2nd Dec 2023

Sweden's far-right is most anti-Green Deal party in EU

  • Sweden Democrats supporters ahead of the 2014 EU election (Photo: Wikimedia)
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Since 2020, the Sweden Democrats have voted the most against environmental regulations regarding or involving the Green Deal. Out of the 222 times the Sweden Democrats voted, 69.4 percent of the votes were against these green legislation.

The Green Deal is a plan proposed by the European Parliament so the EU has no net emission of greenhouse gasses by 2050 and a more circular economy. The Green Deal, which began in 2020 with a budget of €503bn, will affect every corner of Europe's economy and society.

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  • Sweden Democrats leader Jimmie Åkesson (Photo: News Oresund)

This ambitious plan was responded with enthusiasm by some and disdain from others. But the party who, proportionally to their votes, presents the most resistance comes from the historically environmentally-friendly and green trend-setting Sweden.

"The Swedish government has started to falter concerning the climate goals and it is the Sweden Democrats that are pushing for that in the background. Sweden is about to embarrass itself", says Roger Hildingsson, a Swedish political scientist.

According to the European Center for Populism Studies rightwing populism can be defined as the following: "[It's] a political ideology which combines rightwing politics and populist rhetoric and themes. The rhetoric often consists of anti-elitist sentiments, opposition to the perceived 'establishment', and speaking to the 'common people'."

Similarly, far-right ideologies include "extreme nationalism, nativist ideologies, and authoritarian tendencies". Far-right and populist right parties often overlap.

All the parties are either independent or belong to one of these three European Parliament groups: European Conservative and Reformers (ECR), Identity and Democracy (ID) or the European People's Party (PPE/EPP).

The populist right-wing parties that follow Sweden in voting the most against environmental regulations since 2020 belong to the Czech Republic, Finland and Germany with 61.2 percent, 60.4 percent and 60 percent of their votes, respectively. Greece, Romania and Slovenia have the rightwing parties that vote the least against green regulations at 8.2 percent, 7.6 percent and 6.8 percent, respectively.

The party's votes can also be separated into unofficial categories within the Green Deal.

They were crafted according to what the legislation was about and the issues they tackled. The categories are the following: agriculture, economy, energy, fishery, international, reduction of Co2 and Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), social justice, transport and miscellaneous.

In votes concerning the category social justice related to the Green Deal, the Sweden Democrats voted 100 percent against. Examples of regulations tackling this issue are: support to victims of environmental disasters and measures to strengthen human rights in relation to climate change. They also voted against the only international measures concerning the Green Deal — that is, about supporting sustainable and inclusive development in Africa.

According to Hildingsson, the voting in these categories is not surprising. "There they follow an old line of resistance to the EU. This thing about not transferring decision-making power with Brussels at all".

Sweden has long been held as an example of progressive and environmental politics both in the EU and in the world, Hildingsson says. However, he is worried that Sweden now is becoming an example of how a country lost its path and fell into the rightwing rabbit hole. To understand how this fall from grace occurred, we first need to understand who the Sweden Democrats are, the leaders of this political, economical and societal change.

Who are the Sweden Democrats?

The Sweden Democrats are on a mission to "Make Sweden Great Again", as stated on their website. According to their definition, their party is a social-conservative party with a nationalistic foundation, but social scientists define them as rightwing populists.

The group was founded in 1988 with ties to the neo-Nazi group Keep Sweden Swedish. It wasn't until 30 years later that the group started being recognised as a political force to be reckoned with. This last decade the Sweden Democrats' popularity rose to the point of now being the fastest-growing party in Sweden, and the second-biggest after the 2022 election.

The cause of this rapid increase in popularity has been mainly attributed to the large wave of immigrants that entered the country in the mid 2010s, which many citizens thought their inclusion into society was handled badly by the government. Furthermore, Sweden has seen a steady rise of gun and gang-related violence.

These events led to a general distrust of societal institutions and a conservative mindset that craves to live like they lived in the past, when 'Sweden was great'.

In short, the past decade proved to be a tipping point for Sweden's society. Faced by these new challenges and circumstances, the Sweden Democrats became the saving grace of millions that felt ignored by the state and uncertain of the rapidly-changing Swedish society.

Since then, members of the Sweden Democrats have the subject of major debate in Sweden. They have made a list of statements and actions that have been considered racist. Furthermore, already by 2018 the Sweden Democrats were top of the list in terms of the percentage of candidates accused of having committed crimes. Peter Lundgren, for example, one of their parliamentarians in the EU, was convicted of sexual assault in 2021. Because of this he left the party but still votes as an independent in the European Parliament.

In the last couple of months, the Sweden Democrats have made a succession of statements concerning the climate that many have deemed controversial and dangerous.

One of their members, Elsa Widding, recently stated that the climate crisis lacks scientific support. She is no longer a party member but votes independently in the Swedish parliament.

Hildingsson tells us that another typical argument they use is that Sweden is a small country and only accounts for a small amount of the world's greenhouse gas emissions — so other countries should do their part instead. This stance is commonly seen in other rightwing parties as well.

"A reason for this is that if you want to oppose the work of saving the climate, you will use the strategies that fit into that context. In some cases it is about saying that climate change is not happening and in some cases it is about saying that it is happening or that Sweden is too small or that the EU's policy goes too far. And with the Sweden Democrats, you can see this mixed rhetoric that is adapted to the audience," says Kjell Wolves, a doctoral student specialising in climate change in Chalmers University.

When the Sweden Democrats were asked about the voting data, they had two responses.

Firstly, regarding them being the far-right party that votes the most against regulations involving the Green Deal, they responded it was because "EU climate laws are not as controversial in southern and eastern Europe, mainly for economic reasons" (because countries in these regions have received funds from the EU, such the coronavirus pandemic recovery fund.)

They add that the Green Deal is an ineffective and expensive programme that "will inevitably be a financial failure and potentially also damage the environment along the way" — because it will cause the emissions made in European territory move elsewhere, not disappear, they suggest.

Furthermore, they state that "the vast majority of carbon emissions stem from China and India, not Europe".

All in all, they say they do think climate change is a real issue that should be taken seriously but the Green Deal is not the way to go. The decisions they make are to protect taxpayer money and what they believe is best for Sweden's people. According to them "The EU needs to realise that constant centralisation is the wrong way forward" and that instead they should focus on geopolitical independence, diversification and technological neutrality.

The basis of the Sweden Democrats' arguments, like much euroscepticism and working on behalf of 'the people', belong to the far-right populist European ideology and can be seen in other member states in the EU. But, how did these beliefs came to be? And why are they so popular now?

The rise of the European far-right

Matthew Lockwood, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex specialising in the politics of climate policy, says that when trying to describe the rise of the far-right in Europe, it's important to understand the concept of populism.

"I would say it is an ideology in which the basic division in society and politics is between the 'pure people' and a 'corrupt elite', and where there is a belief that politics should be an expression of the will of the people"

Populism tends to involve minority groups, like immigrants for example, blaming them for drawing the attention of the elite away from 'the people'.

He explains that during the past two decades there has been a global change in labour thanks to globalisation and new technology. This led to a decline in traditional semi-skilled and unskilled jobs that left workers feeling unrepresented by the traditional social democratic parties, which had started to turn to university-educated graduate voters.

Moreover, new social movements, immigration and other issues changed the socio-economic and political landscape of Europe leaving these workers feeling distressed and ignored.

"Populism is a reactive ideology. Their platform is created based on reacting to perceived crises", Lockwood adds.

For a long time it was immigration, but now climate change is the new crisis.

This issue has dominated the political agenda and made it an easy argument to unite behind and gain more followers. This not only is because of their reactionary nature, but also because the far-right populists see it as a cosmopolitan agenda that ignores 'the people'.

For them, it's an issue that is inherently tied to the EU, and rightwing parties have historically been both nationalistic and eurosceptic. Both before when immigration was the main crisis, and now, rightwing parties are able to gain supporters by spreading a conservative message that states that they're going to make things better like they were in the past.

The rightwing parties anti-green agenda is already in action across Europe. A quantitative study made by the University of Warwick and the University of Sussex, led by Lockwood, demonstrated that rightwing parties "have a significant negative impact on climate change policy".

Their presence in positions of power allow them to halt legislation that would help the environment. Furthermore, Adelphi University demonstrated that rightwing parties also affect climate change as they reject the issue as a pressing problem or as urgent as others.

The lack of interest in the subject leads them to not have environmental experts in their governments, no funds for research or environmental action, nor time to dedicate on the issue. So, either by ignorance or by action, rightwing parties have had a recognisable and measurable effect on climate policy.

What happens now?

Lockwood tells us the two ways that he thinks climate denial or scepticism in politics could come to an end. The first requires time and education, citing the strong association between supporting populist parties and not having a university education. People with higher education "tend to be more socially liberal, and certainly less skeptical about climate change".

The second option deals with how environmental activists handle the topic of climate change. Far-right party supporters are conservatives at heart, they want the world to be the way it was. And so activists' discourse needs to change to 'I wish this wasn't true'.

People are attracted to the climate denial argument because they are scared. The images environmentalists use and their messages spread not only a sense of urgency, but to many, also fear. Unless their psychology and state of mind is not taken into account when framing the climate change discourse, these voteres will still prefer the climate-denying or dismissive stance of far rightwing parties.

The case of the Sweden Democrats paints a picture of the social and political landscape of Europe where extremist nationalistic ideals are gaining popularity — even in the most progressive of countries.

This widespread support can have palpable and irreparable damage to the environment due to green scepticism and lack of interest in the topic. If far-right parties keep growing and environmental activists can't communicate their ideals with these parties' supporters, the future of a sustainable and ecological environment is uncertain.

Author bio

Greta Hirschberg and Anna Hallgren. Data analysis by Marine Delrue. This article is part of the "Crossborder Journalism Campus", an Erasmus+ project of the University of Gothenburg, Leipzig University and Centre de Formation des Journalistes in Paris. Additional reporting: Marine Delrue, Lena Eggert, Chiara Sterk, Claudia Karmann and Ange Torlotting.


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