By Ethan Kaiser
If I were to ask you to name a nation where a change in government could have international implications, you may--perhaps rightly--name the United States, Russia, China or any other country that has a prominent standing on the world stage. But what if I told you the same can be said for Sweden? Yes, Sweden. Here is how the Scandinavian nation of 10.4 million people could have widespread effects on European climate policy. But first, some context.
On Sept. 11, Sweden went to the polls to elect a new government. The incumbent government consisted of a coalition of Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson’s Social Democrats (S) and the Green Party (MP) survived a minority government with a confidence and supply agreement with the Left (V) and Centre (C) parties. The question was whether it would be reelected by the people. Leading into the election, most polls, including the exit polls, gave the incumbent government a majority, albeit narrowly.
However, as results came in, it became clear that Andersson’s government would fall short, and the right would govern for the first time since 2014. Normally, a right-wing coalition in Sweden would consist of the Moderates (M), Christian Democrats (KD), Liberals (L), and the aforementioned Centre (C). But this cycle, the right-wing coalition is different. With C supporting the center-left faction, the right-wing parties grouped with the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD).
This stands in contrast with the initial Moderate position against governing with the SD as they stated in 2010. But in 2018, Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson attempted to form a government with them, and said the same during this cycle, warming the standard right’s relations to the SD for the first time.
Who are the Sweden Democrats?
The Sweden Democrats were founded in 1988 and are most notable for their far-right politics, including anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-EU and nationalistic sentiments. While not officially a Nazi or Neo-Nazi Party, some of the party’s first members had ties to Nazism.
The SD’s first auditor, Gustaf Ekström, was a Waffen-SS veteran, had been a member of a Swedish National Socialist political party in the 1940s and had been put on the SD’s national board in 1989. The party’s first chairman, Anders Klarström, had briefly been a member of a Swedish Neo-Nazi party. The SD’s logo from the 1990s-2006 had been a version of the torch used by the fascist British National Front.
Under the leadership of Mikael Jansson from 1995 to 2005 and Jimmie Åkesson from 2005, the SD began moderating its platform away from Nazism and white supremacy, expelling hardline members and officially denouncing Nazism and fascism on their platform. While the SD under Åkesson is not as extreme as they were during its founding, they were still seen for many years as a politically toxic party, to the point where both the left and the right refused to govern with them in 2010.
Why this matters
Despite being an extremist party that at one point was too toxic for anyone to want to govern with, the Swedish Democrats are not a fringe caucus in the Riksdag. They are the second largest party and the largest party within the right-wing faction of parliament. That means if they are in government, they will yield significant power, which includes receiving important cabinet portfolios and having a say in what a coalition government’s policies will be. But Sweden’s politics go beyond Sweden and can reach into the European Union at large.
As a member of the European Union, Sweden is on a rotating list for the presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, one of two legislative bodies within the EU government. The Council of Ministers is divided based on the issues certain cabinet ministers focus on (there is a Council of Ministers on the Environment, a Council of Ministers for Education, a Council of Ministers for Transportation, etc.).
To hold the presidency means Sweden’s ministers would be the presidents of their specific division (the Swedish Minister for Education is the President of the Council of Ministers for Education, for example). Sweden is set to have the presidency from January to June of next year.
The primary responsibility of the presidency is to organize and chair meetings of the council. While the European Commission writes the legislation, the Council and Parliament are the ones that negotiate and pass the legislation. The Commission can step in but typically only if the text is far from its intent. Sweden’s appointment to assume the Presidency comes at a time when the European Union is fighting to pass its climate directives, and the SD’s being in government and potentially having the Environment Ministry could make climate negotiations within the EU more difficult.
The Sweden Democrats have had an ambivalent and ambiguous position on climate change regarding its existence, causes, and consequences. Some quotes from the party range from calling for preparedness:
“Sweden's national preparedness for climate change should be strengthened. This affects everything from the food supply and infrastructure to other aspects of preparedness for, for example, forest fires and floods.”
“In many places, there is a lack of basic insight that Sweden or the EU alone cannot control global carbon dioxide emissions to a significant extent.”
“We can also be fairly sure that the climate will vary, and that Sweden and other countries will face challenges as a result of extreme weather events, regardless of the underlying cause and regardless of how many billions we choose to spend on various climate initiatives.”
Will this happen?
For what it is worth, the SD being in government is not a foregone conclusion. The Liberals are as important to a right-wing government as the SD, and they have said they are uncomfortable with the Sweden Democrats being in government. However, the Liberals have also said they are uncomfortable governing with the left, sowing doubts about their willingness to support a center-left government. Conceding defeat, Prime Minister Andersson resigned, creating more pessimism in the Social Democrats’ ability to form a government.
As of now, there is no definitive answer to if the SD will be in government, or if they will even hold the Environment Ministry, but it does not look unlikely. The fact that this is even a concern should give us a moment's pause on our capabilities as a society to combat widespread issues like this. Even if Kristersson falls short in forming a government, the EU could still have a long road ahead of it. One year after Sweden’s term is up, Hungary will assume the presidency, followed by Poland, both nations with regimes many describe as authoritarian and that have consistently butted heads with the EU.