Margot Wallström – Sweden’s next Foreign Minister?

For years Margot Wallström has stated she is not interested in a ministerial post and rather work on the international stage. But an interview in Dagens Industri (DI) last week has intensified rumours that the former EU Commissioner is planning a comeback to the national political arena. The objective? A ministerial post should Stefan Löfven form government in September. As a first step, she has joined the Social Democrat’s election campaign. She claims she is not aiming for a specific portfolio, but agrees that a natural post would be Foreign Minister: “I am interested and have been involved in foreign policy, for instance during my UN assignment, so it’s clear that I hope to be involved in the foreign policy debate” Ms Wallström told DI. [1]

Margot Wallström is very well experienced on both the national and EU stage having held many key positions, including European Commissioner for the Environment[2], Minister for Consumer Affairs, and Minister for Social Affairs. In 2004, when the Barroso Commission took office, she was appointed first Vice-President responsible for Inter-Institutional Relations and Communication. She has also served as Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. As a pre-eminent female leader, she has been awarded a place in the Women World Leaders network together with other well-known Nordic politicians, such as former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, former President of Iceland Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, and the former President of Finland, Tarja Halonen. Since February 2012, she has held the position of chairwoman of Lund University and worked for the Swedish postcode lottery – handily placed to re-enter domestic politics.

Ms Wallström, one of Sweden’s most popular politicians,[3] has spent many years away from the domestic political scene. But Sweden’s Social Democrats have always yearned for a comeback from her side and no one has so frequently been mentioned as preferred party leader. However Ms Wallström has declined steadfastly. Hence, when Håkan Juholt’s successor was to be recruited in the winter of 2012, demands for her return were not voiced in the same manner as before. Still, many Social Democrats believe she is one of the party’s main assets: she is a good speaker and is also considered to have qualities as a political thinker.

It’s been 16 years since she was seriously active in Swedish politics. At the time, she was Minister for Social Affairs and was, together with Prime Minister Göran Persson, selected to lead the Social Democratic election campaign. However, the dominant Mr Persson stole the show and the tense relations between Mr Persson and Ms Wallström during the election campaign have been much publicised.

Following the 2006 election, in which the Social Democratic Party lost power, Göran Persson announced his withdrawal from politics. Mr Persson had groomed former Foreign Minister Anna Lindh as a
successor, but her murder in 2003 had forced him to stay on. Although Ms Wallström was regarded as the favourite candidate to succeed Mr Persson as party leader, she made clear that she did not wish to be considered for the position. The personal dispute with Mr Persson[4], including his hesitation to retain her for a second period in the Commission, was commonly cited as main reasons for her decline. Her early ‘no thanks’, saying that she was not up to the task in spite of her obvious competence and achievements, just made her even more popular. The post instead went to her close friend Mona Sahlin. The two, together with late Anna Lindh, were part of the three-headed “Margot-Anna-Mona” constellation, conceived in the early 1980s in order to renew social democracy and embody a new age of strong female leaders.[5]

That Margot Wallström is now ready to enter domestic politics is mainly due to Stefan Löfven, she says: “It’s largely Stefan who has motivated me. Of course it’s more motivating when we have a party leader I really believe in. And I also have the energy and desire to contribute.” Party leader Stefan Löfven reciprocates the warm feelings: “Margot Wallström is a highly skilled and experienced politician. She is well liked and respected in the party, and even far beyond the party. She has a broad knowledge of various political issues; she has worked in Europe, in the United Nations. There will be no shortage of opportunities to use her skills,” he said in an interview with Swedish Radio earlier this year.

And Stefan Löfven would need all government experience he can get if he were to succeed to become Prime Minister after the election. Since the days of Göran Persson, Swedish Social Democracy has lost many experienced politicians. Nowadays, few people have experience of running the country in the Social Democratic party leadership. Margot Wallström has a wealth of such experience.

[2] As Commissioner, she played a significant role in ensuring that the C2.15-09 Kyoto Protocol saw the light of day and also took the initiative to the chemicals legislation REACH.
[3] She was voted the most popular woman in Sweden, beating royals and athletes in 2006. Ms Wallström stated that “it might be because I’m so far away”.
[4] In her memoirs entitled ”Margot”, she describes Mr Persson as a vicious bully who loved to intimidate his colleagues.
[5] Once elected to the Riksdag in the 1980s, the trio formed Rus, Riksdagens Unga Socialdemokrater – also the called the Vomit Club because they allowed themselves to spill all the frustration over older and stiffer members of the Riksdag.