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SWEXIT

INTERVIEW: How best to respond to the Sweden Democrats’ Swexit gambit

The far-right Sweden Democrats have tried to fire up the long-dormant debate over Sweden's membership of the European Union. We spoke to Lund University professor Ian Manners about what it means and what to do about it.

INTERVIEW: How best to respond to the Sweden Democrats' Swexit gambit
Sweden joined the EU in 1995 following a referendum. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

In tweets, interviews, one article in the Aftonbladet tabloid and a second one in Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, Sweden Democrat leader Jimmie Åkesson outlined his party’s new tougher position, with calls for mandatory referendums on extensions of EU powers, an analysis of how to reduce the negative impacts of EU membership, and, finally, cautionary preparations to leave.

 

For Manners, a political scientist and EU expert, this is all about repositioning the party.

“He’s caught in a very difficult position in that he’s effectively in a governing coalition, although they’re not in government, and they have no clear anti-system position, because they are in effect part of the ruling coalition in some strange way.” 

Reviving a battle against the EU would allow the party to position itself against the broadly pro-EU Moderate and Liberal parties in the coalition, and also against the Social Democrats, Green and Centre parties of the opposition. 

“In some respects, this is an attempt to ignite support within the party for something distinctive that makes them look different to the other three partners in the ruling coalition,” Manners explained. 

It will also, though, help it find someone to blame if some of its most prominent policies wins fail to make it through parliament and into Swedish law. 

Åkesson and other leading Sweden Democrats, Manners believes, are quickly realising that many of the most hardline policies on migration, energy and environment won in the agreement with the three governing parties will be impossible to enact, as they clash with laws already agreed at an EU level or with the European Convention on Human Rights, or will be challenged by the European Court of Human Rights. 

“What’s become clear over time is that almost nothing EU-related in the Tidö Agreement has materialised in the way that Åkesson, or in fact the other parties, imagined,” Manners said. 

This has probably come as a shock, he added. 

“I’ve met enough SD MPs and MEPs that I don’t think they have that sense of consciousness of what it might mean to enter into a ruling coalition agreement like the Tidö Agreement and the extent to which it would be literally impossible to enact some of the policies made, so I think this probably comes as a little bit of a surprise for them.”

The European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, he pointed out, “really binds your hands on a lot of the migration issues and on the treatment of refugees”. 

The same was true for a slew of other policies in the agreement, as anyone with an understanding would have known. 

“It was quite clear that actually, the government can have little influence over EU energy policy and environment policy and to a certain extent other EU-associated policy,” Manners said. “These are policies that are quite distinctly agreed at the EU level, not at national levels.”

As the Sweden Democrats have realised this, their animosity to the EU, downplayed since 2019, has revived. 

Åkesson’s two articles, while stopping short of calling for Sweden to leave the European Union, contain some radical proposals nonetheless.

The first article complained that EU membership was becoming like “a straitjacket” for Sweden, with EU decisions determining Swedish legislation over forestry, vehicles and fuel, and much of what happens in regional and local government.

The second proposed three government inquiries designed to prevent more powers being transferred from Sweden to the EU:

  • an inquiry into mandatory referendums on any significant extension of EU powers or funding requirements 
  • an inquiry into what actions Sweden can take to ensure that it is prepared to leave the EU, such as removing parts of constitution which state that Sweden is an EU member and training civil servants in trade negotiations 
  • an inquiry into reducing the negative impacts of EU membership, by analysing which EU directives have been “over-implemented”, and ensuring that Sweden only meets the minimum requirements of EU laws 

Manners said that the referendum inquiry was the one that the government should perhaps be most wary of. 

“If I were the Sweden Democrats, I would be after a referendum and I think that’s what they want: anything that splits both their enemies and their coalition members,” he said. 

Rather than an in-out referendum on EU membership, like the one held in the UK, the Sweden Democrats were probably hoping instead to engineer a referendum on a future planned extension of EU powers. 

Manners thinks that pro-European Union forces in Sweden should learn from the example of the UK and go into action as soon as possible, moving to educate the Swedish public in advance not only of the risks of leaving the EU, but also of having the kinds of opt-outs from some EU policy areas, as Denmark has had. 

After Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a 1992 referendum, the country obtained four opt-outs from the treaty, covering the Euro, defence and security policy, justice and home affairs, and citizenship. 

The result, Manners argues, was “a total waste of diplomatic capital”, with Denmark’s government and EU diplomats spending all their time managing their opt-outs, meaning they had no energy to push forward other policies they wanted to advance in the EU. 

While the idea of Sweden rejecting a core piece of future EU legislation, let alone voting to leave the EU, may seem far-fetched, Manners said experience showed it was all too possible. 

“It seems hard to imagine in Sweden, but having seen it happen in the UK, and certainly in Denmark over and over (…) it comes with a surprise and it comes with a shock. And the surprise is that anyone is stupid enough to hold a referendum, and the shock is that you have no way of predicting what will happen at any referendum.”

For the Sweden Democrats, a referendum would allow it to dominate one whole side of the debate, attracting any voters wishing to prevent the expansion of EU powers. 

However the risks of the new policy gambit were at least as big as the potential benefits, Manners argued, with few supporting the proposed ideas even within the Sweden Democrats. 

“I think actually it will quite possibly backfire. If you look at some of the dog whistle sentences in the article in Aftonbladet, one is, ‘we need to evaluate our membership of the EU’. Well, there’s literally no support for that.” 

A recent survey of Swedish voters, carried out by the SOM Institute at Gothenburg University, found that support for EU membership was higher today than at any time since Sweden joined the EU in 1994, with 68 percent of voters in favour and only 11 percent against. 

This was even the case for Sweden Democrat voters, a full 43 percent of whom said they were “essentially in favour” of Swedish EU membership, up from 23 percent as recently as 2021. Only 31 percent of Sweden Democrats said they were “essentially against” EU membership. 

This picture could change if Åkesson and his party colleagues start to campaign on the issue and Manners said he thought it was important for pro-EU forces in Sweden to use this opportunity to make their case. 

“The place that Swexit would really hurt is down here in the south of Sweden,” he said, based in Lund. “Imagine all the agriculture and the small and medium-sized industries in Skåne. Imagine all the transport and commuters, all the jobs that are dependent on flowing across the bridge. It’s going to get hurt twice as bad as the rest of Sweden. And this is the base for the Sweden Democrats.” 

He said he believed that pro-EU politicians and media in Sweden should actively discuss the most concrete, material impacts of leaving the European Union. 

He mentioned the long queues of trucks you would expect ahead of the Öresund Bridge, the likely impact on the krona, or the impact on the big investment decisions currently being made in the north of Sweden in car battery manufacturing or Green Steel. 

Even having the debate or putting in place the inquiries Åkesson was proposing could risk these investments or affect the currency, said Manners. 

“Countries do need to have a discussion about what it might potentially mean to leave the EU, so that there is a far greater awareness of the heightened risks,” he said. “Because we never had that discussion in the UK.” 

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DRIVING

EU countries to extend range of offences foreign drivers can be fined for

The EU has agreed to extend the number of driving offences for which motorists from other member states can be fined for and to make it easier for authorities to chase up the fines and make foreign drivers pay.

EU countries to extend range of offences foreign drivers can be fined for

In the last voting session of this term, in April, the European Parliament passed new rules to ensure drivers who breach local traffic rules in another EU member state are found and fined.

The cross-border enforcement (CBE) directive was first adopted in 2015 after it was found that non-resident drivers were more likely to commit speeding offences. The European Commission estimated that in 2008, foreign drivers accounted for about 5 percent of road traffic in the EU but committed around 15 percent of speeding offences.

The directive partially improved the situation, but according to the Commission 40 percent of traffic violations committed in other EU countries are still unpunished “because the offender is not identified or because the fine is not enforced”.

In March 2023, the Commission therefore proposed updating existing measures.

New rules extend the type of offences that will trigger assistance from another member state and seek to improve collaboration among national authorities to identify and fine offenders.

The European Parliament and Council agreed in March on the final text of the directive, which is now being formally approved by the two institutions.

André Sobczak, Secretary-General at Eurocities, a group representing European cities in Brussels, said: “While the final outcome of the discussions is not ideal, we are pleased that EU policymakers have at least put the issue of the enforcement of local traffic rules on foreign vehicles on the table. As we approach an election year, I believe such a practical example can demonstrate why a European approach is necessary to address local issues.”

Which traffic offences are covered?

The previous directive covered eight driving misconducts that would require member states to cooperate: speeding, not wearing seat belts, failing to stop at a red traffic light, drink-driving, driving under the effect of drugs, not wearing a helmet (motorcycles / scooters), using a forbidden lane and using a mobile phone or other communication devices while driving.

The Commission proposed to add to the list not keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front, dangerous overtaking, dangerous parking, crossing one or more solid white lines, driving the wrong way down a one way street, not respecting the rules on “emergency corridors” (a clear lane intended for priority vehicles), and using an overloaded vehicle.

The Parliament and Council agreed to these and added more offences: not giving way to emergency service vehicles, not respecting access restrictions or rules at a rail crossings, as well as hit-and-run offences.

Despite calls from European cities, the new directive does not cover offences related to foreign drivers avoiding congestion charges or low emission zones. In such cases, information about vehicle registration can only be shared among countries with bilateral agreements.

Karen Vancluysen, Secretary General at POLIS, a network of cities and regions working on urban transport, called on the next European Commission to take other local traffic offences, such as breaches of low emission zones, “fully at heart”.

Collaboration among national authorities

For the traffic violations covered by the directive, EU countries have to help each other to find the liable driver. The new directive further clarifies how.

Member states will have to use the European vehicle and driving licence information system (Eucaris) to get the data of the offender.

National authorities will have 11 months from the date of the violation to issue the fine to a vehicle from another EU member state. However, they will not have to resort to agencies or private entities to collect the fine. This was requested by the European Parliament to avoid scams or leaks of personal data.

Authorities in the country of the offender will have to reply to requests from another EU member state within two months.

When the amount of the fine is more than €70, and all options to have it paid have been exhausted, the member state where the violation occurred can ask the country of the offender to take over the collection.

The person concerned will be able to request follow-up documents in a different official EU language.

When will the new rules will be enforced?

Now that the EU Parliament has passed the law, the EU Council has to do the same, although there is no date set for when that will happen. Once the directive is adopted, EU countries will have 30 months to prepare for implementation.

Last year the Commission also proposed a new directive on driving licenses, but negotiations on the final text of this file will only take place after the European elections.

This article has been produced in collaboration with Europe Street news.

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