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23rd Jul 2019

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Nordic states divided on Trump

  • Norway's EU minister, Frank Bakke-Jensen, and Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallstroem, debated with MPs from the Nordic Council. (Photo: Magnus Fröderberg/norden.org)

Nordic countries are looking for ways to position themselves in a world where Donald Trump's election has cast a long shadow over some of their most cherished values and complicated relations with the US.

"There are still question marks over what the Trump administration really stands for. But the US remains a central international actor that the Nordic countries need to have a relation to," said the Swedish minister of foreign affairs, Margot Wallstroem, on Tuesday (4 April).

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She was addressing the Nordic Council, an inter-parliamentary forum for MPs from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, as well as the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the Aland Islands, which gathered for a session in Stockholm.

Barack Obama was fond of the region and last year hosted a state dinner for Nordic prime ministers in an bid to bring the militarily non-aligned Sweden and Finland closer to their Nato-member neighbours.

Trump, on the other hand, has questioned Nato, scrapped free trade agreements and climate change commitments, and taken to a new level US scepticism on global governance structures, such as the UN. For all of these concepts, the Nordic countries have seen themselves as front-line advocates.

The current US president has also voiced his support for Brexit, and there are fears that his attitude could embolden populist forces in the EU.

Others doubt his commitment to US sanctions on Russia, whose annexation of Crimea and military presence in Eastern Ukraine was described by Wallstroem as the greatest threat against peace in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

The Swedish foreign minister said the Nordic countries could deal better with Trump's rule if they stood together, noting that they were often seen as an entity rather than as individual countries.

But a proposal for a common statement on relations with the USA, which initially featured on the agenda, was scrapped.

Transatlantic splits

The debate between MPs was short on solutions and mirrored the splits between Nordic countries on transatlantic relations.

Sweden, the only Nordic country with a left-wing government, saw relations with the US hit rock bottom earlier this year, when the US president painted a dark picture of Sweden as a country slipping into refugee chaos, in a wider attempt to justify his travel ban on certain Muslims.

Finland, which is currently in the process of buying US military planes, has taken less flak.

Denmark, Norway and Iceland, which are all Nato members, meanwhile consider the US as their main defence ally.

Danish prime minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen visited the White House last week to seek reassurances on Nato, and appeared to enjoy a good personal relationship with the US president. Trump called him a "wonderful man doing a wonderful job".

Norway's EU minister, Frank Bakke-Jensen, said on Tuesday that Nato is an alliance of many countries, not just the US. The US last year deployed 300 marines in the north of the country to beef up its anti-Russia operations.

Iceland has no military of its own at all, and is fully dependent on Nato troops.

Finland and Sweden upgraded their Nato links last year by signing a host nation agreement to allow the alliance to undertake military exercises in their territories. But Trump's election has given arguments to Nato opponents.

Problems with Nato

"To join Nato would be like boarding the bus after noticing that the driver is drunk," said Jonas Sjostedt, the leader of Sweden's left-wing party and a Nordic Council member.

"Your party is like a bus without a wheel, which is stuck in a left-wing turn," quipped centre-right MP Hans Wallmark, and said that he feared the Baltic region becoming hostage to a deal between Trump and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

That in turn angered Juho Eerola, a vice president of the Nordic Council and MP for the populist Finns party.

“I am surprised by some of the statements against Trump. All my life, I was told the greatest threat to world peace is that the Russian and US presidents will disagree. And now it seems to be a threat that they do agree," Eerola said.

The Finn suggested to improve relations by reaching out to US congressmen, a proposal also raised by Wallstroem.

"We have to use all channels: congressmen, federal states, civil society and academia. The US is more than its president," she said.

Discussions should be focused on a more practical level, she added.

Successful values

"For example, we should explain how gender equality and the fight against climate change can help to make America a success. It's not enough to voice these values - we have to show that they deliver, and that the US risks to lag behind."

She said the Nordic countries must also stand against US demands for other countries to pay for re-construction of countries bombed by the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, as they themselves are cutting the US aid budget.

"The US, via Nato, demand that countries dedicate 2 percent on their budgets on military means. But all threats cannot be defeated by weapons. There is need for sophisticated means, such as peace interventions, aid interventions, development interventions," Wallstroem said.

Sweden is ruled by a feminist socialist-green government, which has worked hard to become a temporary member of the UN security council.

But Wallstroem turned down a proposal by Icelandic MP Steingrimur J. Sigfusson that she should embody Nordic opposition and become "the next Olof Palme", in a reference to Sweden's former prime minister, who, in the 1970s, likened the US to "Satan's murderers" over the war in Vietnam.

"There was only one Olof Palme," Wallstroem said.

Obama brings together Nordic leaders

Sweden and Finland are moving one step closer to Nato-alligned Nordic neighbours at the initiative of US president Obama.

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