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This is not the edition we wanted to write. Neither is it the edition that we expected to write. But it is the edition that needs to be written, and like many others, we are addressing the realities in front of us.
In February, Mundus Brief was happy to report about the end of pandemic restrictions, and a bounce back in society. With spring beckoning, better times looked tantalisingly close. It’s not that there were no signs of an imminent war – they were clearly present. But, given nearly 8 decades of relative peace in Europe, it seemed too big a mental step to think that events would hurtle over the precipice so quickly.
But first to other news
For much of February, Sweden continued on with the expected pattern of events. Mundus was looking forward to the release of the Corona Commission’s third and final report on 25 February, and to a definitive assessment as to whether Swedish exceptionalism in the early months of the pandemic was deemed a success or not.
Given that Russian tanks rolled into the Ukraine on 24 February, you may have missed this news, so let us recap. The Commission was an independent expert body, appointed in 2020 to assess Sweden’s management of the covid-19 pandemic. In its first report last year, the Commission described Sweden’s strategy to protect the elderly as a failure, criticising especially organisational fragmentation, staffing shortages and poor working conditions. The second interim report was even more damning in its criticism of the Government and Public Health Agency (Sw. Folkhälsomyndigheten, FHM). But the Government and FHM batted away the criticisms. PM Stefan Löfven disputed the Commission’s claims that the Government acted slowly, stating that “the Government has always acted urgently and made decisions based on the information we had access to.” Anders Tegnell was similarly dismissive of criticism that Sweden was unprepared for the pandemic, stating that FHM “did the best we could.” Despite these rebuttals, Sweden’s pandemic management seemed to be the sort of smoking gun that the political opposition could use to withering effect in an election campaign. Observers waited expectantly to see if the final report would provide further political weapons.
The Government’s opponents may therefore have been disappointed by the final report. It’s recommendations included “far-reaching administrative reform” and for the establishment of a body providing “clear national crisis leadership”. These sound like the sort of conclusions that suggest the Government did a poor job. However, the Commission’s ultimate conclusion was that Sweden, compared to the rest of Europe, came through the pandemic “relatively well,” noting that it had among the lowest excess mortality over the period 2020-2021. In the March edition of the Monthly Policy Review, Mundus assesses the report’s findings in the context of domestic politics and public administration, as well as its international context. Whether the Commission pulled its punches, or whether they just failed to hit the targets, will probably count for less politically than the timing of the release of the report, coming as it did, the day after Europe woke to the horror of a major war on the continent.
February also managed to reveal some other crises, even if in comparison with the pandemic and war these may soon be forgotten. Mundus Business Insights followed how Spotify continued to struggle with the fallout over its contract with Joe Rogan, and his controversial views. But Ericsson needed to deal with reputational challenges ten times worse, with news leaking out that the company had paid bribes to ISIS and compounded the problem by failing to reveal the information publicly for over two years. Ericssons share price dropped like a stone.
24 February 2022
February 24th, is a day that is already being written into history books, not just for the shock of war and the loss of life, but also for its far-reaching policy impacts. Vladamir Putin’s apparent calculation that he could rewrite post-Soviet history, bringing Ukraine (and possibly other countries) back within a Russian Empire, with an overpowering force delivering a quick knockout blow, immediately changed the political calculus for all European countries. Foreign- and security policies that had lasted a generation were torn up overnight. Most notably, Germany’s bet that embracing Russia was safer than building a robust military began to sour. The depth of this relationship is underlined by noting that as recently as 4 February this year, former German Chancellor Schröder was nominated to join Gazprom’s board. And for the entire Merkel reign, Germany resisted pressure to increase its military spending quickly to a 2% target. Yet within days of the Ukraine invasion, Chancellor Scholtz announced €100 billion in military spending to rebuild Germany’s military.
Sweden too, has its debates over foot dragging. Our second MPR story looks at Sweden’s foreign policy via the lens of the annual Statement of Government Policy and subsequent Riksdag debate. Following on from last month’s Folk och Försvar conference, and coinciding with the build-up to the invasion of the Ukraine, but before hostilities commenced, the themes were more about political jockeying, rather than a sober discussion of foreign policy. Traditional issues were covered, such as whether Sweden should be in or out of NATO, and how much more needs to be invested in defence. The NATO question is especially complicated. Over the last two hundred years, Sweden has successfully ridden first its neutral position, and then a more nuanced stance of being out of NATO, while still cooperating closely with it, and its member states. As the incumbent party of government for much of the last century, the Social Democrats therefore own the position of being against NATO membership. And they are not eager to change their minds, at least not in a hurry, even if Russia has now clearly demonstrated its intent and a majority in the Riksdag support NATO membership. Shortly after the Ukraine invasion, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister held a press conference in which they said that now was not the time to rush a change of position.
A dissection of Swedish views on Russia’s invasion requires minimal space. Not only is Sweden a peace-loving nation, but amongst its deepest fears is an invasion of its territory by Russia – a reality that has happened in earlier centuries. Hence, like other western nations, the public revulsion of the unprovoked attack combined with military expert opinion that now factored in the reality of Putin’s aggression to produce fast-moving change in official policy. Sweden’s Government found its mojo and suddenly Sweden was able to sell arms to Ukraine to defend itself. This change of stance was so wide-spread that even the Left Party decided on a spur of the moment change to its position against arms sales.
Never let a good crisis go to waste
Mundus shares the view, already being expressed in global media, that Russia’s war on Ukraine will have far-reaching implications on European, and likely, global policy. For a start, the argument that Russia can be contained by engagement mixed with a vague notion that Europe is rebuilding its military capability is discredited. Unless the war ends quickly, and with Vladamir Putin dethroned, Sweden, like other European nations, must rearm itself. The NATO-option will remain there, and Sweden may choose to exercise it. But this is more likely if the conservative side of politics wins the forthcoming election than if the Social Democrats are returned to power. But the NATO-option is somewhat beside the point, as Sweden has already spent several years investing in building up its defence partnerships with Finland, the other Nordic countries, the UK and NATO. Inevitably these will be deepened.
The other immediate conclusion is that the Ukraine war will lead to a doubling-down on renewables. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Winston Churchill is reputedly responsible for the phrase, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” He wasn’t alone in this sort of thinking, with Jean Monnet, a founding father of the European Union, arguing that “Europe will be forged in crisis, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Nowhere will this be more obviously applied than when it comes to climate action, and specifically renewable energy. The rallying cry from the pandemic was to “Build Back Better”, a mantra which led to the European Green Deal, and Fit for 55 [% reduction of GHG by 2030]. And even before the invasion, Chancellor Scholtz had committed Germany to a dramatic increase in its pace of change. But many argued that natural gas was a necessary evil en route to this greener future, and Russia’s gas was therefore the solution to the greater evil of coal.
Now, with Russian gas obviously linked to an economic system that sustains Russia, Putin and his oligarchs, Europe will likely double-down again on renewables policy, forcing out gas in a massive push towards renewables and carbon neutrality (with nuclear energy another possible beneficiary). How exactly this will happen is unclear. It will be tremendously disruptive, which is why it hasn’t happened so far. But with war of far greater consequence than economic efficiency, and with Germany’s new government already committed to such a path, we expect this to begin quickly.
Although such a transition will cause challenges, Sweden is poised to be a winner. Not only does it use very little gas that it would need to wean itself from, but it has already spent several years investing in technology development and capacity building to position itself for green industrialisation. Its engineering companies are well-prepared to be amongst the champions in helping Europe decarbonise.
That is as it seems today. But with events moving quickly, the situation may be quite different by next month, when we report again.
Until then, stay safe.