Being a Swedish ambassador used to be an enviable job, something that politicians or officials were awarded with after years of loyal service, with any luck in some warm but important capital. The past years have been different. Instead of focusing on doing their jobs, Swedish ambassadors have been fearing for them.
Since 2008, Sweden has closed 11 embassies, and another five will disappear this year. Last year operations in Bratislava, Dakar, Dublin, Ljubljana, Luxemburg and Sofia were closed and, just before Christmas the Foreign Ministry decided that in 2011, embassies in Buenos Aires, Brussels, Hanoi, Kuala Lumpur and Luanda would also be going.
It’s not just embassies that are suffering but Swedish consulates also: between 2008 and 2010, consulates in Gdansk, Hamburg, Phuket, Kaliningrad, Kanton, Los Angeles and New York were closed. Despite new embassies opening in Bamako, Chisinau, Kigali, La Paz, Monrovia, Ouagadougou, Phnom Penh, Pristina, Tbilisi and Tirana last year, scaling back foreign representation in this manner seems drastic and more importantly, risky.
The embassy closures have caused an infected debate between the two political blocks in Sweden. The government, with foreign minister Carl Bildt at the helm, is blaming the parliament, which recently decided to cut the funding of the Government Offices by SEK300m (€33m). Bildt says he will need to close embassies in order to come up with the savings – the Foreign Ministry’s share is SEK135m (€15m) – and calls the decision “stupid, dangerous and harmful”. On the other hand, the Social Democrats claim that the government should be able to afford keeping vital embassies regardless of the budget cuts.
“No one has regretted this more loudly than Carl Bildt himself,” says Cecilia Julin, head of the communication department at the Foreign Ministry. In the past, the closure of Sweden’s consulates in New York and Los Angeles provoked a dirge of criticism at home. This time around, it seems that the embassy in Vietnam, one of the fastest-growing economies in south east Asia, will be particularly missed.
Academics, journalists and businessmen active in Vietnam have regretted the decision, saying that it has raised questions about a possible friction between the countries. The Foreign Ministry is adamant that it’s just a question of priorities.
“We need to go through where we are present and where the needs are the greatest. It’s important to see where we have big financial interests and lots of consular errands. One factor in this case is that Sweden is phasing out the aid to Vietnam,” says Julin.
According to Bildt, another five foreign missions will be closed in 2012. One wonders if the savings are really worth sacrificing the trade opportunities, cultural influence and general goodwill, achieved through decades of hard work.