The European parliament election campaign in Sweden was unlike any other in its history, characterised by several scandals and conflicts amongst individual candidates – both within and between the major parties. The elections in Sweden – as elsewhere – were also an ideological struggle between parties calling for more or less EU integration. But perhaps surprisingly, the green wave witnessed in other countries around Europe didn’t hit Sweden.
Swedish voters largely opted for parties who called for the EU to have less influence. Compared to 2014, the results of the election rewarded centre-right parties who expressed soft Euroscepticism – seeking EU reform while remaining firmly in favour of continued membership.
By contrast, parties in favour of EU integration gained little support. The Liberals, Sweden’s most pro-EU party, lost 5.8 per cent of their vote and were only a few thousand votes away from not gaining a single seat.
The centre-left Social Democrats, who currently lead a minority government with the Green party, also had a miserable time. The party, which tends to be supportive of the EU status quo, was rewarded for its stance with its worst election result in history (even if they did still win the most seats). This suggests that many voters in Sweden are not convinced by the course of the EU and the direction of the current government.
But it was a better night for centre-right Moderates, with the party winning four seats (an increase of one from 2014). The party has focused on its traditional core issues such as expansion of nuclear power, stricter migration policies and tougher criminal laws. On the centre-right, the Christian Democrats and the Centre party, also picked up votes. Together, these three parties won 36 per cent of the vote – up ten per cent from last time.
The right-wing populist Sweden Democrats also put in a strong performance, gaining six per cent from 2014 and picking up an extra seat. This was despite a controversy during the campaign, when the party’s top candidate was accused of sexual harassment by another MEP from the party – with the complainant then promptly sacked for “being disloyal to the party.” Despite this, the Sweden Democrats did well – in contrast to the collapse in support for the main populist party in neighbouring Denmark (the Danish People’s Party).
Although the Sweden Democrats toned down their focus on migration in the EP election, they have argued that the borders of the EU need to be strengthened and that countries should be able to deny migrants entry at their own borders. The party has been vocal about the need for EU reform, calling for radical decentralisation and for Swedish sovereignty to be fully respected. While they are no longer openly calling for ‘Swexit’, they have vowed to do so again if the EU is not reformed.
In the homeland of teenage activist Greta Thunberg, the environment also took a prominent role in the campaign. In contrast to the wave of Green successes elsewhere in Europe though, the Swedish Greens did rather poorly – losing two of their four seats. The decrease is, in part, a result of the party being in government with the Social Democrats, which has forced them to make concessions that have alienated their supporters. If Green parties elsewhere in Europe succeed in getting into government, they run the risk of a similar fate.
However the Green decline does not mean Swedish voters do not care about the environment – many saw it as the most important issue. In Sweden, it is increasingly difficult to succeed as a political party without an environmental profile and every party in the election had a clear platform on how to address climate change.
The result was that, unlike elsewhere, Swedish voters could support environmentalist policies without having to vote for an actual ‘Green’ party. The country may not have experienced a ‘Green surge’ in electoral terms, but make no mistake – green policies are in vogue.
The Swedish picture is complicated and does not necessarily fit well into the wider narrative of the European elections. Many other countries saw the decline of the traditional centre-left and centre-right, stagnation for the populist right, and a surge in support for liberals and greens. Yet in Sweden, the centre-right (and right-wing populists) saw moderate gains; the centre-left and far-left stood still; and liberal and green parties declined.
Previous elections have shown that Swedish voters – like their British counterparts – vote differently in European elections compared to national elections. It is therefore difficult to translate results from one into predictions for the outcome of the other. Nevertheless, the results show that Swedish voters are leaning to the right on EU politics. We will have to wait and see as to how this will reflect at the next general election in Sweden, expected in 2022.
Marcus Cadier is a researcher at the think-tank Open Europe