On his way to this year’s EU-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brunei, the Swedish Foreign Minister, Mr. Carl Bildt, had time for a quick two-day stopover in Bangkok.
Apart from seeing Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Foreign Minister Dr. Surapong Tovitchakchaikul, Carl Bildt also found time to give a short speech and Q&A session at the Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand (FCCT). In his usual charismatic way, he deftly covered a number of global and international topics despite being put on the spot on several occasions.
EU and ASEAN: Following the Same Path
Mr. Bildt began by stating that the EU and ASEAN were very similar, since they had each transitioned from a warlike past to become more peaceful regions.
“We are nations that are not necessarily the military superpowers of the world, but nations that know that by working together we can solve security problems and create the best possible conditions for the economic and social development of our respective countries.”
The EU and ASEAN have also experienced integration in economic policy structures through critical events such as the Asian Economic Crisis in 1997 and the ongoing European Sovereign Debt Crisis.
A Better Future for Burma
While the EU is still recovering, the ASEAN countries have made major steps forward in their political and economic development, the Foreign Minister added.
Regions such as Burma/Myanmar have a long way to go, yet are still making significant progress. This has recently been rewarded by the EU’s suspension of most embargos and sanctions against Burma/Myanmar. Further developmental assistance will be also given, especially to help improve the country’s situation with its ethnic problems, political prisoners and electoral processes.
The Swedish-Thai Connection
When it came to Thailand’s link to Sweden, Mr. Bildt noted that with a significant Swedish population in Thailand and a large Thai population in Sweden, the two countries certainly had strong human and business relationships.
“It has been very fruitful to have two days of discussions here with the Thai political leadership and the Swedish community about how we can develop cooperation between the two countries further.”
In his six years of being Foreign Minister, Mr. Bildt has never had the opportunity to visit Thailand. Rather than having any political convictions against the country, however, he said that it was purely calendar reasons that had kept him away.
To show that he had not forgotten Thailand, he added, “We have kept dialogues with the different Thai governments and I’ve had discussions with each of the Thai Foreign Ministers over the years.”
Thailand & the Schengen Agreement
One big ‘thorn in the side’ for Swedes living in Thailand is that Thais need to apply for a Schengen visa. This is a complicated topic, Mr. Bildt stated, because it is an EU issue, rather than a bilateral one, as extended border controls are laid down by the EU as a whole. While Sweden has a very open approach to visas, it is necessary to move together with the other EU countries as well.
As for whether Thais should have reduced restrictions on the Schengen visa, Mr. Bildt said that this was a matter for the different Ministers of Interior to decide upon.
“While we Foreign Ministers think that most people are good and would like to ease these restrictions, the Ministers of Interior have glasses where they only see certain categories of people and accordingly take a somewhat different approach.”
In certain EU countries, Mr Bildt added that the consensus has been shifting to that similar to the Minister of Interior, despite Sweden pushing for more open borders.
Sweden’s Battle with Web Censorship
Mr. Bildt also talked about Sweden’s ongoing fight for complete Internet freedom. He noted that they were facing issues with “countries who were completely blocking down everything.”
There were also other countries that were “on the border by doing things that they consider right and we consider wrong.”
A global debate had been commenced on this topic, looking at any feasible solutions. Here, he said that there should be clear principles about what was allowed and what the standards were.
When probed about the current state of web censorship in Thailand, Mr. Bildt agreed that there were some very delicate issues in play here.
“In trying to set up some principles which have a broad global support, we are now carrying that issue forward to the Human Rights Council and attempting to build a small coalition. Once we have those principles established, I think we need to go into a dialogue with individual countries, such as Thailand.”
Struggles Closer to Home
Mr. Bildt was also asked about the current state of the EU and whether the attempts to revive it were worthwhile. Instead of burying the scheme completely though, the Foreign Minister said that the EU had cemented the nations together, forming a more unified Europe. While there have always been problems, there were now fewer issues to deal with in the present.
With successes such as assisting the ex-Soviet countries, the EU had become a powerhouse of peace and this is hoped to lead to greater stability in the region.
“People don’t want to return to the past,” Mr. Bildt said, especially since splitting up the EU and re-establishing internal borders would lead to a far more critical situation.
A Dynamic Road to Success
In order for the EU nations to survive, it is necessary for them to reform and adapt, Mr. Bildt stated. Because of its dynamic nature, Sweden is now one of the richest countries in the world.
“A lot of our industries have been relocated and readjusted. They are changing. One of my prime examples is Ericsson. Do you think they make telephones in Sweden? They don’t make a single telephone there! 50% of their production is in China and 25% is in Estonia.”
These changes meant that countries, such as Sweden, Germany and Poland, are now very strong.
“We are doing well because we adjusted fairly fast to the changing global economy.”
The southern EU nations did not adapt early on, as they did not have the same global exposure. Mr. Bildt noted that the phase which these countries are going through now is similar to what the Northern European and some Asian nations experienced earlier on.