions far away from its borders). In the second half of the 20th century, its policy of avoiding alliances and maintaining wartime neutrality created a foreign policy that in many ways wasn’t about serving Swedish national interests. Instead, it was about becoming a “humanitarian superpower” and endeavoring to make the world a better place.
Naturally, there were those both at home and abroad who criticized this policy. Some saw Sweden’s attempts to position itself on the right side of history as self-serving, opportunistic and hypocritical. Others claimed its private sector’s thriving arms industry was incompatible with a government preaching peace, love and understanding. Another problematic aspect was Sweden’s close ties with a host of dictators and oppressive regimes.
Still, for decades, Swedish diplomats were crucial in bringing wars to a close. Swedish policymakers were generous when it came to humanitarian aid, and vocal when it came to issues like the struggles against apartheid and the Cold War arms race.
This tradition was maintained in recent years as well. As well as being the only Western European country to recognize a Palestinian state, Sweden did its best to export progressive ideas like “feminist foreign policy,” taking radical steps against climate change and building stronger international institutions.
But change is on the horizon. Sweden has taken its first steps to join the NATO military alliance and is building up its military capabilities in a way it hasn’t done for decades due to recent Russian aggression. After voting out the left-wing Social Democrats and electing a center-right government led by the Moderate Party and supported by the far-right Sweden Democrats, what is the future of neutral Sweden?
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“Since I took office, I’ve been very clear that we need a recalibration of Swedish foreign policy,” says Sweden’s new foreign minister, Tobias Billström. “We need to make some very clear statements about our priorities. One priority, above anything else, is the NATO accession. With that we also have to think about our neighborhood – the Nordic states, the Baltic states and the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. This is where we’re putting our emphasis. It’s not a choice between being active in the international arena and being focused on our neighborhood. You can do both. What you can’t do is be everywhere all the time and be active in all aspects. We’ll have to prioritize.”
This may be a seismic change on the national level but it’s not for Billström, who notes that his party “has supported joining NATO for years. And I believe that the question of neutrality ended in 1995 when Sweden became a member of the European Union.”
No Jerusalem embassy yet
Billström, 48, is an experienced politician despite his relatively young age. He has been a parliamentarian for 20 years, serving as migration and asylum policy minister from 2006 to 2014, and was a local politician before that.
The role he now holds is one of his country’s most important considering current regional instabilities. He meets Haaretz at his Stockholm office, which is located in a beautiful 18th-century palace facing the Royal Opera House on one side and the Royal Palace and Parliament House on the other.
He has just accompanied the king and queen of Sweden on a state visit to Jordan, one of his first on the job. He says he’d like to visit Israel one day and thinks that Sweden’s relationship with Israel is “excellent following the establishment of dialogue in 2021.” Still, no official visit has as yet been planned.
Eight years ago, one of the first steps of the previous government was to recognize a Palestinian state. What is your government’s position on the issue?
“The decision to recognize Palestine in 2014 was premature and unfortunate. However, the decision has been taken and this government doesn’t plan to revoke it.”
But it wasn’t just about recognition. The previous government was very active in this field: it appointed a special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it actively opposed Israeli settlements in the West Bank; and it supported the Palestinian Authority and the two-state solution. Is Sweden’s new government still committed to these policies?
“On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the government stands firmly behind the EU policy. We want to see a negotiated two-state solution based on international law. That decision will remain. As for being active, we will continue to criticize the parties when called for, when violations of international law are committed and when human rights are abused. We’ll do that in the same way we criticize other states when it’s justified. This is in no way contrary to having excellent relations with Israel or Palestine. The government will at all times stand up for Israel’s legitimate security needs.”
Would Sweden consider moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital, Jerusalem?
“Like the EU, the government will continue to respect the broad consensus of the international community and relevant UN Security Council resolutions and regard Jerusalem as a final-status issue. Pending a peace agreement, Sweden’s embassy will not be moved.”
Your government plans to cut foreign aid drastically in the next couple of years – will this affect Swedish aid to the Palestinians, and could this lead to a problem with Sweden’s Palestinian partners?
“Sweden’s development cooperation with Palestine, just like the EU’s, ultimately aims to build the conditions and promote a two-state solution in line with international law. This goal will remain. As we review our overall development cooperation, we will also recess our Palestine strategy, which applies to the period of 2020 to 2024.”
What about aid to the Palestinian organizations that the Israeli government claims are terror groups? Or aid to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which allegedly publishes schoolbooks containing antisemitic incitement?
“The government takes terrorist accusations very seriously and several of these civil society organizations – which were listed by Israel as terror groups in October 2021 – receive support from the EU, the United Nations, Sweden and other donors. Together, the donors within the EU followed up thoroughly on the allegations and concluded that no substantial evidence was provided. The donors will therefore continue to support Palestinian civil society. We believe that a free and strong civil society is indispensable for promoting democratic values and the two-state solution. Needless to say, if Israel makes convincing evidence available that would justify a review in the policy toward these organizations, we would act accordingly.
“When it comes to antisemitism, it is of course unacceptable and it’s very important that the PA ensures that its textbooks fully meet UNESCO standards, and that the EU continues to be clear in its dialogue with the Palestinians to ensure that this is the case.”
Israel’s new government will be led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Are you confident that Israeli-Swedish relations, which have recently improved under another government, won’t deteriorate again under the new one?
“As Sweden’s foreign minister, I would like to see a good dialogue with countries we think we can maintain good relations with. The question of relations between Sweden and Israel is exactly about that: to have a dialogue on issues that we might disagree on – but we think it’s still a good thing to sit and talk about them.
“It’s not up to me as foreign minister of Sweden to say anything about Israel’s domestic policy. The people of Israel have a right to elect their government, just as the Swedish people have a right to elect our government. The important thing is to understand that in Sweden we cherish dialogue and would like to see it maintained.”
Just over a year ago, Israel’s ambassador to Sweden said Israel will not have any contacts with the populist Sweden Democrats party. Since then, it has become the closest and most important political supporter of your government. Will it influence Sweden’s foreign policy? And do you think Israel should have ties with it?
“It’s up to the Israeli government through its ambassador here in Sweden to choose with whom it wants to talk. As foreign minister, the case is very clear: the Swedish constitution says that foreign policy is shaped by the government, which keeps parliament informed. This means that since the Sweden Democrats are not part of the government, their influence is limited to exactly that – namely, parliamentary control, just like all the other parties represented in the Swedish parliament.”
A personal Holocaust story
As well as relations with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, another Swedish policy to draw attention during the previous government’s term was the one concerning antisemitism and Holocaust remembrance.
For over 20 years, since a Swedish initiative started the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 1998, Sweden has been considered a world leader in this field. Last year, the government organized a major international conference in Malmö dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and combating antisemitism. It also decided to open a new Holocaust Museum and accept the IHRA definition of antisemitism and its examples (which some have slammed for equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism).
When asked if his government is just as committed to combating antisemitism and preserving the memory of the Holocaust, Billström says: “Certainly! Combating antisemitism is very important and the new government is fully committed to doing so.”
Since Sweden is still struggling with many instances of antisemitism in schools, in some Muslim environments and in far-right circles, Billström knows the problem is still unresolved. “I will always be a very strong advocate against antisemitism,” he says. “We are working very closely with Israel on this. I appreciate the very fruitful cooperation with Israel during the IHRA presidency, and we’re looking forward to continuing the cooperation during Israel’s presidency in 2025.
“I would also like to make a personal remark on this,” he adds. “My grandparents in Malmö took in a Jewish family that escaped from Denmark across the Öresund strait, during the period in 1943 when the Gestapo tried to round up the Jews. I grew up with this story. I have this very nice diploma that says two trees were planted in their memory in Tzippori [in northern Israel] as thanks from this family. My grandmother and my mother, who remembers playing with the kids of this family, told me this story, and it has left a deep mark on me leading to my understanding of what the Jews and what Denmark went through.
“I’ve always believed that antisemitism is a horrible thing. When the Jewish burial chapel in Malmö was attacked during my time as migration minister [in 2009], I went there for the inauguration of the restored chapel and talked about my family’s story in my speech. For me, it’s obvious that there are examples of antisemitism in Swedish society that should be condemned, and it’s obvious there are people in our society who have not laid off the horrible idea that there are grounds for antisemitic persecution of people of Jewish origin in our society. That should always be combated – in schools, at workplaces, wherever we find it. As foreign minister of Sweden, this is something I have a very firm conviction about.”
What about the Sweden Democrats? Besides their past as a neo-Nazi party and many extremely problematic antisemitic opinions voiced by some of their leaders, the biggest party supporting your government supports various laws that could be problematic for Sweden’s Jewish community – such as forbidding circumcision and banning the importation of kosher meat. Are you sure your partnership with them won’t be part of the problem rather than part of the solution?
“I have to say that although there is certainly room for political debate concerning those aspects, as foreign minister it’s clear that the constitution limits their parliamentary influence. As to other issues you mentioned, they belong to areas under the influence of other ministers and I think that, again, under the limits of the constitution I shouldn’t be addressing them.”
One issue Billström is willing to address is Swedish-Iranian relations, which have been tense lately. A Swedish court recently sentenced an Iranian official, Hamid Nouri, to life in prison for war crimes committed in Iran in 1988. There are also two Iranian-born Swedes standing trial in Stockholm after allegedly spying for Russia, while Swedish nationals are also being held in Iran. The recent domestic demonstrations against the Iranian regime make it even harder for Sweden to maintain business as usual with the Islamic republic.
When asked if these events will bring about a change of Swedish policy toward Iran, Billström makes the Swedish position clear. He says that since Sweden has an independent judiciary, there is no government influence on verdicts in Swedish courts. This may be seen as a signal to Tehran about the government’s policy concerning the complicated court cases in both countries.
However, when it comes to the political arena, things are easier to act upon. “As we see it, there is no movement on the Iran nuclear deal,” Billström says. “But the developments in Iran are a source of great worry for Sweden, which also has a considerable Iranian diaspora. The violence directed against peaceful demonstrators is horrible. I had direct communication with the foreign minister of Iran a few days ago, and I was very frank about the way the Swedish government feels about this – we believe people shouldn’t be persecuted and that the use of the death penalty is absolutely unacceptable in every regard. However, we still feel there’s room for dialogue with the Iranian government on this – and the only way to influence them is by dialogue.
“We are also very clear that individuals who have participated in the persecution of demonstrators, and also those who have been involved in the sale of drones to Russia to be used in the war in Ukraine, should face sanctions. It’s very worrying that Iran is turning in this direction.”
Another Middle Eastern leader Billström’s government is dealing with is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson met him in Ankara earlier this month, in a bid to get Turkey to ease its objections to Sweden’s NATO accession.
“There is a trilateral memorandum signed by Sweden, Finland and Turkey,” says Billström, explaining the current state of affairs. “The memorandum has conditions that have to be fulfilled and will pave the way for the Turkish parliament to ratify Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO. The visit to Ankara was good; I think it was a fruitful dialogue.”
It seems there are items on the Turkish president’s agenda – some domestic, others foreign – that are still causing him to block Sweden’s NATO ambitions. Billström thinks it is now time for the “relevant authorities in all three countries” to get to work, but doesn’t specify what the problematic issues are or when he thinks the process will be completed. “Because there are certain issues that have to be dealt with,” he concludes, “I don’t want to set a time frame. Because it’s not helpful to do that.”