SALEN, Sweden, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Sweden's role in fighting extremism and its continued participation in NATO efforts are crucial for European security, national leaders were told this week.
Swedish defense and security officials gathered at the People and the Defense annual three-day national conference in Salen, Sweden, this week and discussed all aspects of the country's security concerns while hosting EU and NATO officials.
One of the leaders making the trip to Salen was EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom, who warned of a rising tide of extremism and xenophobia in Europe, Svenska Dagbladet reported.
Malmstrom asserted nationalist and xenophobic parties now have their greatest influence on national parliaments since World War II, cautioning that the effect on European cooperation would be great if they log major successes in the 2014 elections.
"More EU leaders must stand up against xenophobia and related intolerance," Malmstrom said.
A survey conducted last year by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency on Swedes' concerns about relations between the Christian and the Muslim worlds indicated a big jump in public concern, the newspaper said.
The poll of 1,000 people asked, "When you think of Sweden over the next five years, how much do you worry about Christian-Muslim relations?", 73 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned compared with 58 percent in 2011.
Some 56 percent also said they were very or somewhat concerned about the large refugee flows -- a rise of 43 percent.
Meanwhile, a report published last month by the Swedish-Finnish Hanasaari Cultural Center and the Swedish magazine Expo said that while right-wing extremism is politically marginalized in the two Scandinavian countries, it can pose a danger to individuals, the Finnish broadcaster YLE reported.
It indicated that while extremism doesn't constitute a general threat to society in either country, it nonetheless breeds crime among individual followers who can react with violence against Muslim immigrants.
"It may be enough that they perceive someone as a political opponent," Expo Editor in Chief Daniel Poohl said. "It is enough for someone to wear a Palestinian scarf for right-wing extremists to believe that this is a left-wing activist. We have seen several examples in Sweden."
The defense conference was also a forum for attendees to discuss officially neutral Sweden's participation in NATO exercises and peacekeeping activities at a time when some of the alliance's partners are questioning if non-members such as Sweden would even have a role in the defense of NATO territory.
Swedish Ambassador to NATO Veronika Wand-Danielsson and a Finnish diplomat were "humiliated" when asked to leave the NATO Council chambers Nov. 15 while an exercise was being held simulating cyber and terrorist attacks against the Baltic States from an internal aggressor, a diplomatic source told Svenska Dagbladet.
"If you're not in the club, then you are not," the source said. "If you get to leave the club at 22 members, then it is only for those members.
"That is to say, 'We appreciate that Sweden take part in various emergency exercises and peacekeeping operations' -- but there are limits to how far cooperation can be driven by non-members," the source said.
Others, such as Hans Walmark, chairman of the Swedish Parliament's foreign affairs committee, called for closer cooperation with NATO, citing a renewed commitment to its International Stabilization Force in Afghanistan.
"It is better to get over the fear contact with NATO than to ignore the terror in Afghanistan that previously characterized the country," he wrote in Helsingborgs Dagbladet.