Off The Wallstrom

A straight-talking Swede renowned her famously candid – and frequently highly controversial – personal web-blog, European Commission Vice President Margot Wallstrom is not your typical Eurocrat. On a recent visit to Dublin, she took time out to talk to Hot Press about Tony Blair, George Bush, the Irish and the Swedes’ mutual love of alcohol, Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevey’s accent, Bono and Bob Geldof. And she even taught us a few Swedish swear words. Interview by Jackie Hayden. Photography by Liam Sweeney.

The Swede Margot Wallstrom, Vice-President of the European Commission, is a politician with a difference. A very striking figure with a reputation for straight talking, she keeps an on-line diary (a blog) where she talks openly about both her personal and professional life, much to the disdain of her pompous colleagues. Wallstrom was formerly EU Commissioner for the Environment and Swedish Minister for Culture.

JACKIE HAYDEN: Your web diary shows you to be a very open, perhaps even unguarded, politician, answering questions about your own life as well as arguing about key issues. From our experience of politicians this is very unusual. Why have you chosen to take this route?

MARGOT WALLSTROM: We have to change the attitude of the European Union and our way of communicating, to do what we preach so as to be credible. But then this is also my personality. If I couldn’t be true to myself I wouldn’t be able to do it.

But it also has to do with role models. I hope that women can start to make these changes.

Irish politicians tend not to volunteer information unless it’s carefully thought out. They rarely put themselves in situations where they have to answer hard questions unless they have to.

The culture in Sweden and the Nordic countries is absolutely different. For centuries we have a principle of openness and making everything public. We are not hurt by that. We are used to it and I’ve tried to argue for this in Europe. What do we have to fear? When I suggested we should allow the letters we receive to be read by others there was this reaction against it, but why not, so long as the people who wrote to you know this? It is good to create this debate.

You responded to UK MEP Jeffrey Titford’s claim that EU employees were immune from prosecution by saying that any Eurocrat committing any crime is subject to the full force of the law, just like everybody else. Do you really believe that?

Why wouldn’t that be the case?

If so then, will Tony Blair be taken to the Hague to face war crimes for his role in the murder of innocent Iraqis?

If he has committed war crimes, absolutely. Any leader has to be subject to scrutiny and control.

But hasn’t he committed war crimes, quite clearly?

That’s a matter for debate that has to be taken in the UK. This is not for me to judge.

What is your personal view. Has he committed war crimes?

I have my personal views about the war and participating in the war but I don’t have any reason to take a position against Tony Blair. But it’s an important debate. A war crime is a very serious accusation.

Did you support the invasion of Iraq?

No, I did not.

On what grounds did you oppose it?

They should have let the weapons inspections carry on and followed that line. It should have been a UN operation.

On that basis, would you have disapproved of the Irish government allowing Americans planes to land in Ireland on route to Iraq?

I won’t comment on that. I don’t know enough to take a position.

Your reticence surprises me.

No, I just don’t know enough.

You celebrated the signing of the Kyoto agreement. Given that the world’s biggest polluters haven’t signed up, do you think there’s a justification for sanctions and boycotts of American goods by Europe?

No. I don’t think that would be effective. We should continue to put pressure on the US by joining forces on fighting climate change. By ratifying the Kyoto protocol, we continue to put pressure on those who have not yet joined.

Europe put pressure on the US not to go to war in Iraq and that had no effect, so why would it be any different with this issue?

Normally it does. We lead the way. We lead by example. We use the flexible mechanisms, the market mechanisms that are introduced. We start emissions trading, that will affect big companies in the US. Now ten north-eastern states are starting a system similar to the emissions system we already have in Europe. In the long run that will affect their federal government. Even if it takes a little longer, sometimes you have to work that way.

The Irish MEP Avril Doyle admitted to me that issues of rape and sexual abuse have never been discussed at European level and weren’t on the EU agenda. Is this true?

Many social issues are not being discussed because member states have the competence to deal with the issues and the EU can’t intervene and isn’t involved in the same way as when we discuss environmental protection, for example. But we have a women’s committee and they debate these issues, but no so much in the European parliament, unfortunately.

So what message does that send out to the victims of those crimes? That the EU doesn’t really care about their plight?

That is not true. There are programmes supporting NGOs (non-government organisations) and efforts like the Daffner project, which tackles trafficking. There are more than a thousand of these projects, so the EU is supportive in that way. It doesn’t mean there is no debate, but there is no legislation, so it is not visible and this is a pity because we should do more to make it visible as to what projects are carried out at European level.

So what needs to be done about the trafficking of women for prostitution?

We have started to discuss it more and more. This is where police and judicial co-operation is needed and we need to do more for the victims. They need to know they can seek shelter and get the support to rebuild their lives. We also need to find the culprits and the root causes and attack that at the same time. We would like all the NGOs to say we have one priority now, to stop this disgusting phenomenon. We should call it sex slavery. That’s what it is. To call it trafficking makes it sound innocent.

But what stops the politicians bringing some urgency to dealing with it?

Because there is too much money in it. There are too many customers, too many paedophiles, too many prepared to buy women and to buy sex. It’s a very lucrative business and it finds new routes. It’s only through the new constitution that our police forces can co-operate and get to grips with this. They are starting to build more facilities where the women can go for refuge without the risk of deportation.

Is there an EU policy on abortion?

No. This is left to each member state, because it’s such a controversial issue. It’s seen as a moral, even a religious issue, and as long as it is there’s no way we can force any country to do something that goes against their people’s beliefs.

Do you have abortion in Sweden?

Yes, we do.

Do you think we should have abortion in Ireland?

No, that’s for the Irish people to decide.

What determines what issues are left to individual governments to decide and what can have an overall EU policy?

The treaties decide this. This is even clearer in the new constitution.

How do you view Ireland’s role in the EU?

Ireland has won a lot of respect from the very rapid development of the economy. The Irish presidency was very successful. It seems that small countries have more successful presidencies, they’re used to compromising and having common sense guide them in what they do. They often don’t have their own agenda, hidden or not, and they’re used to getting people together.

How do Swedes view Ireland?

I think we have a lot in common. We have the same background of being neutral countries, we both feel very strongly about our natural environment, our cultures, our languages.

We both drink a lot. Is that a problem in Sweden as it is here?

Oh yes, a big problem, a growing problem, with a huge influx of alcohol. A lot of people want to go back to times when you could control how much drink people could take into the country.

What’s the root cause of that tendency to drink too much?

I’ve thought of this a lot because I was Minister for Health in Sweden. We have almost the Russian habits of drinking. We don’t drink much during the weeks, only on weekends when we drink all the time! You have the pub tradition, but we’ve never had that, except in the very big cities. We drink at parties in houses.

Ingmar Bergman films portrayed Swedish people as somewhat morose, almost suicidal, which is not really flattering. Is that a true representation and does it link into the drink problem?

Who knows what really is a true representation of any people? But underneath any people who are seen to be cold there is a lot of passion. But maybe also we have a feeling of being a bit superior, a little better than others because we have done so well. We’ve kept out of the wars, and our economic performance has been good. It is a joke in Europe that at meetings the Swedish representative always says nothing but waits until the very end of a debate and then simply asks “Why don’t we just do it the way we do it in Sweden?” There is some truth to this joke!

At the risk of being offensive to a visitor, many people Irish people associate Sweden with pornography, beautiful, promiscuous women and ABBA. Is that fair?

Yes, that’s what we think people think of us! (Laughs). It does not surprise me at all. Maybe it’s a bit old-fashioned. You find pornography everywhere nowadays.

What would you like to replace that image with?

Maybe a greater awareness of the way we manage our democratic traditions. We have a very open society and we’ve really tried to turn the theory of sustainable development into reality. We are good at protecting the welfare systems, education, social security and we also invest in people.

Have you met Bertie Ahern?

Yes, I have.

What were your impressions of him?

He’s very well respected in Europe. He has played a very serious role within the EU.

So you could understand what he was saying?

Yes, yes. But it’s a bit more difficult with Charlie McCreevy!

Do you support Bono’s Drop The Debt campaign?

The richest countries in the world have promised for a long time to help with debt relief and so little happens. Every initiative that can push this is helpful. So, yes, these are basically valuable and legitimate arguments. But I wonder why it takes so long.

Some people might suspect that Bono’s efforts are merely part of the marketing of U2…

This is one of the side effects of doing anything. I believe he has an honest approach to this and believes in what he’s doing.

Do you think it’s useful for people with Bono’s profile in music or any other area to use their celebrity to draw attention to issues?

Well, yes, but sometimes it can be pathetic and you see through it as a mere advertising trick, maybe travelling to poor countries or whatever. It has to come from inside. Again, it’s about credibility. Both Bono and Bob Geldof have pursued issues over long periods of time and have that.

Do you think that Bob Geldof can maybe achieve more than politicians or Governments?

No, but he gets more visibility. Many politicians will have worked to get the proper legislation and to put in the basic structures to allow you to tackle poverty or get clean water or what have you. But his intervention can help put the matter higher up the agenda and get the media to write about it. It may be unfair but it’s the end result that matters.

The drug problem throughout Europe continues to get worse. Does that not suggest that the current approach doesn’t work and the time can come to make drugs legally available under controlled circumstances?

This is not entirely true. There have been examples as to how you can fight drugs, there have been successes in Thailand and we’ve seen how you can replace the drug crops with other crops if you pay the farmers enough. I don’t think the solution is to legalise them. It would bring enormous problems.

How could it be any worse?

It will spread. I have seen up close how it affects young people. Go to Holland and look at the situation there. Is that what you would want to introduce to other countries? Should the state sell the drugs?

But we don’t ban alcohol, so why ban one set of drugs and not another?

Because of the traditions and because of what is possible and realistic.

But Government have created a situation that could not be better for drug barons; they don’t need to advertise, there are no quality or price controls on what they sell and they don’t pay VAT or protect their workers! It's an attractive business.

But I don’t think it’s a rational business. I don’t think the market mechanisms are perfect for drugs. And it’s so terrible what it does to the victims and to society. I’m not sure if legislation is the solution. But of course if you create a situation that is too tough then you are creating further problems for drug addicts, if you don’t provide clean syringes or don’t help them.

Some European countries, including Ireland, are failing to achieve the level of Foreign Aid they have promised. What can be done?

The strategy has to be to agree on a target and put a clear date and a clear figure for it at EU level, with peer pressure making it an open commitment and then hoping this will work.

Irish people like swearing. Have you any good swear words you can teach us from Sweden?

(Laughs) Oh yes, there are a number of them! The very north of Sweden where I come from they are very good at swearing.

Could you give me a sample or two?

(Laughs) The most common one is far åt helvete! That means go to hell!

That’s pretty mild.

OK, probably. You could double it and say jävla helvete (damned hell!). You could use ones with pornographic (words) but you don’t want to go there.


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