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Finland’s new prime minister, the national coalition party’s Jyrki Katainen, made his first foreign trip to Sweden yesterday. In Stockholm he met with Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. Reinfeldt and Katainen have known each other for many years as they were both active in their respective parties’ youth organisations at roughly the same time. Reinfeldt heads Sweden’s Moderate Party, our western neighbour’s ideological equivalent of Katainen’s party.
Following their meeting, the pair hosted a press conference at Rosenbad, the Swedish government’s press centre. These two prime ministers, both of countries which have Swedish as their official languages, conducted it in English. I think it is fair to guess that this was not at Reinfeldt’s insistence. There is something very strange about the Prime Minister of the bilingual Finland choosing to speak English at a press conference with a Scandinavian neighbour. Can you imagine the Canadian prime minister visiting Paris and not conducting matters in French? It would be simply unthinkable.
Speaking afterwards, Katainen explained that he likes the Swedish language but that in such a situation he preferred to speak English because he had not given Swedish the time he should have earlier in life. He stressed that no symbolism should be read into his choice of language in Stockholm. Yet, how can one not see any symbolism? The Prime Minister of a bilingual country can not even manage to speak one of its official languages in a press conference in a Nordic context? Embarrassing at the very least. The assembled journalists must have certainly thought it odd.
In fairness to Katainen, he has notably made an effort to communicate in Swedish during last months electoral campaigning and government negotiation process here in Finland. His Swedish is not particularly good, but he has improved it since taking the chairmanship of his party. So, it is difficult to really argue that he has an utterly negative attitude towards Swedish as a language or to the people that speak it in this country. That said, he has been absent in any loud criticism of his party’s youth wing which is increasingly anti-Swedish (and anti-immigrant) in its attitudes. Above all, it is a sad day when a Finnish prime minister can not communicate with our Nordic neighbours without having to resort to a foreign language.