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Exclusive interview with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström

In an interview with Christine Petré during a state visit to Tunisia Sweden’s Foreign Minister Margot Wallström talked about Tunisia’s success story, the Islamist party Ennahda, the recent Swedish recognition of Palestine, the famous IKEA schism with Israeli Foreign Minister Lieberman and the country’s aim for a “feminist foreign policy.” Read the transcript or listen to the audio.

Let’s just begin with, what is priority right now for Sweden in terms of Tunisia’s progress?

We want to help Tunisia succeed in their reform efforts to transform this country into a fully democratic and open society and country. We have a long history of partnership and working together and I think that this can now be renewed and intensified. I knew early on, taking office that I wanted to go here as one of the first places to visit because I think it will also serve as an inspiration for countries in this region. I think that what we’ve seen and the people we’ve met so far can confirm that they are serious in their reform efforts. We’ve met with representatives of the independent authorities working on fighting corruption, independent media and reform the judiciary and that has been impressive, but that is not to underestimate the problems and challenges that Tunisia is facing. I fully understand that the security situation, lack of resources, economic development, unemployment, all these elements are indeed also of course obstacles to success but we have discussed how we can work together.

What do you think about the coalition between Islamist party Ennahda and the liberal/secular parties, do you think that can be a model for other countries in the region?

This is for this country to decide, what is the right way forward and also how to treat the Islamist party. I guess there are both advantages and maybe disadvantages of taking them into the coalition. I think that maybe it will bring out a sense of responsibility and I think that maybe it can also prevent radicalisation because if they are kept outside there might be more of a tendency to become radicalised and an even stronger opposition. They need on the other hand a strong opposition that belongs to a democracy. I think that to encourage the moderate forces and keep any signs of extremism at a distance is the most important and I think that at the same time, now is the right time to demonstrate that you need to hold the country together and to mobilise the whole country to make progress. It is not for us to teach anyone, we can only guess the problems it entails but there are arguments for keeping them in a coalition and there might be arguments to keeping them outside. So far it seems like it is the moderate forces that are dominating and I think this is important.

Have you met with Ennahda leader Rashid Ghannouchi?

Yes, it was very interesting.

What is Sweden’s relationship to Ennahda?

We discuss with everyone. When we come here we try to meet and engage with everyone and listen to all different views and positions. That is crucial to understand fully the debates and the different forces that maybe pull sometimes in different directions, it is also an opportunity for us to speak about the respect for human rights, the respect for women, the fact that we also want to see these reforms implemented but it has also been an opportunity for us to congratulate them: Well-done with the elections, well-done with the constitution, including the contributions from civil society organisations who have helped them to make a really good constitution.

Sweden recognised the state of Palestine in October 2014. Why now and why do you think that it is important?

Well, some say it might be too early, I am afraid that it might be too late because we are experiencing a very dire situation on the ground in Palestine and in the Middle East and we know that this means a lot to hopefully also convince especially young people that there is a route, an option, between having to accept a desperate situation for the Palestinians and take to violence. There must be a political way in between those alternatives and provide some hope for the future. We of course also want to engage with them to convince them to return to negotiations when time comes and engage in reforms that are necessary on their part and that includes also fighting corruption and make sure they invest in economic development and the social projects that are necessary.

The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, commented on the decision by saying, “Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea.” Wallström answered, “I will be happy to send Israeli FM Lieberman an Ikea flat pack to assemble. He’ll see it requires a partner, co-operation and a good manual.” The comment went viral, what was the idea behind the comment?

It was meant as a statement with a sense of humour, I always think that humour is a good sign of intelligence. I wanted to respond in the same way with a sense of humour but also with a serious twist, I really think that in the Middle East we need to cooperate, you need a good manual, a good plan, and you just have to show that you are willing to work with a partner. There are two sides here that need to work with each other so that’s how it all played out.

You have expressed that you’d like to have a “feminist foreign policy,” what does that mean?

I don’t only want it; I am implementing a feminist foreign policy. It means that we will look at every issue and every situation from the criteria of ensuring women’s rights, women’s representation and resources. I think these are the boxes that you have to check and start with a reality check: how are women treated, how do they fare in this country, what is their situation. Unfortunately we still see that women are discriminated against and that they do not enjoy the same rights, that there is so much violence against women everywhere and we just have to correct that and we have to count on women not as victims but as agents of change in their countries.

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