Sweden the odd one out as Nordics turn nationalist

'We want open borders,' says Swedish health minister, but other countries don't agree.

Sweden the odd one out as Nordics turn nationalist

STOCKHOLM — In the Nordic states, coronavirus has turned the dream of free movement and cross-border cooperation into a nightmare, especially for Sweden.

Since the disease gripped Europe, Sweden has called on its neighbors to keep national boundaries open in the hope it would encourage teamwork in the face of the pandemic.

“I think the borders should be open, that has been Sweden’s position throughout,” Sweden’s Health Minister Lena Hallengren told POLITICO in an interview. “Every country should make its own decision, but we want open borders.”

The call hasn’t worked.

As Sweden’s infection rate has spiked, Finland, Denmark and Norway have kept their borders with their Nordic neighbor shut. Fences along patches of the Swedish frontier, from near the arctic to the Baltic Sea, remain in place, turning the Nordics into exhibit A for those who believe the European Union has failed its members at the time of greatest need.

“So at a time when you would have expected Europe to show solidarity and support, everyone became very nationalistic and we closed the borders completely” — Richard Twomey, Mölnlycke chief executive 

“As soon as the crisis came, the EU disappeared, it only existed on paper,” Swedish economist Tino Sanandaji said in a recent debate on public service television. “All that was left were the robust institutions, family, community and the nation … the EU solved nothing.”

For Sweden’s European Commissioner Ylva Johansson, whose job it now is to coordinate a reopening of Europe’s internal and external borders, the situation facing her home country illustrates a wider challenge.

When the pandemic flared, many European nations looked inward for solutions. France seized a batch of medical equipment belonging to the Swedish company Mölnlycke at its French plant, while Germany banned the export of any personal protective equipment, including face masks.

“So at a time when you would have expected Europe to show solidarity and support, everyone became very nationalistic and we closed the borders completely,” Mölnlycke Chief Executive Richard Twomey told Swedish television.

Now, with the European Commission pushing states to reopen, EU members Denmark and Finland and Schengen member Norway are dragging their heels on opening the border with Sweden, citing persistent concerns over its high infection rate.

Sweden’s state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has sought to convince neighboring governments that border controls do little to stop the spread of coronavirus, but with little effect.

“The import of infection from outside represents a risk that it will flare up again here in this country,” Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told a recent news conference as she extended a ban on Swedish travelers.

Among Sweden’s opposition parties, there is also resistance to the Swedish government’s idea that border controls are more of a hindrance than a help during a pandemic.

Far-right Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson told POLITICO he felt border controls could have helped his country fight the virus when it first gripped the country in February.

“The government let travelers land at the country’s airports and go straight out into society without any controls at all, that was a big mistake,” he said.

For Commissioner Johansson, it isn’t helpful that her own country and the staunchest supporter of opening borders in the Nordics is also one of the nations hardest hit by COVID-19 in Europe.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization lumped Sweden in with 10 other countries, including Armenia, Moldova and North Macedonia, where accelerated transmission has led to “very significant resurgence” of coronavirus, something Swedish state epidemiologist Tegnell dismissed as a reflection of increased testing in Sweden.

European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson | Olivier Hoslet/AFP via Getty Images

Now, as Johannsson pushes Nordic nations to implement a region-wide reopening, she is coming up against nationalist sentiment whose proponents feel vindicated by the decision to shut out internationalist Sweden.

At a party leaders’ debate in Denmark’s capital Copenhagen on Monday, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that with the help of stiff border controls and a rapid locking down of the economy, her country had “won the first half” of its match with coronavirus by “taking one step too many rather than one step too few.”

“That has been decisive to getting us to where we are today — a good place,” she said.

On Tuesday, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin reiterated a ban on travel to Sweden.

In the Swedish government’s telling, shutting borders has done little more than hammer cross-border businesses and split families and friends.

“Of course everyone wants to get back to normal, but the epidemiological situation in Sweden is so bad that we can’t relax border controls between our countries,” she said.

Frederiksen and Marin’s point is clear: shutting borders and adopting strict national strategies helped them fight the spread of coronavirus and save lives.

Leaders in Stockholm challenge that logic head-on.

Sweden has left its borders open throughout the pandemic, and far from protecting populations, its leaders believe border controls have hindered vital cooperation which could have speeded up a region-wide response to the pandemic.

In the Swedish government’s telling, shutting borders has done little more than hammer cross-border businesses and split families and friends.

“The Swedish government’s position is that we want to see open borders,” Health Minister Hallengren said. “We believe the world needs that, and that the spread of infection can be stopped in other ways which don’t involve closing borders.”

Source : Politico EU