Fears for Sweden's image as new government tacks to the right

Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson's government is reshaping foreign, immigration and climate policy

Tackling gang crime is one of the new Swedish government's main priorities. AFP
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Sweden’s tack to the right on climate change, foreign policy and immigration has left liberals alarmed about the country’s reputation abroad.

The new government, led by Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, is reliant on the far-right Sweden Democrats for a majority in Parliament.

In its first weeks in office, the government has abolished Sweden’s “feminist foreign policy”, closed the environment ministry and opened the door to hosting nuclear weapons on its territory.

Its early moves have raised concerns that Sweden, which gave the world climate activist Greta Thunberg and the Nobel Peace Prize, will take a hit to its global standing.

One concerned leftist, former foreign minister Margot Wallstrom, said on social media on Wednesday: “Should Sweden really not be able to stand for anything internationally any more?”

On one of the biggest domestic problems, a wave of gang crime in the cities, the government has promised to impose a tough new victims-first policy.

Mr Kristersson, who blames social exclusion in large part on immigration, has vowed to introduce stricter border controls.

'Feminist foreign policy'

In 2014, Sweden put gender equality at the heart of its diplomatic work, in what it called a "feminist foreign policy".

But Mr Kristersson has shifted focus to security threats following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The government will pursue a primarily Swedish and European foreign policy,” he said.

Hanna Walfridsson of Human Rights Watch said it was step in the wrong direction for a country previously known as a champion of women’s rights.

“While it is still too early to say how this rhetorical shift will play out in practice, the rebranding is troubling,” she said.

Swedish armoured vehicles take part in military exercises in the Arctic Circle. Reuters

Nuclear weapons

Sweden and Finland, which are both seeking Nato membership, said they would not insist on keeping the alliance’s nuclear weapons off their territory, at least at this stage.

The Social Democrats, the party that previously led Sweden’s government, said in May that the country would not host such weapons.

It was another striking shift for a country that celebrates its 200 years at peace and is known for championing nuclear disarmament through the Stockholm Initiative.

The initiative, and feminist foreign policy, are “examples of things that have brought together a number of countries, that drive issues important to us and the rest of the world", Ms Wallstrom said.

Beatrice Fihn, a Swedish Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who won for her campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, said the country's reputation had been harmed by the far right’s proximity to power.

Climate change

Sweden’s main climate goals, of reaching net zero emissions by 2045 and upholding the Paris Agreement, remain unchanged.

But activists were unnerved by the abolition of the environment ministry, which was merged into the business and energy brief.

An energy target was reworded from 100 per cent renewable to 100 per cent fossil-free, keeping the door open for nuclear power.

Some power plants, meanwhile, have been exempted from carbon taxes, and fuel duties frozen for three years, to ease energy costs.

Foreign aid

In another shift, Mr Kristersson abolished a target of spending 1 per cent of gross domestic product on foreign aid.

He said aid would remain generous, but that the volume would be “calculated by results”.

Sweden is known as one of the biggest donors to the UN’s refugee agency and other humanitarian groups.

The lobby group Action Aid said it was “clear Sweden’s new government has deprioritised matters that should warrant the highest degree of concern”.

Sweden's Cabinet under Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, centre. AP

Immigration

Curbing immigration was the key demand of the Sweden Democrats in the run-up to the recent election.

Since taking office, Mr Kristersson has announced a “paradigm shift” to cut what he called unsustainable migration.

Planned measures include stricter conditions for migrants to bring their family members to Sweden, a longer route to citizenship and a move to make deportations easier.

Asylum legislation “will be adapted to ensure that it is not more generous than is required", he said.

Gang crime

Tackling an epidemic of gangland shootings in Swedish cities was another major theme of the election campaign.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Gunnar Strommer unveiled what he called the biggest offensive against organised crime in Sweden’s history.

Police numbers will be increased and officers given new surveillance powers to take on the underworld.

“For too long, the perpetrator has been the focus of Swedish criminal law. The government wants to change this,” authorities said.

Taking on organised crime is also one of five stated priorities for Sweden’s six-month presidency of the EU, which starts on January 1.

Updated: November 03, 2022, 2:18 PM
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