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A ‘door opener’ for Swedish companies

As head of the Swedish embassy’s economic section, Fredrike Tamas Hermelin wants to bring up important trade issues in discussions with Chinese authorities.

TEXT: Jan Hökerberg
29 MARCH, 2019

Fredrike Tamas Hermelin has always been driven to work in international relations. Last August, she was appointed the head of the economic section at the Embassy of Sweden in Beijing.

Already as a child she had the opportunity of moving with her parents to Brussels.

But she was born in Stockholm, where she graduated from upper secondary school at the French School. She went on to study Spanish literature and culture at University of Granada, after which she travelled around Europe for some years, taking short assignments in various places, before returning to Sweden to study political science and economics at Stockholm University between 1990 and 1994.

“I knew early on that I wanted to work in international relations. I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures and relations between countries, and in ways to find common ground and new ways forward,” she says.

It is not surprisingly then that she chose to work for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) after graduating from Stockholm University. At Sida, she first worked on development cooperation with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka before taking on a longer assignment in New Delhi, India. With the opening up of the Baltic countries, a sudden demand for staff to handle cooperation with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania emerged. Tamas Hermelin became one of those staff, eventually leading her to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, which was recruiting staff with experience in the same field.

In 1998, she moved to the Foreign Ministry’s Department for Central and Eastern Europe – a move that turned out to be the beginning of a long career with a multitude of challenging assignments. Between 1999 and 2002, she joined the team of the Cabinet for the Minister of Trade Leif Pagrotsky, for whom she was responsible for promoting trade and European Union (EU) internal markets. It was a position that took her worldwide with the state secretary in charge of trade promotion and EU internal markets and the minister for trade. After a year of maternity leave, she embarked on nine years of postings abroad in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Romania, Belgium and France.

“In Brussels, during the Swedish presidency of the EU, I had the challenging opportunity to chair one of the council working groups on trade relations between the EU and Latin America. Some days, weeks even, we worked around the clock, drafting resolutions, negotiating agreements and so on. But it was a fun time!” she says.

Back at the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm, Tamas Hermelin chaired the working group of the Swedish presidency of the Nordic Council of Ministers as well as the working group of the Swedish presidency of the Nordic Baltic 8 (NB8). In time, this led to her becoming head of visits at the Protocol Department – managing in and outgoing state visits as well as other high-level visits.

“It was a fascinating time in many ways, but I missed more hands-on foreign-policy related matters and, when the government decided to give special priority to trade promotion with India and a new function was established, I applied. One of our tasks was to mirror the Team Sweden concept in India. The concept gathers actors from Swedish industry, trade organisations and governmental bodies in Sweden to share and learn from one and another’s’ experiences, a concept that was already ongoing in Brazil and China,” says Tamas Hermelin.

When a position as head of the economic section at the embassy in Beijing became available, Tamas Hermelin decided it was an opportunity she did not want to miss out on and she applied. After being appointed, the whole family was excited and her husband decided to take leave from his position as director of the Migration Studies Delegation (Delmi) in Stockholm and join her. But, in the end, their twins – now 17 years old – decided to finish upper-secondary school back in Sweden.

“I believe they did the right thing but I miss them terribly. Luckily they are used to travelling so whenever there is a school holiday they hop on the plane to Beijing,” she says.

Tamas Hermelin had travelled to China before in her work but the realities she had to deal with after starting her job were daunting at times: “It’s a new landscape, both politically, business-wise and culturally to learn to navigate,” she says.

The economic section at the embassy covers trade promotion in areas such as transport, life sciences, agriculture, energy and environmental technology. The section also covers economic development in China and its trade relations, both bilateral as well as multilateral through the EU and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

“They’re very interesting and challenging fields and I’ve been lucky to have such knowledgeable and inspiring colleagues,” she says.

“If Swedish companies want to meet Chinese authorities, we can assist them by being a ‘door opener’. In such meetings, we can also bring up questions regarding trade barriers and so on,” she says.

“I know many Swedish companies here that complain they are not playing on a fair and equal playing field with Chinese companies and this is an issue I bring up every time I meet with Chinese counterparts,” she adds.

It’s a new landscape, both politically, business-wise and culturally to learn to navigate.”