The recently elected Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven, is a member of the centre-left Swedish Social Democratic Party (Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetareparti) and has not been in charge for much time, having assumed office only at October 3rd. Despite that, his policies towards foreign affairs are already appearing to be active; as of now, Sweden is the first long-term member of the EU to officially recognise Palestine’s statehood – which drew several criticisms from the Israeli government.
The former Swedish Head of State, Fredrik Reinfeldt, is a member of the liberal conservative Moderate Party (Moderata samlingspartiet, also known as Moderaterna) and remained in office for about eight years before being defeated at this year’s elections. The measures adopted he during and after the 2008 financial crisis were praised by most, as Sweden dealt with the crisis’ negative effects without compromising its welfare system – despite some cuts in certain social programs. Over the last three years, Sweden has achieved some respectable and responsible economic growth rates, and its economy is among the healthiest in the OECD. With such stabilized scenario, the Moderate Party lost 23 seats in the National Parliament, Riksdag, going from 107 seats to 84, out of 349 total.
Nevertheless, the seats lost by the Moderates were not redistributed to the PM’s Socialdemokraterna party, which have gained only one seat in the Parliament. On the contrary, most of these seats were occupied by members of the Swedish Democrats Party (Sverigedemokraterna, or SD) – a far-right party with nationalistic tendencies that now has concerning 49 seats on the Riksdag (compared to 20 seats in the previous elections). Some argue that such increase in SD’s influence over the Parliament is a direct response to the 2013 Stockholm riots and the ascending immigration rates in Sweden: roughly 15% of the Swedish population was born abroad (CARLSTROM, J.; MAGNUSSON, N.).
The boost in SD’s presence in the parliament might be problematic to the Social Democratic party, given that the former is likely to back the centre-right national budget, pushed by the Moderate Party and its coalition, instead of the one proposed by Löfven’s party. That being said, why are far-right parties, both in the Riksdag and in the EU parliament, gaining ground – at the same time that social-democratic parties are finally regaining strength after the 2008 Crisis?
Regarding EU’s parliamentary elections, which took place in May 2014, the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) party managed to win 70 seats, or almost 10% of the total number. The ECR is known for supporting ultraconservative and eurosceptical ideas, implying that national individualism is rising inside the European Union. As Bianchini (2012) argued, “In time of crisis nationalism emerges as a strong cohesive factor of social groups” – meaning that cultural unity tends to be reinforced during periods such as the 2008 Crisis. Thus, it can be said that part of the reason behind far-right’s ascension in the European Union is not the crisis itself, but rather the strengthening of some countries’ national identities (which is not necessarily tied to the crisis). Therefore, the crisis itself does not explain everything, as Sweden is inserted in an entirely different context that involves many other variables.
Opinion polls made prior to the Swedish elections show evidence of an increase in the SD party’s vote intentions after mid-2012. The Stockholm riots, which marked an aggravated tension between Swedes and immigrants, happened only a year later. Therefore, even though the riots are not directly related to the SD’s rise in the country, the ascension of this right-wing party should be attributed mainly to the overwhelming number of immigrants going to Sweden rather than to the economic crisis. Such elevated number is owed to (i) Sweden’s bland policies towards immigration in general; (ii) the relative ease with which immigrants are assimilated into the Swedish society and (iii) the Syrian Civil War, which is forcing hundreds of thousands of Syrians to seek refuge in Sweden. The Swedish government expects about 80.000 asylum seekers in 2014, after having a 70% jump in this years’ first six months. According to UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Sweden held the highest rate of asylum applications per capita in the world from 2009 to 2013.
These facts indicate that the far-right ascension in Sweden directly relates to the perception that an excess of immigrants might (i) overwhelm the Swedish welfare system and (ii) make Sweden ‘less Swedish’. Many immigrants were left at the margin of the Swedish economic system after the 2008 crisis, when unemployment rates spiked up. As many argue, the Swedish welfare is generous – but restricted. The far-right ascension in Sweden and in EU are, therefore, different processes (overall). That does not necessarily mean they are not connected; just that their causes might not the same.
Unlike Sweden, the leveraging of right-wing parties in Europe comes from the rejection of holistic ideas – such as a more unified EU – by the European population. After 2008, plans for a more federalist Europe shrunk as European Union failed to deal with the crisis. There has been, since then, too much discredit surrounding EU. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, stated that “They [the European population] no longer want to be led by those outside our borders, by EU commissioners and technocrats who are unelected. They want to be protected from globalisation and take back the reins of their destiny” (BBC, 2014).
Despite the strengthening of far-right nationalism throughout Europe, it will be hard for them to consolidate their ideas. Centre-right and centre-left parties are still majority and have no reason to succumb to more radical thoughts, such as anti-federalism and euroscepticism. In Sweden, Löfven runs a minority centre-left government, with the Moderates leading the majority. In Europe, the centre-left party, S&D (Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament), has 25.43% of the seats, while the centre-right EPP (Group of the European People’s Party) has 29.43% (EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, 2014).
This means that neither the EU nor Sweden will radically turn towards far-right policies. Such scenario indicates that social-democratic parties have not yet recovered trust in Europe, as far-right parties are starting to gain part of the spotlight – specially after 2008. The right-wing growth, both in EU and in Sweden, was large enough for governments to start noticing them. However, it will most likely not result in any game-changing policies in the next four years. They have gained, at most, visibility and some bargain power – which is no small gain compared to what they had before.
Despite all that, researchers from Umeå University looked at several survey results – ranging from between 2002 and 2012 – from several European countries. According to them, even though far-right parties are experiencing some visible growth in Europe, saying that xenophobia is rising in the European continent is a misinterpretation (BOHMAN, A.; HJERM; M.). Bohman and Hjerm argue that “political parties on the radical right don’t automatically influence people’s attitudes towards immigration”. However, xenophobia is not decreasing either. Furthermore, this analysis shows us that far-right parties are gaining strength in Europe mainly due to the European’s increasing rejection towards the EU, specially after 2008, and to some issues concerning immigration. Rather than simply acting negatively towards immigrants, Swedes are becoming more concerned with the supposed negative impact that an excess of immigrants may cause in the Swedish economy, known for its generous social programs.
The Sweden Democrats party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, stated in May this year that “mass unemployment is primarily imported”, arguing that immigration risks destroying the welfare state (CARLSTROM, J.; MAGNUSSON; N., 2014). Moreover, a factor that may undermine the SD party is that its charismatic leader, Jimmie Åkesson, is taking a health license for exhaustion from his job – which might last until 2015, or perhaps even later. Known for being moderate compared to other members of his party, Åkesson’s absence – if prolonged – can damage the Sweden Democrats party image in the long run.
BBC, 2014. Eurosceptic ‘earthquake’ rocks EU elections. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27559714.
BIANCHINI, Stefano, 2012. The resurgence of nationalism in times of crisis: the Yugoslav collapse, the EU uncertain future, and the prospect of reconciliation in the Balkans. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://apps.eui.eu/Personal/Researchers/cecchi/documents/Bianchini_2012.pdf.
BLOOMBERG, 2014. Swedish Nationalists Rise as Influx of Syrian Refugees Grows. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-20/swedish-nationalists-rise-as-record-immigration-stirs-backlash.html.
EURACTIV, 2014. Sweden’s new government to change EU affairs policies. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.euractiv.com/sections/eu-elections-2014/swedens-new-government-change-eu-affairs-policies-308958.
EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, 2014. Election results. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/election-results-2014.html.
THE LOCAL, 2014. Sweden Democrat leader off sick until 2015. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.thelocal.se/20141105/jimmie-kesson-off-sick-until-2015.
THE LOCAL, 2014. Xenophobia drops in Europe: Swedish study. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.thelocal.se/20141013/xenophobia-drops-in-europe-swedish-study.
THE NEY YORK TIMES, 2014. Israel Protests a Move to Recognize Palestinian State. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/07/world/middleeast/israel-protests-swedens-intention-to-recognize-palestinian-state.html.
THE TELEGRAPH, 2014. EU Elections 2014: the rise of the new European Right. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/eu/10828567/EU-Elections-2014-the-rise-of-the-new-European-Right.html.
THE WASHINGTON POST, 2014. The far right in the 2014 European elections: Of earthquakes, cartels and designer fascists. Accessed in October 06, 2014 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/05/30/the-far-right-in-the-2014-european-elections-of-earthquakes-cartels-and-designer-fascists/
Pedro Simão Mendes is member of the Program of Tutorial Education in International Relations at University of Brasília -PET-REL and of the International Relations Analysis Lab – LARI (email@example.com)