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STOCKHOLM — A far-right shadow hangs over Sweden’s impending EU presidency.
Sweden has long been seen as a cooperative and constructive member of the EU with a succession of dominant governments able to muster national parliamentary support for many big ideas from Brussels.
But a general election in September left new centre-right Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson dependent on the far-right, eurosceptic Swedish Democrats (SD) for his parliamentary term. This has raised a question mark over whether Stockholm can keep up the momentum on key files piling up in the EU entry bin.
Diplomats in Brussels – who had been looking forward to Sweden’s presidency as the one that would be able to get things done – now fear that the Swedish Democrats’ anti-EU tone will infect the way they operate.
“It’s no news to anyone that the Swedish Democrats are the most critical party for the EU in parliament,” SD leader Jimmie Åkesson said during a parliamentary debate on EU affairs earlier this week. month. “We believe in cooperation…but we have to move away from the almost maniacal idea that [Brussels] should increasingly interfere in the politics of the Member States.
The EU’s institutional architecture gives the country with the six-month rotating EU Council presidency – currently the Czech Republic – a central role in setting and advancing the bloc’s political agenda. To this end, it is considered useful that the country of the presidency has a clear attitude towards cooperation with the EU and a widely understood position on the central issues on the agenda.
But the rise of the SD, a party with neo-Nazi roots, has clouded the image of Swedish-EU relations for outsiders. This is the first time the SD has had any real influence, and officials in Brussels are still figuring out what political positions like its ultra-hard line on immigration and its relatively friendly attitude towards Viktor Orbán’s Hungary might mean for the way Sweden deals with the EU.
Swedish diplomats in Brussels assured their colleagues that their presidency would be run from Brussels, not Stockholm. This reassured some within the Council, but the potential influence of the SD caused unease among others in Brussels.
Iratxe García Pérez, President of the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament tweeted following a recent trip to Stockholm: “I expressed my concern about the negative influence that the far-right Swedish Democrats will have not only on the Swedish government, but also on the Swedish EU Presidency from January.”
While Kristersson’s Moderate Party and its two smaller center-right coalition allies are staunchly pro-EU, the SD pushed for a referendum on Sweden’s EU membership in the months that followed. Brexit.
During the parliamentary debate in Stockholm this month, the dissonance in messaging between Kristersson and SD leader Åkesson was on full display.
“In my government we see all the possibilities for a stronger EU,” Kristersson said as he opened the session.
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The EU is about “peace”, “reconciliation”, “trade” and “the meeting of peoples”, he said. It’s “freedom of movement” and “mobile phones without roaming charges”.
Åkesson took a tougher tone. He called the Swedish governments’ interactions with the EU “naive” and a form of “self-harming behavior”.
“Every nation and every people in Europe has the right to be masters in their own house,” he said.
The SD now occupies an ambiguous place in Swedish politics. After a strong performance in September’s election, the SD is the largest party in the four-party unity that rules the Nordic state of 10.5 million people, but it sits outside government.
The deal he struck with Kristersson ensures he has a say in some key areas of domestic policy, from migration to economic growth, but he can also be expected to show his muscles when these issues arise at EU level.
“Obviously, in the same way as they do in domestic politics, they would also like to influence the fundamental policies of the EU,” said Ann-Cathrine Jungar, a political scientist at Stockholm’s Södertörns University.
Focus on the migration pact
Migration in particular has the potential to be a flashpoint. It is at the heart of SD’s political agenda and should be a high priority during Sweden’s EU Presidency. The latest phase of an ambitious overhaul of Brussels’ migration and asylum policies – its Migration and Asylum Pact – is about to be discussed, with member countries far apart on the issue.
Prior to the Swedish election, it was expected that significant progress would be made on the pact during the Swedish presidency and that it could perhaps be completed during subsequent Spanish or Belgian presidencies.
Sweden received one of the highest rates of asylum seekers per capita during Europe’s 2015 migration crisis, and European diplomats said this gave the country inordinate know-how on related issues. In addition, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, in charge of migration policy, is currently the Swedish legislator Ylva Johansson.
But since Johansson’s Social Democrats were ousted in September, those hopes of progress have faded in Brussels. SD has long insisted that Sweden must reduce the number of people it grants asylum to “as close to zero as possible”, and the new Swedish government has pledged to restrict migration.
Any EU move to share responsibility for migrant housing between border states and states like Sweden — far from the bloc’s periphery — is likely to meet resistance from Åkesson and his party.
Such intransigence has shaken diplomats who consider the migration pact to be one of the most complex issues in the bloc. “If it was complicated before, it seems impossible now,” said a diplomat from Central Europe who is following the case closely.
But Tomas Tobé, a Swedish MEP from Prime Minister Kristersson’s Moderate Party, who served as the European Parliament’s negotiator for the Managed Asylum and Migration Regulation, said he believed the EU’s migration dossier could be advanced during the Swedish Presidency and could still be completed before the end of the current European legislature.
“The new Swedish government knows there are expectations of them,” he said.
Johansson is also positive about the chances of success: “You can have high expectations of the Swedish government,” she told POLITICO.
rule of law
According to some observers, the prospects for EU efforts to strengthen the rule of law in member countries – particularly in Hungary and Poland – have also been clouded by the rise of the SD.
The Commission concluded in November that Hungary had failed to deliver on its promise to adopt 17 rule of law reforms in order to access €7.5 billion in EU funds, and in September, the European Parliament voted to describe Hungary as no longer a democracy.
But SD MEP Charlie Weimers voted against the motion, a decision fellow Swedish MEPs interpreted as a sign of approval for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whom NGOs accuse of restricting media freedom and letting the media flourish Corruption.
“Today we have been reminded again that Swedish Democrats do not stand for the principles of the rule of law in the EU,” said Karin Karlsbro, MEP for the Swedish Liberal Party. said after the vote. “The rest of the European Parliament is clear – Hungary can no longer be considered a free democracy, but the SD has Orbán’s back as usual.”
Experts say it remains unclear how SD will engage on migration or the rule of law, or any of the 350 other issues on the agenda of Sweden’s six-month presidency.
Swedish Europe Minister Jessika Roswall says SD lawmakers on the Swedish parliament’s select European affairs committee are committed to being ‘constructive’ and what she has seen so far from the party confirms this .
Roswall, who previously chaired this select EU committee, said his track record of negotiating with all parties in parliament gave him confidence that different viewpoints could be taken into account and that broad support for EU policies in the Sweden was assured among the legislators.
“Even if sometimes we don’t think the same way, we have the ambition to be an important country in the EU,” she said.
But much of SD’s appeal over the past few years has come from its willingness to buck the mainstream with one of its key slogans being “give them the hell”.
In 2014 and again in 2021 SD pushed the Swedish government to the brink of collapse, and during that year’s election campaign Åkesson lashed out at his opponents on the left and right.
During the parliamentary debate in mid-November, Åkesson acknowledged that Sweden, as a small export-dependent country, needed to cooperate with its neighbours. But that doesn’t mean allowing more power to accumulate in Brussels, he said.
“It’s not the same as wanting to give more power to bureaucrats in other countries that we can’t choose and we can’t vote,” he said.