How Will Sweden’s Elections Change its Policy Towards the EU?

Liv Sunnercrantz  (University of Stavanger)

The results of the 2022 Swedish elections looked like a “a seismic shift” to international onlookers. But the increased electoral support for the nationalist far right party, the Sweden Democrats (SD), came as no surprise to most Swedes. Only three parties managed to increase their electoral support in September: The Social Democrats by 2,07% to a total of 30,33%; SD by 3,01% to 20,54%; and the Green Party by 0,67% to 5,08%. The six remaining conservative, liberal, and leftist parties all lost voters. In total, the incumbent Social Democratic minority government came out 3 mandates short of continued support. With SD as the second largest party within a victorious right wing coalition, and given that the Swedish parliament is a proportionally elected unicameral legislature, we would expect SD to now take office. However, none of the other six parties are willing to allow them to do so. This probably leaves the conservative Moderate Party, in third place with 19,10% of the vote, with the task of forming a government. To do so, they will need the support – if not the inclusion – of SD. The question now is how much power SD will attain.

SD formed out of the ashes of nationalist organisations in the late 1980s and passed the electoral threshold in 2014. They gained significant attention in the 2010s by presenting themselves as the only alternative to the consensus-oriented political elite. Since then, they have worked hard to distance themselves from the more extremist and subcultural milieus of neo-Nazism and fascism – an unwanted association that keeps haunting the party. In national politics, SD were initially greeted with a cordon sanitaire but supported the right-wing parties’ budget proposals – forcing centre-leftist minority governments to adapt their policies accordingly. Hence, SD has acted as an ‘outsider within’, taking up the underdog role, while exerting influence on parliamentary politics. Increased media attention to violence and criminality in recent years has doubtlessly served SD’s political agenda. This includes law-and-order policies; ethnicity-based nationalism; and assimilationist and anti-immigration policies. It wasn’t until the 2022 election drew near that the remaining three right-wing parties expressed a willingness to cooperate with SD, to varying degrees.

The most likely scenario now is that SD will mostly exercise indirect political influence through parliamentary committees rather than ministerial posts. This seems wise, as previous surges in electoral support have left the party struggling to fill seats and weeding out extremist activist elements. SD will likely continue to set the broader public political agenda, to focus on immigration and related issues. In recent years they have capitalised on media attention to immigration coupled with criminality by forcing the remaining parties to adapt to this agenda. Today, all right-wing parties are demanding tougher restrictions on immigration. Even the leader of the Moderate Party, who came into politics on a wave of neoliberalism, favouring free and unregulated immigration, now emphasises the strains and pains of immigration and its linkages to criminality.

Not long before the election, Sweden applied for NATO membership. These negotiations are still ongoing and the Moderate Party leader has declared a wish to keep the social-democratic secretary of state in charge of the NATO negotiations in place through out the process. While the parties are in a general agreement on this issue, we might see a change in policy towards the EU, considering that Sweden will take over the EU Council presidency in January. Like the Social Democrats before them, both the Moderate party, and the Liberals are very likely to strive for further engagement and integration with the EU. While the Moderate Party and their voters are amongst the most positively disposed to a continued and strengthened cooperation within the EU, SD and their voters are the most negative. This is of course in line with SD’s broader nationalist agenda, but SD also wishes to reform the EU – with a primary focus on national independence and an increased focus on free trade and securing the outer borders of the union. SD’s demands to restrict immigration and to move asylum processes outside of European borders have been combined with activism such as travelling to Turkey to hand out leaflets declaring that “Sweden is full” to African and Middle-Eastern refugees seeking entry into Europe.

SD reiterates a now standardised anti-Brussels rhetoric, highlighting financial drain, diminishing national decision-making power and “Swedish interests”. Nevertheless, they have a common agenda with the Moderate party regarding their emphasis on free trade agreements. The Moderate party also emphasises the external security of the EU and moving asylum seeking institutions to its outer borders. But the Moderates are more EU friendly overall and highlight the role of the EU in finding solutions to the climate crisis. In contrast, SD stands out as the only party unwilling to cooperate on Sweden’s goal to become climate neutral by 2045. Its members have questioned the IPCC’s work, and the general concerns over a warming climate. The party leader’s assertion that more people die from cold than from heat, quickly gained widespread attention, but the party leader also underscored that SD recognises anthropogenic climate change and the need to address it.

It is in these areas that we can expect a significant change in Sweden’s policy towards the EU: strengthening the outer borders with a subsequent clamp-down on immigration to Europe; and a likely step backwards when it comes to climate action. Sweden’s highly ambitious climate policies have been forefronted by the Social Democrats and the Green Party, who envision Sweden as a forerunner in this area. SD, in contrast, state specifically that Sweden should not take up the leading role in the struggle against climate change. SD’s emphasis on adaptation and technical development aligns relatively seamlessly with the Moderate Party’s emphasis on the role of the free market, technical development, and innovation to allow for continued growth but reduced CO2-emissions. Despite becoming Sweden’s second largest party, a continued role outside of government but in a position of heavy influence ought to be a best-case-scenario for SD as the alleged underdogs of Swedish politics.

Dr. Liv Sunnercrantz is an associate professor at the Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger. Her current research is focused on populism and populist rhetoric, especially in the Scandinavian context. She also studies hegemony, of post-foundational discourse theory and the sociology of intellectuals and experts, and has co-founded the research group on Populism, Anti-Gender & Democracy at the University of Stavanger.

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the Brexit Institute Blog.


Image credits: Sveriges Riksdag – Press Images

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