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Three key points from the summer speeches of Sweden’s PM and opposition leader

The coronavirus pandemic was of course the main topic in the traditional summer speeches given by Sweden's prime minister and main opposition party leader. Both agreed that adjustments were needed both to the coronavirus strategy and the welfare system long-term, but their contrasting tones showed the increasing conflict in Sweden's political landscape.

Three key points from the summer speeches of Sweden's PM and opposition leader
Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said the crisis should be the catalyst to "build something better". Photo: Pontus Lundahl / TT

“Sweden has gone through a tough time during the new coronavirus. Weeks have felt like months, sometimes years,” Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said, reminding viewers that the crisis was not yet over.

The leader of Sweden's largest opposition party, the Moderate Party's Ulf Kristersson, gave his annual speech on Monday, the day after Löfven's. His tone was harshly critical of the Social Democrat-Green government, reinforcing that the political peace of the early months of the pandemic is now over

Here's a look at three key points from the talks.

1. How to improve elderly care?

Löfven admitted that the coronavirus had highlighted weaknesses in Swedish welfare, and said that the country shouldn't aim to return to how things were before the crisis, but to “build something better” — especially when it comes to elderly care.

“It's not reasonable that among municipal care home staff in Stockholm, four out of ten are part-time employed with hourly salaries. It's not reasonable that four of ten Swedish care home employees say it is hard to combine work with family lives,” he said. “We need to end this now. There has to be a contract between the generations, where no-one should need to fear growing older.”

The government has previously announced an extra 2.2 billion kronor to be allocated to care homes in 2020 and 2021, and Löfven did not go into further details of concrete proposals, but pledged that Sweden would have “the world's best elderly care”.

Kristersson began his own speech by talking about his mother, who died this spring in an elderly care home after becoming infected with Covid-19. He argued that there should be greater focus in Sweden's coronavirus strategy on contact tracing and quarantine of infected people, so that elderly people do not have to remain isolated.

“I really feel for those of you who have been forced, month after month, to live isolated from children, grandchildren, and friends. It can't just carry on like this,” Kristersson said.

Over-70s are still advised to limit their social contacts and avoid busy places like shops, but have been encouraged to socialise with others at a distance, for example on walks or playing boules outdoors. Care homes have also introduced measures to allow for outdoor visits, while the National Board of Health and Welfare has also said that people with a positive antibody test could be allowed to enter homes for visits.

Both speeches were held digitally this year. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/TT

2. Sweden's 'other pandemic': gang crime

The topic of gang crime was also in the spotlight, particularly after the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old girl in a Stockholm suburb in early August. She was reportedly hit by a stray bullet aimed at two men with alleged links to a criminal network.

Kristersson called gang crime “Sweden's second pandemic” and criminals “Sweden's domestic terrorists”, noting there have been 210 shootings and 24 gang-related deaths in Sweden in 2020. He was harshly critical of the government response to gang crime, saying: “Stefan Löfven is not leading the work against the criminal gangs. At first he did not see them coming. Now he lacks the power and the concrete policy.”

The Moderate Leader suggested extra tools to deal with this type of crime, including harsher penalties for gang-related criminals, wire-tapping, and increased possibilities for witness anonymity.

Löfven also addressed the subject of gang crime, saying that such incidents “fill me with anger but also with determination”, and that there was “no place” for gangs in Sweden.

3. Who foots the bill?

According to Kristersson, the focus of the autumn must be on getting the country back to work. “Those who can work must work. Crisis measures must be temporary and in the long run companies must compete on their own merits, not with government subsidies. Unemployment and increased unemployment benefits are a proven way into dependency on benefits,” he said.

Stefan Löfven meanwhile spoke about the measures that his government, together with the Centre and Liberal parties, took to support employers and businesses, such as a system for short-term lay-offs, increased unemployment insurance, and tax deferrals.

“There are parties in the Swedish Parliament that think that cuts in welfare and social insurance should pay for the package of measures. That the best incentive measures are large tax cuts for already well-off people. We do not believe in that,” he said, stressing that his party would “always choose welfare”.

“Now we have a historic opportunity to do the things that both keep the wheels [of society] rolling but also solve the societal problems that the corona crisis made all too clear,” he said.

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CRIME

EXPLAINED: What Sweden’s controversial new espionage law means

Sweden's new law against foreign espionage will alter passages in Sweden's constitutional laws governing freedom of the press and freedom of expression. The Local spoke to Mikael Ruotsi, senior lecturer in constitutional law at Uppsala University, about the new law.

EXPLAINED: What Sweden’s controversial new espionage law means

What was wrong with the previous law?

Sweden’s previous espionage law only covered Sweden’s national security, while the new law expands this to cover information that could harm Sweden’s relations with other countries or international organisations. Ruotsi said that Sweden’s last government, together with the then opposition parties, had felt that Sweden’s current spy law was too narrowly drawn, and also was less extensive than those of many of the country’s international partners.  

“What it aims to do is to encompass situations, for instance, where Swedish Armed Forces are working within UN peacekeeping operations, and classified information is divulged, which might harm the peacekeeping operation or other participating countries’ national interests, but not Swedish national interest,” Ruotsi said.

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Under Sweden’s existing laws, leaking information in this sort of scenario might be considered “divulging classified information”, but that he said is only a relatively minor crime.

Under the new law, it will become a more serious offence, with a maximum prison sentence of eight years for “aggravated foreign espionage” and four years for “foreign espionage”. 

Ruotsi said that the law had been in preparation for six to seven years and had nothing to do with either Sweden joining Nato, or with the decision by the Swedish diplomat Anders Kompass to blow the whistle in 2014 about a report into child sexual abuse carried out by French Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic between December 2013 and July 2014. 

Kompass was then field operations director at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and is now ambassador to Guatemala. 

“We can be fairly sure that this has nothing to do with the Anders Kompass situation,” Ruotsi said “I think it’s more of a reaction to Sweden being more involved at the international level in UN missions and things like that, and that there is increased international involvement with the Swedish Armed Forces.” 

How does the new law change the constitution?

Rather than a single written constitution, Sweden has four constitutional laws. The new law changes two of them: the Freedom of the Press Act and the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression, so that sharing secret information that damages Sweden’s relations with another country is illegal.

In order to criminalise an act of speech – for example, divulging national security secrets – that change in the criminal law needs to be mirrored in a change to the constitutional Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression. 

Similarly, in order to criminalise the disclosure of information obtained through espionage, changes need to be made to the constitutional Freedom of the Press Act. 

“They are basically just mirrors of the criminal code, so if you want to make something criminal to say in a newspaper or on TV, then you have to criminalise it both in the criminal act and in those two constitutional media laws,” Ruotsi explains.

Is it concerning that the constitution is being changed?

Ruotsi said that because changing the Swedish constitutional laws requires a vote either side of an election, the four constitutional laws tend to undergo significant changes after every general election.

“They have a specific, very detailed nature, and they need to be kept up to date,” he said of Sweden’s constitutional law. “So there are changes every four years, but it’s not very common that you introduce a new crime or a new criminal sanction.”

Are there any good reasons to be worried about the new law?

One concern around the changes to the constitution is that they may make sources less willing to speak to the media or to pass information about critical matters on to journalists.

While the preparatory work for the new law does include provisions for the sharing of information that is of value to the public, for sources with sensitive information about Sweden’s dealings with other countries, the fear of what Ruotsi calls “criminal sanctions” may compromise their willingness to speak with journalists and with the press.

The law includes what Ruotsi calls a “public interest override” that states that publications or leaks that are “defensible” should not be prosecuted under the law. 

Even though he concedes this is “phrased a lot more vaguely” in the Swedish law than it could be, he argues that the preparatory work for the law makes it clear that this is intended to protect whistleblowers and investigative journalism.

“If you look at the preparatory works, it’s quite clear that they mean to exclude from criminal responsibility things that are of value to the public and in particular the media,” he said. 

“It’s somewhat unclear how this new law will be interpreted, but it’s obvious that the purpose of the law is not to criminalise the Anders Kompass situation, it’s to make sure that if we have Swedish military personnel or other civil servants working abroad on international missions and they turn out to be spies, that we can sanction them. That’s the main idea.”

By Shandana Mufti and Richard Orange

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