How Sweden’s feminist foreign policy could change after the 2018 election

How Sweden's feminist foreign policy could change after the 2018 election
French President Emmanuel Macron and Swedish PM Stefan Löfven at an EU meeting in Gothenburg. Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall
How will the result of the forthcoming Swedish general election impact the way Sweden deals with the rest of the world? The Local looks at seven key foreign policy issues that could be affected in 2018 – including everything from Israel-Palestine and the US to Russia and India.

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström outlined the current government's foreign policy in a traditional annual speech to the Riksdag earlier this year, and there were a number of points of note.

A key matter for example was the announcement of a full-time envoy to work on the Israel-Palestine conflict, a subject government and Wallström herself have not been afraid to wade into.

READ ALSO: Sweden to name special envoy to Israel-Palestine peace process

Sweden's attitude towards the European Union, its position on joining military alliances like Nato, relations with Russia, relations with the US, its approach to emerging markets like India, and of course, its feminist foreign policy are other notable subjects that came up.

But with none of Sweden's major parties strong enough to hold a majority in parliament, it is unclear whether the current Social Democrat-Green government will stay or be replaced by a different coalition after Swedes go to the polls next September.

The Local looks at each of the above foreign policy areas in detail, and how different potential governments may take different approaches to them after the 2018 election.

The Israel-Palestine question

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy issue of all as we reach the end of 2017, the current Swedish government has made no secret of throwing its weight behind a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and quickly criticized Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as damaging for that process.

READ ALSO: Swedish government 'deeply regrets' Trump Jerusalem statement

Previous centre-right governments in Sweden have also backed a two-state solution, and it is unlikely that the results of the 2018 election will dramatically change that, according to Ian Manners, a Skåne-based political scientist who has written for the Danish Institute for International Studies and specializes in international and European Union politics.

“Within the EU everyone signed up to not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and that reinforces Sweden's position with regards to continuing that way,” Manners said.

“If the Sweden Democrats were a different kind of party and more like for example the (fellow populist) Danish People's Party there might be more likelihood of them pushing to follow Trump, but they're not, they have roots in anti-Semitism so they're not likely to do any favours to Israel. So whoever the Foreign Minister or PM is next time, I don't see that changing.”

Foreign Minsiter Margot Wallström outlining Sweden's 2017 foreign policy vision. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Joining military alliances

The current Swedish government has maintained the long-standing tradition of keeping Sweden out of military alliances like Nato, and with polls in recent years suggesting Swedish support for becoming a member tends to fluctuate, there is little impetus for the Social Democrats in particular to make a u-turn as things stand.

The Moderates on the other hand do back Sweden joining Nato, as do the other centre-right party likely to play a significant role in the election, the Centre Party, so an Alliance government would be more likely to change the country's policy.

Manners pointed out however that uncertainty over Nato's future now that Donald Trump is president in the US means things aren't as clear cut in the area as they may seem.

“Being part of Nato is not what it once was. Sweden anyway basically allows Nato flyovers, military deployment on Swedish soil – in the past unthinkable – and the Aurora exercise (involving French and US troops) happened in Sweden also.”

READ ALSO: Sweden votes yes to controversial Nato deal

“Trump weakens the cause for joining Nato too. If there had been a left-winger in the White House, progressive Swedish parties would have been more open to Nato, but now, it has to be asked what the point is if Trump may not be ready to help if something happens. Right now I don't see anything changing on this.”

READ ALSO: 'Trump's views on Russia could be a problem if Sweden wants to join Nato'

Swedish appetite for joining Nato has been inconsistent. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

The European Union

Unlike in the United Kingdom, there is no real appetite among Swedish voters to leave the European Union, with support for the EU actually increasing after the Brexit vote in 2016.

READ ALSO: Why Brexit has made Swedish support for the EU surge

It is no surprise then that the parties who have governed in recent years are all pro-EU – you won't see the Social Democrats, Greens, Moderates, LiberalsChristian Democrats or Centre Party campaigning on a policy to get Sweden out of the union come autumn 2018.

“It's not a vote-winner. Both the Social Democrats and Moderates in terms of their economic positions broadly agree on Europe, and even a Moderate-led government would like many of the things said at the Gothenburg summit recently because they reinforce and strengthen the position of the Swedish state and its relationship to the EU market.”

“There's also an opportunity after Brexit for countries like Sweden, as well as Denmark and the Czech Republic, to be slightly more pro-active on the social side of things. The (Emmanuel) Macron agenda is not that far from both of the leading parties in Sweden. The idea of creating a European monetary fund that could potentially help out both structural problems as well as inject into training and research is quite close to a centrist Swedish policy. That could be something Sweden and other smaller countries could get behind. A more 'socially responsible' Europe.”

The only Euro-sceptic party likely to make a major impact in the 2018 election is the Sweden Democrats (SD), but with everyone else other than their political opposites the Left Party in a different camp, they would likely have a hard time putting real pressure on other parties to push an anti-EU agenda.

“At the Europa Day in Hässleholm earlier this year I shared a stage with an SD representative on the European Committee. What I found was that, they are the only Swedish party vociferously in favour of Swexit, and they have absolutely no idea why they would do it, and what it would entail,” Manners said scathingly.

“The Left Party were outspoken about being against the EU but even they are very careful nowadays and I suspect wouldn't support Swexit or a referendum. Events in the UK have scared the living daylights out of Swedes and created a learning process.”

Swedish PM Löfven and French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting of EU leaders in Gothenburg. Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT

Feminist foreign policy

The government defines Sweden's feminist foreign policy as meaning that the country's international commitments and foreign policy goals on peace, security and sustainable development ensure “women and girls enjoy their fundamental human rights”.

If re-elected there is little to suggest the Social Democrats will divert from that path and abandon one of their key messages of this mandate, but the Moderates may be less inclined to use the term “feminist” if their new leader's actions are anything to go by. In October, Ulf Kristersson declined an opportunity to call himself a feminist in an interview.

“Much of it right now is built around having Margot Wallström as Foreign Minister. The loss of her as a Foreign Minister if that were to occur would be a big question,” Manners observed.

The Centre Party's involvement in government may also have an influence in this regard. They have been picking up female voters from the Moderates according to the polls, and leader Annie Lööf has been an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement, calling it a “revolution” on several occasions.

“If the Social Democrats formed a government with the Centre Party and Liberals, headed by at least one, perhaps two female candidates, you may see some continuation of feminist foreign policy,” Manners predicted.

“This is where very specific dynamics come into play. If Ebba Busch Thor and the Christian Democrats drop out because they don't meet the four-percent threshold, forming a right-wing government could become impossible, and that would allow the Centre Party and Liberals to drift into a working relationship with the Social Democrats, perhaps even a coalition. That may sustain a more feminist foreign policy.”

READ ALSO: Polls suggest Sweden could be heading for a new form of government

Ulf Kristersson has avoided labelling himself a feminist. Photo: Björn Larsson Rosvall/TT


With the exception of SD – who have been less outspoken on the matter – one subject that the leaders of Sweden's major political parties generally agree on is their negative perspective on Russia. Moderate leader Kristersson for example has warned that Russia may try to interfere in the 2018 election, while Swedish PM Löfven has voiced similar concerns.

“Cyber activities and cyber attacks are a constant factor, and they'll only get stronger and stronger,” Manners predicted, adding that there is little to suggest the currently frosty relations will improve with the election.

“It's hard to remember a time, both post and during the Cold War when Sweden was less sympathetic to Russia. The time when Sweden was a 'middle way' is long ago, this is the Ice Age of Swedish relations with Russia,” he emphasized.

“SD is the interesting factor. Quite clearly – though they won't admit it publicly – they're pro-Putin. There was the issue with the SD member getting involved in election oversight, and that was the tip of the iceberg in some respects.”

“What SD could do, if they're a government influencer, is become a sort of 'hidden drag'. So in other words, it becomes hard to come out with strong statements for the governing party if there's another party working against you.”

Wallström meeting Russian foreign minister Sergej Lavrov in Moscow. Photo: Maria Davidsson/TT

The US

The current government has been vocally critical of the Trump administration in the US when it comes to certain specific issues, most notably in his approach to North Korea, recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and least surprisingly of all, the US President's spreading of misinformation about Sweden.

The centre-right parties are not much kinder. When asked recently if he felt safe with Trump in the White House, Moderate leader Kristersson said the US President “stands for values that are far from where mine are” and quipped that he is too quick to put his fingers on his phone and “write things that a leader in the free world shouldn't express”.

“The difficulty Sweden now has with the US, left or right, is related to Trump as an ideological force rather than the US. Him naming Sweden, the 'last night in Sweden' moment, naming something that didn't even exist, couldn't have touched a sorer spot in the Swedish psyche, as it's seen as unjust by most,” Manners said.

The only Swedish party to show any real support for the current US administration is SD.

“They're more open about standing up for what he wants because of the refugee issues – he's pushing the same sort of buttons as they are in that regard,” said Manners.

Donald Trump hasn't been friendly towards Sweden. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

India, China and emerging markets

With new markets continually emerging, growing economies like India will have an increasing importance for Swedish exports in the future – as exemplified already by Ikea's push to break into the Indian market in 2018. Manners thinks that regardless of the government we get in 2018, India and other emerging markets like China are going to be something all parties will want to court.

“No matter what government we have, Sweden is a mixed economy with a strong manufacturing sector. And it has as far as possible been relatively successful in getting market access to new markets. But India and China are two of the toughest markets in the world, the degree to which you encounter non-tariff barriers in India is absurd. In China, no less so,” said Manners.

In trying to get over those barriers, Sweden's major parties are happy to keep quiet about any inconveniences in dealing with the current Indian government, according to the political scientist:

“Sweden like pretty much everyone is playing along with the Hindu nationalists. Modi is the most right-wing Indian politician of all time, and his grip on power is increasingly autocratic, but we don't hear much about that in Sweden. That relates to business interests. I'm not sure whether different Swedish governments would do things any differently.”

READ ALSO: Who's who in Swedish politics?

PM Löfven on a trip to India. Photo: Tobias Österberg/TT