Minister of Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström: Sweden’s EU presidency will push for a ‘stronger’ Europe

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MATTHEW KROENIG: Hello. Thank you for joining us this morning to our friends in the United States, or this afternoon for our friends in Europe. My name is Matthew Kroenig, and I’m the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. It’s my pleasure to welcome you to today’s Atlantic Council Front Page event with Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström. Minister Billström, thank you so much for joining us today, and we look forward to hearing your insights shortly.

This is truly an inflection point for the transatlantic community. Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has united allies and partners like never before, led Sweden to seek admission into the NATO alliance, and transformed the transatlantic security architecture. In the tumult of recent events we may forget it sometimes, but we are truly witnessing history in the making. Sweden is one of the United States’ closest allies. The US-Sweden bilateral relationship is central to our shared success in deterring strategic challenges, particularly now against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing war. Sweden is also a diplomatic powerhouse, a technology innovation hub, and a supporter of multilateralism, all invaluable qualities for the transatlantic community today more than ever.

Today’s event will consider Sweden’s role in bolstering deterrence against Russia, and how the country can contribute to collective defense and transatlantic unity in light of Stockholm’s likely forthcoming membership into the NATO alliance, which coincides with its presidency of the European Union. The Atlantic Council is proud to be a longstanding partner of Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign Affairs and has been a leading voice on analysis of the implications of Sweden and Finland joining the NATO alliance. Because of this deep and rich friendship, we are particularly delighted and honored to be joined by Minister Tobias Billström in his first official visit to Washington as minister for foreign affairs.

Today’s event is cohosted by the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative, and the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the Europe Center. Our Scowcroft Center works to develop sustainable, nonpartisan strategies to address the most important security challenges facing the United States and its allies and partners. We also honor the legacy and service of General Brent Scowcroft, his ethos of nonpartisan commitment to the cause of security, support for US leadership and cooperation with allies and partners, and dedication to the mentorship of the next generation of leaders.

In keeping with this ethos, our Transatlantic Security Initiative shapes and influences the debate on the greatest security challenges facing the North Atlantic Alliance and its key partners, and the Council’s Europe Center and Northern Europe Office in Stockholm conduct research and use real-time analysis to inform the actions and strategies of key transatlantic decisionmakers in the face of great-power competition and a geopolitical rewiring of Europe. The Center convenes US and European leaders to promote dialogue and make the case for the US-EU partnership as a key asset for the United States and Europe alike.

Both our centers are honored to host Minister Billström today. By way of introduction, Mr. Billström took up his post as minister for foreign affairs in the Cabinet of Ulf Kristersson in October of this year, and has been a member of the Swedish parliament since 2002. He previously served as first deputy speaker of the parliament and minister for migration and asylum policy. Moderating today’s discussion is Amy Mackinnon, an award-winning national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy Magazine.

Before I turn the floor over to Minister Billström I’d like to share a couple of housekeeping notes. First, I’d like to remind everyone that this event is public and on the record. We encourage our online audience to direct questions to Minister Billström using the Q&A tab at the bottom of your screen, for our viewers on Zoom, or you can join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #ACFrontPage. Thank you all for joining the Atlantic Council for what I know will be a captivating conversation. And, Minister Billström, welcome.

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Thank you for inviting me to speak to the Atlantic Council. What better place to lay out Sweden’s new foreign policy than here, at an institution that truly embodies the transatlantic spirit?

This policy era has brought both home with new urgency how much Europe and North America still need each other. The transatlantic ties are reflected in almost every important aspect of my country’s foreign policy.

I want to start by thanking the United States, both the administration and Congress, for showing strong leadership in these difficult times. Your solidarity and bipartisanship mean a lot for Ukraine, but also to foster unity in Europe.

I’m most grateful for President’s Biden’s strong support for Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership and swift ratification by the Senate at our accession protocol this summer. NATO is more important than at any other time since the Cold War. For us Europeans, the 24th of February 2022 is a turning point. History has taught us that the greatest dangers to European security arise when a revisionist power is challenging the geopolitical status quo, driven by imperialist ambition. This is what Russia’s war in Ukraine is about.

By trying to conquer Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe, Russia has demonstrated its utter disregard for the European security order, the will of the Ukrainian people and the charter of the United Nations. Make no mistake: If Russia succeeds in swallowing Ukraine, it will not stop there. Firm and steadfast response from us is crucial. Ukraine has made heroic advances to liberate territory in recent months, and the war seems to have reached a critical stage. But victory is far from certain.

We do not need to doubt anymore that President Putin is prepared to go far and take huge risks. The remorseless Russian bombing campaign of residential areas, schools, hospitals, and energy infrastructure are an attempt to demoralize the Ukrainian population through massive terror. Our hearts and our minds are with those who are suffering from these terrible, terrible crimes.

Mr. Putin is betting that our support for Ukraine will wane, especially as winter looms and energy prices are biting. We need to prove him wrong. We will prove him wrong. And I want to be clear: Russia must not succeed.

Messages from partners that Ukraine needs to engage in negotiations risks reinforcing Mr. Putin’s conviction that time is on his side and therefore prolong the war. Whether to negotiate with Russia or not, and, if so, about what, is for Kyiv to decide. And to support Kyiv in this endeavor is not only a moral obligation. It is also the precondition for lasting peace in Europe. We must stand by Ukraine for as long as it takes.

My government is convinced that we must double down on our support. We recently presented a new military support package for Ukraine worth 300 million US dollars, more than all the previous packages taken together. We are giving Ukraine the air defenses that it desperately needs, and we are ramping up humanitarian support.

But we are painfully aware that more needs to be done and that Europe as a whole must step up and contribute more. This will be one of our top priorities as we take over the presidency of the European Union in less than a month’s time.

Ladies and gentlemen, there are fundamental issues at stake. Geopolitics and identity politics on a global scale are dangerous sources of confrontation, especially when the two are combined. This is the case with Russia’s menacing nationalism.

Mr. Putin’s war is also a war on our values, our system of governance and the norms of international cooperation. His vision, to establish a geographical and cultural sphere under authoritarian rule and Russian hegemony, is meant also to weaken the EU, NATO, and ultimately to press the United States out of Europe. So the outcome of this war is set to shape Europe’s future. That is why Russia must not succeed.

Our common response to the Russian aggression will have consequences also far beyond Europe. Anything less than a Russian defeat in Ukraine would embolden Moscow and other authoritarian powers. It would further complicate this era of profound geopolitical shifts. So Ukraine may be the first of several tests for the rules-based international order that we all depend on for our security and our prosperity.

Mr. Putin has explicitly and repeatedly referred to a transformation of the global-governance architecture and the world order, which is a direct challenge to the current rules-based international system. This notion of a system organized around regional spheres of influence calls into mind of a nineteenth century Concert of Europe, but on a global scale. It would be a system where might makes right. And it goes without saying that it is a fatal environment for democracies, especially for smaller ones like Sweden.

Ukraine’s president, Mr. Zelensky, is right when he points out that his soldiers are fighting not for Ukraine and not just for Ukraine but also for us. The first line of defense for open society and international norms are in cities like Kharkiv and Kherson.

We Swedes are, again, asking ourselves a basic question—how to best protect our open society, an open economic system, and an international order where the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states are respected. We believe that many of the challenges facing us now can best be dealt with in close cooperation with our friends in the European Union and NATO, and other countries around the world who share our commitment to the rules-based international order.

With a dangerous war in the middle of Europe and growing strategic competition also in the Indo-Pacific, security is a top priority for us. But let me be clear, we will not turn our back on the global agenda, especially not in time of energy crisis, economic distress, food insecurity, pandemics, and a climate situation which is taking its toll on people around the world.

We strongly believe in multilateral cooperation including, though, through our long-standing engagement in the United Nations. We have trade relationships and innovative and a competitive business sector that benefit from an open world economy.

Our strong relationships with countries in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere are an asset in these turbulent times. An important part of Sweden’s foreign and security policy transformation is a paradigm shift underway to meet the threats facing Sweden and Europe. We are strengthening our resilience, including by significant investments in our own defense capabilities.

Sweden is committed to reaching NATO’s goal of 2 percent defense spending by 2026 at the latest. Sweden, like the rest of the West, is also rethinking what Russia’s weaponization of energy and food means to our security, and competition with China means that trade and technology are now part of a broader strategic agenda with wide implications also for transatlantic cooperation.

The Swedish prime minister, Mr. Ulf Kristersson, recently appointed for the first time a national security adviser and he’s setting up a national security council to strengthen our whole of government approach to security.

Ladies and gentlemen, Swedish NATO accession is urgent priority for my government. We have embarked upon this journey together with Finland and are—we look forward to jointly become allies. We are committed to fulfilling all parts of a trilateral memorandum of understanding with Turkey, including on counterterrorism.

We strongly believe that NATO membership for Sweden and Finland will strengthen our security as well as that of the alliance and Europe as a whole. Sweden and Finland are security providers with sophisticated defense capabilities and industries.

With Sweden and Finland as NATO members, all the Nordic and Baltic countries will share the same security platform. NATO will then be able to take a comprehensive approach to defense planning and security in Northern Europe, a strategic space stretching from the Arctic High North to the Baltic Sea, and it will further strengthen Nordic cooperation, a region which is already deeply integrated and competitive.

The combined GDP of the five Nordic countries makes us the tenth largest economy in the world. You can count on us to be dependable allies with a commitment to the security of the entire Euro-Atlantic area.

The European Union is our home and our most important foreign policy vehicle. Sweden’s basic idea about Europe is simple. It needs to be stronger. This idea will guide Sweden’s EU presidency.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will influence all aspects of our EU presidency. The EU has taken giant leaps over the course of the past year. The most wide-ranging sanctions ever adopted by the EU are in place, closely coordinated with the United States. To strengthen them further is work in progress. The EU has delivered three billion US dollars’ worth of military equipment to Ukraine, and financial and humanitarian support totaling twenty billion US dollars.

I would, however, like to take this opportunity also to acknowledge how crucial the part played by the US has been. We would not have been able to do this alone in the European Union.

There is work to do on several fronts.

In Europe, we need a durable framework of robust defense and credible deterrence against further aggression. Here, the war in Ukraine has brought clarity. NATO is still indispensable for our collective defense. A strong Europe and a strong transatlantic link are mutually reinforcing. Europe needs to take on greater responsibility for both European and transatlantic security. The EU and NATO should augment, not compete with each other.

Another task: the consolidation of democratic values. That means resilience and enlargement. By keeping the EU’s door open to Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and countries in the Western Balkans, we are set on a course to expand and consolidate this space. And a future EU with Ukraine as a member will be a different EU when it moves EU’s point of gravity eastward.

We also need to enhance our EU economic resilience. That means working out supply chains for energy and other vital resources, and securing access to vital technologies.

On China, our interests are best served if Europe and the United States are closely coordinated. During our EU presidency and beyond, Sweden will work to strengthen EU unity on China, improving our preparedness for the challenges that China’s assertiveness present us with while also maintaining engagement in areas of global significance.

To accomplish this, we have to solidify the transatlantic dimension of the EU’s China policy because we recognize that the economic and security environment in the Indo-Pacific is of key importance to Europe’s future. Sweden will also work to implement the European Union strategy for the Indo-Pacific. We will, of course, stress the transatlantic partnership.

Although we know that China’s partnership with Russia is of long-term strategic importance for Beijing, I believe that China faces a dilemma. To support the Putin regime means to support an international outlaw. That is problematic for any country who cares about its standing in the world. As much as we are competitors, China and the free democracies also have a great stake in keeping a modus vivendi of a global crisis that demand a global response.

The clock is ticking on the climate challenge. It cannot be addressed without cooperation between the world’s largest polluters. The EU, with its 450 million people and one of the world’s largest markets, is key to Sweden’s climate policy. Again, Russia’s war against Ukraine is creating new dynamics, in this case by speeding up the movement away from gas, oil, and coal.

And we should not forget that the most important trade relationship in the world is that between the European Union and the United States. Together, we make up 40 percent of the world economy. Sweden is looking forward to working with the United States to strengthen our bilateral commercial ties. We have a world-leading technology sector and a strong track record of innovation in the green transition. Through the EU-US Trade and Technology Council, we have the chance to create a common transatlantic playing field with rules, regulations, and policies. We are only in the beginning of that process and Sweden’s EU presidency would like to see a strategic agenda for this new form of cooperation. And we should resolve our differences, including on the Inflation Reduction Act and similar arrangements. The bigger picture is too important to let trade disputes between friends hamper cooperation.

And finally, we need new coalitions of nations reaching beyond traditional allies to those that share an interest in the preservation and a rules-based international system. Our friends in Africa, Asia, and Latin America all have a stake in this.

We are only in the beginning of a very long journey, and this is a time when it’s good to have close friends. The free world needs to stay united. On the issues that really matter, Europe’s and America’s interests overlap. Our bonds are strong and enduring. We, European, need to work closely together with you, our American friends. Thank you very much.

AMY MACKINNON: Thank you for those opening remarks, Minister Billström. I feel it’s fitting that we’re speaking now as we approach the end of the year, because one of the very first interviews I did this year was with your predecessor, Ann Linde, the former foreign minister of Sweden. And now we have a new Swedish government and a radically changed environment in Europe. So lots to discuss today.

And before we begin, I do just want to remind our audience, both those joining us here in person at the Atlantic Council and those watching online, you can submit your own questions for the minister. We’ll have some moments for Q&A towards the end. You can do that using the chat—the Q&A function on Zoom. And for those of you who are here in person, there is an iPad roaming the room where you can—waiting in the back corner—where you can input your questions.

So to get started, Minister, I understand that you recently returned from a trip to Kyiv. What was your impression of the mood of government officials in Ukraine at this moment, as we head into this very difficult winter? And what do they ask you for?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Well, dear Ms. Mackinnon, dear Amy, well, my impression, as I ventured into Ukraine and to Kyiv, together with seven other colleagues from the Nordic and the Baltic States—only Denmark couldn’t be there because of government shift. But the rest of us went on this trip, which was the largest group of ministers ever to go into Ukraine and Kyiv since the war started in February.

And I think we all got the impression that we saw the high resilience of the Ukrainian government, the ambition to win this war, and also their ambition to protect and defend their country, in spite of all the difficulties and all the terrible onslaught and havoc wrought on them by the Russian forces. So I think that’s—all in all, I think the trip was very good. The Ukrainian government was very open about the need for more military, political, economical, and humanitarian support. We were very open about our ambitions to stand by their side through until victory is achieved.

AMY MACKINNON: You mentioned in your opening remarks that Europe needs to step up and do more in support of Ukraine, and that that will be one of your priorities as Sweden takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union. Can you give us more detail about in which areas would you like to see the European Union doing more?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Well, as matters for Ukraine, I think unity in the European Union is always a good thing, but especially when it comes to Ukraine. It is about saying that we can maintain the pressure of the Russian government, the ambition to isolate them completely, and see to it that they are not allowed a role on the global arena larger than what is absolutely necessary.

And then it’s a question about seeing to it that Ukraine can go through this winter, which we are now into. See to it that their economy, from a macro-financial point of view, can function, that salaries can be paid, pensions can be paid, but the state can function. And of course, to see to it that their military—the military aid keeps coming. Ukraine needs more heavy artillery. It needs more air defense to protect their, especially, electrical infrastructure, which Russia now is trying to hit hard. And Sweden, of course, recently delivered, as I mentioned in my speech here today, a package worth 300 million euros. But I would say that we need to send more.

And this is what unity in the European Union is about. But we see that the United States have done a lot of things when it comes to helping the Ukrainian forces, their defense, and also the Ukrainian state. We need to step up from the European Union so that we can show that we are equal partners with the United States in this endeavor to see to it that Ukraine can survive and exist. And again, to win the war and reestablish its territorial integrity.

AMY MACKINNON: I mean, you talk about doing more for Ukraine but there’s, of course, been discussions about whether Europe can sustain the current levels of support given the prospects of a recession, rising energy prices, and some beginning signs of dissent amongst European publics. I mean, how optimistic are you that Europe can sustain and increase its support for Ukraine?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: I am very optimistic, for many reasons. One is that Ukraine has shown that it’s worth its salt, so to say, you know? The military aid that we have brought to the Ukrainians, they in turn have used to gain military victories in the battlefield. And that shows that it’s paying off to help the Ukrainians help themselves to defend their country.

But secondly, I think we have to realize what this war is all about. If we allow Russia to win, we will see, you know, the dominoes that will keep falling. We will see more and more reestablishment of Russian influence in its neighborhood, and that will be detrimental to the European Union.

And finally, yes, we take some risks when it comes to economy and when it comes to inflation rates. But again, what is that compared to the suffering of the Ukrainian people? We have to weigh these things. Then again, war is always hazardous. War is complicated. War calls for patience and resilience. But we have to show that. And we are going to show that from the European Union. And Sweden’s presidency in the European Union will be centered about Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.

AMY MACKINNON: You mentioned in your opening remarks that Europe would not have been able to do this alone without the United States. Washington has, of course, been the largest military donor by a long shot to the Ukrainians.

The Finnish prime minister last week said that the war in Ukraine has really underscored that Europe is too dependent on the United States for its security. What’s your view on this?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: First of all, I would like to associate myself completely with the comments made by Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland. And I think that this shows again that Sweden and Finland thinks very much alike when it comes to this.

Yes, we have to acknowledge what the US have done and what the US administration and the Congress have done in bipartisanship to bring home aid to Ukraine. But I think in the long run, Europe also have to take a greater responsibility. We have to live up to our obligations. As I mentioned again in my speech, we are aiming to fulfill the commitments that you have to do as an incoming NATO member. Two percent of GDP is said. Two percent of GDP it will be by 2026 at the latest. That is what my government has said, and this is what we are aiming for in our budget.

But the European Union as a whole, those states who are members of NATO, have also to fulfill their commitments. And we are going to work towards that aim as NATO members. We should all be as it’s laid down, one for all and all for the many.

AMY MACKINNON: I’m going to bring in an audience question now, because we did have one which came in early about the 2 percent goal of spending. Of course, Sweden, as you mentioned, has accelerated its timeline to meet the 2 percent goal by 2026, up from 1.4 percent today. However, at the same time, the IMF projects that Sweden’s economy in 2023 will decline by 0.6 percent.

In these difficult economic conditions, you know, how will Sweden meet and sustain these very aggressive targets for defense spending, especially in the face of increased Russian aggression? That question comes from Paul Gebhard, who’s vice president of the Cohen Group and a nonresident senior fellow here at the Atlantic Council.

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: It’s a legitimate question to any politician, I think. But again, any politician have to realize that it’s all about prioritization. We have to think about how to realign and recalibrate the state budget. That is a job for the minister of finance, but it’s also a job for the government as a whole. And I think that we have to think about this.

Defense will be costly, yes. But the alternative will be even more costly. Being outside of NATO or being outside of these, you know, defense systems and structures and cooperation structures that we are part of will also be costly. There was a time when Sweden was, as they say, a neutral country. At that point we had an army which was very large, one of the largest in the European Union—sorry—in Europe, before we entered into the European Union. We also had a lot of defense capabilities in those days which were also very costly.

The alternative of being outside of NATO won’t be cheaper. That’s something which we all have to understand and accept.

AMY MACKINNON: So on Sweden’s application to join NATO, twenty-eight of the alliance’s thirty members, their parliaments have now ratified both Finland and Sweden’s applications to join. The only holdouts so far are Turkey and Hungary. At Turkey’s request, Sweden has extradited one Kurdish man who is alleged to have terrorist connections. But your Turkish counterpart made it very clear this week that they expect to see further extraditions before ratifying Sweden’s application.

Can you update us on where things stand with your conversations with Ankara? And do you have a sense of a timeline of when they may be able to hold a vote on this?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Yes, indeed, Amy. We are working persistently to fulfill our commitments laid down in the trilateral memorandum which was signed between Sweden, Finland and Turkey at the Madrid summit, NATO summit, this summer, in June. And I think it’s coming along. We are step by step fulfilling these commitments. It’s being done by, you know, as you mentioned in your observation, extraditing people by seeing to it that the PKK, a terrorist organization, cannot be active and work on our territory; by looking into the question of exporting defense materiel; and et cetera, et cetera—all the conditions laid down.

But I would like to stress also that this memorandum is also a question about Turkey and Finland and Sweden cooperation in a way which is beneficial to all of our three countries. One of the things which Sweden would like to see a big emphasis on is the cooperation of crime-fighting authorities having more cooperation because we can see people committing crimes in Sweden and then absconding to Turkey in order to avoid justice. And this is something where I know that the Turkish government is very committed to fulfill its part of the memorandum, and I hope that we will see—we will see movement in that as well.

The memorandum in itself also laid down very good foundations for a functioning relationship between our three states because we have also set up a PJM—a permanent joint mechanism—to oversee the fulfillment of the memorandum. So this is just a starting point. When we have become full military allies together with Turkey, Sweden and Finland also look forward to, you know, expanding our relations between our three states, which I think is a good thing in the long run.

AMY MACKINNON: How concerned are you that domestic considerations within Turkey such as next year’s elections, the recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul, and their decision to relaunch operations in Syria, that that may delay conversations about ratifying Sweden’s application?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: As a politician I can say that elections are always tricky, and I think that cannot be left out of the discussion. But again, we have to work to fulfill the memorandum. It is only when the memorandum is fulfilled that we will see the Turkish parliament ratify the accession and the application handed in by Sweden and Finland. That will come in the fulness of time. I have no doubt about it. And again, the negotiations are continuing.

But I would like to stress that we are, of course, moving forward with what we have committed ourself for in Sweden. So we do expect there to be a ratification by Turkey in the fulness of time.

AMY MACKINNON: I mean, it sounds like it could be at least the second half of 2023 before that happens.

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Oh, I don’t want to make any prognosis at this time because I think it’s not really fruitful for the—for the negotiations.

I think that we are carrying out these negotiations on several different levels. One has been the very good visit by my prime minister, Minister Ulf Kristersson, to Ankara, where he met with President Erdoğan on the 8th of November of this year. I myself am on my way to Ankara. We’re just trying to finalize a date before this year’s end. And I look forward to have discussions with my counterpart, the foreign minister of Turkey. And at the same time in a parallel track we have constant dialogues and negotiations on an authority level between authorities in Sweden and Turkey and Finland, and that is also because many of these things are very operational. It’s not just a question about the politicians talking to one another.

AMY MACKINNON: In the interim, I mean, have you seen any increased efforts by Russia, be it through disinformation or cyber operations or intelligence, to undermine support for NATO in Sweden or otherwise cause domestic disruption for the Swedish government?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: There is a constant flow of disinformation coming out of Russia, which only shows how desperate the Russian government is becoming. It has finally realized, I think, that this war is not moving in the right direction, and so it tries constantly to look to other fronts where it can fight its war. So, yes, there are examples of disinformation campaigns directed against Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership.

However, there is no hope of that succeeding. On the contrary, only yesterday there was a poll coming out showing that support for NATO membership in Sweden has risen substantially since the beginning of the year and we are now close to 70 percent of the Swedish population in favor of NATO membership—which, considering how it was before the war broke out, is a very, very, you know, very pregnant shift in minds and opinions of Swedes.

Which only underlines, I think, the—how do you say, the danger that we are in. Swedish citizens realize that outside of NATO we will face a much harder and much more difficult situation when it comes to security in the Baltic region, and that has to be addressed through NATO membership for Sweden and Finland.

AMY MACKINNON: Swedish investigators have said that the explosions along the Nord Stream pipeline earlier this year were an act of sabotage, noting that traces of explosives were found at the blast site.

I know that, you know, whilst the investigations are ongoing there’s been a very careful effort to steer away from attribution at this stage. But do you have any updates that you can share with us about the status of these investigations?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: As a matter of fact, no, and the reason is exactly the ones you mentioned, that I feel that as a representative of the government and with, you know, Sweden having an independent both judiciary and also legal service, I think that we should as ministers always be very careful to come too close, especially in questions of ongoing investigations.

When the prosecutors are finished they will deliver a report and then we can have new talks.

AMY MACKINNON: Have these explosions impacted the way that Sweden thinks about the security of its critical infrastructure in the Northern Seas, of energy, and of telecommunications?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: It has, certainly, served to reinforce the need for a continued and intensified debate on vital interests for Sweden when it comes to both energy supply and also when it comes to the danger of our neighborhood. When it comes to energy supply and also the supply of other necessities, we are currently underway to revise our entire, you know, strategic approach to this.

We have to think about how we cooperate with other countries when it comes to building resilience against situations where a country could face shortages of both food, energy, and other kinds of vital supplies. This is something where we also now have a specially designated minister, Mr. Carl-Oskar Bohlin, who is minister for civil defense. This also stresses, I think, how important the government feels about these issues.

So, yes, there has been an impact by the explosions. But already when the war started, we understood how critical the situation was becoming.

AMY MACKINNON: So I’m going to bring in some audience questions now as we have around ten minutes remaining.

We have one which has come in from Anna Wieslander, who’s the director of Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council. She asks, how do you see the role of Germany and Poland in Northern European security, especially regarding their contributions to Nordic and Nordic-Baltic security?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: As very important, Amy.

I have to say that both Poland and Germany being countries who have coastline of the Baltic Sea they are definitely part of the strategic approach that we have to take when it comes to the northern part of Europe and also, as I mentioned in my speech, with the High Arctic. So it all fits together.

I would also like to stress that when Sweden and Finland have become NATO members, all states bar one who have coastline with the Baltic Sea will be NATO members. It is only Russia, then, that won’t be a member.

So the close cooperation between all the group of NB8—the Nordic-Baltic countries, five plus three, Germany and Poland—will be very important, and to talk about defense capabilities, the distribution of responsibilities in this family, I think, will be very important and we are ready from the point of the Swedish government to engage ourself in this. That’s my clear answer.

AMY MACKINNON: I mean, just to continue along that thought, I mean, we’ve had a question—someone has noted that you’ve spoken about prioritizing the near abroad under this new government. What does that mean in practice?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: What it means exactly what I just mentioned, namely, that if we look at our close neighborhood, since we have to make defense and security and foreign policy a priority of the government and since security policy means engaging with our close neighborhood, we have to think about our relationship with the Nordic-Baltic countries.

I would like, when we have become NATO members, to see much closer cooperation than before because our NATO applications are changing the fundamentals of Swedish foreign policy, and there is a clear need of recalibration, both how the administration of foreign policy is carried out in Sweden but also our engagement with the countries surrounding us.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t understand the need to look further afield, and as I mentioned before, the Indo-Pacific, the transatlantic link, the relationship with the U.K., there are many, many aspects of this and, again, Africa, Asia, and Latin America are places where Sweden have vital interests when it comes to trade and when it comes to security.

Of course, we will be engaging there as well. But, for the moment, with the NATO application being on top of the to-do list, you have to focus a bit and this is exactly what I’m doing as foreign minister.

AMY MACKINNON: So our conversation has very much been dominated, understandably, by Europe, by questions of NATO and, of course, Russia’s war in Ukraine. But I think I would be remiss in this day and age if I didn’t at least touch upon China.

You mentioned in your opening remarks that, you know, you would like to see strengthened EU unity with regards to China. I mean, what is your reading of where things stand within the European Union, on where opinions are, where the mood is when it comes to strategic competition with China? And what are the challenges to getting the bloc on the same page about Beijing?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Well, thank you very much, Amy. I think that’s—you come to this the last, which is the most difficult question, I think, in many—in many ways. Because we have to find new ways of handling China and China’s ambition. Sweden is a country which always looks for peace. And we look with very, you know, worried eyes towards the rising tensions in the Taiwan Straits, and the need to think, again, about what the message coming out from the Party Congress, where President Xi Jinping was reelected, what that means for the whole world.

We would like to have a closer cooperation with partners like the United States, because we believe that we all are facing threats which we have to, how shall we say, address together. And these threats are about, you know, the growing assertiveness of China, it’s dangerous relationship with countries like Russia, and what this means for our security. So sitting down and having talks with our counterparts, both on a bilateral level—Sweden to US—but also now with our presidency, you know, in relation to the US administration and the Congress, is something that I am very much looking forward to. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m here in D.C. today, because I think it’s important for Sweden to step up when it comes to China policy.

AMY MACKINNON: And linking this conversation together, I mean, you mentioned the Russia-Chinese relationship. What is your interpretation of how deep and how lasting that may be?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: I think it’s unavoidable, given the message coming out from the Party Congress, that we have to think about this. And we have to think about it in every aspect when it comes to defense, security, not at least cybersecurity—which is also a matter which engages me, as foreign minister, and my government, a lot. Because Sweden have great interests when it comes to cybersecurity. And also, when it comes to trade. And we have to find ways of dealing with this?

I’m not saying that China is adversary in that regard, but China is a competitor. And we have to face China as a competitor and, you know, stake out a new way of dealing with those challenges which we are going to face. And if we don’t do that, I think it will be a great mistake not to do it. And when we now see that the US is so heavily engaged in this and we know that US is a friend, we better sit down and talk about this in, you know, a very friendly and close manner.

AMY MACKINNON: So on that note we have just a few minutes left, but this is your first official trip to Washington as minister of foreign affairs. So welcome.


AMY MACKINNON: Can you give us a sense of what’s on the agenda for this visit? What are your priorities?

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Yeah. In a way we have run them through already. But I can—I can go back and say that, you know, the question of the Russian aggression against Ukraine is, of course, very important to talk about. But the Swedish presidency, I think, will somehow be the overarching theme of this, because I arrived with two hats—that hat, which we are shortly to put on following the end of this year, and my bilateral hat as Swedish foreign minister. Both are equally important. But I would say that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, our NATO accession, and China, I think, are the three main topics which we should talk about.

AMY MACKINNON: And I could keep you talking all day, but I should let you go and get on with that busy agenda. Thank you so much for your time, Mr. Billström, it’s been a—Minister Billström. It’s been a pleasure.

TOBIAS BILLSTRÖM: Thank you very much, Ms. Mackinnon, dear Amy. Nice to be here. Thank you.

AMY MACKINNON: Thank you. And thank you to our audience, those who joined us in person here at the Atlantic Council and those watching online around the world. Please do stay tuned for more Atlantic Council’s—more Atlantic Council events like this to come. Thank you very much.

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Image: Tobias Billström, Foreign Minister of Sweden, speaking at a press conference after his meeting with Foreign Minister Baerbock at the Federal Foreign Office.