Why Wallström often ends up in the crosshairs

6:23 min

As one of the government's most criticised ministers is set to appear in front of the constitutional committee, we ask why Foreign Minister Margot Wallström is getting so much political flak. 

Thursday sees the opening of a new round of hearings at the parliament's constitutional committee, which scrutinises the government ministers, to ensure that they follow the rules for government work.

Foreign Minister Margot Wallström is the first one up. She is set to answer questions on three issues: how she handled last year's cancellation of a co-operation agreement with Saudi Arabia, whether she followed rules about informing the opposition before promising what help Sweden would give to France in its fight against the IS, and whether or not she accused Israel of extra-judicial killings.

Since the government came to power 18 months ago, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström has been reported to the constitutional committee 10 times. Most of the complaints are about lack of information to the other parties on foreign policy matters, either in the Committee on EU Affairs and the Council of Foreign Affairs.

But MPs have also reported her for renting a flat from the Municipal Workers Union and thereby bypassing the normal queuing system for flats in the capital. Two of the cases that will be part of Thursday's hearing are more related to what the opposition sees as a badly run foreign ministry, which they feel is damaging the country.

In the case of the cancelled Saudi agreement, there are questions about how this was handled. On March 9, 2015, at short notice, the Arab League cancelled Margot Wallström's speech at the opening of the League's foreign ministers' meeting. At the time, Wallström said this was a result of Sweden's criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

But later, there were allegations that the real reason behind the snub was that Saudi Arabia had caught wind of Sweden's plans to cancel a military co-operation agreement with the country. Officially this was however only cancelled on March 9. Wallström is asked to clarify the process of ending the agreement and how this was communicated.

According to Anders Persson, doctor of political science at Lund University, specialising in the Middle East, relations with the Arab world have recovered from this debacle today. "I think we have gotten over the 'Saudi Affair' as it is called here in Sweden," he tells Radio Sweden.

Meanwhile, relations to Israel are much more of "an ongoing problem" says Persson. At the beginning of this year, Wallström seemed to say that Palestine as well as Israel perform extra-judicial killings, which caused an outrage in Israel. But, says Persson, it would be wrong to think that the friction with Israel started with Margot Wallström.

"Sweden had very bad political relations (with Israel) under the previous government, the conservative-led government, as well. But it is different, because Margot Wallström, the foreign minister, is being singled out and personally criticised in a very different way compared to the previous foreign minister, Carl Bildt," says Persson.

Bildt was also reported to the constitutional committee when he was a minister, several times because MPs wanted a review of his financial interests. But the criticism against Wallström is much more sniping of her as a person, says Persson.

"There is almost a bashing campaign, or a bullying campaign, against her personally, I see for example on social media, that there is a bullying campaign against her personally, and sometimes it gets really mean," he tells Radio Sweden.

Some commentators have indicated that this may be because of Wallström's gender. In a column in the daily Aftonbladet in the aftermath of the Saudi debacle, the columnist Katrine Marcal wrote about "the difference between a Carl and a Margot".

Marcal saw a tendency to describe a principled stance on human rights as a woman's emotional and possibly laudable ambition, but something that inevitably will fall flat when faced with the "real" world of diplomacy. "This is about who is seen to understand foreign policy, and who isn't. And people who understand foreign policy are called Carl. Everybody knows that," she wrote.

Anders Persson at Lund University stops short of calling it an issue of gender. He sees no evidence of this playing a role, and notes that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has been criticised just as harshly over the government's handling of relations with countries in the Middle East.

When it comes to Israel, the current Swedish government's recognition of Palestine has not helped relations, says Persson. So how much of the criticism is about a tougher stance from the government, and how much is it about Margot Wallström as a person?

According to Anders Persson, it is a bit of both. Margot Wallström's style and how she has dealt with the issues has contributed.

"She is seen as first saying something - accusing Israel of extra judicial killings. Then she sort of took back that allegation and then she alluded to it again. So this flip-flopping, saying one thing-take it back-say it again, is something which has driven the Israelis absolutely mad," said Persson.