SWEDEN realised early on that saving energy is the most important source of energy and has developed energy-saving techniques and systems that are being exported around the world. Yet Sweden's ambassador to Slovakia, Mikael Westerlind, says that legislation and political pressure are not always the best tools for becoming a leader in efficient energy resources. Westerlind also believes that Swedish investors are fully aware of Slovakia’s strength in the car manufacturing business and he sees interest in this area on both sides.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The American magazine Newsweek recently characterised Stockholm as "Europe's internet capital", while Sweden ranked second on a chart of the world’s most technologically developed countries prepared by the World Economic Forum. What is behind Sweden's success?
Mikael Westerlind (MW): I think it was the Financial Times which back in 2001 reported that Sweden was the world’s most advanced knowledge-based economy, certainly related to the IT boom starting in the 1990s. There are of course different explanations behind the development of wireless communication and IT. There is a tradition of learning foreign languages early on and it did not start with the IT boom; the tradition of life-long learning reaches back to the 1930s. We also have an industrial base where companies like Ericsson play a key role and Sweden has a considerable technical elite for a country with just over 9 million inhabitants.
Sweden has been in the happy position of not having been involved in a war for 200 years, so we have been fortunate enough to develop our society in many walks of life: IT, bio-energy and pharmaceuticals, for example.
TSS: In order to achieve such a standing in terms of the knowledge-based economy, you certainly need close ties between businesses and academia, an area in which Slovakia still lags behind.
MW: In Sweden, links between industry and the academic world are intense, which has helped lead to specialised colleges and new universities focused on science. The process of making an invention and then applying it commercially is very short in Sweden. Educational institutions in this area early on abandoned the concept of arts and literature dominating their curricula, instead paying closer attention to the demands of the labour market and the realities of business.
Also, investment in research and development is crucial. When you look at the share of investment into education and research as a share of GDP, in Sweden it stands at about 3.5 percent while in Slovakia I think it is 0.2 or 0.3 percent. It is a striking imbalance. But your government is well aware of this shortcoming and is working to change it.
TSS: Slovakia is now a car-making centre for the region, while Sweden has a long car-making tradition. Has this country made it onto the map of Swedish investors in the automotive industry?
MW: Swedish investors are fully aware of Slovakia’s strength in car manufacturing. Before I took up the ambassadorial post here, I asked Swedish representatives of the industry about the prospects of Swedish companies setting up in the car component supply business in Slovakia. The answers I got did not quite satisfy me. We are now working on promoting this idea and this autumn we will organise one or preferably two seminars on the industry supplying carmakers.
Representatives from the organisation of Swedish car industry suppliers have visited Slovakia three times in the course of the past few years just to take stock; a member of the Swedish Parliament came here earlier this year to map developments. In fact, he was surprised how little is happening and we are now looking at ways to make things happen in this area, since Sweden has a long - about 80-year - tradition of producing cars.
TSS: Observers have been warning that having the country's economy too geared for the car manufacturing industry might backfire, once carmakers start thinking about alternative manufacturing locations in countries that offer even cheaper labour and lower taxes. Do you see such a danger for Slovakia?
MW: Slovakia as it stands today has a comparative advantage in being a fully integrated part of the European Union. It will certainly take some time until countries like Ukraine or Kazakhstan could threaten Slovakia in that respect. The country’s location is a great asset as well.
But certainly, the shortage of qualified labour could make investors consider some radical moves: not to Ukraine but, for example, to Asia. When I served as consul general to Hong Kong during the 1990s I witnessed the growth of mainland China and how this giant country managed to create a skilled labour force. As for Slovakia, this will not happen tomorrow. Still, the country should expand research and development.
TSS: What other sectors of the Slovak economy could be appealing for Swedish companies?
MW: Major infrastructure projects. At least one Swedish construction company is well known here: Skanska. The director-general of the Slovak National Highway Company visited Sweden in April to make contact with the Swedish administration and also Swedish construction companies, and to see what they can offer in terms of public- private partnership arrangements. I have travelled to Kosice along both the northern and southern corridors and I have to say it is still an adventurous undertaking. Something has to be done to make the remote parts of Slovakia more accessible.
TSS: Sweden has traditionally topped the charts of the most environmentally conscious countries, along with having an ecologically efficient and economic approach. Where are the roots of such environmental friendliness?
MW: The United Nations held a groundbreaking conference in 1972 in Stockholm on the environment. At that time it was a new topic to world leaders and we had certainly taken some steps by the beginning of the 1970s. The real explanation, though, is the nation’s respect for the Nordic countryside, which is a key element of the Swedish way of life and is part of the soul of the nation. Also, Sweden has extracted enormous riches from its mountains, rivers and forests: we have hydro-electric plants, and have developed a pulp and paper industry which is one of the biggest in the world.
And if you will allow me one observation, which might not seem extremely important to environmental protection: to me it is sometimes appalling to see how people throw litter from the windows of their cars, even in the so-called fashionable areas here. Perhaps people first need to develop an attitude and determination to want to keep their own towns and cities tidy.
But I am sure that both the country’s politicians and also the public will recognise the link between environmental policies and the cleanliness of the streets.
TSS: Slovakia is now making steps, though cautious ones, towards the use of alternative energy sources since the country is facing serious issues pertaining to its energy efficiency. Do you have experience that could also be applied in Slovakia?
MV: We are among the world champions when it comes to energy saving, since we realised early on that energy saving is the most important energy source. We have developed energy-saving techniques and systems which are being now exported to other countries. I think we could share our experience with Slovaks. We organised a seminar last November on bio-energy including bio-mass.
In Sweden we rely on different sources: the hydro-electric plants were important between the 1940s and 1970s, but today the rivers are not being exploited to the same degree due to environmental protection.
We still have our nuclear power plants, though we have decommissioned two reactors for political reasons: due to their proximity to Denmark. But we do rely a lot on nuclear power, which was a delicate political matter in so many other Western-European countries during the 1980s and 1990s. Back in 1980 we had a referendum in which the majority of the population voted to depart from this energy source. But things have changed, and with the present government the general attitude is more positive.
In terms of energy saving, however, legislation and political pressure are not the prime instruments here; rather it is about how to gain more efficiency in using energy resources. We are of course experimenting with new sources, but at this point they cannot compete with traditional ones, with one exception. The development of alternative fuels for vehicles, mainly bio-gas and ethanol is expanding very fast in Sweden right now. Almost half of the cars being sold these days are equipped with an engine that could cope with alternative fuels.
TSS: The Swedish design scene is no longer foreign to the Slovak audience. What, in your opinion, makes this design scene so dynamic and so popular with different nations around the world?
MW: It is the simplicity of the form. But this is not only a Swedish tradition but rather the tradition of Nordic countries: of Danish, Finish, Norwegian and Icelandic design. In continental Europe things sometimes tend to be a bit over-decorated, while in Swedish design the decorations are minimal.
But of course there is the link between nature and design and making the best of the material that you find in nature. Then there is the Nordic light, which differs from the light in continental Europe; this adds another element as well.
Also, early on in Sweden academies and schools were established which concentrated on design not just as decoration but also for items used in daily life. In this aspect, we were pioneers. Vacuum-cleaners were designed as early as the 1920s, and they were meant to look good.
TSS: Many Slovaks associate Swedish design with IKEA. Do Swedish people take pride in being associated with that brand all around the world, or do they see it is a stereotype?
MW: Countries like Slovakia have been in the IKEA business for decades. Before 1989 lots of furniture was produced behind the iron curtain and when you bought the items in western countries you saw the label “Swedish design made in GDR” or “Czechoslovakia”. There are still four factories here producing for IKEA in Slovakia. In this sense, Swedish design was introduced here early on, at least to those working in factories.
Many Swedes find it welcoming to see those outlets, painted the same way around the world. Of course we benefit from IKEA, which uses Swedish brand names for the products. When I opened an IKEA shop, all the furniture pieces had Swedish names for the Cantonese-speaking Hong-Kong citizens.
TSS: Has the tourism potential between Slovakia and Sweden been explored?
MW: Not really, although a cheap airline is now connecting Bratislava with a town 100km south of Stockholm.
There is still much to be done to develop the infrastructure and the facilities that you have here. But the tourism potential of the Tatra Mountains and the spas could be exploited. One essential thing of course is to communicate.
But there are some intense links between the countries. According to official statistics, there are as many as 150 Swedish citizens in this country.
I would say that 100 of them are Slovaks and Swedish citizens at the same time, though they might have been forced to give up their Czechoslovak citizenship in the past, so they are now Swedish citizens. And they form the link between our two countries.
TSS: Sweden is preparing to take up the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU. Are there already some priorities defined?
MW: We are still ironing out or finalising our national priorities for the second half of next year but we already know that we want to put emphasis on things like climate change, energy and the environment, but also sustainable growth and new jobs.
Based on our long-standing tradition, we are in favour of enlargement that might not, for instance, be all that popular with each and all member countries right now. But we want to have all countries on board that are complying with the requirements. We also have candidate countries whose candidature we are supporting heavily, beginning with Croatia.
Through enlargement we would see a consolidation of what is left outside the EU: the Balkan countries, but also Turkey. We are promoters of Turkish membership, provided Turkey complies with the requirements.
There is a certain enlargement fatigue in Europe and now with the outcome of the Irish referendum I think that one should be a bit conscious of stressing too heavily the interest in an enlarged Europe. But I think that it is still a priority that we are giving attention to.
Political system: Constitutional monarchy
Total area: 449,964 sq kilometres
A military power during the 17th century, Sweden has not participated in any war in almost two centuries.
Sweden joined the EU in 1995, but in September 2003 Swedish voters turned down entry into the euro system out of concern for the impact on the economy.
Source: CIA Factbook
21. Jul 2008 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová