Remember Anna Lindh

Mats Engström
24 September 2003

Inside the Ankara restaurant, more and more Kurdish dishes piled up on the table as Anna Lindh talked with political leaders. Outside, security tried to hold back the press. The Turkish newspapers were already full of headlines about this strange, tough Swedish foreign minister and her "human rights".

That was in February 2000. Earlier, at the European council in Cologne in June 1999, Anna Lindh had vetoed a decision to make Turkey a candidate country for European Union membership without clear conditions. I remember that after the foreign ministers’ dinner where the issue was discussed, she was still angry in the car on the way to the press conference.

Tough negotiations followed, and strict human-rights conditions were imposed. Turkey was given candidate status at the European council in Helsinki in December 1999. Anna Lindh continued to criticise Turkey, but she was also crystal clear that it should be admitted to the EU once the political criteria were fulfilled.

That strong, fair, principled commitment to human rights was typical of Anna Lindh the politician. She was motivated by values, by a strong feeling for what she considered right or wrong. She had the courage to take on political fights when she had to, even if she could doubt her own ability when the TV cameras were turned off. At the same time, she could find constructive ways forward, with the considerable help of her social talents and a lively sense of humour.

On hearing of her death, her German counterpart Joschka Fischer said: “We have lost a great European”.

The air was shivering

As minister for the environment (1994-98), Anna Lindh gave Swedish policy in this field a true European dimension. When she stepped into the elevator at her first European council meeting, in March 1995, the air was shivering with anger, with EU diplomats looking at her like something a cat had dragged into the Charlemagne building.

Anna Lindh had supported an initiative by Svend Auken, then Danish environment minister, to ban the export of dangerous waste to developing countries. The council had not been able to agree the issue, so Denmark and Sweden forwarded their proposal for a ban directly to the Basel convention secretariat. This was seen by other member-states as a breach of EU solidarity.

But in the end, Auken and Lindh won; the EU united around a similar proposal, and the convention was changed. This was one of many results in the environmental field. Others include a strategy to combat acidification and a tighter policy on chemicals. At home, too, she made radical overhauls of environmental law. Anna Lindh gradually won the respect of her colleagues in the council.

Improving the environment was also a way of showing those more EU-sceptical Swedes that European co-operation could mean something positive in everyday life. Later, the successful Swedish presidency in 2001 brought the EU closer to citizens. Anna Lindh became very popular in Sweden, and played a prominent role in the domestic debate on European affairs, including in the euro referendum campaign this year.

Remember, and go on

“Politics is wanting to achieve something”, said former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme. It is a good description of Anna Lindh’s work. She did not shy away from wielding power or from compromise when it was needed, but she never lost sight of what she wanted to achieve. Her ethics, together with her ability to see ways forward in difficult situations, made that possible.

Anna Lindh often spoke of Olof Palme. “After his murder, we talked too little about Olof’s political work”. she said. The sorrow after the assassination of Palme in 1986 was so painful that Lindh and other leading politicians did not want to use him in the political debate. Afterwards, she regretted that new generations had lost sight of Olof Palme, and began frequently to quote him in her speeches.

That reflection is guidance to us who are mourning Anna’s death. Now is the time of sorrow. But democracy and politics must move on, in both Sweden and the European Union. Anna Lindh’s openness, optimism and firm values should inspire us in that work.


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