Swedish secrets

H.E. Catherine von Heidenstam shares some of her country’s strategies for success.

Looking at an official photograph of Her Excellency, Catherine von Heidenstam, Ambassador of Sweden to the Czech Republic,you might expect to meet someone athletic – a skier, perhaps. That’s why you’d be surprised to find she is rather more average sized, to-petite, thin, not a muscled silhouette, but a compact bundle of dynamic energy. She rushes into her office, almost simultaneously introducing herself, offering coffee, and apologizing for being delayed by a staff member’s birthday tea. 

But it doesn’t take long to appreciate a certain graceful attitude

exuding from this soft-spoken, yet precise, diplomatic service

specialist, her dark brown hair tinted with a few strands of gray.

The ambience is reminiscent of that created by a certain kind of

elementary school teacher which the somewhat-aged among us

were fortunate to be tutored by – women who commanded instant

respect and trust, and who somehow conveyed an air of being

EBTV (educated before television), when using their imagination

without presumption of audio-video resulted in a different kind of

appreciation for learning. And a different kind of appreciation for

the world.

A topic with a world view that immediately comes to mind is the

difference between the land-locked Czech Republic and Sweden’s

11,500km of mainland coastline. An additional 10 percent of Sweden

is shelved under lakes, rivers, and wetlands. “I miss water,” Ms von

Heidenstam admits. “I’m so used to it, especially in summer – you

go to swim, fish, sail, go out in a boat, or in winter, skate. Or you just

look at the water.

“But,” she continues, “what we really have in common with

Czechs is this love for nature. Weekends and holidays [the Czechs]

disappear to the country, to their country houses. It’s the same

in Stockholm. You do not find many Swedes left during the

weekends of summer; there are only tourists and guests. This Friday

afternoon-evening exodus, and Sunday evening struggling to get

back, is very common.”

Sweden is one of 11 nations comprising the Baltic Sea Region,

which, of course, is not geographically shared with the Czech

Republic, but still interesting for the Czech government. The

Ambassador explains, “This EU Baltic Sea Strategy is the same idea

as the creation of the Visegrád Group. The idea is that cooperation is

good for everybody, for protecting and improving the environment

in and around the Baltic Sea, for making it easier for students to

study abroad; and broadening the cooperation between all these

countries can help create a strong market, also benefitting the

Czech Republic.”

She cites as an example prohibiting ships without double hulls

from passing through the Baltic. “Well of course it’s a burden on the

shipping industry, but it’s also related to building these ships, and

at the same time protecting the environment. It’s necessary to stop

having problems from accidents and oil spills and all seaside being

destroyed.” In other words, it’s an idea that is ultimately good for

everybody, even those living beyond the Baltic.

“If you try to change the perspective,” she continues in her

typically Swedish lilt, “there are almost always opportunities in trying

to change old habits which proved to be detrimental to the air,

or sea; or possibilities for regions and countries to develop, or for

people to travel.”

The tendency to change old habits and to examine situations for

new possibilities seems to be a particularly Swedish tactic, judging

by the country’s consistent placement at the top of surveys on

everything from sports performance to quality of life. What is the key

to their success?

The Ambassador pauses, takes a breath, and muses for a moment.

“Yes,” she says, nodding thoughtfully, “I often get this question

regarding sports. That goes for music, for research too. There’s this

trend and wish to give everybody an equal opportunity at ther same

time as special schools and programs are available for students –

in addition to their normal schooling – to allow them to develop

special talents.” She divulges another secret to Swedish success: “It’s research

and innovation,” she explains. “Many of the companies here (in the

Czech Republic) are subsidiaries of foreign companies, meaning that

research and development is usually carried out in the headquarters

(abroad) but not here.” She notes that in Sweden it’s “a tradition” that

companies devote special budgets for research and innovation.

She also cites the importance of partnerships among universities,

companies and townships to create “innovation cities.”

One example is Ericsson, the telecommunications firm, which moved

its headquarters from urban Stockholm to participate in creating

a single location, Kista Science City, partnering with both a

technical university and companies, to build a whole research and

development community. That includes flats for employees,

students, and families, as well as day care centers and schools.

Further, she describes a kind of “eagerness” to find alternatives.

“Some parts of Sweden were very dependent on ship building,

or forestry, or textile production,” she says. “The competition from

abroad was so strong that they had to close down.” Rather than

accept the loss, or to rely on government subsidies, several

companies also battling environmental, climate, and energy

challenges turned to new activities, including production and use

of alternative energy sources such as ethanol, “black liquor” from

tree pulp, and other biomass materials.

The Swedish Trade Office and Embassy have arranged

conferences in the Czech Republic so Swedish and Czech

companies and/or communities could meet to discuss new

alternatives and possible future cooperation. “We’ve had a

conference on district heating technology, one on automotive

products as well as a big conference led by the three ministers

of environment from the Czech Republic, Denmark and

Sweden on environmental measures,” she recounts. “The

main message to primarily the business leaders was that

today’s environmental challenges offer an opportunity to make a

win-win situation by protecting the environment as well as doing



Suddenly there is a knock at the door. The Ambassador hops up

to confer with a staff member, and Swedish – that singing language

packed with pressed vowels and the sound of skis sloshing

through slush – fills the doorway for a moment. Out of all those soft

sounds an agreement is reached, and the Ambassador turns back

again. “I’m sorry, we have to finish soon,” she says, “we have another

meeting …”

There’s only time to ask how her job as Ambassador will change

when the Czech Republic assumes the presidency of the EU in

January, and Sweden takes its turn in the fall.

“It has changed my job already!” she exclaims, laughing. “During

one week’s time we have had three ministerial visits, which is not

normally what happens. So there is the wish, the desire, and need for

not only reading each others’ papers, but to meet, and to sit down

and go through what is to be expected of us, and also to a certain

extent what we would like to add.”

She says, speaking seriously and from the heart, “During the year

2009 we will be reminded of the fact that it is only 20 years since

the Wall came down, and to celebrate what fantastic development

and advances have taken place in Europe since then. And with the

common aim not to create new barriers.”

Suddenly she rises, apologizing, and whisks us out the door and

down the blond wooden steps to the front door of the Embassy,

chatting as we pull on our coats on the run. She adds that she feels

both lucky and grateful that in the midst of all this there’s still room

for her to enjoy her family. And then – a quick handshake, a smile,

and she vanishes.

H.E. Ms Catherine von Heidenstam

MB in Law, University of Lund, Sweden; Licence en Droit

Européen, Brussels; European Commission, 1971

Some career highlights:

1973, Second Secretary, Permanent Representation to the

OECD, Paris

1974-83, Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA)

1983-86, Second Secretary, Swedish Embassy, Vietnam

1986-89, First Secretary, Swedish Embassy and Permanent

Mission to the UN, Vienna

1989-91, Counsellor, Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN,

New York

1991-93, Head of Section, Press Department, MFA

1994-96, Deputy Director, UN Department, MFA

1996, Minister Counsellor, Swedish Embassy, Finland

1996-98, Ambassador, Swedish Embassy, Tunisia

1998-2001, Ambassador for Human Rights, MFA

2003-06, Chief of Protocol, MFA

2006-, Ambassador, Swedish Embassy, Czech Republic


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *