Politics For Members

Jimmie Åkesson interview: 'If you don't want to be part of Sweden, then you cannot live here'

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
Jimmie Åkesson interview: 'If you don't want to be part of Sweden, then you cannot live here'

The so-called cordon sanitaire that long barred the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats from real political influence is now well and truly gone. The Local spoke to the party's leader Jimmie Åkesson about how he thinks he can now change Swedish politics and policies around migration.


In early May, the former pariah party teamed up with the right-wing Moderate, Liberal, and Christian Democrat parties to propose a joint proposal on migration, once a topic where any coordination with the Sweden Democrats would have been off-limits for any party.

The membership of the centrist Liberal Party in March voted for a new policy position, under which the party would be willing to join a government backed by the Sweden Democrats.

And less than four years after Anna Kinberg Batra was ousted as leader of the Moderates for daring to suggest even talking with the Sweden Democrats, her successor Ulf Kristersson argues that on subjects such as immigration and crime, the two parties think alike.

The former centre-right "Alliance" of the Moderates, Liberals, Christian Democrats and the Centre Party had already crumbled after the 2018 election over disagreement on whether or not to rely on the tacit support of the Sweden Democrats – a populist party with roots in neo-Nazi groups in the 1980s – to clear the way for a centre-right government.

Now all but the Centre Party has decided that they are now willing to do so, the way is open to Kristersson becoming prime minister in Sweden with the backing of the Sweden Democrats, following next year's election.

But that would almost certainly give the anti-immigration party the power to fell the government at will.

In an interview with The Local's contributor Richard Orange, carried out over Skype from his home in Sölvesborg, southern Sweden, Åkesson said that he planned to use this power responsibly. 


You and three of the former Alliance parties recently presented a new migration policy. What is the significance of that?

I think that was a very important signal to the governing parties that we now have the four opposition parties that are able to negotiate and to make proposals in common. I think it shows that there is an alternative in the next election, and while we don't have the same views on everything, we can negotiate and are able to make common proposals. That's the most important thing, I think, even though this will probably not pass.

I don't think this is a very good proposal. Actually, I want to take it much further. But this was what was possible. The big value here is the signal that we are able to negotiate and make common proposals. But of course, if I win the election, I have my policies that are much better, I think.


Before the last election, populist parties were on the rise everywhere, and there's an argument that now the pandemic has made people want safe, centrist, dependable leaders, the Angela Merkels of the world, and that parties like yours will struggle. Do you think that's true?

We have managed quite well, even though we have lost some votes to the Social Democrats. But I was actually a bit afraid at the beginning of the pandemic that we would lose a lot.

Of course, it has strengthened the Social Democrats very much, and I think you're right that people are seeking experienced leaders, but I think we still have a good starting point. There will be no problems for us to go into the next election and win back at least some of those who left us for the Social Democrats, because in the election campaign there will be a lot of debates about migration policy and how to push back crime. 

We haven't really had that debate during the pandemic, but I'm sure it will come back, because that's the reality for many voters, so they will demand that we discuss it during the campaign. 

Jimmie Åkesson in the background, with Moderate leader Ulf Kristersson and Christian Democrat leader Ebba Busch in the foreground. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

I've been in Sweden about 10 years, and in that time, the attitude to migration has changed significantly. It's only three years ago that Anna Kinberg Batra had to resign just because she said she wanted to hold some discussions with your party. What's changed? 

Maybe she was before her time, or maybe she did it in the wrong way. Ulf Kristersson has managed to say almost the same things and take it further, and he also got his party with him, which Anna Kinberg Batra didn't. She was quite a weak leader in that party actually, and I think a big part of the party wanted to get rid of her, and they took advantage of that opportunity. 

I think after Kinberg Batra resigned, the Moderates got a lot of people working for them that have a different view on us and on the most important issues. Ulf Kristersson has different advisors. It's that simple. 

But I think it would have happened anyway, because the Moderate Party realises that if they want to be in government again, they need to either negotiate with us, or with the Social Democrats. That's the alternative. 


The Danish People's Party was in a similar position in relation to the Liberal party back in 2001. And they used that position, as I'm sure you know, to make huge changes in Denmark. And do you think that you can do something similar in Sweden?

I'm sure we can. I think that the Danish example is a good example, because they showed that they could have really great influence, even though they were not in the government. But I also think that our goal is to be a part of the government. That's the goal. But we also realise that maybe it's not possible this time, maybe we have to show that we are a party that wants to take responsibility for real, that we're not a populist party, like many think we are.

Maybe we need four years to show that we are mature enough to be part of a government. But the goal of course is still to be part of the government and to be maybe the bigger party in the government. 

Looking at Denmark, again, it's not just policy that they changed, but the whole debate in Denmark, if you look at the way people in Denmark talk about immigration. It's forced every party, even the Social Democrats, to take a hard-line position compared to Sweden. Do you think that the Swedish public can be shifted in that way?

Public opinion is in our favour and has been for decades. That's not the problem. The problem has been that the old parties haven't followed that [public] opinion, and I think we are the result of that. We came into parliament 11 years ago because the authorities didn't want to talk about important issues like immigration and bad integration policy. 

So I'm not very afraid of public opinion. But I am a bit afraid that both the Social Democrats and the Moderates do not really understand the problems and the level of the problems. I think they have changed mainly because they wanted to take back voters from us, and they say things they realised they have to say, because otherwise we will take almost all the voters, so I think that their change wasn't very genuine, at the beginning, at least.

Now, I've spoken to Ulf Kristersson about this several times, I'm quite sure that he's genuine now in his beliefs and in what he says about migration. I think that's why it will be possible to have some kind of cooperation with them [the Moderates] in the future. 

The Social Democrats are still dependent on the Green Party, and the Green Party is very liberal on those issues, especially immigration policy. 

Jimmie Åkesson being interviewed by Swedish newspapers. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Do you think Sweden can be another Denmark, that it can go from being very liberal to having a very strict policy and very harsh rhetoric on immigration? 

I'm sure we will go that far. But we're just, well, Denmark is ahead of us by, like, 20 years or so. That proposal we presented with the other opposition parties on the weekend. That's the policy they had in Denmark 10 years ago. So we are catching up. 

Sweden actually needs a stricter policy than Denmark because we have much bigger problems and we have let the problems grow for a very long time. We have always said since we got into parliament that we need to have immigration at Danish levels. But now that that's passed, I think it's not possible to just decrease it to Danish levels any more. We need more. We need to take it further.

The Social Democrats in Denmark have been in the news a lot recently for wanting to send Syrians back to Syria. Can you see that happening in Sweden? 

They are doing the right thing. I think parts of Syria are safe. Syrian refugees who haven't become established in society, they should be forced to return because that's how it should work.

If you have an asylum policy that is built upon the idea of giving them temporary shelter, then when it's safe to go home, they should go home. I think Denmark is doing the right thing and I am sure more countries will follow, but I'm also sure that Sweden will not follow in any way.

With the Sweden Democrats, unlike UKIP [the United Kingdom Independence Party] and other populist parties, some of the founders had been in neo-Nazi groups. Why did you join a party like that? 

The picture that you have, and most people in Sweden and other countries have, is not the whole truth. It's true that we had some individuals in the beginning with that kind of background. But it's also true that they are not still with us. They haven't been members for about 30 years or so. The very great majority of our members are quite new members. So the Sweden Democrats today is a very different party from the party that was founded in the late 80s. 

Internally today, that's not something we talk about or discuss because it's not interesting for us. But of course, our political opponents talk about that a lot. I think that is because they don't want to talk about the real problems and the real issues, and it's very easy, then, to call us racists or neo-Nazis or whatever.

A Sweden Democrat rally in 1991. The sign reads "no to voting rights for foreigners". Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

What drew you to the party, when you were a student at Lund, at a time when it did have those elements? 

It didn't actually. In 95, I actually joined the party after we got a new chairman. That was important to me, because that new chairman, he was very clear that we would build a new kind of Sweden Democrats, without extremism or racism and that we would have this very, very straight line against that. And that was important because I could take part in that project, to clean up the party. And I'm quite proud of that today, because we really did clean up the party. 

Although I'm sure in this election, like in every election, the media will find lots of party members who say racist things on Facebook

Maybe not that many, because I think it's a decreasing problem. We are very clear that it's not okay to be a racist and a member of our party, so they go to some other party or extremist organisation instead of being with us, because they're not welcome. Of course, you will always find one or two, but it's not a big problem today. We have 40,000 members around the country and the absolute majority of them are normal people with normal views. 

What drew me to the party was actually the referendum in late '94 about the European Union. I couldn't find any party that was against Swedish membership that wasn't socialist. It was only the socialists and the greens that were against it and so I found the Sweden Democrats. So it was actually the EU issue that drew me into this party.

During the Brexit campaign, you were saying that Sweden should do the same thing as former UK Prime Minister David Cameron and order a renegotiation followed by an in-out referendum, and then you dropped that when it turned out to be pretty difficult. How do you think it looks now, a year after Britain left? 

Many Swedes and I think many other eurosceptic Europeans have been more or less frightened by the complicated process that Britain was in so that has weakened the EU debate. It's quite hard today to talk about leaving the EU, because of what happened to Britain. 

But I think Britain will have benefits from Brexit in the long term. I'm sure they will. When you look at the vaccine, for example, Britain should be very happy not to rely on Brussels. 

But I also think that the EU issue is a dead issue in Sweden, there is no debate, and there is no political party within parliament that is talking about leaving. But of course, I'm a social conservative, and I'm also a nationalist, so of course, I have big problems with Swedish law being in Brussels. Swedish laws should be made by Swedish politicians in Sweden. That's my principal view on it. But today, it's not a very big thing, I think. 

Jimmie Åkesson has been leader of the Sweden Democrats since 2005. This picture is from 2006. Photo: Roger Vikström/TT

You said that during the US election that Trump would have been a better president. Again, that's something that isn't going to win you any votes in Sweden. 

Probably not. But I also think that I have to be honest, even though I'm a politician, I have to say what I really think. I don't really like Trump as a person, and in Sweden, it would be impossible for him to be a part of any election and get elected. It wouldn't happen. And I probably wouldn't vote for him in a Swedish election either. But as I am a conservative, I always prefer a Republican president, because I look at myself as a part of that movement internationally. So it was quite obvious for me to support Trump, even though I don't like everything he does. 

Before the pandemic, I think it looked quite good. He did a lot of the things he promised to do, and I think he was quite a popular president. What lost the election was probably the pandemic and his way of handling it. Otherwise, I think he would have been a possible winner, actually.

You say that you think that Sweden should have zero refugees. Do you think you can bring the other parties around to that and how would you make that happen, given the quota refugees in international law? 

If we implement the international law that we are bound by strictly, I think it's possible, because we have no conflicts in our area, here in the north of Europe. And that's the way the system is supposed to work: you go to the first safe country. Sweden is not the first safe country for any of those refugees coming to Sweden today. So I think it will be possible to follow the international conventions and everything and, and have zero asylum immigration in Sweden. 

On the other hand, if we got some kind of conflict, for example, in the Baltic countries – it's not impossible – then we would have a big responsibility, to take care of refugees and immigrants from the Baltic countries. That's how it's supposed to work, I think. 

Sweden is and should be a country that gives a lot of aid, and money to, for example, the UN to take care of refugees in the near area. We should prioritise helping people in the areas nearby to conflicts.

Whether you like it or not, Sweden has become a pretty multicultural country over the last 30 years. What's your vision for how those people should relate to Sweden, if you were in government?

I think a big part of the problem is that we haven't made any demands. People have for decades just come to Sweden, and they have had no reason to adapt or assimilate, to learn Swedish, or to get a job, because of the welfare system.

If you make demands, if you tell people who come here that you have to adapt, you have to be a part of Sweden, you have to learn Swedish, you have to understand how we work, you have to understand and respect Swedish law and all those things, then I think it will be much easier to integrate people, and governments haven't done that. I think it's possible to go in another direction.

Almost two million people in Sweden were born abroad. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

In terms of concrete policies, what sort of things could you discuss with the Moderate Party? 

One thing we are discussing right now is all the benefits you get if you move to Sweden. We want to relate them more to citizenship, so you have to be a citizen to get all those benefits, or you have to work so you can qualify for them. Today, just by living here, you get the right to very, very generous benefits. 

But if you take them away, aren't you pushing children into poverty, and people outside of society so that you make gang crime worse? 

I think it's the opposite. We have tried this generous way for decades now. And we have segregation, we have criminal gangs, and we have poor children, and I think that's because of the lack of demands. 

I don't know how many people have been moving to Sweden just because of all the benefits they enjoy, but I'm sure it's a lot. If we don't have that generous system, then we will not have as many coming. And maybe some of those who have been established in the Swedish society, maybe they will move to another country where they have better benefits. 

If you want to be a part of Sweden in the long term, that should be possible. But you have to make efforts to be part of Sweden, and that's up to you. It's not up to the Swedish society, or our system, to assimilate people. It's up to every individual to be a part of it. And if you don't want to be a part of Sweden, well, then you won't get the benefits, and then you cannot live here.

The Liberal Party have said they wouldn't want a January Agreement type of agreement [with the Sweden Democrats], and you have said you want to go further. Do you think that they could block you from having the influence that you want? 

It depends on the voters. It's the voters that decide which parties have influence or not. But of course, I think the January Agreement is a very bad product. It was made very fast. And today the parties don't even agree on what they have actually agreed on.

What I said was that if we are not in government, but are supposed to support the government, then we need some kind of document with details, on what to do and how to do it, and when it should be done. Because if we are not in government, we need to be able to make sure that the things we agree on also become reality. And that's why I think we want to take the agreement further than the January Agreement, because that's not a good agreement, but we need a good agreement.

Sweden's party leaders. From left: Stefan Löfven (Social Democrats), Märta Stenevi (Greens), Annie Lööf (Centre), Nyamko Sabuni (Liberals), Ebba Busch (Christian Democrats), Nooshi Dadgostar (Left), Jimmie Åkesson (Sweden Democrats) and Ulf Kristersson (Moderates). Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

What kind of things would you like to have in it? What would be your wish list?

[That's something] I will tell Ulf Kristersson. But, of course, it's the issues that are important for our voters, particularly, of course, immigration policy, integration policy, crime policy, and especially punishment. The energy question is such an important thing in Sweden today, and also the welfare system. 

I think that's our most important role in the team that we want to be part of: they are right-wing parties, the Moderates and the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, and we are not, at least not when it comes to economic issues. We like the Swedish welfare model. We like to have quite a big state to ensure that people have healthcare and things like that, and on that we don't agree with the Moderates. So that will be a tough negotiation, of course.

It's important that if we have this right-wing government that we act as a kind of a gatekeeper so they won't be too much to the right. Just to keep the Swedish model.

It's taken a long time to get to the point where the other parties are willing to talk to you. How come you're still in charge of the party, and that you've kept at it for so long?

I've always said that I would rather do something else than this. Actually. This is more of a duty. I think because we had a situation in Sweden where no one talked about those things. 

Then of course, if you are isolated as we have been, that makes you strong within the group. And I think if you are sure that some day the other parties had to change. We have had Denmark as inspiration. Denmark was the same way as Sweden, and then it just changed overnight. And that will happen in Sweden too.

Every day it's in the right direction. We are growing, we get more and more members, more and more voters, and more and more influence. And as long as that's the case, it's quite easy to keep on doing this.

After the last election, you had to take time off because of exhaustion. Did you not think that might be a good time to hand over to someone else?

Yes, of course I thought about that. But I also made it clear to the party and to the public that I had to take some time off because I want to continue. If I hadn't taken that time off, maybe I could have done this for a couple more years, but then I probably would have been sick for the rest of my life. So I took five, almost six months, no television, no newspapers. Nothing. And then I felt I can come back and do it even better, and I think that's the case. 

My kind of sickness is not something that you can get rid of, you have to learn to live with it. We had another Social Democrat in the government, who got the same problem at the same time, so we made it easier for other people in our positions to actually listen to the signals from their bodies and things like that. So I think it was good for me, and it was good also for the discussion about men's mental health. 

If you look at what's happened to the Danish People's Party when they decided not to go into government, they've been destroyed. But if you look at the Finns party in Finland, and also the Progress Party, they have suffered from going into government. What do you think about that? 

It depends on your goals, I think. But if you look at the Progress Party in Norway, I'm not sure they have been punished. I think they are almost the same size as they were when they got into the government, and if you look at The Finns, that was more complicated. They were in a coalition where they didn't agree on very much. I actually talked to Kristian [Thulesen Dahl], who's the chairman of the Danish People's Party, when they made that decision not to be a part of the government. I think that he had a good point when he said that we're not mature to be a part of a government this time, because they had grown very fast.

But I think the main reason they declined so much is that the Social Democrats in Denmark copied the Danish People's Party, especially on migration. 

Our goal is to be part of the government, but on the other hand, it's the policy that's really important. What can we get out of having influence? We want to be in government, because, of course, you have a lot of power if you're in government. But you can have a lot of influence even outside and I think Denmark is a very good example of that.

Do you think that you could come out as one of the biggest parties in the next election?

I think it's possible to be at least number two. We saw before the election in 2018 that we were the biggest party in a lot of polls. And then we had problems in the last weeks before the election. And that's because the Social Democrats always win elections, they are always the biggest party and they know how to how to campaign, and how to use the unions and the parts of society where they have a big influence.

We don't have the unions with us, so I think it will be hard. But right before the pandemic, we actually were the biggest party in the polls. So maybe when things come back to normal, we'll see that again. It's not impossible.

It will be a big symbolic victory for us if we become the biggest party in that new possible coalition. It's interesting for us to become bigger than the Moderates, because that will change things when we are negotiating. 


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