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Open Europe’s Marcus Cadier looks ahead to the European Parliament election campaign in Sweden and what it means for Euroscepticism in the country.
4 April 2019
The European Parliament elections in Sweden will take place against a backdrop of public disenchantment with the direction of the European “project” (and, of course, Brexit). A recent survey has shown that 48% of Swedes think that the EU is developing in a negative direction, while only 29% see it as moving in a positive direction.
However, the survey did not reveal what constitutes a positive or negative direction in the eyes of the public, and it is important to note that very little of this disenchantment actually translates into support for Swedish withdrawal from the EU. Another survey has shown that 58% want to stay in the EU – a historic high – while a mere 16% wish to leave. The UK’s Brexit difficulties may have contributed to Sweden’s Eurosceptic parties dampening their most radical opposition to the EU, yet they are expected to be successful on platforms that are fundamentally at odds with the European mainstream.
The establishment parties are likely to contest relatively traditional left/right issues: the EU’s approach to immigration and asylum, and the benefits of environmental taxes versus pro-business policies are the main concerns. Although many of their positions overlap, there are nuances when it comes to broader European policy and Sweden’s relationship with the EU.
Since January the Social Democrats have been in a minority coalition government with the Green Party. This followed several months of relative political disorder as a result of a hung parliament produced by the Swedish general election in September last year. The Social Democrats (currently on 5 MEPs) are largely in favour of the EU status quo but want an increasingly harmonised environmental policy between member states, a focus on reducing EU unemployment, and the relaxation of trade barriers. The Green Party (4 MEPs) has a major focus on the environment and are in favour of harmonised green taxes at the EU level, a liberalised migration policy, and increased transparency in the EU institutions.
The centre-right Moderates (3 MEPs), the second biggest party in the Swedish parliament, are traditionally pro-business and are vocalising the need for a liberalised internal market for services and the digital economy. They want Sweden to be more engaged in the EU’s new defence initiative, known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), and a reformed, stricter migration policy. The Centre party (1 MEP) also wants a focus on common environmental policies, including a removal of EU subsidies on fossil fuels and an expansion of the European train network; they also want more equalised division of migrants across the EU.
Of the smaller mainstream parties, the Christian Democrats (1 MEP) appear most keen to distinguish themselves from the other mainstream parties on the European issue. The party is calling for a decentralisation of power from EU institutions to member states. They also want to increase funding to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), while also wanting EU members to harmonise their migration laws and say no to any form of EU tax (i.e. on plastic or C02).
The third largest party, the Sweden Democrats (2 MEPs) remain Eurosceptic and concerned by immigration. They want increased border controls, no migration quotas, and increased security cooperation. The Sweden Democrats changed their direction in January from previously supporting a referendum on Sweden leaving the EU (Swexit) to a campaign in favour of a reformed EU. From their new position, the party wants a radically reformed and decentralised EU. The Sweden Democrats argue that if they fail to achieve such reforms in the coming five years they might campaign for a referendum once more.
The Left Party (1 MEP) also wants to see decentralisation of power away from the EU: they are strongly opposed to the Eurozone and argue that the EU should prioritise human rights. The Left Party has concluded that it will not campaign for Swexit in the upcoming European Parliament election. The decision was made by 41 votes to 30 in January that the party “will not push the demand for an exit over the coming five years,” a rather close divide. Even if it has decided not to campaign for it, the party is still officially pro-Swexit in its manifesto. The party has decided to instead focus more on environmental policy in the upcoming election as well as pushing for a “socialist Europe.”
On the other hand, the most pro-European party, the Liberals (2 MEPs), want Sweden to join the Eurozone by 2020, and are in favour of a “European FBI,” a European C02 tax, and more political integration. Meanwhile, the Feminist Initiative, which currently has 1 MEP but no seats in the Swedish parliament, is fighting discrimination in the EU, working towards an EU without borders for migrants, and fighting against ‘fascism’ in Europe.
According to a recent survey by Novus, the Eurosceptic Sweden Democrats and Left Party are projected to enjoy the largest increases in support, potentially both gaining an extra seat compared to 2014. Assuming the UK does not participate in the European elections, Sweden will also receive one additional seat.
The Social Democrats are estimated to get 25.5% of the vote, receiving five seats. The Green Party are estimated to decrease their seats to two, receiving 9.2% of the vote – down from 15.4% in 2014. This may also be due to their status as a junior coalition partner in the incumbent government, which has led them to make a series of concessions that have not been popular amongst their supporters.
The Moderates are likely to keep three MEPs, receiving a 13.7% vote share. The Christian Democrats and the Centre Party are likely to gain an extra seat each.
Meanwhile, the Liberals are estimated to receive 5.0% (a drop from 9.9%), giving them 1 MEP, while Feminist Initiative are anticipated to lose their one representative. The latter’s vote share is expected to decrease from 5.5% to 1.2%. The Liberals’ support for joining the Eurozone, and the Feminist Initiative’s desire for open borders for migrants, both cut against the grain of current public opinion in Sweden.
The survey by Novus showed that 19% have not decided what they will vote for in May, so there are still votes to play for. It also shows that turnout is estimated to be 45% – down from 51% in 2014. In the general election last year 87% of Swedes voted – up from 85% in 2014.
The parties which are most Eurosceptic are likely to improve their position at the same time as they are toning down their calls for the most radical policy of Swedish withdrawal from the EU. While this underlines that most Swedes are not actually in favour of leaving but wish to see the EU reformed, there should also be cause for concern amongst the Swedish elite.
It is safe to say that even if the Left Party and Sweden Democrats have paused their outright opposition to Swedish EU membership, their programmes are fundamentally at odds with the current EU consensus. Swexit may be off the political menu but this is missing the point: Swexit was never really on the agenda. However, Euroscepticism of various shades looks likely to be as strong as ever.
Question marks remain over the capacity of Swedish politicians’ ability to deliver what the people want from the EU. Their success or failure will determine how Swedish Euroscepticism develops in the coming years.