“Europe needs immigration for entrepreneurial spirit.” Interview with Ambassador Jan Olsson

The Permanent Representation of Sweden to the European Union is the Swedish government’s negotiating authority in Brussels. It is directed towards the EU institutions and work is conducted through the Council’s working groups, in COREPER (the Permanent representatives’ committee) and in the Council of Ministers.

Different legislative proposals and other policy initiatives are negotiated among the EU member states in the Council. “The main aim is to get as good an outcome for Swedish EU policy as possible”, says Jan Olsson, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Sweden to the EU.

What is work like at the Swedish representation?

Our role in Brussels is to promote the Swedish government’s EU policy. An important part of this is to handle contacts with the European institutions and different interests in civil society, such as companies, trade unions, and regional representations from Sweden.

The Swedish government needs insight into what different actors are pursuing at the EU level in order to try and ensure that various Swedish interests go in the same direction.

How is your relationship with the MEPs and the EU institutions? Do you have closer ties with the Swedish MEPs who fall within the government’s own political parties?

We have a very good, relaxed relationship with the whole group of Swedish MEPs. It is of mutual interest for us to have a clear picture of what the other one is doing. We do not have a better cooperation with parliamentarians who have opinions closer to the Swedish governments’ positions. However, all Swedish MEPs should know what the Swedish government is working on in the EU.

How does the Swedish representation see the future of the EU, especially after the European elections? More or less integration for example?

We do not have an opinion as such. However, we are following any developments taking place at the EU level. Partly, integration has increased in the EU as a response to the economic and euro crisis, tightened financial control and the larger emphasis on sustainable budget policies. We follow these various discussions closely and report to the government offices back home.

The emergence of what may be perceived as extremist attitudes in European countries could lead to a parliament with a very different set-up than today. In order for the EU as a whole to work properly, it is very important that the European Parliament functions as a legislative partner. If you get a parliament after the election that finds it hard to agree internally, it will be a problem for the whole EU-machinery.

Are there any specific areas or political issues that the Swedish representation prioritises at the EU level?

The Swedish representation follows the priorities of the government. We will not leave an empty seat in any question, and we will work with the issues on the agenda. However, in practice, Sweden has always found some issues more important, including various transparency related issues, the internal market, trade policy, climate and environmental policy as well as a common migration policy.

How is the cooperation between the different EU countries? Do all countries have as much influence in all issues? Can one notice some imbalance in the collaboration that favours certain states?

Big member states, by definition, have greater weight than smaller ones as the system of qualified majority gives them more votes. However, all member states have the same rights and opportunities to be heard at the negotiation table.

Experience shows that small states, when they develop a good argument, can also have considerable influence in the decision-making process. There are generally good reasons not to focus on too many issues, but more on the important ones. We have quite significant opportunities to exercise influence, if we play our cards right.

How can the Swedish representation make people in Sweden feel more involved in European politics? And how do you work for this?

Of course we hope that the results of our negotiations are as acceptable as possible for the public back home, but it is not our task to try to “sell” the EU to the Swedish people. This is not to say that we do not try. We always try to describe how we work here and what comes out of it.

It is not uncommon, in our country and others, that people have a fairly negative image of the EU and that there is rather negative media coverage of it. An important part of what we do is to try and have as good an outcome as possible of Swedish EU policy.

Euro-scepticism and xenophobia are increasing in Europe today. How can the Swedish representation and government increase knowledge about positive effects of migration in EU countries?

These important issues have several aspects. Many people with a migrant background, like the ones you represent, are already in the EU and active here. The value and contribution of active people from other parts of the world is crucial for growth in Europe. I think most people realise that today.

Then there is the whole asylum and migration aspect, which is a politically sensitive area. From a European perspective, the Swedish government is very active in a liberal and open direction. In general, we work against xenophobia and try to contribute by demonstrating the value of diverse backgrounds – we need immigration for demographic reasons and for entrepreneurial spirit.

How does the Swedish representation work with different organisations from civil society and NGOs such as UNITEE?

We gladly meet with representatives of civil society and various interest groups. It is important for us to get a clearer picture of what they think, as they are often the implementers of the laws we negotiate. In our role as advisers to the government in Sweden, we always have the opportunity to submit comments and insights from representatives in civil society.


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