18 February 2019

The Swedish general election in September last year resulted in a hung parliament. What followed was a period (131 days) of relative political disorder, which finally resulted in the Social Democratic party leader Stefan Löfven being re-elected by MPs as Prime minister on the 18th of January. This came as a result of the Left Party (Vänsterpartiet) as well as the two Liberal parties The Centre Party (Centerpartiet) and The Liberals (Liberalerna) abstaining in the vote. The latter parties have previously been in a cooperation with the right of centre party The Moderates (Nya Moderaterna) as well as The Christian Democrats (Kristdemokraterna) whose joint Prime Minister candidate Ulf Kristersson came from the former. The Centre Party and The Liberal Party chose not to vote for Kristersson since he would likely be elected with the support of the Eurosceptic, anti-immigration Sweden Democrat (Sverigedemokraterna) MPs, who were the Kingmakers – fearing that they would gain increased influence over politics as a consequence.

As the dust settles from the political turmoil and the Swedish government braces for a potential No Deal Brexit, political parties have started preparing for the upcoming European Parliament elections in May.

Party politics and the EU

While mainstream political parties are in favour of Sweden remaining in the EU, there is a spectrum of opinions on the direction of the EU. The two largest parties, The Social Democrats (5 MEPs) and The Moderates (3 MEPs) both have a positive perspective on the EU and agree that European cooperation should be deepened, arguing that it brings peace and freedom to its member states. The Centre Party (1 MEP) and The Christian Democrats (1 MEP) agree, although the former would like this cooperation to be characterised by less intervention into the affairs of individual member states. The Liberals (2 MEPs) wants the EU to develop in a direction of more centralisation in certain areas, such as migration and human rights. Another mainstream party, The Green Party (Miljöpartiet, 4 MEPs), also has a positive perspective on the EU but wants to see more of a focus on the environment.

There are two parties who are more Eurosceptic than the mainstream parties, namely, the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats (2 MEPs) and the Left Party (1 MEP).

The Sweden Democrats is the third-largest party in Sweden, having received 17.5% of votes in the general election last year – up from 5.7% in 2010. The party is characterised by Euroscepticism and is well known for their tough stance on immigration, which has resulted in them being generally stigmatised and left out of negotiations by the mainstream parties.

The Sweden Democrats have previously argued for a referendum on Swedish membership of the EU, but has recently changed their stance, now wanting to change the EU from within. The reforms that they want for the EU relate to their stance on immigration in the sense that they want increased control of the inflow of immigrants to Sweden. They also argue that the EU is a costly project that has changed since Swedish entry in 1995, increasingly undermining the sovereignty of its members. Their other main concern is the EU asylum policy, which they argue increases illegal immigration, terrorist threats and organised begging. They argue that in light of the 2015 migration crisis the policy needs to be revised to fully respect the sovereignty of Sweden.

The Left Party received 8% of votes in the general election last year, an increase from the 2014 election where they received 5.7%. The party has historically been in favour of Swexit but has recently shifted to a more ‘soft Eurosceptic’ position under the leadership of Jonas Sjöstedt. He has argued that Sweden should remain in a radically reformed EU, which should be less centralised and more focused on environmental issues and human rights, rather than economic principles. The Left Party views Brexit as a natural consequence of an EU that is too centralised.

Public Opinion

A survey ordered for the European Parliament conducted late last year found that Swedes are becoming increasingly negative about the EU, with 48% of Swedes thinking that it is developing in a negative direction, while 29% see the EU as moving in a positive direction. Reasons may include the European migrant crisis of 2015 and a decline in voters’ feelings of trust in EU institutions.

The result does however not necessarily translate into support for Swexit. In another survey conducted by Statistics Sweden, 58% answered that they see Swedish membership in the EU as positive. Only 16% saw it as negative and 26% said that they have a neutral stance on EU membership.

Source: SCB: SVT

Although an integrated member of the EU, Sweden is currently not a member of the Eurozone. Public opinion remains largely negative towards Euro membership with 69% against, 19% positive and 12% saying they don’t know.

The Way Forward

Swedish Euroscepticism, therefore, is not the same as its UK counterpart; support for a ‘Swexit’ remains very low and after the recent change of position by the Sweden Democrats, no party is currently in favour of ‘Swexit’. Instead, many Swedes are supportive of the country’s membership of the EU, but increasingly sceptical of the EU’s direction of travel. With support for Eurosceptic parties on the right and the left growing, the long-term future of Sweden’s relationship with the EU remains uncertain.

While most major parties in Sweden argue in favour of a closer relationship with the EU, there is a lack of clarity as to what would constitute such a relationship. There may be tensions in the future between the desire for deeper EU cooperation and the negativity of Swedes on the current direction of the EU and their opposition to being part of the Eurozone. But this does not necessarily translate into a desire for ‘Swexit’. Although in the UK no party (except for UKIP) had a history of propagating Brexit, it all happened very quickly, which could also become the case in Sweden.

The EU should however take the increased scepticism against its direction seriously. How mainstream political parties manage the relationship with the EU and the way that it develops is increasingly important. If the direction and future EU-Swedish relationship is not taken seriously, this ‘soft Euroscepticism’ in Sweden may translate into ‘harder Euroscepticism’. There is a need for a constructive case for reform.