It is a great pleasure for me to collect the European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2015 silver medal on behalf of Sweden – but I cannot help wondering why so many Swedes seem a little sceptical about their country’s second-place ranking. Why their nagging fear that this trophy denotes vulnerability rather than strength?
Some Swedes have a confident explanation for their country’s size-busting performance: their strong showing is down to their long-term ambivalence about European Union membership. Stockholm has taken an instrumental, unemotional approach to European cooperation. Through pragmatic investments, such as getting the right people into the right jobs in Brussels, Sweden has made the EU work for it, and it will continue to do so under its new government.
But others to whom I have spoken seem less at ease with their country’s ascent through the EU’s weight-classes. On the EU podium alongside the petite Swedish figure-skater stand a German wrestler (suspiciously bulked up in 2014), a British golfer (rewarded – rather surprisingly – for having chipped in a few shots from a safe distance), and a French show-jumper (the less said there, the better). This bizarre display shows how easily hierarchies can flip these days.
Moreover, some Swedes feel their country has exploited the situation by making use of a most un-Swedish attribute – standing out from the crowd. Until recently, Sweden had an unusually high-profile foreign minister, Carl Bildt, who had unusually clear objectives. And it enjoyed a remarkably close relationship with Warsaw. This gave an uncommonly sharp edge to its positions by showing that they were not merely advocated by smug Stockholm.
Some Swedes now worry that this has jeopardised the international role that they prefer for their country: that of the quiet mediator. Their concern, however, is unwarranted. In order to fulfil a mediating role in today’s world, you need to give others a clear sense of your national position. (Indeed, the Poles have become masters at this, as witnessed by Donald Tusk’s elevation to Europe’s deal-broker-in-chief.) In fact, the Scorecard ranking is hollow for other reasons.
A country of 10 million people cannot wholeheartedly celebrate being placed alongside France and the United Kingdom. The two are nuclear powers and United Nations Security Council members. If they fail to place in the EU’s top three, it just serves to highlight the Europe-sized vacuum in world politics. And if Sweden did respond to these power shifts by treating EU foreign policy as some kind of beauty contest, it would not deserve to win the game either.
So, ought Sweden even to aim for a top ranking next year? Actually, it should. For one thing, Stockholm is refocusing on issues such as feminist politics and strengthening the UN, and it could usefully recall the centrality of the EU. For another, the EU’s high representative is bent on creating a common European strategy, meaning that future Scorecards will be better able to rank member states on how well they perform together rather than against each other.
Roderick Parkes is Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and author of the recent paper: European Union and the Geopolitics of Migration
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.