Sunday, 26 October 2014

“Taliban politics”, says Carl Bildt

Rarely you are suddenly facing a fact that is so gobsmacking, you have to check the date. No, it was not an April Fools’ Day on Thursday, Friday or Saturday, even if the new Swedish government had suddenly decided to cut all the funding for the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes by 2017 as part of their higher education policy. This decision came totally from behind the woods and came as a total surprise: nobody in their right mind had expected anything like it. The Swedish Mediterranean Institutes include those in Rome, Athens and Istanbul. The commentators in the Svenska Dagbladet and Dagens Nyheter, the major Swedish broadsheets, have been wondering especially the sense of cutting funding from the last one that spearheads the humanistic research into Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia and Islamic countries. In the current situation in the Mediterranean with the war in Syria and Irak and asylum seekers pouring in to Europe via Lampedusa in Italy we need to understand the region better and have outposts in the Mediterranean.

The Swedish Institute in Rome in the 1940s

I myself have been on a half-term holiday and taking care busily about the family matters and spending time with my son. I only noticed the alarming situation when spotting the mailings from the Antiquitas, the Finnish classical discussion forum in one of my mail boxes when sending e-mails. The check to Facebook and the Swedish classical studies group resulted with getting a link to the petition to save the Swedish Mediterranean Institutes. By the time I signed, 8000 people had done the same. After this I started to read the news coverage from the Swedish broadsheets. What an interesting reading it made!

It seems that the incoming higher education minister had no previous experience from the higher education – and neither did her political secretary. Somebody had decided that this saving of 22 million Swedish krona (about 2 million sterling) would not hurt Sweden’s reputation as a cultural superpower in any way. Somebody had not realized that, even if the institutes are foundations, they have next to none independent funding. There are no huge past will donations or such like, and all work is dependent on public funding. No money means closing down in this context. The new budget framework also came out just when the governing bodies of at least Rome and Athens Institutes had had their board meetings, where this kind of threat was not discussed. On the contrary, the meetings were in Rome and Kavalla respectively and celebrated the cultural heritage and achievement there in the Mediterranean. The Swedish government does not look like being highly competent here (this came just after the ‘traditional Swedish submarine hunt’ as well – coincidently, the cost of the hunt seemed to be the same 22 million Swedish krona).

The situation remains unclear, even if the higher education minister Helene Hellmark Knutsson started backtracking after remaining silent and not answering the enquiries about the matter. Since the funding for the institutes remains in 2015, there is plenty of time according to her to listen and hear criticisms on the the matter before the funding is halved in 2016 and abolished in 2017. This statement was considered cryptic and the matter worth backtracking by Anders Q. Björkman in the Svenska Dagbladet. There have been suggestions that this whole cancelling of funds is related to the building of a particle physics research centre near Lund, but the government has denied this. Ironically, the policy came from a government that tries to be seen as culture friendly - we have clearly a left and right hand situation here.

Personally, I am about to attend the Migration and the Mediterranean conference in Rome in a week’s time, supported and co-organised by the Swedish Institute in Rome. I also organised an international workshop in the Institute just a month ago, so I can say I have contributed to the work of the institute and understand its meaning in the modern world in the Mediterranean networks. In the conference I do speak about ancient matters, but power struggles during different periods are the background to the relevant discussions on asylum systems in Europe, Lampedusa and Syria. An Institute that organizes such a conference is not just some vanity project, but an organisation Sweden needs in the modern world.

The following sentence is left only to keep the historicity of this blog intact: "It is still worth signing the petition as long as the situation is unclear:
Save the Mediterranean Instituts petition". We won! The Swedish Government has now promised to provide state funding for the Mediterranean Institutes in the foreseeable future.

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