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Politics in Sweden: Six things we learned from a new interview with the migration minister

The Local's editor has listened to a new interview with the Swedish migration minister, the Social Democrats now know what went wrong in the last election, and the key interest rate decision you need to keep an eye on this week. That and much more in this week's Politics in Sweden column.

Politics in Sweden: Six things we learned from a new interview with the migration minister
Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard gave a long interview to public radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio Ekot’s Saturday interview show.

She spoke among other things about the many planned migration law changes proposed in the Tidö Agreement, the deal that allowed the Moderates and Christian Democrats to form a right-wing government with the controversial support of the far-right Sweden Democrats.

Here’s a roundup of some of the things that emerged from the interview (or didn’t emerge – there were several issues that she didn’t want to go into specifics on):

1. Asked by interviewer Johar Bendjelloul whether she felt she had been appointed to carry out the far-right Sweden Democrats’ migration policy, she said no, her job is to carry out what “the government and its collaboration parties, including the Sweden Democrats, have agreed”.

But she also conceded that the Sweden Democrats’ influence on the policies was significant.

2. The government and the Sweden Democrats are working on launching an inquiry that will look into whether or not to make it mandatory for Swedish authorities in general to report to the police and Migration Agency when they encounter someone in Sweden without the proper permits.

This has raised concern among for example teachers and hospital workers that they will have to act as informants and be unable to protect their students and patients. People without permits still have the right to urgent healthcare or, in the case of children, school.

Malmer Stenergard, when pressed on the issue, said that one-off exceptions could be made on compassionate grounds, for example in the case of healthcare staff. However, she said such exceptions would have to be investigated and that she preferred to await the inquiry before commenting on the specific details.

3. The government and the Sweden Democrats want to phase out the institution of permanent residence permits, but the bid that has caused the greatest concern would abolish some permanent permits that have already been handed out, instead replacing them with temporary permits.

But the move applies only to people who hold asylum-related permits, Malmer Stenergard reiterated. When pushed, she guaranteed several times that foreign residents who already hold permanent residence permits that are not related to asylum would not be affected.

She said she was “troubled” to hear that many people are worried that their permanent residency will be revoked, because “people who are living here in an honest way and are trying to learn Swedish, be self-sufficient and do everything they can to become a part of society, those people shouldn’t have to feel worried. If I’ve communicated in a way that’s caused that worry, I should think about how I communicate in the future.”

As regards to what would happen to people who are affected by the suggested changes to permanent residence permits, she said “First and foremost we will try to find a route for them to become citizens. In other cases we will look at what should happen to those who have permanent [permits], if they should be turned into temporary [permits].”

Again, she did not want to speak about specifics before there’s been an inquiry. Many lawyers have speculated that it will not even be possible to revoke permanent permits, due to Swedish administrative law stating that when a decision from authorities favours the individual, that decision can never be changed.

Malmer Stenergard said it would be up to the soon-to-be-launched inquiry to investigate those possibilities.

4. She said that the government was looking into how it could best help Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, including potentially making it possible for Ukrainian refugees to study Swedish for Immigrants (SFI). Currently, all that’s offered to them is a course called Swedish From Day One, which isn’t offered in all Swedish municipalities.

5. She said that the government was “constantly” evaluating the benefits of the 71 kronor ($6.74 according to today’s exchange rate) per day which are handed to asylum seekers to buy food, clothes and hygiene items. The sum, which is difficult to live on in Sweden today, has remained the same since 1994 – even as costs have risen – and has become the topic of debate following the arrival of thousands of Ukrainian refugees. However, she refused to say anything for sure.

6. Mikael Ribbenvik’s contract as director-general of the Migration Agency is set to expire in June. He has said he would like for it to be extended, but when asked, Malmer Stenergard only said that she was in “close dialogue” with him and that what was being said would remain between them until she is ready to announce a decision.

In other news

The centre-left Social Democrats, who have been in opposition since Sweden’s September election, soar to 36.7 percent in a new poll-of-polls by Kantar Sifo on behalf of public radio broadcaster Sveriges Radio Ekot. They got 30.33 percent in the election.

Together with its left-wing allies the party gets 54.0 percent, almost ten percentage points more than the ruling Moderates and its allies. The Moderates themselves climb to 18.8 percent, overtaking the far-right Sweden Democrats who drop to 18.0 percent.

There’s an easy explanation. Much of the public debate is currently focused on the economy, an area where, the CEO of Kantar Sifo told Ekot, the Social Democrats – and their decades of experience running Swedish finances – usually enjoy strong confidence, even among voters who usually vote conservative. It probably also helps that their current leader is former Finance Minister Magdalena Andersson.

The Social Democrats last week presented their analysis of the party’s performance in the September election. The party increased its votes in the election, but due to the poorer performance of its left-wing allies, it lost the government to the right wing.

The analysis expresses concern over its conclusion that the main reason behind the party’s growth was the popularity of party leader Magdalena Andersson, rather than its policies. It says, however, that it aims to reach the support of at least 40 percent of voters in the future. Here’s a link to the full analysis, in Swedish.

The Centre Party has a new leader. Muharrem Demirok at a party conference last week formally took over from Annie Lööf. You can read more about Demirok in this article by The Local, or by listening to the latest episode of our Sweden in Focus podcast.

And some government proposals that aren’t to do with migration: Business and Energy Minister Ebba Busch on Sunday promised to speed up permit approvals for sea-based wind power, which she in an interview with public broadcaster SVT’s news show Agenda called “one of our most important election pledges”.

What’s next?

Put February 9th in your diary. That’s when the Swedish Central Bank, under the new leadership of Erik Thedéen, will announce its latest decision on the interest rate. The bank is widely expected to raise the interest rate by another 0.5 percentage points. We’ll cover the announcement on The Local when it comes.

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Politics in Sweden: What is being done to cut the cost of living?

Here's the roundup of the week in Swedish politics, in the latest edition of The Local's Politics in Sweden column.

Politics in Sweden: What is being done to cut the cost of living?

Sweden’s Social Democrat-led opposition has been turning up their rhetoric in pushing the government for tougher action on the country’s rapidly rising inflation and cost of living.

Inflation now stands at 12 percent according to the Consumer Price Index (and 9.4 percent without taking the effect of fluctuating mortgage rates into account – you hear both figures in the political debate, but the latter is what the Central Bank – the Riksbank – uses).

Food is 21 percent more expensive than this time last year, which is the biggest yearly rise since the start of the 1950s, eclipsing even the high-inflation years of the 1970s.

The Social Democrats are now calling for parliament to debate the high cost of living.

“The government appears not to have realised the scope of the crisis and is not acting, so we have to discuss it in parliament,” Swedish news agency TT quoted the Social Democrats’ finance spokesperson, Mikael Damberg, as saying just the other day.

So what is the government doing?

The latest move by Finance Minister Elisabeth Svantesson is to call Sweden’s food giants to a meeting.

The Swedish grocery market is dominated by three main players: Ica, Axfood and Coop, with Ica owning around 50 percent of the market. This means that it’s easier for them to raise prices than it would be in a market with more competition from other companies.

“My message [to them] will be: how can we keep prices down, how should the price escalation be quelled, and to talk and make sure that none of these companies exploit the situation to raise prices,” Svantesson said, warning of “unnecessary” and “unacceptable” price increases.

The government has previously introduced an energy subsidy to help households with high electricity bills (the first batch of which was sent out to households in southern Sweden in the past few weeks) and lowered the price of fuel for vehicles (which has had limited impact at the pump).

It has not paused an amortisation requirement for mortgage holders, an election pledge which it had to pull back on after criticism from senior authorities.

In France, the government earlier this month created agreements with supermarkets to set lower prices on a number of everyday goods. The three-month scheme involves supermarkets applying special discounts and agreeing to take a cut in profits.

Calls have been made for Sweden to do the same thing, but it seems unlikely. Erik Thedéen, the new head of the Riksbank, dismissed the idea when asked by reporters, and John Hassler, a Stockholm University economist, also criticised such a move, saying it did not work when Sweden tried to combat high inflation in the 1980s.

The government also seems reluctant to roll out further support for households at this stage, with Svantesson telling TT that from her perspective, her main role at the moment is to “carry out responsible economic policy that doesn’t fuel inflation”.

You should, however, expect the Riksbank (which makes its decisions independently of the government) to raise Sweden’s key interest rate by up to half a percentage unit at its next meeting in April. This would set the rate at around 3.25-3.50 percent.

The Riksbank’s goal is to get inflation down to its target of two percent, but raising the interest rate could also have knock-on effects for households – at least property owners – if banks then feel that they have to raise the interest rate on mortgages.

On a positive note, as far as money goes, we’re heading into the summer months, so people won’t have to pay as much for heating their homes.

In other news

The Botkyrka politician whose supporters claimed was this year ousted due to gang infiltration has been beaten once again to the post of group leader of the local Social Democrats in a new vote. Ebba Östlin, the former mayor of Botkyrka, lost a vote on who should be the group leader of the local Social Democrats to her rival Emanuel Ksiazkiewicz, with only 80 votes to his 121. 

The local party had been in chaos since January, when Östlin lost a no-confidence vote of members, and resigned as mayor a few weeks later. After the vote, her supporters complained she had been the victim of a coup, and that people with known criminal connections had infiltrated the party in order to oust her. An internal investigation by the Social Democrats found no hard evidence to support the claim.

What’s next?

The Swedish parliament is expected to on Wednesday this week vote on the bill that would see lawmakers formally approve Sweden’s decision to join Nato.

The bill is expected to be voted through without any hiccups, although Turkey is still blocking the path to Nato membership.

Politics in Sweden is a weekly column by Editor Emma Löfgren looking at the big talking points and issues in Swedish politics. Members of The Local Sweden can sign up to receive an email alert when the column is published. Just click on this “newsletters” option or visit the menu bar.