MEET: Torbjörn Sohlström
11 October 2016
In every issue, The LINK speaks with an interesting person from within the Chamber’s network. This time we caught up with H.E. Torbjörn Sohlström, new Swedish Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
On 1 September 2016, a new Swedish Ambassador to the UK took up office in London. To date, Torbjörn Sohlström has worked in Brussels, in the Balkans and in Moscow. When asked, he says that he has been extremely lucky in terms of his professional career.
“I have had the privilege to hold some of the most interesting posts that you can as a Swedish Civil Servant in the area of foreign policy,” Sohlström told The LINK.
Sohlström grew up in Kallhäll, a suburb of Stockholm. After university studies, he joined the foreign ministry and has subsequently spent half of his life abroad. While most of his childhood friends still live in the same suburb, both Sohlström and his brother had a thirst to see more and felt a larger world beckoning to be discovered.
“I sometimes wonder if part of the explanation could be the large world map that my parents kept over the kitchen table when I was a child,“ Sohlström says.
In the noughties Sohlström was seconded by the Swedish Foreign Ministry to what would become the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy under Javier Solana, where he worked on helping countries like Macedonia and Kosovo to overcome years of conflict and war. He also served as the deputy head of mission in Moscow, where he worked on Swedish relations with Russia, always a central theme in Swedish foreign policy.
For the last few years he served as the foreign ministry’s director general for political affairs, a role in which he needed to follow events everywhere in the world. During this time he also travelled extensively first with foreign minister Carl Bildt and then with Bildt’s successor Margot Wallström.
“Every single one of these positions is a dream job for someone interested in European affairs and Swedish foreign policy. The same goes for being appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom, in many respects this is one of the most interesting jobs that anyone could have,” says Sohlström.
However, one of the more challenging aspects to his chosen career was having to accept that while you can and should do certain things, it is actually very difficult for one person to make an impact on the big problems of the world.
“You deal with a world fraught with difficulties, obstacles, conflicts, not to mention poverty. Sometimes you can do small things, but when big problems are concerned, you eventually have to realise they can only be changed over time. For me, personally, this was difficult to accept.”
In order to cope with this you need a certain combination of impatience and patience, according to Sohlström.
“Impatience in that you need to keep trying to do things, change things, make an impact. But at the same time you have to posses certain patience - the patience to realise that certain things can only change over time.”
Swedes and Sweden have historically been seen as good negotiators and called upon to mediate in complicated international situations. Sohlström says that this is a flattering reputation but that he doesn’t necessarily think that there is anything specific to the Swedish personality to make a Swede more suitable in mediation or conflict prevention than any other nationality. However, he can see two reasons to why this reputation might be prevailing.
“During the Cold War Swedes were seen as slightly more neutral and it was natural that they were picked to mediate in some conflicts. But I think that it might also be because positive developments at home have left us with the luxury to focus on other people’s problems.”
While in London, Sohlström’s task is to protect and promote Swedish interests, as well as maintaining the extremely close relationship that exists between Sweden and the UK.
“This means providing service to the Swedish community here in the UK, it means promoting Swedish business and culture here. It also means facilitating contacts at political level and advising the Swedish government on developments in the UK.”
Sohlström believes that many of these tasks will be influenced by the outcome of this summer’s referendum where the British people voted to leave the European Union. Many things may also become more difficult than they have been during the last few decades. But perhaps it also makes the job of being Swedish ambassador to the UK more necessary.
“It will be essential for the embassy work together with the Swedish community, with Swedish organisations like Business Sweden and the Swedish Chamber of Commerce, to make sure that we do everything that is possible to protect and promote what has been built up over so many years,“ says Sohlström.
Is there anything specific you are hoping to experience while in the UK? I want to discover this city and also venture beyond; go to Scotland, to Wales, to Northern Ireland. I want to see the British countryside and meet and learn to understand both the people who voted to remain in the European Union, but also those that chose to vote leave. I am also hoping there might be an afternoon here and there when I can get lost in one of London’s many bookshops or go to see a football match.
What motivates you most to get up on a Monday morning? Curiosity. I have always been extremely interested in what is around the corner. To meet new people and to see new places. To understand new things. I think that this is probably the best job you could have if you possess this particular streak in your character.