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Swedish EU presidency at mercy of euroskeptics

January 12, 2023

Sweden has pledged to "make Europe greener, safer, freer" during its six-month presidency. But Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson's government depends on the support of the nationalist Sweden Democrats.

Ulf Kristersson and Jessika Roswall stand before the Swedish and EU flags
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson und EU Affairs Minister Jessika Roswall kick off Sweden's presidency of the European UnionImage: Wiktor Nummelin/TT/IMAGO

There are only a few hours of daylight in Kiruna in January. The snow crunches under your feet during a walk through the town, located about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland. This is where Sweden's government has decided to officially kick off its EU presidencya mining town known for its northern lights and a vibrant Indigenous Sami culture.

The European Union's rotating presidency is meant to drive forward work on EU legislation and ensure cooperation among member states. And, of course, it is an excellent opportunity to show off one's nation. 

Smooth and efficient, aka "Sweden-style," is how officials here say they intend to handle the job. "Our leadership this six months ahead will focus on the ambition to make Europe greener, safer, freer," Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson has promised. 

The prime minister said preserving the bloc's unity in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine was key. "Ukraine's victory is essential," he said during a press conference. Other priorities include strengthening the European Union's competitiveness, the rule of law and green energy transition.

Can Sweden deliver?

Sweden's new minority government — made up of the Moderates, Christian Democrats and Liberals — would not be able to govern without the support of the nationalist Sweden Democrats.

The party, founded in the 1980s by right-wing extremists, "has a long history of being against the European Union," Karlstad University professor Tobias Hübinette told DW.

Until recently, the party advocated for Sweden to leave the European Union. This position has changed. But Hübinette, who has been studying the party for years, argues that the Sweden Democrats remain a deeply euroskeptic party, and could take the country's EU presidency "hostage."

Migration, for instance, "cannot be a priority of Sweden's presidency because the Sweden Democrats would never accept the EU to stipulate a common migration policy," Hübinette said. 

He pointed to climate action as another example. The government in Stockholm promises to work toward delivering on Europe's climate goals. The visit to Kiruna in Sweden's far north is supposed to underline that: Just recently, Europe's largest deposit of rare earth metals was located in the Kiruna area — metals that are essential for the production of electric vehicles and wind turbines, according to Kiruna's mining company. 

The Sweden Democrats, however, question the science, Hübinette said. Their spokesperson for environmental issues, Elsa Widding, called fighting climate change "gesture politics" and denied the reality of the crisis in a speech in parliament. 

Euroskeptics have clout

Kristersson seemed to shrug off any concerns about the party's influence, indicating that the government's cooperation with the Sweden Democrats was going smoothly and in accordance with the agreement. 

EU Affairs Minister Jessika Roswall has also played down any worries. "I think that will work very well," she told DW. "It's like in the EU, where 27 member states have to compromise. We also sometimes have to compromise. It's not more complicated than that."

But the Sweden Democrats seem to be very clear about their role and clout. "We will clearly have influence," Charlie Weimers, a member of the European Parliament, told DW.

Asylum migration a 'red line' for Sweden Democrats

Weimers mentioned migration policy in particular. "We don't want any mandatory mechanism on migration whether in the shape of relocations or economic contributions from EU countries," he said. "We do not want more asylum migration for the moment." That would be a "red line" for the Sweden Democrats, he said, suggesting that crossing it would have consequences for the government in Stockholm.

On one issue, however, the party has promised not to cause any problems: Continuing support "for the Ukrainian war effort against the illegal Russian invasion" is very high on the Sweden Democrats' agenda, Weimers said. 

After appearing to be rather pro-Russia for many years, the Sweden Democrats now seem to be behind the government's position on Ukraine. That should provide at least some relief for Prime Minister Kristersson and his agenda for Sweden's EU presidency. 

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Edited by: Milan Gagnon