Can Europe Make It?

Sweden's super election year

Sweden will hold crucial national elections in September. Does that leave any political space for the European elections in May? Euro elections landscape, 2014.

Maja Troedsson
5 February 2014
Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt. Demotix/Sonny Johansson. All rights reserved.

Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt. Demotix/Sonny Johansson. All rights reserved.

While EU member states are gearing up for elections to the European Parliament in May, Sweden also has another election to prepare. In September, Swedes will again head to the voting booths, this time to decide the country’s political direction for the coming four years. As such, 2014 has become known as a “super election year”, a concept of almost mythical proportions.

Sweden joined the EU alongside Austria and Finland in 1995, but not all Swedes rejoiced. The referendum preceding accession had given a slim majority - 52.3 per cent - in favour of membership, with a full 46.8 per cent of voters against. EU processes have become an integral part of Swedish politics, but Sweden in many aspects still remains a reluctant partner after almost twenty years of cooperation. Swedish ambivalence towards the EU has been particularly visible since the economic and financial crisis. Swedish top politicians have at once wished to move positions forward in the areas of economy and finance, by virtue of Sweden’s relatively strong performance during the crisis, and to keep actual commitment to EU economic policy at arm’s length. Swedish public opinion is amongst the most sceptical regarding the euro of all member states. As such, the government coalition, in principle in favour of the euro, has had to keep its common-currency dreams at bay.

As in many other member states, the nature of Swedish ambiguity towards the EU is somewhat of a chicken-or-egg scenario: have governments sparked these doubts by playing off EU policy against domestic policy, or have they just been sensitive towards the wants and needs of the public? Interestingly, the Swedish political weathervane has seen different effects of the economic crisis in terms of EU policy.

The 2010 general elections led to an increase in the number of parties represented in the Riksdag, the Swedish Parliament, from seven to eight. The Sweden Democrats, a xenophobic right-wing party with roots in the neo-Nazi movement, scored twenty out of the 349 seats, and they are set to increase this number in September. The Sweden Democrats are not in favour of the EU. The party leadership, however, overruled the assembly at the party congress in November to adopt a more subtle approach to Euroscepticism. The party, drawing inspiration from the UK, no longer formally calls on Sweden to leave the EU immediately, but on the government to renegotiate membership, followed by a referendum. Revealing the nominations for the EP, party leader Jimmie Åkesson referred to his party as being “the most negative towards the EU of all political parties in Sweden”. Nonetheless, the Sweden Democrats have toned down their anti-EU rhetoric in an attempt to improve the dismal 3.5 per cent gained in the 2009 EP elections.

The other Eurosceptic party in the Riksdag resides on the opposite side of the political spectrum: the Left Party opposed EU membership already in 1994, a fact that party leader Jonas Sjöstedt is particularly proud of. Sjöstedt has himself served as an MEP, and may therefore be seen as a more credible Eurosceptic due to his hands-on EU experience. The Left Party is heading towards the Swedish election with a platform focused on the single issue of preventing the privatisation of welfare services, a mission that may prove successful on the domestic level but is perhaps less relevant at the European level. 

Amongst the other opposition parties, there's not much enthusiasm for the EU either. Sweden’s biggest party, the Social Democrats, are vying for the top job at Rosenbad, Sweden’s 10 Downing Street, and have yet to kickstart a campaign for the EP elections. It is likely that the Social Democrats will continue to focus a lion’s share of resources and energy on reclaiming the Prime Minister’s Office, currently in Conservative hands. Social Democratic attention is currently turned towards domestic matters such as education, welfare and healthcare. The Greens had Eurosceptic views until 2008, but somewhat moderated these views in the run-up to the 2009 European elections. It is worth noting that this turnaround came before the EU was shaken by the financial crisis – today, the discussion might have turned out differently. Nevertheless, the Greens can now capitalise on some successes in the EP, such as MEP Isabella Lövin’s fight for more environmentally-sound fishing quotas. In combination with a largely young, urban and educated voter base, the Greens could be set for success in May – as well as in September.

The government coalition, which is made up of four centre-right parties, has seen the EP elections as an excellent opportunity to display ideological differences without disturbing the internal peace of the coalition – a sign that European politics are of secondary important in the Swedish arena. After continued abysmal poll numbers in January, the Moderates, Centre Party, Liberals and Christian Democrats are hard-pressed to show mutual support and camaraderie while at the same time convincing voters to vote for their own party – united in diversity, if you will.  

The Moderates, the biggest party in government and home to prime minister Reinfeldt, finance minister Borg and foreign minister Bildt, have continued on a Euro-friendly path. For them, emphasising the significance of the EU for Sweden may be a tactic to avoid the looming issue of possible NATO membership.  The Liberals, traditionally the most in favour of international cooperation out of all the political parties in Sweden, are ardent in stating the importance of the EP elections and the necessity of solidarity and faith in the European project. Of course, it could easily be argued that anything else would be unbefitting for the party of the EU minister, Birgitta Ohlsson, and Swedish commissioner Cecilia Malmström. While the position of Liberal party leader and education minister Jan Björklund is jeopardised by the recent release of extremely disappointing PISA rankings, both Ohlsson and Malmström seem to be well-respected. They will certainly prove assets for their party in terms of European credibility.

The two remaining government partners, the Centre Party and the Christian Democrats, are fighting for survival. The latest January poll has the Centre Party at a 35-year low at just 3.1 per cent, well below the 4 per cent Riksdag threshold. The Christian Democrats have also struggled to keep their heads above water since the last elections. Both parties have traditionally strong, clear-cut voter bases – the Centre Party in the rural and agrarian parts of the country, the Christian Democrats amongst religious conservatives – that have begun to wane.

Sweden is no longer as agrarian as during the golden days of the Centre movement, nor are Swedes as religious or conservative as when the Christian Democrats were founded in the 1960s. Both parties have tended towards nostalgia, reminiscing about past glory and former party leaders. As such, and considering the decoupling of domestic politics from EU affairs, it is interesting to note that these parties, suffering from deep existential crises, have begun to toe the line of Eurocriticism, although steering clear away from Euroscepticism. The Christian Democrats may stand to gain from what may be perceived as clearer, cleaner conservatism while the Centre Party, generally beyond liberal on issues of migration and with highly successful former MEP Lena Ek serving as environment minister, may be seen as ever more confused when speaking of a “sleeker, sharper EU” that does not meddle too much.

All in all, the EP elections in Sweden are likely to drown in the tsunami of general elections. Foreign policy is not an election winner in a country where welfare comes first, and the financial crisis has done little to make edgy northerners feel more connected to the continent, in spite of the actual political significance of the EU. Sweden may continue to punch above its weight thanks to the EU, but Swedes are likely to remain on the fence. 

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