Swede found to be no turnip: The chemistry was good when Bill Clinton and Carl Bildt discussed Nato and the welfare state

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The Independent Online
CARL BILDT appears to be Bill Clinton's kind of European leader. When the Swedish Prime Minister arrived for his first fireside chat at the White House on Wednesday, the President exclaimed: 'I'm jealous of him because he's three years younger than I am. So I wanted to see about this man who's taken Europe by storm, that's so much younger than me.'

The cycling Swedish Conservative, 44, had just been to Murmansk and Moscow to inspect the progress of Russian reform and preparations for free and fair elections. Mr Clinton listened intently. Mr Bildt stressed the need for continued US involvement in European security structures and said afterwards that Mr Clinton concurred. Both agreed on the need to shape a new role for Nato.

Mr Clinton said he was 'very impressed with the role Sweden has played so far in finding contructive solutions to some of the problems, in working itself into Europe, both on security and economic questions'. Mr Bildt said he believed that maybe it took a president born after the Second World War to help shape the post-Cold War world.

When he is not travelling around raising Sweden's profile in European security politics, Mr Bildt is busy dismantling what he regards as the more extreme aspects of Sweden's welfare state. Mr Clinton is trying to erect the semblance of a welfare system in a country where the weakest continuously fall through the net. The two had a lively discussion about ways to achieve a balance between the two extremes. The President decided to send a team to Sweden to study social reforms.

Issues of particular interest will be employment policy - Sweden has seen its jobless rate soar to more than 10 per cent - and unemployment insurance, where current proposals mean employees will be expected to take on a larger share of the cost.

'After only 10 minutes, there was some very good chemistry between them,' said one diplomat present. 'It took a very short time. Clinton sees Bildt as a generational comrade who is breaking new ground.' The two chatted about plans for space co-operation between Russia and the US. 'They're both very interested in hi-technology,' the diplomat added.

Mr Bildt is determined to drag Sweden into the European Union despite growing opposition in opinion polls at home. He wants to ally himself firmly with the Western European camp. For that reason, he is not enthused by the idea of Sweden joining the US-proposed 'partnerships for peace' plan, mainly designed to create links between Nato and the Central European states.

Sweden has been cited so often as an inspiration by liberals in both the US and Britain that it has become almost a cliche. Mr Bildt, however, has admirers in both the liberal and conservative camps. Baroness Thatcher writes in The Downing Street Years about a 1989 international conference of conservative parties: 'The star of that year's conference was undoubtedly the Swedish conservative leader - since Prime Minister - who delivered a speech of such startling Thatcherite soundness that in applauding I felt as if I was giving myself a standing ovation.'

(Photograph omitted)