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Sweden Caught in Swiss Referendum Controversy

Feb. 23, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By GERARD O’DWYER   |   Comments
Switzerland will vote May 18 whether to buy 22 Gripen-E fighters from Saab. The Swedish government is accused of improperly influencing Switzerland ahead of the vote.
Switzerland will vote May 18 whether to buy 22 Gripen-E fighters from Saab. The Swedish government is accused of improperly influencing Switzerland ahead of the vote. (Saab)
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HELSINKI — Sweden’s government has been asked to reveal the extent of its alleged improper involvement in a campaign to convince the Swiss to purchase the Saab Gripen-E fighter.

Sweden’s main opposition party made the request of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s ruling center-right administration over the government’s alleged involvement in the funding of the Swiss Yes campaign. That campaign is being run in advance of the May 18 referendum to decide whether Switzerland should buy 22 Gripen-E aircraft from Sweden.

The centrist Christian Democratic People’s Party (CDPP) of Switzerland, the principal driving force behind the Yes campaign and supporter of the Gripen-E purchase, has since distanced itself from all Swedish associations and funding in the wake of the controversy.

The controversy, which centers on claims of organized funding and a public relations drive by Sweden to influence the Yes campaign, has the potential to damage Sweden’s bid to close the $3.48 billion Gripen deal, said Torbjörn Björnlund, the opposition Left Party’s representative on the Parliamentary Defense Committee.

“Sweden has no business being involved in, or interfering with, internal elections in Switzerland. All funding and efforts to promote the Gripen, directly or indirectly, must stop. We need be told about the extent of the government’s knowledge and participation, if any, in supporting the Yes campaign,” Björnlund said in an interview.

Under Swedish and Swiss law, such a public relations drive would be considered inappropriate. However, if money was paid by Swedish parties to individual legislators to influence their role in the referendum campaign, it would be unlawful under Swiss anti-corruption legislation.

Sweden’s Green Party wants a parliamentary debate on the issue, demanding clarification on funding and state-led initiatives run jointly with — or independently of — Saab that may have “contributed to the general impression” that Sweden had tried to influence the outcome of the May 18 referendum.

“This is a very serious matter. A fighter plane is not just another commodity. This is a commercial sale organized privately by a Swedish company, and it must be free of any semblance of interference or hard-sell tactics,” Åsa Romson, the Green Party’s MP on the National Advisory Council, said in an interview.

The Swedish government needs to take the initiative to “lift the lid” on the extent of the alleged Swedish state-funded public relations drive in Switzerland, Romson said. “Yet again, we have a situation that creates secrecy around matters relating to the Gripen. It would be also good to know what role the Swedish Embassy in Bern had in this affair,” he said.

The fallout from the controversy resulted in Switzerland’s CDPP returning “donations” amounting to $214,000 to Saab, said Christophe Darbellay, the CDPP’s president.

“The ambiguities regarding Sweden and Saab, and the public perception of their involvement in the Yes campaign, proved to be too much. That is why we decided to step away from leading the Yes campaign,” he said.

Saab said it believes it did not breach any Swiss laws when it made its donation to the Swiss Yes campaign and considered it an appropriate action at the time, said Saab spokesman Sebastian Carlsson.

“I think it would have been unusual to the Yes and No sides if we did not contribute in some way. This was our judgment at the time, and this changed when the matter evolved into a political debate about outside funding. Then our judgment was that Saab should not become part of an internal political debate on an important domestic matter in Switzerland,” Carlsson said.

Saab’s focus is on managing its pre-offset stage Industrial Cooperation Program in Switzerland, and negotiating long-term partnership arrangements with Swiss suppliers. Saab does not believe that the funding controversy has damaged its reputation in Switzerland or made a Yes vote in the referendum less likely, Carlsson said.

The CDPP, Darbellay said, also took exception to revelations contained in classified documents pertaining to the Gripen-E sale and which were uncovered in Stockholm. The documents — emanating from the Swedish Embassy in Bern and marked for the attention of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs — profiled leading members of the CDPP and offered an unflattering analysis of the party’s financial strength.

“For documents such as these to originate in the Swedish Embassy at this time is deeply unfortunate,” Darbellay said. “This simply adds to the general discomfort and the perception of undue influence being used by Sweden. The embassy had planned to hold a broad range of different kinds of public initiatives around Switzerland, including media interviews and pro-Sweden marketing events that all cast to put Sweden in a good light. This was not the right time for such initiatives or events.”

A meeting of the CDPP’s executives resolved that the party would continue to support the Gripen-E deal but condemn “external interference” either from the Swedish Embassy, government or from Saab, in the referendum process, Darbellay said.

The CDPP felt compelled to distance itself from leading the Yes campaign and from its public association with Sweden, said Kurt Sieber, a Geneva-based political analyst.

“For the CDPP, this was a matter of political survival. It has around 12 percent of the seats in the National Council,” Sieber said. “The real impact of this controversy is likely to be a weakening in the force of the Yes campaign and a resurgence in support for the ‘No’ side. Naturally, this would not be good news for Gripen and Sweden.”

In Sweden, government ministers and state officials deny the existence of any organized public relations drive between state departments and Saab to influence the outcome of the May referendum.

“I have no knowledge about a concerted PR plan. To my knowledge, the government was not involved in any such activities to interfere with what are internal matters and the sole responsibility of the Swiss people,” Ewa Björling, Sweden’s trade minister, said in a statement.

Sweden’s foreign minister, Carl Bildt, also denied that there was any concerted funding or marketing initiative by government to influence the direction of the impending referendum.

“There was no interference by this government,” Bildt said during a Feb. 19 press conference.

The uncovered classified documents add another layer of embarrassment for the Swedish government, Björnlund said.

The documents, sent by Sweden’s Ambassador in Switzerland Per Thöresson to key Swedish ministers and the heads of state agencies such as the Swedish Defense and Security Export Agency, claimed that Switzerland’s defense minister, Ueli Maurer, had “urged” Sweden to run a “soft, focused and positive” PR drive ahead of the referendum that would pitch Sweden in a good light with Swiss voters.

“From what we understand, the PR drive was to include events organized by Saab, meetings attended by foreign minister Bildt, sporting and tourist meetings and fairs, and generally a kind of Best of Sweden events fest designed to catch the voter’s eye,” Björnlund said.

However, Swedish Defense Minister Karin Enström described the Gripen-related classified communications channeled by Sweden’s Embassy in Bern to Swedish ministers in Stockholm as “normal business.” Similarly, the regular high level ministerial visits between the two countries were in the same bracket, she said.

“I think it is completely normal that we have an exchange with Switzerland, and that may also include visits. I’ve met my Swiss colleagues several times, and it is natural that we discuss mutual issues of interest,” Enström said in a statement. ■


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