Finally, climate change gets political

According to polls, the issues engaging Swedish voters most are climate change, migration and right-wing populism. A familiar European, if not global, landscape.

After the longest and most problematic government negotiation process in the country’s history, which followed the 2018 general elections, Swedish political parties are now mobilising for the European elections. While the domestic political landscape seems to have developed into three blocks, the boundaries are not very clearly defined. Rather than the traditional, binary left-right division, there are now left/green, a centre/liberal, and conservative/nationalist clusters.

According to polls, the issues engaging voters most are climate change, migration and right-wing populism. A familiar European, if not global, landscape, but with its own specificities.

Sweden is among those countries where support for membership in the EU is high. According to Eurobarometer data, over 80 percent would vote for remaining in the EU if there was a referendum today, and even if participation in European elections attracts decidedly fewer voters than national elections, every second Swede participates in the EU election. This is more than in most other member states. However, the electorate, as well as most politicians, are firmly against joining the Eurozone.

The most dramatic change in the political landscape in recent years is that no established party is campaigning for Sweden to leave the EU. The two parties who have previously advocated for Swexit – who also happen to be furthest away from the liberal centre, though at opposite poles of the political spectrum – the far-right nationalist Sweden Democrats and the Left Party, have both declared that they will not actively push for leaving the EU (though it remains in their respective programs). Instead, they want to build alliances within the European parliament and with existing movements in Europe. The Sweden Democrats anticipate being part of a strong right-wing nationalist group within the new parliament. The Left Party is driven by a similar desire find allies, with climate justice and the need to counter right-wing populism as their main focus.

In January, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Centre Party made a deal, resulting in the Social Democrats and Greens remaining in office but implementing a programme which is highly influenced by the liberals. The common rationale behind this deal has been the urgent need to keep right-wing extremism at bay. This rhetoric is echoed in the current election campaign. However, all parties – including the Sweden Democrats – predict a surge in support for exactly this political force, and the Swedish vote will most likely contribute to this. The latest polls show that if the election were to take place today the Sweden Democrats could get 20 percent of the vote, which is slightly more than they obtained in the 2018 general election. At the same time, the firmly pro-European Liberal party has fallen dramatically in the polls: there’s even a risk that they could obtain no seats at all. The Swedish newcomer in the 2014 European Parliament, Feminist Initiative, will almost certainly lose the one seat they gained.

Are there any truly European issues at stake in the public debate? Brexit has received continuous media coverage, as Sweden traditionally has strong trade relations with the UK, and has seen the Brits as important non-Euro allies. However, most reports, myopic at best, tend to treat the issue as nothing more than a slow-motion car crash, and it can’t be said that it’s had any real impact on the debate. In general, media interest in European issues is low, and so is knowledge about how the European Parliament actually works. On the other hand, discussions around the potential exclusion of Hungary’s Fidesz from the EPP did manage to strike a chord, and resulted in a fair amount of media attention towards European Parliament political groups in general.

In the end, right-wing populism and migration are issues that motivate people on all sides. But what about the third theme given priority by voters, climate change? Greta Thunberg is, after all, Swedish. Her school strike began, and continues, right outside the Swedish Parliament. Leaving aside an assessment of Greta’s specific role in this, there is no doubt that there is an increased appetite among voters for well-formed policies to deal with climate change. Candidates across the board, not just the Greens and the Left, are formulating proposals. Policies range from stopping sales in the EU of cars powered by fossil fuel, to promoting nuclear power.

Commentators note a general reluctance among most Swedish parties to introduce a CO2 tax at the European level – mainly due to the widespread fear of extending EU powers to new domains. Nonetheless, what we are currently witnessing may be the long overdue politicization of the climate issue: already recognised across the political spectrum, it is now developing a right-left dimension. Neither scientists, activists, voters, nor Greta Thunberg herself, will, however, be satisfied with the pace at which these developments are proceeding.

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