How will Sweden’s right turn affect its foreign policy priorities?

With a new government in place, will Sweden’s shift to the right change its aspirations for NATO membership, or its relations with the EU and UK?

Interview
5 minute READ

Anna Wieslander

Director, Northern Europe, Atlantic Council

Although the Sweden Democrats are not formally part of Sweden’s new government, the ruling minority coalition will depend on parliamentary support from the far-right party, giving them influence over government policy for the first time. This represents a clear shift to the right for a country with a long history of social democratic governments. How will this change Sweden’s international profile? And are the Sweden Democrats likely to have any real influence over Sweden’s foreign and defence policy?

The new government is led by the conservative Moderate Party, in coalition with the Liberals and the Christian Democrats. As set out in the Tidö agreement, they cooperate with the Sweden Democrats in six major areas: health, crime, climate and energy, education, migration and integration, and growth and economy. Foreign, security and defence policy are not included directly as areas of cooperation. But in the areas covered by the agreement, I think Sweden’s international profile will be affected in two major ways.

There will be a paradigm shift when it comes to immigration where Sweden is going from a very generous asylum policy to doing the minimum required by EU members according to EU law.

Firstly, there will be a paradigm shift when it comes to immigration where Sweden is going from a very generous asylum policy to doing the minimum required by EU members according to EU law. Sweden used to be, together perhaps with Germany, the country with the most generous immigration policy so this is a definite shift, largely influenced by the Sweden Democrats, although reducing immigration is also a Moderate Party policy.

Secondly, Sweden is to decrease its spending on development aid. Sweden has had a relatively high average at 1 per cent of gross national income (GNI), the international norm is 0.7 per cent. The new government has not said that it will aim for 0.7 per cent instead but they have abandoned the 1 per cent target. This has been a profile issue for Sweden for a long time and abandoning it will result in a range of changes for Sweden internationally. Here too we can see the influence of the Sweden Democrats, but this was also a policy of the Moderate Party before the election.

There are also areas that will be strengthened. For example, defence spending will increase to two per cent of GDP faster than set out by the previous government. That timeline is now set for 2026 at the latest, it was 2028 previously. This is also a clear shift in Sweden’s international profile.

 Leader of the Liberal party Johan Pehrson, Leader of the Sweden Democrats Jimmie Akesson, Leader of the Moderate party Ulf Kristersson and Leader of the Christian Democrats Ebba Busch arrive for the press conference on the formation of a coalition government in Stockholm, Sweden on 14 October 2022. Photo by JONAS EKSTROMER/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images.

 Leader of the Liberal party Johan Pehrson, Leader of the Sweden Democrats Jimmie Akesson, Leader of the Moderate party Ulf Kristersson and Leader of the Christian Democrats Ebba Busch arrive for the press conference on the formation of a coalition government in Stockholm, Sweden on 14 October 2022. Photo by JONAS EKSTROMER/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images.

Sweden’s new foreign minister, Tobias Billström, has announced that the new government will end Sweden’s feminist foreign policy that was introduced in 2014, saying that Sweden’s foreign policy should be focused on Swedish interests and values. Based on this, what are the new government’s foreign policy priorities?

The new government has emphasized the EU as its most important foreign policy platform, that remains unchanged. It has also emphasized Sweden’s Nordic and Baltic neighbours, aiming to get more influence in the EU by cooperating on a Nordic-Baltic platform. I would expect more of that and perhaps a little less focus on the United Nations, which is traditionally a big area for the Social Democrats.

The feminist foreign policy was a key issue for the social democratic government that was in power from 2014. Going forward, I think the epithet feminist will be abandoned as that is more closely related to the Social Democrats, but it is a longstanding tradition for Sweden to have a strong focus on the international rules-based order, human rights and equality and I would expect that to continue.

The government has defined three major focus areas for its foreign policy. The first is completing Sweden’s accession to NATO together with Finland. There is a broad consensus on this, and it will be actively pursued by trying to reach an agreement with Turkey, for it to approve Sweden’s NATO accession. The second is the EU presidency which Sweden assumes on 1 January 2023. The third focus area is to strengthen support to Ukraine, focusing on preparing for civilian reconstruction, aid, and increased military support. For instance, there have been discussions about providing Ukraine with the moveable artillery system Archer. This could move forward under the new government.

Sweden assumes the EU presidency in January 2023. At a time when Europe is facing a series of crises, what is likely to be Sweden’s main focus during the presidency?

There is a strong platform here, all parties in the Swedish parliament have agreed on the focus areas for the EU presidency. The number one issue is security for EU citizens, and that includes support to Ukraine. Then there is climate change, energy supplies, digital transformation and technology, the competitiveness of the EU, and strengthening the single market. These are important points for Sweden, because the EU is important for Sweden and very important for its economy, especially as Sweden appears to be moving towards a recession. The EU is of course also important for security reasons in the current climate.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (L) hold a press conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on 8 November 2022. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson (L) hold a press conference following their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on 8 November 2022. Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden applied for NATO membership, breaking with its long tradition of neutrality. Will this continue to be a priority under the new government? With Hungary and Turkey yet to approve Sweden’s NATO accession, do you see any potential roadblocks in the negotiations?

There is a broad consensus on continuing the road towards NATO membership and this is the first priority of the new government. The new prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, visited NATO headquarters only two days after taking office. Standing side by side with NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg, he was clearly signalling how important this is. Another indicator of its importance is the fact that Sweden is increasing its defence spending up to 2 per cent of GDP even faster than previously planned.

Following Turkey’s criticism of Sweden, Kristersson will want to emphasize that Sweden will contribute to the security of the whole of the alliance and will be tough and strong on terrorism. Erdogan and Kristersson have held a first meeting in Ankara to discuss terrorism and the extraditions that Turkey expects from Sweden, with another meeting scheduled for next month. There seems to be some early indications from Turkey that negotiations could be easier with this government as the previous government had particularly close relations with Kurdish groups in Sweden and that was not received well in Ankara.

There seems to be some early indications from Turkey that [NATO] negotiations could be easier with this government as the previous government had particularly close relations with Kurdish groups in Sweden and that was not received well in Ankara.

The expression ‘ryssen kommer’ or ‘the Russians are coming’ has a long history in Sweden and for many Swedes this fear resurfaced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Sweden has faced Russian threats of retaliation over its bid to join NATO. How is the threat of Russian aggression changing Swedish foreign and defence policy? And do you think this has helped change popular opinion on issues such as increasing defence spending?

It is very clear that this paradigm shift, from more than 200 years of military non-alignment to applying for NATO membership, is connected to the unprecedented level of threat from Russia. Its actions towards a neighbouring country, a full-scale invasion, that really shook us up. It shook up both Sweden and Finland. And you can see that in the polls on support for NATO membership, this was a wake-up call for a lot of Swedes. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 also resulted in a push towards NATO, more people started to think it would be a good idea for Sweden to join. But this is a new situation, this level of Russian aggression. The way Russia is conducting its war on Ukraine, hitting civilians, making no attempts to negotiate, has caused a big shift in Sweden. We will not look at Russia the same way as perhaps we could for a number of years after the end of the Cold War.

A 2017 study by the Swedish Institute of International Affairs found that Russia had been waging an information war against Sweden. At the start of this year, Sweden launched a new government agency, the Psychological Defence Agency, to fight fake news and counter foreign interference. How important will this type of defence be in the future? And do you think disinformation has played a role in the increased polarization in Swedish society?

This is already part of deterrence to a large extent, because there are ongoing information operations from Russia and other actors into peacetime society in Sweden, as in other Western countries. This has been going on for many years, definitely noticeable from 2014 onwards, so it is important to build resilience, resistance and awareness among citizens that they could be targeted. It is important that citizens have a critical mind, think for themselves and know what information sources are reliable and provide facts. I would expect the focus on this to increase in the education system, to see new authorities and increased monitoring.

We have been able to trace connections between domestic extremist groups and foreign actors, such as Russia, not least on social media.

When it comes to the polarization of society, we have been able to trace connections between domestic extremist groups and foreign actors, such as Russia, not least on social media. So there are ways that state adversaries can use extremist groups within a country and increase polarization in order to shake democratic institutions, create distrust for such institutions or more hostility between different groups. This is a rather efficient instrument for adversaries. There have also been unsuccessful attempts by Russia, for instance when they tried to launch Sputnik in Sweden. But while there is a critical way of thinking in Sweden, the way that adversaries can use different groups is important to be aware of – this also could involve links into established parties.

What do you expect will happen to UK-Sweden relations going forward, especially on foreign and defence policy?

UK-Sweden relations on defence and security policy have traditionally been strong and have developed a lot in the past few years. After Brexit, Sweden has experienced an increased interest from the UK towards Baltic Sea security and northern Europe, both through the Northern Group and the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF).

When JEF was launched in 2014, it was in connection to the NATO summit in Wales and introduced as a framework concept for NATO. It was meant to be more expeditionary and applied everywhere, but it has developed into an instrument for security in northern Europe and the Baltic Sea. It has also been a key part of the reassurance measures that the UK has provided for Sweden and Finland since becoming invitees to NATO. If you look at activities below Article 5, so-called grey zone activities, the JEF is an instrument we can use to show force and show that we are acting together.

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Northern Group, also a UK initiative, could perhaps be developed even further when it comes to regional consultations and thinking ahead on common challenges, and I would expect this to continue as Sweden and Finland join NATO. Some Northern Group activities will be part of the bigger NATO framework, and we will also have to work with NATO on some issues, but as the UK is a dedicated NATO ally, I think there are opportunities here.

Sweden would have liked to see more cooperation between the EU and the UK on security and defence after Brexit. The UK is joining the military mobility project as third party and that is very much welcomed by Sweden. The UK focus on Russia and the understanding of the Russian threat is also important for Sweden.

Close relations in these areas are a priority for Sweden, and I think for the UK as well, we are like-minded nations. There are plenty of opportunities but the new dimension will be how the two countries work together within the NATO framework.