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You are here: Home i Articles i Portrait i Portrait 2017 i Matilda af Hällström, entrepreneurial Nordic Council lobbyist in Brussels
Matilda af Hällström, entrepreneurial Nordic Council lobbyist in Brussels
Portrait

Matilda af Hällström, entrepreneurial Nordic Council lobbyist in Brussels

| Text: Berit Kvam, photo: Astrid Laura Neergaard/Norden.org

It is an active 24-year-old which the Nordic Council has chosen to be its first local representative in Brussels. Matilda af Hällström is already busy finding out how the Nordic Council can improve its cooperation with the EU and within the EU.

While we were talking, the Danish foreign minister had tweeted that Sweden had let the Nordic corporation down in its fight over the European Medicines Agency (EMA). A wakeup-call, comments Matilda af Hällström.   

“You cannot take Nordic cooperation in the EU for granted, it needs work. I see this more as a wakeup-call than a setback for Nordic cooperation,” says Matilda af Hällström.

The EU has just decided to move the EMA from London to Amsterdam as a consequence of Brexit. 

“This is a clear sign that Brexit is happening and it will affect us all,” she says, and provides some comprehensive background:

“The General Affairs Council of the European Union voted over the new location of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Banking Agency (EBA). A total of 19 cities had entered the competition the get the EMA. Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen had all been actively lobbying for this.

“The voting system was very complicated. Milano, Amsterdam and Copenhagen made it to the second round. The Danish minister tweeted his discontent about the Swedes’ choice to not to vote for Copenhagen. In the last round, the result was 13 votes each to Milano and Amsterdam. According to the rules, in the case of a tie the Estonian presidency was to draw straws between the two. Amsterdam won the contested European Medicines Agency on a coin throw.

She is on home turf. This is her job. Not only trying to gather the Nordic countries for joint efforts, but also to explain and inform the Nordic Council members about issues and processes.

There has long been a lot of speculation about which cities should be given the important EU institutions after Brexit. EMA alone represents 900 jobs. This is one of many issues that Matilda af Hällström must keep on top of. Her morning often starts with reading the newsletter Politico Brussels Playbook.

“Be careful so you don’t suffer a burn-out,” warn experienced Nordic journalists. They know the honey trap from the inside, and know how easy it is to go at it too hard when you have a job you like and one that others measure you buy.

“My mother says the same thing,” smiles Matilda af Hällström, as she expertly welcomes a group of 20 from the Nordic Journalism Course Århus 2017, introducing them to herself and to the Nordic Council in the offices she shares with the Danish Cultural Institute.

She wants to show that the Nordic Council has made the right decision when employing her. The job is for one year, with the possibility of another two. After three months, this is what she hopes will happen – that the Nordic Council will be so satisfied that she will be able to continue. Her tasks are very diverse, just like the five Nordic countries and three autonomous areas she represents. Her dream is easily summed up:

“That I will be seen as competent,” she tells the Nordic Labour Journal.

She has broad international experience:

“We moved so often when I was growing up, that I have not spent more than two years in any one school.”

She has studied in different parts of the EU; the UK, France and Finland, and has written a master’s thesis on Nordic identity and the relationship to Russia. It all amounts to good professional competence. Brussels is not an unknown place for her either. After two and a half years, partly as an intern for Finnish MEP Nils Torvalds, partly as a lobbyist for Helsinki municipality and then in the communications agency Miltton Brussels, she knows the Brussels milieu well, and has established a good network for herself.

The decision to create the position was taken during the Nordic Council’s meeting in Copenhagen in 2016. Not everyone thought it was a good idea to have a representative in Brussels.

“I am here on a 54 percent mandate,” says Matilda half in jest, while explaining the spread of the vote and a split gathering.

“It was interesting that when they had an EU debate during the 2017 Nordic Council, they did not discuss the EU, but rather my working tasks. It is still fairly open,” she says. But how will she spend her time?

“According to the job description, I am to be a link between the Nordic Council and the European Parliament, and network in different settings and be a source of information. I don’t need to know everything myself, but I need to know who to ask.”

She has already been able to put requests and questions on the table. When the Commission presented a new transport and mobility package, she was immediately asked to expand on this. During the Bonn climate conference, COP23, she was a coordinator and secured a relevant MEP for a panel debate. She was a moderator herself on a different panel.

“And then I write speaking points, for instance when the Nordic Council visits Brussels during the Northern Dimension Parliamentary Forum, a cooperation which was established in the 1990s between EU and Russia, Norway and Iceland. It was one of the first initiatives aimed at bringing Russia into the western world.

“I think it will take some time to figure out the role. My job is to find out what the Nordic Council should be in Brussels.

“The areas I am to follow are clear: Energy and climate policy, EU transport, geoblocking, all the areas the Nordic Council works with.”

Nordic values are close to her heart.

“They are a kind of guiding compass.”

Changing Nordic identity – focus on security policies

“And now I arrive at my favourite area. How the Nordic identity has changed character since Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian Republic of Crimea in 2014, and how Nordic cooperation which earlier did not include cooperation on defence and security policies, and not really on foreign policy either, also has changed character. 

“The Nordic region has never had a joint position on defence and security policies, but after 2014 we started talking about the need for more Nordic cooperation in these areas, and the reason was Russia.”

Her master’s thesis analysed foreign policy documents from all of the Nordic countries except Iceland.

“Before 2014 and after the end of the Cold War, talk was emerging about the need for the Nordic region to actively cooperate on defence, but this was always for financial reasons. The 2009 Stoltenberg report said the same thing, that such cooperation can be of huge monetary benefit.

“But after 2014 the arguments have centred on the unstable situation in the Baltics. That has made defence cooperation the greatest driver and motivation for Nordic cooperation.”

The analysis is based on a discourse study of government white papers on foreign policy and foreign political values. The study shows that Russia is viewed in a different way post 2014.

“I think this is a pretty big deal. For a long time there was an effort to get Russia into the western community. In these foreign policy texts, Russia is increasingly depicted in negative terms after 2014.

“It is interesting to see how each Nordic country defines security as a term. Swedish foreign policy is about protecting Swedish values. Finland has a more traditional way of defining security. It is about geographical security, securing the border. We then see that Russia can be a threat to the physical, the geographical, but also to our values, and we see that Russia is not as democratic as we would have wanted. Everything the Nordic region values, like human rights, is not always equally respected in Russia. This way it is quite easy to create this enemy picture.”

Do you believe the Nordic countries are trying to create such an enemy picture?

“Yes I do. The Finnish and Norwegian texts employ stronger language to construct an enemy image of Russia, than the Swedish and Danish texts do. This is understandable, because Norway and Finland have a more traditional definition of security. 

Values bring us together

Matilda believes our shared values represent the key to Nordic cooperation. 

“Language is important, but shared values link us together in an entirely different way.  Perhaps I say this because I am Finnish and understand the Finns. I know that they don’t speak Swedish.  Our values represent the glue that keeps us together even though the language has been important historically for Nordic cooperation.”

What is the most fun about your job?

“Everything,” she says, and smiles.

“So far everything is fine. I get to meet people and put my abilities and knowledge to good use. Travelling is always good. I don’t think I could chose only one thing.”

But it can be challenging too to be a young woman:

“Being a young woman can be difficult, but I think that I must look past this and prove myself through my work.

“I think a little bit more about how to dress and behave, how I talk. It is difficult to describe, but I try to appear older. Ideally age should not matter, but I do want to behave in a way which makes people respect me.

“I want to prove to myself and to the Nordic Council that they made the right choice by recruiting me.”

And your dream?

“To do something important – to see that what I do makes a difference, and that it doesn’t just turn into paper in an office. Making a difference. I want to live in the EU and in Brussels.”

Matilda af Hällström is an unusual name. Does it have a history? Why af Hällström?

“My great-great-great-great-grandfather was Gustaf Hällström. He became a professor of physics at age 25. He discovered that water has the highest density at four degrees Celsius. He was ennobled by the Russian Tsar for this scientific discovery. When you are ennobled, the entire family is ennobled. He gave his four sons the name af Hällström and since then their children have been called af Hällström.

“I am not very scientifically minded, so if you ask me how to measure water’s density, I could not tell you.”

One minute interview

What are you reading?

Against All Odds by Jorma Ollila (the former head of Nokia).

What is your favourite tool in the office?

Email. 

What did you want to be when you were a child?

A Broadway musical star. 

What is your hidden talent?

I am good at football. I am currently playing in the British United Football Club. We play in the highest amateur series in our region of Belgium. I’m a centre back. As a student I won the Scottish Universities’ Football Cup. 

Matilda af Hällström – Nordic Council’s voice in Brussels
  • The Nordic Council’s first employee in Brussels
  • Started in September 2017
  • 24 years old, the oldest of five siblings, from Espoo in Finland
  • With a diplomat father, she grew up in Brazil, Switzerland, Holland and Finland
  • Studied at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the University of Helsinki and in Paris
  • Wrote a master’s thesis on Nordic cooperation and the relationship with Russia
  • Has lived in Brussels since 2015, worked as an intern for MEP Nils Torvalds, at the Helsinki EU Office and at the communications agency Miltton
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