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Archive for the ‘Nordic Land of Sweden’ Category

Swedish foreign ministry investigates ambassador to China

February 14, 2019

BEIJING (AP) — The Swedish Embassy in China says its ambassador is under internal investigation. The embassy said Thursday that Ambassador Anna Lindstedt has returned to Stockholm to meet with officials from the foreign affairs ministry. She is not under criminal investigation.

Lindstedt left Beijing on Wednesday, according to the embassy, which declined to give further details. Her departure comes after Angela Gui, the daughter of detained Swedish book publisher Gui Minhai published an account Wednesday detailing a “strange” meeting with a pair of Chinese businessmen arranged by Lindstedt.

Gui wrote on Medium, an online publishing platform, that the businessmen threatened her after offering to help secure her father’s release from prison in China. Gui Minhai, a naturalized Swedish citizen, co-owned a Hong Kong store which sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.

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Lessons for Brexit from Norway’s hard border with Sweden

February 10, 2019

ORJE, Norway (AP) — With fresh snow crunching under their boots and a handful of papers to be checked and stamped, truck drivers from Latvia, Sweden and Poland make their way across Norway’s Orje customs station to a small office where their goods will be cleared out of the European Union and into Norway.

While many border posts in Europe have vanished, Norway’s hard border with the European Union is clearly visible, with cameras, license-plate recognition systems and barriers directing traffic to customs officers.

Norway’s membership in the European Economic Area (EEA) grants it access to the EU’s vast common market and most goods are exempt from paying duties. Still, everything entering the country must be declared and cleared through customs.

Technological solutions being tested in Norway to digitalize customs procedures for cargo have been seized on by some in Britain as a way to overcome border-related problems that threaten to scuttle a divorce deal with the EU. But the realities of this northern border also show the difficulties that persist.

A divorce deal between Britain and the EU has stumbled over how to guarantee an open border between the United Kingdom’s Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc on March 29.

The Irish border area was a flashpoint during decades of conflict in Northern Ireland that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible Irish border now underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland’s peace process.

The EU’s proposed solution is for Britain to remain in a customs union with the bloc, eliminating the need for checks until another solution is found. But pro-Brexit British politicians say that would stop the U.K. from forging new trade deals around the world.

Technology may or may not be the answer, depending on who you talk to. “Everyone agrees that we have to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and … technology will play a big part in doing so,” said Northern Ireland Minister John Penrose.

But EU deputy Brexit negotiator Sabine Weyand said on Twitter: “Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years.” The Customs office at Orje, on the road connecting the capitals of Oslo and Stockholm, has been testing a new digital clearance system to speed goods through customs by enabling exporters to submit information online up to two hours before a truck reaches the border.

At her desk in Orje, Chief Customs officer Nina Bullock was handling traditional paper border clearance forms when her computer informed her of an incoming truck that used the Express Clearance system.

“We know the truck number, we know the driver, we know what kinds of goods, we know everything,” she told The Associated Press. “It will pass by the two cameras and go on. It’s doesn’t need to come into the office.”

That allows Customs officers to conduct risk assessments before the vehicle even reaches the border. So far, only 10 Swedish companies are in the pilot project, representing just a handful of the 400-450 trucks that cross at this border post each day. But if it’s successful, the plan will be expanded.

In the six months since the trial began, Customs section chief Hakon Krogh says some problems have brought the system to a standstill, from snow blocking the camera, to Wi-Fi issues preventing the border barrier from lifting, to truck drivers who misunderstand which customs lane to use.

“It’s a pilot program, so it takes time to make things work smoothly before it can be expanded,” said Krogh, who still felt the program could have a long-term benefit. The program also limits flexibility for exporters. If a driver calls in sick and is replaced by another, or extra cargo is added to a shipment, then all the paperwork must be resubmitted online.

Yet a greater barrier to digitalizing the border is the complexity of international trade. The Svinesund customs office, 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Orje, is Norway’s major road border, with 1,300 trucks each day carrying goods into the country from all over Europe. Customs section chief Kristen Hoiberget has been following the Orje pilot program with interest but warns of systematic challenges to its expansion.

“It’s very easy to deal with a digital system when the goods are uniform,” said Hoiberget. “If you have one kind of goods in a lorry, it’s less complicated. But if you have a lorry that picks up goods at ten different places abroad, the complexity arises rapidly.”

He said most of the export information needed is available digitally but Customs, clearance houses and exporters all use different computer systems. “There are a lot of prerequisites to a digital border,” he said. “A frictionless border would need development and lots of legislation.”

Back in Orje, vehicles entering Norway are randomly checked, with officers mainly looking for alcohol and cigarettes, which are cheaper in Sweden. Border changes are coming, but certainly not in the tight two-month timeframe that any Brexit border changes would need.

“If you look 15 years ahead, I guess this office won’t be here. I won’t be sitting here stamping papers,” said Bullock. “But customs officers will still be on duty, to prevent goods coming into Norway that are not supposed to.”

As an AP journalist waited in the snow to watch a truck at Orje use the Express Clearance lane, a truck driver made his way across a large parking lot to the customs office. “You must be doing a Brexit story,” he joked. “They’ll be in the same boat soon.”

Lawless contributed from London.

Swedish temperature dips to -39.5C; coldest night in UK

January 31, 2019

STOCKHOLM (AP) — The Swedish weather service says temperatures of minus 39.5 degrees Celsius (minus 39.1 degrees Fahrenheit) have been recorded in northern Sweden, the coldest recorded this month. The Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute says it was measured Thursday in the Swedish town of Nikkaluokta in Lapland, which covers the northern parts of Norway, Sweden and Finland.

The service added, however, that on average January has been “warmer than normal.” Sweden’s news agency TT reported that the coldest temperature ever recorded in Sweden was minus 52.6 Celsius in 1966 in Lapland.

In Britain, officials recorded the coldest night this winter so far, with temperatures dipping to minus 11 C in Scotland. The cold snap prompted some trains to be cancelled, and Manchester and Liverpool airports were brought to a standstill on Wednesday.

Sweden votes for Lofven, ends political deadlock

January 18, 2019

COPENHAGEN, Denmark (AP) — A center-left minority government led by the current caretaker prime minister, Stefan Lofven, was approved Friday by Swedish lawmakers, ending a four-month political deadlock.

The vote in Riksdagen, or parliament, was 153-115 in favor of Lofven, with 77 abstentions. His own Social Democrats and the Greens backed him and the center-right bloc voted against, while three smaller parties abstained in Friday’s ballot.

In Sweden, a prime minister can govern as long as there is no majority against him or her. Swedish politicians have been trying to form a government without the Sweden Democrats, which has neo-Nazi roots. Parties have refused to cooperate with Sweden’s third-largest party, which made great strides in the Sept. 9 national election.

Jan Bjorklund of the Liberals, whose party supported Lofven, noted “how racist and populist parties have strengthened their positions across the world.” He cited U.S. President Donald Trump, France’s National Rally led by Marine le Pen and Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban as examples.

“We have chosen another path,” he said. Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Akesson, who had hoped for more political influence, repeatedly used the word “absurd” to describe the coalition talks. “My ambition now is that the Sweden Democrats will be a dominating forced in a new strong center-right opposition,” he said.

The September election produced a hung parliament with the left-leaning side and the center-right bloc securing about 40 percent of the vote each, leaving neither with a majority and paving the way for months of complex coalition talks.

To get the support from two center-right parties, Lofven had to compromise over labor laws, causing irritation from his party’s union backers and the Left Party. Lofven who heads Sweden’s largest party but has no majority, will present his government and start his second term as prime minister on Monday.

Sweden’s center-left PM loses confidence vote

September 25, 2018

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden’s prime minister lost a vote of confidence in parliament on Tuesday after an election this month stripped him of his majority. Stefan Lofven, the leader of the Social Democratic Party who has been prime minister for four years, will continue in a caretaker role until a new government can be formed that has the command of the Riksdagen.

Lawmakers voted 204-142 against Lofven, while three abstained. The vote was mandatory after the Sept. 9 general election delivered a hung parliament. Though Lofven remains optimistic that he may be able to form a government, the vote means Sweden faces weeks of political uncertainty. Both main political blocs in the parliament have refused to cooperate with the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, which made great strides in the election.

Neither the left-leaning bloc led by the Social Democrats nor the Moderates-led center-right opposition managed to secure a majority in the 349-seat parliament. In the election, the Social Democrats got 28.3 percent of the vote while the Moderate Party received 19.8 percent and the Sweden Democrats 17.5 percent. The center-left and center-right blocs control respectively 144 and 143 seats while the Sweden Democrats have 62 lawmakers in the assembly.

Andreas Norlen, a member of the center-right Moderates who was elected Monday as speaker, is charged with trying to find someone in parliament who may be able to command a majority and to form a government. He alone decides which of the party leaders can begin these talks.

Lofven remained optimistic he could form a governing coalition but stopped short of saying with whom. “I am available for talks,” Lofven said after the vote. Lofven ruled out having any contacts with the Sweden Democrats, saying “time after time, their connections to racist and Nazi organizations have been exposed.”

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.

Sweden faces weeks of uncertainty after close election

September 10, 2018

STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden was looking at weeks of uncertainty and complex coalition talks after the country’s two rival blocs failed to secure a clear governing majority in elections that saw a boost for a far-right party — considered political pariahs — amid growing discontent with large-scale immigration.

The governing center-left bloc had a razor-thin edge over the center-right opposition Alliance, with roughly 40 percent each. However, both have vowed not to work with the Sweden Democrats, an anti-immigrant party with roots in a neo-Nazi movement, that won 17.6 percent in Sunday’s election, up from the 13 percent it gained four years earlier.

The party, which has worked to moderate its image in past years and wants the country to leave the European Union, gained votes amid a backlash against the challenges of integrating hundreds of thousands of immigrants who arrived in the Scandinavian nation over the past years.

Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, who brought the Social Democrats to power in 2014, said he intended to remain in the job. His party emerged with the greatest share of the vote — 28.4 percent as the count neared completion — yet looking at holding fewer parliament seats than four years ago.

“I will not exclude any alternative to the (present) government. What I can exclude is any direct or indirect cooperation with the Sweden Democrats,” Interior Minister Anders Ygeman, a Social Democrat said.

“I believe that it must be the largest party in Sweden that forms a government. Historically it has been always been this way in Sweden,” he said. Political horse-trading began to try to form a government which could “takes week, months,” Ygeman said, according to Swedish news agency TT.

The leader of the Moderates party that came in second, Ulf Kristersson, has already called on Lofven to resign and claimed the right to form Sweden’s next government. The center-right, four-party Alliance has said it would meet Monday to discuss how to move forward and demand that Lofven, head of the minority, two-party governing coalition, resign.

However, the Sweden Democrats have said they could not be ignored in coalition negotiations and vowed to use its grown influence. “This party has increased and made the biggest gains. Everything is about us,” its leader Jimmie Akesson said on election night. “I am ready to talk with others.”

Final election returns were expected later in the week. The preliminary results made it unlikely any party would secure a majority of 175 seats in the 349-seat Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament. With the prospect of weeks or months of coalition talks before the next government is formed, Swedish tabloid Expressen headlined its front page Monday: “Chaos.”

Both the left-leaning bloc led by the Social Democrats and the center-right bloc in which the Moderates is the largest of four parties have said they would refuse to consider the Sweden Democrats as a coalition partner.

Lofven told his supporters the election presented “a situation that all responsible parties must deal with,” adding that “a party with roots in Nazism” would “never ever offer anything responsible, but hatred.”

“We have a moral responsibility. We must gather all forces for good. We won’t mourn, we will organize ourselves,” he said. Sweden — home to the Nobel prizes and militarily neutral for the better part of two centuries — has been known for its comparatively open doors to migrants and refugees. Sunday’s general election was the first since Sweden, which a population of 10 million, took in a record 163,000 refugees in 2015 — the highest per capita of any European country.

Turnout in the election was reported at 84.4 percent, up from 83 percent in 2014.

Jan M. Olsen reported from Copenhagen, Denmark; Frank Jordans reported from Berlin; Vanessa Gera from Warsaw.

Anti-migrant mood boosts far-right party in Swedish election

September 04, 2018

FLEN, Sweden (AP) — For Monica and Bengt Borg, a retired Swedish couple, Flen doesn’t feel like Sweden anymore. As they sit on a bench on the town’s main street, an Iraqi man nearby watches a Kurdish television program on his phone. Arabic pop music pulses from a girl’s phone. A constant flow of Somalis, Ethiopians and Syrians pass by, the women in headscarves.

“We don’t recognize our country as it is today,” said Bengt Borg, 66. His wife, 64, says she no longer feels safe walking alone at night due to reports of rapes by immigrants. Both plan to join a growing number of Swedes voting for a nationalist and anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, in Sunday’s general election.

The vote will be the first since the nation of 10 million accepted 163,000 migrants in 2015 — the largest number relative to the total population of any European state during the massive migrant influx into Europe that year. In the town of Flen, with just 6,000 residents, asylum-seekers now make up about a fourth of the population.

On a broader scale, Sunday’s balloting is also set to be the latest test for populist far-right forces as much of Europe shifts to the right amid a backlash to immigration. Far-right parties have made gains in several countries that shouldered a large share of the migrant burden, including Germany, Italy and Austria.

The Sweden Democrats have their roots in a neo-Nazi movement. Despite working for years to soften their image, many are not convinced, fearing the party’s rise could erode the country’s longstanding democratic and liberal traditions and identity as a “humanitarian superpower.”

Others, however, worry that the egalitarian ethos of Sweden — the first country to make gender equality a foreign policy priority — is threatened by the large number of Muslim newcomers. Support for the once-fringe party has swollen to around 20 percent — up from the 13 percent it won in 2014. Part of that success reflects disillusionment with the governing coalition between the Social Democrats and the Green Party, which has run the country for the past four years. The coalition’s earlier open-door policies toward migrants are now widely denounced.

While 20 percent would not be enough for the Sweden Democrats to lead a government, a strong show of support will give the party greater power to pressure the next government and could deprive the Social Democrats or the center-right Moderates, the country’s other major party, of a clear mandate.

The narrative of Sweden as a failing experiment of multiculturalism is backed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who caused a stir in early 2017 when he suggested an extremist attack had happened overnight in Sweden. The night, in fact, had been quiet; Trump had seen a Fox News report about crime by immigrants in Sweden. But he insisted his overall picture of the country was still correct: as one where large migration has brought crime and insecurity.

David Crouch, a British journalist and author of “Bumblebee Nation: The Hidden Story of the Swedish Model,” said Sweden’s unique high-wage, high-welfare social model and emphasis on progressive policies had long given the country a wonderful reputation as “a country which does things differently and gets things right.” That has changed dramatically in the past two years.

“Particularly with Donald Trump in power, a different, much darker, narrative has emerged of Sweden on the brink of some sort of social catastrophe, with talk about violence, shooting, rape, and so on,” he said.

Crouch believes that view is “not representative of the country as a whole.” Sweden’s economy is booming and creating jobs, meaning there is potential to bring newcomers into the labor market, he argued. He added that much of the message about a Sweden on the verge of apocalypse is a product of media with a racist agenda.

“If you are a racist and you hate immigrants, you don’t want immigrants coming to your country. So you take a country which has got a lot of immigrants and you say: that country is going down the toilet, this country is failing,” he said. Some with that agenda have reported “downright lies, things that didn’t happen.”

Voices supporting the Sweden Democrats have been amplified on social media. The Swedish defense research agency said last week that automated Twitter accounts, or bots, were 40 percent more likely to support the Sweden Democrats than genuine accounts. Swedish officials had earlier warned of Russian interference in the elections, saying Russia is seeking to create divisions by stressing the problems of immigration and crime.

A police officer in a southern Stockholm suburb who supports the Sweden Democrats acknowledged that it is an exaggeration to portray Sweden as so overrun by crime that there are “no-go zones” where police dare not enter, a common refrain by the European far-right.

Still, he sees real problems in migrant neighborhoods and blames mainstream political parties for a climate of political correctness that long prevented Swedes from openly debating them. “If five years ago you had said that we should consider how many migrants we take in, you would have been considered a racist,” the officer told The Associated Press. He refused to be identified because people “can lose friends and jobs” for supporting the party.

The Sweden Democrats have benefited by distancing themselves from their origins as a white supremacist movement. Years ago they changed their symbol, a flaming torch in the blue and yellow national colors, to a pretty blue-yellow flower.

Party leader Jimmie Akesson has also cracked down on open expressions of xenophobia, though some question how deep the changes are. Last week the Expressen newspaper reported that nine people left the party for voicing pro-Nazi sentiments. One had reportedly posted a manipulated image of Anne Frank in a sweatshirt saying “Coolest Jew in the Shower Room.”

Many Swedes don’t agree with the backlash against migrants. Some volunteer to teach Swedish to the newcomers, and some politicians even argue that as the national population ages and shrinks, the country needs even more to maintain what is one of the most generous welfare states in the world.

That’s the position of Hakan Bergsten, head of the local government in Flen, where an ice-cream producer and a Volvo maintenance plant provide some of the only industrial jobs in a rural area 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Stockholm.

For Bergsten, the election can be summed up by a choice between parties “only focusing on the problems today, while others are trying to explain why we need to take this step” of welcoming migrants for the future.

Crouch, the author, said the nature of debate surrounding immigration in Sweden has changed so radically in the past years that “it’s hard to imagine how the issue of immigration was almost taboo.”

Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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