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Community / Nordic neighbours explore Shetland connection as ambassadors visit isles

Fisheries and energy have been among the topics of discussion as Norway and Sweden’s ambassadors to the UK sample Shetland life

Wegger Chr. Strømmen (left), Norwegian ambassador the UK, and Swedish ambassador Torbjörn Sohlström in Lerwick on Tuesday. Photo: Shetland News

“THERE’s something in our national psyche that says water doesn’t divide people, it connects them. So then Shetland is a neighbour – it’s not a long distance.”

The Norwegian ambassador to the UK, Wegger Chr. Strømmen, is happy to speak up the links between his country and Shetland while on a visit to the isles.

He has been joined by his Swedish colleague Torbjörn Sohlström in what is a rare visit of two ambassadors to Shetland at the same time.

On Monday night the London-based pair were treated to a civic dinner at Lerwick Town Hall – the stained glass windows in particular left an impression, as well as the council representatives.

Some of the key topics discussed over drinks and dinner were fisheries and energy, as well as “island politics”.

Today (Tuesday) the ambassadors are spending time in Scalloway, with Strømmen due to pay his respects by leaving a wreath at the Shetland Bus memorial.

“This is still a very vivid and serious matter for Norway,” he reflected on the undercover World War II operation which saw Norway people flee their Nazi-occupied country on fishing boats and seek refuge in Shetland from where the resistance movement operated.

“These people are our heroes, that ran these small boats over the North Sea during the war.”

Sohlström said that part of the reason why the ambassadors are in the isles is to “understand the views in Shetland and how people are thinking here and what Shetland wants from the future”.

On Monday a key part of their agenda was meeting with the local fishing industry.

It comes after a failed agreement between the UK and Norway to strike a post-Brexit fishing deal around access to each other’s waters.

Norway is not part of the European Union, but it is a member of the European Economic Area. Sweden, though, is part of the EU.

“I think one year you can sort of manage in a way, but we need to start early to get an arrangement for next year,” Strømmen said about the lack of a fishing deal, adding that Shetland fishermen agreed with this.

But he stressed the matter is complicated, with plenty of factors at play. “The fish doesn’t respect borders.”

For Sohlström, the UK leaving the EU is “very sad”.

“It’s not good for us – there is no upside for us,” he continued.

“We are losing a very friendly and likeminded partner inside the European Union. There is a degree of friction reintroduced in trade and travel. And I believe Europe as a whole is a bit weaker because we are spending our energy on divorce negotiations rather than on fighting common challenges.

“For all these kind of reasons, this is a decision that we’ve regretted, but we are where we are and we are trying to make the best out of the situation.

“We think that there is much more that unites us than divides us.”

He added that one key thing he will take away from his visit to Shetland is that “you get a sense that there’s not only a geographical closeness, there is something here that is very similar to Scandinavian countries”.

Norway and Sweden flags at Lerwick Town Hall. Photo: SIC

So what does ambassador actually do? For the pair it is about defending and promoting the interests of their respective home countries, Norway and Sweden, in the UK.

“An ambassador’s job is to look after state to state relations,” Strømmen said.

“And then to bring relations to be as good as possible – collaborations, and cooperation. For us, and for Sweden as well, we’re in the same corner of the world.”

Topics of security and the economy also play a part in the job.

“Sometimes it’s done a bit in a formal way, which can feel a bit alien, but that’s for reasons of efficiency, because everybody has different cultures, so a common code of conduct is useful,” Strømmen added.

Part of the role is also helping citizens, with the Swedish ambassador saying there has been a lot of that during the Brexit process, especially helping people applying for permits to stay in the UK.

“That’s been big part of the job over the last couple of years,” Sohlström said.

The Scandinavian pair are due to leave Shetland on Wednesday, having arrived at the weekend.

Strømmen said one memento he is taking back with him is some local scarves.

With Shetland’s Nordic links running back deep in time, there are still plenty of connections remaining – from the place names to Up Helly Aa.

But have the pair been to the fire festival? Not yet, but it appears there is a burning desire.

“We’ve heard a lot about it,” the Norwegian ambassador said, “and not only from seeing the crime series. I really want to see it.”