This week, the Swedish Embassy in Pakistan celebrates the country’s national day, which was until 1983 termed the Swedish Flag Day. The actual date is 6 June, and it is since 2005 a holiday in Sweden. Not to interfere with Ramadan, though, and summer holiday preparations, it is observed well ahead of time. The day began being observed in the wake of the Olympic Games held in Sweden in 1916.

But since Sweden has not been under any other country it does not really have an ‘independence day’ to celebrate. Yet, year 1523, although long ago, is considered the foundation of ‘modern Sweden’ when the Kalmar Union with Denmark ended and King Gustav V ruled the land. Over the centuries, before and after that time, Sweden has had ‘squabbles’ with its Scandinavian and Nordic neighbours; southern Sweden was sometimes Danish and sometimes Swedish; to the east, parts of southern Finland was also Swedish, and even today, some Finns have Swedish as their mother tongue, such as on Finnish island of Aaland. Finland has earlier been squeezed by the Swedes from the west and the Russians from the east – in similar ways as the small Baltic states have had to struggle very hard for their little territories by greater neighbours from the south, as well as west and east, and if that hadn’t been the case, the Swedes from the north might well have waged influence over them. Today, the Nordic and Baltic Council consists of the five Nordic countries and the three Baltic states, to form the ‘Nordic-Baltic Eight’ (NB8).

And then, to define what it really means to be Swedish (and Nordic) can be debated. In Sweden, twenty percent are immigrants and the indigenous Swedes are also outward looking people, and most migrated to the land from south and east over the centuries. A hundred and fifty years ago, a quarter of the Swedes emigrated to USA, especially in the Mid-West. Today the Swedish population is getting close to 10 million in a fertile but a bit cold land of well over 450,000 square kilometres, more than half of Pakistan’s territory. Intuitively, one wonders why the population is so low, and when it may increase a lot, mostly through immigration. That goes for the other Nordic countries, too, which have even smaller populations and are all very wealthy and well-organized welfare states.

To discuss some of these issues, the questions of being Swedish, notably distinctively local with own value, and international at the same time, becomes essential. That is what the Swedes are, and that is the major topic of my article today. But I have realized it isn’t all that easy to explain. So, maybe I will only be able to begin the discussion about today, and continue in another article or two later. Indeed, the topic is not only about Sweden and the rest of the Nordic countries ‘corner of the world’, it is about countries and regions everywhere. All have their own shapes and formers, with own values, prejudices, inclusiveness or exclusiveness, and so on. At the same time, we are all part of ‘one world’, not least in a time on Internet and globalization, trade, migration, yes, wanting open boarders and closed borders, depending on many factors in what we think is our own best interest.

Let me move back to Scandinavia, giving more background, so we can be able discuss issues more specifically – remembering, too, that I come from Norway, Sweden’s neighbour to the west, which was in a union with Sweden for a hundred years till 1905. The Swedish land all the way from the Norwegian border south of Oslo down to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city (and from where I hold my Fil.Kand. degree!), is as much Norwegian as Swedish, yes, as for language accent, the coastal fishermen’s and seamen’s culture, and more.

But large industrial companies, including Volvo, with its headquarters just outside Gothenburg, are truly part of the advanced Swedish culture of innovation and manufacturing. When Norway in the late 1970s offered to buy the majority shares in Volvo, and the Swedes would in exchange get easier access to the huge Norwegian oil and gas resources, the Swedes declined the offer (well, at another sage, the Norwegians hesitated to sell). Now, Volvo is owned by a Chinese company, and that maybe be better, considering the time we live in. Yet, I feel quite a bit sad that Volvo’s CEO and chairman that time, Pehr Gyllenhammar, and Norway’s PM Odvar Nordli, didn’t succeed in establishing that major industrial axis. Gyllenhammar also initiated other major European industrial cooperation, and again we should note Sweden being an advanced industrial state, with large companies, such as Scania AB, SKF, Tetra Pak, and other companies, such as IKEA, of course.

Further north in Sweden, one would hardly notice the ‘cultural border’ between the vast Swedish land and the narrow Norwegian coast, and a huge chunk of Sweden’s forests and valleys, the regions of Jämtland and Härjedalen, used to be Norwegian territory anyway, now Swedish land (receiving subsidies from the rest of the land). The practical Swedes have moved most people who lived the north to the south, where the important industrial and commercial cities and towns have been built – unlike Norway, where at least a good number of people (for defence and ocean livelihoods) live in rural areas and small coastal towns all the way up to the border with Russia and the oceans towards the High North and midnight sun.

For various reasons, Sweden has been ahead of its neighbours in development and modernisation, and that mainly means industry. Sweden is larger than the other Nordic countries; it has maintained independence and leadership for hundreds of years; it stayed out of WWII; and it industrialized and urbanized earlier than its neighbours and thus became wealthier earlier than its neighbours (well, with Denmark as a close runner-up). Sweden has stayed out of the NATO military block, being clearly Western, though, and since 1995 an EU member. At the same time, Sweden has remained very independent, especially during the Cold War decades.

Sweden (and the other Nordic countries and Europe) has focused particularly deliberately on development within the social democratic model, which has become known as the ‘Swedish model’ or the ‘Scandinavian model’. It is capitalism with a strong government sector, major regulations and curbing of the private sector’s anti-social profit making, and indeed a social welfare sector and redistribution of wealth. It is not perfect and much equalization work remains to be done; that was clearly manifested in speeches last Tuesday on 1 May, when the workers and labour unions celebrated. Well, some would say that in spite of Sweden currently having a social democratic government and PM Stefan Löfven, solidarity with the poor, including immigrants, could have been better. But then, it is an election year in Sweden, and the people will go to the polls in September, and strong conservative and even right-wing winds blow over the land. That is sad because Sweden was always aiming at being an all-inclusive land, with fairness and respect for everyone; that is a trademark, and so are the ‘feminist foreign policy’ and the general Swedish values.

Things must be good for all; ‘lagom’ has become a term that is often used in Sweden, with its virtues of emphasizing moderation and balance. Well, not always true, the Swedes still has some nobility, and they have a royal family. However, the crown princess married a ‘commoner’ from the far north of the land, physiotherapist Daniel Westling, now named Prince Daniel, the son of a local civil servant and a post office clerk. Don’t get me wrong, I and most Swedes would consider that strengthening the royal family, marrying outside the little clique of European relatives, which his father, King Carl XVI Gustaf also did in 1976, marrying a German-Brazilian woman, yet, of well-to-do background; few could have done better in her job than Queen Silvia! It should be noted that the king, or queen as it will be when Crown Princess Victorian takes over, is a strictly ceremonial head of state with no power in the legislative process. Yet, the royals’ opinions and support of causes, outside party politics, do carry weight.

Let me end my article on this note – remembering that I am writing in connection with Sweden’s celebration of its national day in Pakistan. I say: Congratulations on the day – to the people of the leading land among the Nordic countries, and their friends in Pakistan and worldwide.

(In one or two future articles, I will discuss some more aspects related to Sweden, including Pakistani students and immigrants in Sweden, the many other immigrants, too; the Swedish institutes in Pakistan, and indeed the overall Swedish values. It will be more about ‘Sweden in the world’, and ‘the world in Sweden’. Maybe Sweden is not only a leader among the Nordic countries but globally?)


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.