STOCKHOLM – Sweden holds the European Union's powerful presidency for the next six months, but there are concerns in the EU that a hard-line Swedish far right will hold back the Nordic nation in fulfilling its ambitions for the 27-nation bloc.
Occupying the rotating presidency allows a member nation to help set the EU's tone and the agenda, a crucial task with the war in Ukraine still raging, migration issues putting several nations on edge and trade disputes creating a rift with Washington.
“It will be our responsibility to try to steer this ship,” Lars Danielsson, Sweden's permanent representative to the EU, said ahead of a European Commission visit to his country this week.
However, the leverage and strong domestic influence of the far-right Sweden Democrats, Sweden’s second-biggest party, could make the job more difficult.
Following Sweden's September elections, three center-right parties agreed to form a coalition government led by Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson. But it relies on the support of the Sweden Democrats, which puts the party in a position to influence policies even though it holds no Cabinet seats.
The Sweden Democrats were founded in the 1980s by people who had been active in right-wing extremist groups, including neo-Nazis. It has softened its tone but retains a hard line on immigration.
“Defending the rule of law all across Europe, promoting equality and advancing on a common migration and asylum policy seem difficult with a Swedish government swayed by the extreme right,” warned Iratxe García Perez, the leader of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament.
Mats Engström, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, said it was hard to see the Swedish presidency “pushing for far-reaching effort-sharing between member states when it comes to the migration waves” that EU leaders are expected to discuss during a summit next month.
Since the 2015 arrival in the EU of well over 1 million refugees and migrants, Sweden’s traditionally welcoming attitudes have changed. Calls for stricter controls come from the far right but also parties in the center of the political spectrum.
At the EU level, nations have argued for years over who should host and take responsibility for asylum-seekers, and they have made very little progress in their latest discussions on the overhaul of the bloc’s asylum system.
Hopes for a breakthrough during Sweden's presidency, the country's third since joining the bloc in 1995, are close to zero.
“The government’s restrictive migration policy domestically is a red flag to say the least,” Swedish lawmaker Abir Al-Sahlani said.
Under EU rules, the member country holding the presidency of the European Council is in charge of organizing and presiding over meetings to seal deals, and guaranteeing efficient cooperation between members with conflicting interests.
Several Swedish government officials have tried to play down worries, insisting that the Sweden Democrats have agreed to work as honest brokers to guarantee a successful presidency.
“I think that will work very well," Swedish EU Affairs Minister Jessika Roswall said Wednesday. “It's like in the EU, where 27 member states have to compromise. We also sometimes have to compromise. It's not more complicated than that."
In line with the EU's Green Deal, Sweden has made the green transition a priority, with the aim to conclude negotiations on the so-called Fit for 55 package of climate and energy laws.
The Sweden Democrats had the lowest score of all political parties on climate and environment policies in an assessment made by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation ahead of the 2022 election. Amid global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the party campaigned for cheaper fuel prices for motorists.
Some elected members have called fighting climate change gesture politics and openly denied the climate crisis during Swedish Parliament sessions.
Sweden's climate minister, Romina Pourmokhtari, told reporters Wednesday that “the Sweden Democrats have agreed on having ambitious climate policy and doing good work when it comes to climate."
Sweden will also conduct tricky discussions on how to counter the United States' Inflation Reduction Act, which the EU sees as discriminating against European businesses.
“Sweden will work towards agreement on climate and environmental legislative proposals. But the traditional resistance against new EU funds, such as the sovereignty fund proposed by (European Commission President) Ursula von der Leyen in light of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, will be even stronger with the Sweden Democrats’ influence," Engström told The Associated Press.
Despite Sweden's strong record on issues related to the respect of democratic standards, some EU lawmakers are also worried the Sweden Democrats' influence will lead to a softer stance toward Poland and Hungary, two member countries regularly at odds with the EU over judicial independence and democratic standards.
Danielsson said his country will “definitely continue to work with rule of law issue in the same vein as we've done."
David Keyton in Stockholm contributed.