Centre Party leader meets Almedalen tragedy with call for unity

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf called for "togetherness and reflection" in a speech at Almedalen that showed her able to respond to tragedy like a national leader.

Centre Party leader meets Almedalen tragedy with call for unity
Centre Party leader Annie Lööf holds her speech during the Almedalen political festival. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Lööf began her speech, which took place only five hours after Swedish psychiatrist Ing-Marie Wieselgren was stabbed to death, with a call for a minute’s silence. 

“Let us be quiet for a moment and take in what has happened,” she said. 

Then, the minute’s silence over, she began. 

“This evening, Almedalen is not a place for political gimmicks, conflicts and harsh words,” she said. “Today it is a place for coming together and reflection.” 

Politically, the speech was interesting in that it strongly emphasised her party’s support for issues such as refugees, foreign aid, climate change, LGBT rights, a support for Ukraine, but did not even mention the liberal economic reforms the party had managed to drive through with the January Agreement with the government, with tax cuts for the very richest, and liberalisation of Sweden’s first-in, last-out employment rules. 

At the same time she placed her party firmly between the left-wing and right-wing bloc in Swedish politics, telling the leaders of both the Moderate Party and the Social Democrats that they could have her support. 

“Ulf Kristersson,” she said. “If you want to have the Centre Party’s support to be prime minister, let go of the Sweden Democrats. Come back to the successful liberal politics which created the Alliance and meant that we were in power together for eight years.” 

“Magdalena Andersson,” she continued. “If you want to have the Centre Party’s support as prime minister, let go of left-wing politics. Build the next mandate period on a new social liberal reform agenda on which we build on the best of the January Agreement.” 

On Twitter, Jonas Hinnfors, a politics professor at Gothenburg University, pointed out that Lööf had not demanded that Andersson “drop the Left Party”, but only “Left-wing politics” (unlike what she said about the Sweden Democrats).  

And when she discussed the Sweden Democrats, Lööf’s rhetoric was tougher than that employed by any other party leader in their Almedalen speech. 

“Sweden is not Hungary, Sweden is not Italy, Sweden is not Poland. There’s no reason for a Swedish government to make itself dependent on an authoritarian, xenophobic party,” she said. “If only the will can be found, it’s possible to win support for taking power in Sweden among responsible, sensible parties. It’s been done before.” 

On energy, she rejected the attempt on Sweden’s right-wing to present nuclear power as the solution. 

“Stop putting team wind and team nuclear against one another,” she said. “We need more of every time of emissions-free energy. Double Swedish electricity production, because that will make the difference, for people and companies, in the cities and in the countryside.” 

She also called for a “new Marshall plan for Ukraine”. “Replace every demolished school, every playground, every bombed home. Build new roads and railways, hospitals and theatres. Build bridges, not just for cars and trains, but for a brighter future as part of the EU.” 

She ended a her speech with a series of call outs to anti-racists, feminists, LGBT activists, and people worried about the environment. 

“To all of us who are hankering after a greener, freer, and stronger Sweden ahead of us,” she said. “Our time is now.” 

You can read Lööf’s full speech here in Sweden and in English (Google translate) here

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OPINION: Get organised or Sweden’s open society will be a distant memory

Sweden turned hostile to immigrants and asylum seekers several years ago, but continued to pretend that it was a welcoming nation. Now official politics has caught up with reality, argues David Crouch

OPINION: Get organised or Sweden's open society will be a distant memory

The agreement announced on Friday by the four parties which won Sweden’s election feels like the moment in an episode of Road Runner, where the coyote character spots there is only air beneath him.

For those unfamiliar with the classic Looney Tunes cartoon, there were often scenes in which a character called Wile E. Coyote would run off a cliff, keep running in thin air, look down, realise there was no ground beneath him, and only then fall.

Sweden turned hostile to immigrants and asylum seekers years ago, but continued to pretend that it was a liberal and welcoming nation. Now, with the suddenness of that Road Runner moment, official politics has abruptly caught up with reality. 

Late last year, outgoing Social Democrat justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson was asked in parliament if Sweden had succeeded in reducing asylum rights to the EU minimum. His answer was full of soothing words about protecting people in a troubled world, about humanitarian needs, about a sustainable and humane system. But yes, he said, Sweden’s asylum framework was now the EU minimum and the numbers were the lowest for 20 years. 

With the Tidö Agreement, those soothing words are gone, and there is no longer any pretence that Sweden will continue to take into account individual freedoms, equality or human rights for non-Swedes. The agreement is a relentless, detailed, cold-blooded statement on how this government will cut the rights of all non-Swedish citizens to the bare minimum required by EU law.  Wherever possible, it adds, migrants will be encouraged to return to wherever they came from.  

The new approach will affect every aspect of life for non-Swedes, starting with access to healthcare, housing, child support, schools, and other benefits. It is all designed to minimise the “incentives” for people to come to Sweden. The Local has parsed the document here.

In some sense this is refreshingly honest: there is no longer any need to see through fancy political rhetoric to get to the meat of what is going on.

But it is still a shock to read, for example, that Sweden will change its constitution with the aim of “limiting the rights of asylum seekers as far as is legally possible” (page 34), or that “criminals” who lack Swedish citizenship will be deported “without having been convicted of a crime” (page 19).

In many areas, the groundwork for the shift had already been laid by the outgoing government. As The Local has reported in depressing detail over recent years, life has become harder both for people coming here to work or seek asylum, and for those with non-European backgrounds who already live here.

Attitudes in Swedish society have changed more broadly. A defining feature of this year’s election campaign was that immigrants were for the first time described as a problem in themselves, with politicians of both left and right drawing a connection between immigration and crime.

The media have both reflected and reinforced this shift. As he describes in a new book, the journalist Christian Catomeris left SVT’s flagship Agenda programme because of its negative approach to immigration.

“When [leading Sweden Democrat] Björn Söder now says that public service broadcasting must change, I laugh a little, because I feel that change has already taken place, that the SD’s questions and perspectives have permeated journalism since 2015 and probably also this election,” Catomeris told the journalists’ trade union last month.

The Tidö Agreement refers over and over again to utlänningar, “foreigners”, an unpleasantly pejorative word for non-Swedes. But outgoing prime minister Magdalena Andersson had already started to use the word earlier this year in a rhetorical shift that mirrored the language used by the Sweden Democrats and prepared the ground for her later remarks about “Somalitowns” and talk of forcibly removing immigrants from problem areas.

As an immigrant myself, married to a family of immigrants, who found Sweden’s generous response to the refugee crisis of 2015 inspiring, I am saddened and dismayed by the Tidö agreement. Even if it is only continuing trends already apparent in Swedish society and politics, it both strengthens and accelerates them.

But there is also room to push back. The agreement calls for a large number of inquiries to be set up to investigate how to do all the things the new government wants to do. The word inquiry (utredning) appears in all its different forms no fewer than 182 times throughout the document.

The parties to the agreement each have a right to veto any proposal that emerges from these discussions.

This means there will be many opportunities for Swedish civil society to intervene and make its voice heard. Immigrant, expat and asylum-seeker organisations will need to organise themselves like never before if they want to defend multiculturalism and prevent Sweden’s open society from becoming a distant memory.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.