Skip to content

Tobias Billström's speech in Berlin on European Security


Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström at Hertie School in Berlin, Germany, 21 March 2024.

Check against delivery.

Dear president Woll, dear students, member of the diplomatic corps, ladies and gentlemen, 

It is a great pleasure to be at the Hertie School with you today to talk about European Security. 

I have learned that this school’s motto is “Understand today. Shape tomorrow.” This would be a fitting slogan for the diplomacy of our times as well. 

The students at Hertie are learning to become shapers. And this formative stage is what we diplomats need to be as well. 

I will talk about how Sweden navigates at this time of great upheaval, and how we are actively engaged in shaping the security in our neighbourhood – one that we share with Germany - and in Europe. 

The European security order that we built on the hard-won lessons of the second world war and the Cold War – with Berlin as its epicentre - is under severe attack. The post-Cold War era has come to an end. 

We must understand today what the far-reaching implications of this fundamentally changed security landscape are. And we must then take action in order to shape our security environment of tomorrow. 

Since two years, all of the world knows the word Zeitenwende. As a neighbour, friend and now also Ally, Sweden welcomes Germany’s investments in a stronger defence and its substantial support to Ukraine. And I work eminently well with my dear colleague Mrs Annalena Baerbock on the Russia policy and on EU enlargement. A high German level of ambition from Germany in all those areas is important for Sweden and for all of Europe – as well as for the transatlantic relationship. 

Sweden has made its own Zeitenwende. Since two weeks, we are a proud NATO member. Our membership has strong and broad support in the parliament as well as in our population. This is a major strength for Sweden and for NATO. 

Joining NATO is a historic step, a paradigm shift, for our country. After more than two centuries of military non-alignment, we are entering into a new foreign and security policy identity. 

At the same time, becoming a NATO member can be seen as the natural and final step after decades of an ever-closer partnership with the Alliance since Sweden joined the Partnership for Peace in 1994. 

The following year we acceded to the EU and for the first time put Swedish troops under NATO command, in Bosnia. We have participated in all major NATO peace support operations since: in Kosovo, Afghanistan and in Libya. 

We have been a “Gold Card partner”, we have built interoperability for our Armed Forces and exchanged assessments on the Baltic Sea region. And now, Sweden is fully part of the family in which we belong. We have come home. 

I want to express here today Sweden’s deep gratitude for Germany’s strong and consistent support during our accession process. Germany was among the first to ratify Sweden’s application, on July 8th 2022, and also one of the allies who gave us bilateral security assurances in the sensitive period between application and membership. This we will remember. 

As you know, Germany and Sweden are closely linked through geography and history. The economic and cultural ties are strong as are the people-to-people contacts. As an expression of our close contacts, Her Royal Highness the Crown Princess Victoria was honoured to address the Bundestag at Germany’s “Volkstrauertag” last November. 

In these challenging and dangerous times, the bonds between Germany and Sweden become even more important. As strong democracies, we share a firm commitment to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. We believe that the order of this continent rests on the European Union and NATO. 

We cooperate closely within the EU and will now also be doing so in NATO. Our mutual defence commitments under article 5 adds a new – existential – quality also to our bilateral relations. 

Sweden will be safer in NATO and NATO will be stronger with Sweden as an Ally. 

Our alliance policy will be based on solidarity, aiming to enhance security and stability in our neighbourhood and the Euro-Atlantic area as a whole. 

The same principle underlines our efforts to build security with others both in the political alliance – the European Union – and the defence alliance – NATO. 

Unity, solidarity and cohesion will be guiding lights for Sweden as a NATO member. To safeguard the unity is to safeguard the strength of the alliance. It is a strategic objective for Russia to sow and exploit division within and between EU and NATO members. 

Sweden will fully share burdens, responsibilities and risks with our allies. We must invest in our own strengths. We have doubled our defence spending over the last few years and are now above two percent of GDP. 

To stand for cohesion also means to stand fully behind NATO’s 360 degrees approach to security. This is in line with Sweden’s security policy DNA. I mentioned Sweden’s record as a contributor to NATO. We also contributed to all of the EU’s almost 40 crisis management operations – in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. 

Our broad geographical commitment extends to NATO’s engagement with global partners – not least in the Indo-Pacific. The security in this region and in the Euro-Atlantic space is closer linked than ever. 

Also, as a NATO member, we will be strongly committed to EU-NATO cooperation. Continuing to contribute to the EU’s broad toolbox is a natural cornerstone of Sweden’s future security policy. 

The EU’s important role in the transatlantic relations has been amply demonstrated since February 2022. Europe’s security needs a strong EU, and in Europe we need to take a larger responsibility for our own security. To invest in a stronger Europe is also an investment in a durable transatlantic link. 

While I myself have been advocating for Swedish NATO membership for many years, it was Russia’s full-scale invasion on Ukraine that brought Sweden – and Finland – into the alliance. 

This is the opposite to what Russia intended. As you may now, in December 2021 Russia presented – in terms of an ultimatum – unacceptable demands on a new security order in Europe. 

One aim was to deny countries like Sweden the right to join NATO. Another objective was to push the US and NATO back, and in effect leaving countries close to Russia open to coercion. This Russian objective remains. 

Sweden’s choice for NATO is a sovereign, free and democratic decision. This is in itself a victory for freedom and for the invaluable right of every European state to choose its security arrangements. 

Our analysis is clear – Russia will remain a serious threat to European security for the foreseeable future. 

Russia has for a long time demonstrated its willingness to use military means for political objectives. With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia further lowered its threshold for the use of military force. 

It is willing to accept high risks – higher than we have seen before – and to accept great losses. It has made a number of miscalculations. Step by step it has withdrawn from agreements of arms control and confidence-building measures, both conventional and nuclear. 

We must plan and prepare for a prolonged confrontation with Russia. We must counter Russia’s expansion of power by constraining its influence, its freedom of action, and – ultimately – its ability to do harm. 

At the centre of our efforts is our firm commitment to standing up for Ukraine’s freedom and sovereignty. This is and will remain the top priority for Sweden’s foreign policy. 

It is clear what is at stake. Russia is waging war to rebuild an empire and to destroy the European security order – to replace right with brutal might. 

So Ukraine is fighting also for our security and freedom. The outcome of the war – which largely will depend on our support – will shape Ukraine and Russia, but also Europe for generations to come. 

No one desires peace more than Ukraine, whose people suffer the consequences of Russia’s brutal aggression. But peace at any cost would only invite further aggression. It is up to Ukraine – and Ukraine only – to decide if and when the moment is right to negotiate. And let us never ever lose out of sight that Russia could end the war at any time, by withdrawing its troops. But it doesn’t. Our greatest responsibility today is therefore to provide Ukraine with all the political, financial and military support necessary. The aim is to help Ukraine win the war and achieve lasting peace. 

Some argue that supporting Ukraine is costly. Let me be crystal clear: not doing this will be far more so. Germany and Sweden are amongst the most prominent donors. Sweden will do what is needed to provide as much support as possible to Ukraine. We need both endurance and a strong sense of urgency. Sweden works closely with Germany and welcomes its solid and long-term support for Ukraine – politically, financially and militarily. 

EU’s decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine is historic. EU enlargement is a geostrategic investment in peace, security, stability and prosperity. 

Sweden is a driving force within the EU for harsher sanctions and for restricting Russia’s possibilities to fund its war of aggression. We can all do more on enforcement but make no mistake – the sanctions are having effect. 

Internal repression in Russia and external aggression against Ukraine go hand in hand. Russia is accelerating the crackdown on civil society, silencing human rights defenders and any voices opposing the war against Ukraine. The last example is the tragic death of Alexei Navalny, for which the ultimate responsibility lies with the Russian leadership. 

Sweden, together with eleven Member States, has recently proposed that the EU establishes a sanctions regime specifically designed to address the repression against civil society in Russia. The idea is receiving broad support and we hope that we quickly can move forward towards its adoption. 

After Finland’s and Sweden’s accessions, all countries around the Baltic Sea except Russia are members of the Alliance. This fundamentally redraws the security map in our part of Europe. 

Sweden and Finland will allow an increase of NATO’s operational depth and tie the High North, the North Atlantic and the Baltic regions more closely together. 

Sweden’s geography and military assets can significantly strengthen the Alliance’s ability to carry out operations in Northern Europe. We will work with our allies to make the best possible use of these assets in support of NATO’s deterrence and defence. 

Sweden will fully harness the opportunities to strengthen the deterrence and defence also of our neighbours – the Nordic and Baltic states, and to some extent also Germany and Poland. 

These opportunities are further strengthened by our recently signed bilateral defence cooperation agreement with the US, which goes hand in hand with our NATO membership. It is a sign of unity and facilitates NATO planning since all Nordic states now have signed similar agreements. 

As Baltic Sea states, we face common challenges and have everything to gain by working together to strengthen the security of the region. Sweden’s and Finland’s accessions create new opportunities for foreign and security policy co-operation as well. 

As the chair of the informal Nordic and Nordic-Baltic foreign policy co-operation this year, Sweden aims to facilitate a deeper dialogue on regional security issues. My Finnish colleague, Elina Valtonen and I have also proposed an informal discussion on these topics among the ten countries – including Germany and Poland – at the margins of the upcoming Foreign Minister’s meeting of the Council of Baltic Sea States. 

Germany is an important actor and can play a central role in the security and defence of the whole region. The further engagement from Germany in the Baltic region is in this respect very welcome. The intent to deploy a brigade to Lithuania is a clear signal of Germany’s commitment to the region. 

I am convinced that a strong Baltic Sea region, firmly anchored in the EU and NATO, is in our shared interest. 

In this school a new generation of shapers of the future for Germany and Europe is being formed. 

I have talked about the building blocks that Sweden sees as most important as we try to shape – within our means and together with our partners – the future security in our part of the world. 

These building blocks – our membership and role in EU and NATO, a stronger regional cooperation, a long-term Russia policy, the support to Ukraine – are all interlinked. They are individually important but taken together they form a greater whole. 

In this shaping endeavour Germany will be an indispensable partner for Sweden – bilaterally, regionally, in the EU and from now on also as allies in NATO. 

Thank you.