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Christian Danielsson

For Christian Danielsson, freedom and democracy have always been very close to his heart: as a young student and throughout his career. His interests in history, politics, and international relations drew him to the Foreign Service. Now with almost forty years behind him working for both the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and now the European Commission, Christian still believes that we can learn from the dark times and turn them into light.

“I was born in Stockholm in a rather typical Swedish family. I have one brother and one sister, and I’m in the middle. My father was an art historian, and my mother was a secretary. She stayed home with us children while we were growing up, then went back to work again when I was 12. I was a normal boy playing football, hockey, and tennis, as well as reading books. I had rather rural interests too: hunting, fishing, and horseback riding. My father had a fairly rural upbringing in Östergötland. He came from a family of industrialists and farmers and was the first to become an academic. We had a harmonious family, but what I can say about middle children is that they learn very early about the art of diplomacy and how to compromise. In fact, it would be interesting to see how many of those involved in diplomatic relations are indeed middle children.”

Christian knew fairly early on that he wanted to work in foreign policy and also that he wanted to study at the Stockholm School of Economics.

“I guess this passion started in high school. These were the days of controversial political issues: such as whether you were for or against the Vietnam War. This led to heated discussions at school, in which I enjoyed participating.”

Although Christian had clear convictions, he did not belong to any particular party. He actively participated in these enlightened discussions and often took a strong political stance, sometimes only for the sake of the discussion.

“I have always engaged in debate. Specifically, those about the communist system that many, who were my age at the time, saw as the future. I was also critical of colonialism in Africa: particularly, the situation in South Africa with apartheid.”

“My views were mixed on the Vietnam war: on the one hand, I was not a fan of the communist system in North Vietnam; on the other, South Vietnam was far from a democracy and the American policy obviously led to great suffering.”

As a young man, Christian was driven by his need for change. He remembers the democratization of Portugal and of Spain.

“The fall of the Caetano regime in Portugal and the peaceful democratization of Spain were important events. I felt joy and relief seeing history in the making. This included the democratization of Greece, when the students in Athens stood up. It was thrilling.”

“A crucial moment was witnessing the Berlin Wall come down. You saw the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe suddenly crumble and fall. People were finally free to think and say what they want. When I graduated from high school, I already knew I would try to go into diplomacy after university.”

“The Stockholm School of Economics was a difficult institution to get into. Your marks had to be quite high and, although I was not a good high school student to begin with, I was a fairly good one by the end.”

There was one thing that came first though. Christian felt compelled to complete his military service.

“I felt very strongly that doing this for my country was the right thing. From the summer of 1975 to the summer of 1977, I was an officer in the reserves. I felt so motivated. These were the days of the Cold War, and a strong Swedish defense was essential for stability and security in our part of Europe.”

Christian warmly remembers his first days at SSE.

“I was in the auditorium and I looked around me. I knew some faces and not others, but I still felt quite confident. I remember a comedian giving an introductory presentation. He made us all sit, pay careful attention, and take detailed notes on something that was completely out of the context of economics. We did that for a good twenty minutes before anyone started to realize that none of it made any sense. That was very funny.”

Christian laughs at this memory and clarifies that his time at SSE was not always so easy. The tests at the beginning, which covered broader subjects, were really quite challenging.

“I had difficulties with statistics. This was a new way of studying that was much different from high school. I needed to develop a certain discipline.”

Christian’s time at SSE gave him an element of maturity in reflections: a way of receiving and handling information and putting it into context. He believes it also taught him how to address issues in a variety of fields.

“And that was the substance. All the courses I took gave me sound understanding of economics as well as several aspects of business administration. They also gave me the opportunity to train in giving presentations. I enjoyed being in front of a group and arguing my thesis: standing up for what I believe is right. This has been instrumental throughout my career.”

“My favorite course was one that focused on economic geography. The professor was Gunnar Alexandersson, who was a brilliant man with an excellent sense of humor. The other course that I found fascinating dealt with doing trade with the Soviet Union and the economics of developing countries. This linked to my interest in foreign policy and was exciting since these issues were high on the political agenda.”

Group work for Christian was also something that he fondly remembers. Learning to collaborate and work together as a team has not only been beneficial; many of his workmates also became close friends.

What was particularly important is the benefit of networks. Christian says you also make connections for life. These contacts have been important throughout his career. He has been able to pick up the phone and know who the right person is to call.

“That’s also the beauty of SSE; since it’s not such a big institution, you get to know many of your fellow students from the same year. There is a great bond that develops in these student activities. I contributed to Mini Max: the bi-weekly student magazine. I was also active in AISEC, which organized student exchange programs.”

“These exchange programs were so useful. I went to South Africa, where I stayed for three months. This was 1979, so it was hard apartheid. What was fascinating though is that you could see a strong wish for change, particularly among the university students.”

Those who participated in these exchanges were liberal minded, so Christian took part in vivid debates in the homes of the students. They often took long walks in the countryside, where they spoke for hours about political issues. There was a lot of political pressure from the apartheid police not to have these kinds of discussions; however, the students were so engaged and passionate in their quest for change that it became very difficult to silence them.

“I became very good friends with one of the servants at the hotel where I stayed in Johannesburg. He invited a Danish friend and me to meet his family. Because of the riots, the lights along the road were blinding. He lived in a very small house in extremely dire conditions in Soweto with all of his extended family. I remember the warmth with which we were met. Two white blokes coming from privileged circumstances in Western Europe to a very poor situation, and yet we were welcomed into their home as though we were family.”

As with almost all of Christian’s foreign experiences, this was rewarding yet eye-opening: seeing how difficult it was for these people to live in these kinds of circumstances.

When Christian came back to Sweden, he sold vacuum cleaners at Electrolux for six months, then worked for Aga Welding in London, setting up a computer system. The whole idea was to do many different things during the year, so he could further develop his CV.

He then returned to the Stockholm School of Economics for a year to finalize his education. Then he joined the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

“I did the diplomatic training for one year and was then stationed abroad. As any diplomat will say, your first posting leaves a certain mark on you: one that you will never forget.”

Christian was sent to Angola: right in the middle of a Civil War.

“This was a very interesting time. There was huge Cuban military support for the government; active South African support for the rebels; and it was a Marxist-Leninist government. Sweden had a fairly important role, in the sense that it had supported the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) during the war of independence and the party was now in control of the government.”

Christian arrived in Angola in the dead of night, took a taxi downtown, and was shocked to see what was awaiting him.

“I landed at three in the morning and my colleagues had put me up in an apartment downtown. I turn on the light when I come in and there, scurrying around on the floor in front of me, is an army of cockroaches the size of silver dollars. But I was so exhausted that I thought it was best just to go to bed and try not think about it.”

An hour later, Christian is jolted awake by the blasting sounds of intense shooting outside his window. And that was his first night.

“But you learn to trust yourself, and that is what creates a very strong bond between you and other expats who are also living in such conditions. You learn to rely on each other.”

Angola holds an extra special place in Christian’s heart because it was where he met the love of his life: the daughter of the German ambassador who was married to a Swede.

“Veronika and I were eventually married in Stockholm. We then moved to Paris where I was working as the second secretary at the Swedish Delegation to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). We built our family in France: our daughter, Alexandra was born; and two years later, so was our son, Christoffer.”

“After three years, we moved back to Stockholm where I took up a new assignment at the Ministry and, since then, I have been engaged in Sweden’s relations with the European communities. Veronika also joined Sweden’s Ministry for Foreign affairs.”

For Christian, the European project has been an instrument to spread the values that Europe still stands for today – democracy and freedom – and to solidify it on our continent.

“For me, it was just natural that Sweden should be part of this club and I felt such a relief after the positive result of the referendum in 1994. Veronika became the first Swedish Diplomat to work as a National Expert for the European Commission, moved on to the Swedish EU representation, and was eventually appointed Sweden’s ambassador to NATO. I alternated between the European Commission and the Swedish Representation to the EU and was Sweden’s Ambassador to the EU from 2008 to 2010. These were particularly fascinating times with Sweden holding the Presidency of the EU during the second half of 2009.”

Christian has been impressed by the way in which the European Union, with its disparate member states, has been able to take on challenges, overcome crises, and solidify the cooperation and solidarity. He is proud to have played a role in many of these events, as he ponders the steps he has taken and the choices he has made.

“Veronika and I never planned to work on the European project for so many years. Our intention was to move to exotic places: for instance, in Africa where we met and where Veronika spent a big part of her childhood. But we ended up in Brussels, which I believe was the result of our mutual interest in the EU during a historically important period when 12 new member states joined. When I look back on my career, I know this was the right choice for our entire family: our children went to the European School; they now speak five languages, and they still have strong ties with the friends they made during those years.”

“Am I proud of everything? Well, people today criticize the enlargement of the EU upon which I worked a lot. Some would say those countries came in too early, but that was not the question. The agenda was to bring Europe together: to support their reforms in order for them to become part of this European family. In that respect, the negotiations were successful. The continent is clearly in better shape today than it was thirty years ago. The European Union is a light house when it comes to democracy, rule of law, and respect for fundamental rights.”

Christian remembers going to Poland in 1981 and passing what was then Eastern Germany: the discussions he had with Polish students and seeing how absolutely terrified they were to talk politics. Then the memory of passing Eastern Germany and seeing rows upon rows of police officers with huge guard dogs.

“Although the Cold War is history, the major challenge we have today is that freedom and democracy in Europe is still constantly being threatened and is something for which we must continuously strive.”

Christian Danielsson is not afraid to confront the difficult situations. For him, taking on responsibility demands engagement and hard work.

“That said, I have sometimes had doubts in myself. I think we all have. But I have also felt quite strongly that I should take on the challenge whenever it presented itself. And, I was always happy that I did. For instance, I remember how nervous I was before my first day presiding over a working group in the EU Council. I asked myself whether I would be able to keep order among the numerous and quite diverse EU member states around the table. I actually managed quite well: they stayed together, and, at times, they were even happy. Have faith in yourself. Even if you are nervous about a challenge or afraid it will not work out, it is better to just do it. What often happens is that you feel great satisfaction. You may indeed surprise yourself; it will probably all work out in the end.”

“As the Swedish poet Verner von Heidenstam put it: Better to listen to the string that breaks than to never draw the bow.”


Text: Karyn McGettigan