Sten Frimodt Nielsen: From EU Judge to being the new Danish Ambassador in Jakarta

Photo: Sten Frimodt Nielsen/ Credit: Politiken

The diplomatic journey of the newly appointed Danish ambassador to Indonesia was delayed due to a process involving two key stages: the sender state, Denmark, notifying the receiving state, Indonesia, of the intention to dispatch the former judge as an ambassador, and the approval of the appointed ambassador by the receiver state, Indonesia.

“We’ve been waiting for the Indonesians to give the green light. And it’s not just me. We were around 20 newly appointed ambassadors waiting for Indonesia’s approval,” Frimodt explains about the process that delayed him from reaching his new office in Jakarta. The procedural process underlines the diplomatic protocol in Indonesia, where parliamentary involvement sets it apart from most other countries.

“The delay was thereby procedural rather than a reflection of my personal shortcomings,” the ambassador shares with a smile.

ScandAsia met with him at the Danish embassy in Jakarta, only a week after the newly appointed ambassador took office. A position the former EU judge has always dreamt of.

The strategic choice of Jakarta

The former judge embarks on the ambassadorial role in Jakarta with candid enthusiasm. Expressing a profound connection to Southeast Asia, Mr. Frimodt Nielsen sees the assignment as an opportunity to engage with one of the most dynamic and significant regions globally. Not only is he the Danish ambassador to Indonesia, the role is also encompassing Malaysia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea – at least until Denmark reopens its embassy in Kuala Lumpur in the second half of 2024. It is thereby the biggest area in Southeast Asia partaken by one embassy and one ambassador. A challenge that the former judge is only excited about.

“When I expressed my wish to rejoin the ranks of foreign service, I explicitly applied to go to Jakarta. While I also had other preferences, Jakarta was at the top of my list. I am extremely happy to be here. It has been a very positive outcome for me,” Frimodt shares, while tea is served in china by Royal Copenhagen.

“We have to show the flag,” he says with a subtle smile.

Mr. Frimodt’s career spans from roles in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to negotiations of EU treaties in Brussels and serving as a judge at the EU Court of Justice. Even though the Danish News Media Politiken called it a “surprise comeback” when it was first announced, that the experienced judge would take on the new role as ambassador to Indonesia, the decision to return to the Foreign Ministry and embark on a diplomatic mission in Jakarta was according to the man himself, a very conscious and eagerly sought-after choice.

Photo: Sten Frimodt Nielsen at the Danish Embassy, Jakarta
Always the goal

Sten Frimodt Nielsen is the son of a teacher and a school secretary. He completed his high school education at Frederiksborg State School and graduated as a lawyer in 1988 from the University of Copenhagen. Subsequently, he spent several years at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was deployed twice. First to the United Nations in New York and afterwards to the European Union in Brussels. He then went to work in the Danish Prime Minister’s office, serving as a trusted advisor for two different governments, before he ended up in Luxembourg. Here, he spent 16 years working as an EU Judge from September 2007 until he resigned to rejoin the foreign ministry in his new diplomatic role in September 2023.

“For me, this is the dream. This is what I’ve always wanted. Since I was very, very young, I knew that what I wanted was to get into the Foreign Ministry. My old schoolmates would say, ‘Well, that’s what Sten always wanted. He wanted to go out and experience the world.'”

Challenges and joys of the transition

Transitioning from the judiciary to diplomacy, Frimodt expresses delight in returning to a lifelong dream of getting to work abroad, in the region he aspired to work with, within the Foreign Ministry. Despite geographic distance and challenges, the strategic importance of the region makes the assignment particularly rewarding, but not without challenges.

“No one can deny the interest and fascination of being a judge at the European Court of Justice. It’s a fantastic position and, for many, a dream job. I wouldn’t have stayed for 16 years if it weren’t remarkable, but it wasn’t what I envisioned for my entire career,” Frimodt shares.

“As time passed, I realized I needed to actively seek a change. While resigning as an EU judge was emotional due to strong connections with colleagues and staff, it helped knowing I was moving on to something equally promising,” the diplomat diplomatically adds about the transition.

Acknowledging the challenges of the distance between Indonesia and Denmark, Frimodt emphasizes the family’s supportive stance. With two grown children from a previous marriage, the new ambassador has recently welcomed a grandchild, which has added an extra layer of significance to the family’s excitement about exploring the vibrant culture of Southeast Asia.

“Of course, my children recognize the distance is a challenge, but they’re positive, acknowledging it’s something I’ve always wanted. They’re excited to visit despite the logistical complexity of flying with a newborn. But overall, they’re very supportive.”

First impressions of Jakarta

“When it became clear we were coming here, me and my wife conducted a fact-finding mission in May and June. We canceled a planned vacation and visited Jakarta instead. We wanted to experience and understand the surroundings, so when we came here last week, it wasn’t our first time. Prior to that, we hadn’t been here,” Frimodt explains.

“We were supposed to be here for a week, but for some strange reason, our return flight got canceled. We ended up staying for 10 days. It turned out to be beneficial, since we got to meet all the embassy staff,” he then adds.

Having only spent that brief fact-finding period in Jakarta earlier in the year, his first impressions include the cultural richness, thriving art scene, and overall energy in the region. While acknowledging challenges such as traffic and pollution, the ambassador remains optimistic about the prospects of his stay.

Only an added contribution to an already strong work force

Frimodt’s approach to the work ahead is characterized by humility and a keen awareness of the expertise within the embassy. Rather than dictating directives, the ambassador’s focus is on familiarizing himself with various sectors and to identify where he can make a meaningful contribution.

“My main task is to familiarize myself with the diverse areas the embassy covers and identify where I can contribute effectively. I won’t dictate how skilled employees do their jobs. Instead, I’ll aim to complement their efforts,” the ambassador says with a genuine modesty.

As he steps into this dynamic role, the ambassador’s task seems clear. It involves a steep learning curve along with cultural sensitivity in the Southeast Asian context, and a collaborative leadership style that emphasizes collective strength.

About Miabell Mallikka

Miabell Mallikka is a journalist working with ScandAsia at the headquarters in Bangkok.

View all posts by Miabell Mallikka

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