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Europe: As War In Iraq Looms, Nordic Voices For Peace Seldom Heard

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Nordic countries have long had a reputation as peacemakers. Partly because of the policy of neutrality traditionally pursued by Sweden and Finland, this group of countries has been a distinct influence in favor of peaceful solutions to conflict. Yet, as war looms with Iraq, Nordic voices are seldom heard. Why is this, and how does it relate to the influence of the European Union?

Prague, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Reflecting the region's snowy climate, the Nordic people -- that is, the Swedes, Norwegians, Danes, and Finns -- all have reputations for coolheadedness. They are known to be slow to anger and quick to reconcile, with a strong desire to mitigate conflict and seek peaceful solutions.

Over the past 50 years, that impulse has led the Nordics to be trusted internationally as mediators and peace facilitators. One thinks of the way Sweden and Finland have contributed troops to many United Nations peacekeeping missions, and the way Norway has served as host for the Mideast peace process and, more recently, as mediators of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

But with war looming in Iraq, surprisingly little has been heard from the Nordics on the subject of conflict avoidance. It's true that Swede Hans Blix, head of the UN arms inspection agency for Iraq, has a central role in the drama. His voice has been heard counseling restraint about using military action against Baghdad. But from the Nordic governments themselves, there has been little of significance.

Does this indicate an end to the special Nordic role?

Swedish political commentator Anders Junnson said the Swedish left has heartily criticized the Labor government of Prime Minister Goran Persson over what it considers its passive approach. Junnson, who writes for Stockholm's "Svenska Dagbladet" daily, said the government line is that it follows the course set by the United Nations toward Iraq. "Our Prime Minister Goran Persson does not think it is important for Sweden to have a certain voice in the world. He argues like a member of the common people. It's very different from [the approach of the late Prime Minister] Olof Palme. Persson is a very pragmatic person, and ideology is not his strong side," he said.

Junnson said the rest of the Labor leadership thinks like Persson. He recalled a debate about the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan last year, in which those supporting the antiterrorism campaign won out with comparative ease.

And Junnson noted another factor, namely that his country is a member of the European Union, which is developing a joint foreign and security policy on behalf of all member states. "When Sweden became a member in the European Union, nowadays we have the same foreign policy as the European Union. We have no foreign policy of our own, so to say. And that is really a change in the Social Democratic party in Sweden," he said.

So is "Big Brother Brussels" muzzling that special Nordic voice of conscience? Brussels-based analyst Marius Vahl of the Centre for European Policy Studies thinks not. "I'm not really convinced. I'm not convinced that that is a good argument because I mean, look at Germany. It would not have been particularly difficult for the Swedish government to have been more critical in the Iraq [case]," Vahl said.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has not only ruled out German military participation against Iraq but even support for a UN resolution authorizing the use of force against that country. Fellow EU member Britain, by stark contrast, is massing forces for a possible attack on Iraq, an indication that each member state still has the capacity to act independently if it wishes to.

However, it must be said that Norway, which is not an EU member, is now the most active of the Nordic states as a peace mediator. Commentator Per Ellingsen of the Oslo daily "Dagbladet" feels Norway is freer to act because it is not an EU member. He noted that Norway in the past few weeks has had what he called astonishing success in dealing with the Sri Lankan conflict. And he recalled other recent peace-related activities in Cyprus and Guatemala.

Ellingsen believes that being an EU member is inhibiting Sweden from the individual foreign policy initiatives it might otherwise have taken. "I think it's very difficult [for Sweden], if you present yourself as a union member, you will be regarded as a component of a big power. The union is, in a way, a superpower, even if there are internal differences, for instance, between England, Germany, and France," he said.

As for Norway's approach to the Iraq issue, he noted Norway has been close to the United States, and participated in the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan. He said that only in the last few weeks has the government come out against the use of force against Baghdad. In his view, it is impossible for Oslo to have a "peace voice" in the Iraq question.

Turning to Finland, a positive assessment of the EU-Finnish bond comes from Ian Anthony, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He said: "The European Union, to a certain extent, has added an entire new dimension of globalism, or at least expanded regionalism, in Finnish thinking, and they've been the most enthusiastic participants in the European Union. Not least for that reason, the union has been Finland's window on the world."

As for Sweden's situation, he also sees that positively. He said Stockholm is assuming its responsibility to ensure that issues like nonproliferation, arms control, conflict prevention, and peacekeeping are represented on the EU's foreign and security policy agenda. And Anthony believes that the Nordics remain committed to peace building, even if the rhetoric and the institutional framework has changed.