Unlocking Sweden’s EU potential

ECFR’s new EU28 survey points to a bigger role for Sweden inside the EU – if it can break out of its Nordic comfort zone

Without doubt, the 2018 parliamentary election in Sweden will mark a watershed in the development of the country’s party system. Thirty years since their establishment as a party and two elections since their first entry into parliament, the Sweden Democrats have had a confirmed impact on Swedish politics and government: a restrictive policy on immigration in all its forms has become mainstream because of their pressure. The next policy to spread out from the party could be a more negative view of the European Union – potentially even including a different relationship between Sweden and the EU.

As my colleague Pawel Zerka has pointed out, these changes are consistent with trends in many member states. Both of Sweden’s EU neighbours in Scandinavia attest to this: Finland’s governing coalition contains nationalist and EU-sceptic parties, while the Danish minority government is tolerated by a populist right party. That said, three in four Swedes still vote for parties other than the Sweden Democrats, and neither of the centre-left or centre-right blocs is willing to form a coalition with them.

But a strong showing for the Sweden Democrats this weekend may be enough to transform the country’s place in the EU. Sweden has been something of a reluctant player inside the EU thus far but it possesses great potential for working with other members and building coalitions with them. Should this remain unlocked under the pressure of populist slogans, EU policymaking would lose a player that could be playing a crucial role at a key time for the organisation. Swedish foreign policy has often punched above its weight in international affairs, committing the country to development issues or the promotion of peace and justice. The possibility to do the same inside the EU remains– for now.

ECFR’s EU Cohesion Monitor measures ‘cohesion’: the willingness to cooperate with others in the EU level. Over the past decade, this measure for Sweden did not visibly change even under the shockwaves of the financial crisis and the refugee crisis. In fact, levels of cohesion grew for Sweden.

’The rise could have been stronger had it not been for the massive impact of the refugee crisis on the country, which doubtless slowed the positive momentum which had gathered before 2015. Indications from opinion polls and public debates ahead of the election are that the public view of the EU in Sweden is shaped by views on migration and the EU’’s ability to develop common policies on migration. In the network of relationships and interaction between EU member states, however, Sweden is not very well placed to actively shape such a policy, lacking its own outreach and partnerships with member states on the southern periphery of the EU

Given this background: What are the important relationships of Sweden in the EU? What is the country’s standing among its peers? And which other member states are relevant for and responsive to Sweden’s priority issues in the EU? ECFR’s survey of the professional class in the EU – practitioners in government and experts in think tanks across all 28 countries – reveals some clear patterns and linkages.

The EU28 Survey

The EU28 Survey is a bi-annual expert poll conducted by ECFR in the 28 member states of the European Union. The study surveys the cooperation preferences and attitudes of European policy professionals working in governments, politics, think-tanks, academia, and the media to explore the potential for coalitions among EU member states. The 2018 edition of the EU28 Survey ran from 24 April to 12 June 2018. 730 respondents completed the questions discussed in this piece. The full results of the survey, including the data and its interactive visualisation, will be published in October 2018. Findings of the previous edition, held in 2016, are available at https://www.ecfr.eu/eucoalitionexplorer. The project is part of ECFR’s Rethink: Europe initiative on cohesion and cooperation in the EU, funded by Stiftung Mercator.


Patterns of interaction

ECFR gathered data which show Sweden very much as a Nordic player. The country’s principal focus is on its own neighbourhood, with very weak links beyond. Among its immediate neighbours, though, Sweden is key: it is the political centre of the three Scandinavian EU members. Sweden’s relationship with Finland is strong and balanced, i.e. both countries are focused on each other at high levels. Denmark, on the other hand, looks intensely to Sweden, while the Swedish focus back to Denmark is notably less and remains at comparatively moderate levels. In the three dimensions of interaction measured by ECFR analysis – density of contact, shared interest, and responsiveness – the Danish sample scores Sweden highly in all three, while Denmark always ranks behind the top-rated countries Finland and Germany. Sweden’s focus on the United Kingdom now ranks below that on Denmark or Netherlands, so Germany is left as the most relevant large member state. Sweden’s connection with France is very weak, and the EU’s south generally does not appear among the linkages of Stockholm with capitals. Brexit affects Sweden’s connectivity severely, as it will weaken the northern camp and reduce Sweden’s outreach with no alternative options in sight.

Sweden's preferred EU partners

Beyond that circle, Sweden’s interaction radar also displays the Baltic states, notably Latvia and Lithuania, which the Swedish sample names more often outside of those Sweden focuses on most; these countries, in turn, name Sweden more often than other countries. Relations with Tallinn are more asymmetrical: Swedish respondents name Estonia rather prominently, but the Estonians do not focus on Sweden to the same degree. Finally, Irish respondents name Sweden fairly often when it comes to issues around shared interest or responsiveness, but Ireland does not appear in significant numbers on Sweden’s list of relevant countries.

Brexit affects Sweden’s connectivity severely, as it will weaken the northern camp and reduce Sweden’s outreach with no alternative options in sight

Unlike other EU member states, Sweden is not a country that polarises. In the perception of professionals around the EU, Sweden is not seen as committed to deeper integration. Only 2 percent of all votes cast on this question went to Sweden, the same percentage as among the Swedish sample; unlike a number of other member states Swedish professionals do not view their country as more committed than the average view. In addition, when asked about which member states have disappointed others in recent years, Sweden hardly appears in the results. The countries most obviously disappointed in Sweden are Hungary and Portugal, where 7 percent of the national sample named Sweden as disappointing, followed by 5 percent in Malta.


Influence on EU policymaking

Swedish professionals see their country in behind Germany and France (19 and 18 percent of the Swedish vote) when it comes to influence on EU policymaking and behind the Netherlands too (which is on 12 percent) with Sweden itself on 10 percent, ahead of Italy and the UK, which are on 6 percent of the vote each. That is a rather self-assured view, given Sweden’s north-centric interaction pattern. It is not a view shared by respondents from the three countries Sweden puts at the top. The German, French, and Dutch respondents do not list Sweden among their top five most influential member states. It is interesting to note that Sweden also does not rank very high on the scale of influence among those countries close to it in terms of interaction. Neither Finland nor Denmark place Sweden in their top five list, and nor do Latvia and Ireland. Only the Lithuanian respondents list Sweden in third place, behind Germany and France.

Influence on EU policy

Among the ‘Affluent Seven’, a grouping used by the ECFR analysis to capture the significance and potential of the highly developed smaller EU member states, Sweden’s influence is ranked third in 2018 compared to second place in the survey conducted two years earlier (when all 28 EU member states are asked). Since 2016, the refugee crisis has brought some change, moving Austria up into a more central position to the detriment of Sweden. Still, despite Sweden’s non-membership of the eurozone, Stockholm’s influence is ranked fourth among the seven, behind the Netherlands, Austria, and Belgium. On border security and migration it ranks third behind Austria and Netherlands, and second behind Netherlands on foreign and security policy and defence. Sweden cannot match the crucial role occupied by the Netherlands, either among the affluent smaller member states, or in its relations to the political centre of the EU, the Franco-German couple. But it stands out even though it is outside of the euro and NATO, indicating a strength of reputation that it could make good use of in influencing EU policymaking.

Looking only at the responses from the seven affluent smaller countries, Sweden’s potential becomes even more visible in the foreign and security policy domain. Here, all others among the seven except for Belgium see Sweden as more influential than the overall EU28 do. On border security and migration, however, Stockholm’s perception of itself does not match that of others. Here, Swedish respondents see their country as the most influential among the seven, while those generally seen as most influential – Austria and Netherlands – rank Sweden third as is the overall view.

Coalition potential

With regard to differentiated integration, the Swedish view is quite distinct. Swedish professionals strongly favour integration by all member states on the issue of climate change (which is a view shared in many other member states), but they also strongly prefer a common approach to deal with great powers like the US, China, and Russia and regions of severe conflict in the southern neighbourhood of the EU – few other capitals hold this view to such a high level of consensus. Interestingly, the Swedish public clearly does not share that particular view of the elites of their own country either. On the other hand, the Swedish view is that social policy is not for the EU to take on, a position that many other member states in the north and east of the EU share. But Swedes are also unwilling to deepen integration on fiscal policy and defence integration, while many other governments are much more open to ‘more Europe’ on these two issues.

Swedish professionals strongly favour integration by all member states on the issue of climate change and on dealing with great powers like the US, China, and Russia. But social policy should remain off limits

The priority issues respondents identify for Sweden suggest that its government could be expected to play an active role in Brussels. After all, Sweden’s priority issues all fall into the “all EU” category, meaning that Swedish professionals would prefer policy initiatives by all member states instead of smaller groups moving ahead. At the top of the Swedish agenda are four items: immigration and asylum policy; completion of the single market; a common climate policy; and a common European approach towards Russia. Among Swedish survey respondents clear majorities – two-thirds and more – agree on the importance of the first two. Consensus on prioritising climate and Russia policy is slightly lower but half of all respondents still name both policy areas among their preferred priorities.

Sweden's top 4 priorities and preferrend partners

On all four issues Sweden is able to find like-minded partners among other governments, which not only share Swedish priorities but also name Sweden as an important partner on that issue. The number and range of these partnerships, however, is rather limited. Thus, on Sweden’s top priority issue – immigration and asylum policy – Germany is the most preferred partner for Sweden, receiving 28.2 percent of the Swedish vote. In Berlin, where the issue is also a top priority, other partners are more relevant than Sweden, which receives just 5 percent of the German vote. For Copenhagen immigration and asylum are also among the priority issues, and it sees Stockholm as an important partner (receiving 15.4 percent of the Danish vote). For Sweden, though, Denmark ranks much lower in importance, receiving only 7.7 percent of the vote. Finland has the same strong focus on Sweden but receives only a weak response from Sweden, although immigration and asylum are not a priority issue in Helsinki. Other EU member states that the Swedish professionals name as important partners – the Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium, and Spain – do not see Sweden as important to them on migration and asylum.

The core coalition looks better on Sweden’s second key issue: a fully completed single market. Here, five other countries share the Swedish sense of priority and see Sweden as a relevant partner in this matter – at varying degrees: Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, and Ireland. The UK would be the sixth in this exclusively northern group, if it was not negotiating its exit from the single market. Sweden also shows some interest in working with Belgium and France on the issue, but neither considers Sweden relevant here.

The third and fourth topics on the priority list of Swedish professionals show a similar pattern. On climate policy, the data reveal a Swedish-Dutch axis. Both sides see the issue as important and list each other as key partner. On Russia policy, a different grouping emerges, this time a north-eastern cluster of six countries: Sweden, Denmark, and the UK on the western side, along with Poland, Estonia, and Lithuania. The Swedes themselves would prefer to have Germany and France in that coalition, but neither sees a common Russia policy as a key priority to themselves and they do not consider Sweden to be essential on the topic.

In sum, Sweden’s strengths lie in the country’s key role in Scandinavia, with outreach to Germany and the Netherlands, but also with linkages and impact into the east of the EU. Its weaknesses relate to Brexit, which means the loss of Sweden’s second anchor among the large member states and a like–minded country on important economic and political issues. This change exposes more clearly the missing links in Sweden’s connection to other countries, namely: France, others among the affluent smaller member states like Belgium and Austria, and the almost non-existent southern dimension of Sweden’s EU-network. This is where a post-Brexit strategy for Stockholm should begin. First, it should seek to reconfirm the Germany-Netherlands-Sweden triangle, which means moving closer to the German agenda and preferences (including to expand Sweden’s relations to countries relevant to the German agenda). Second, it should invest in a rationale for a closer cooperation among the Affluent Seven. Finally, it should become more visible and responsive to France and southern EU countries.


This article is part of the Rethink: Europe project, an initiative of ECFR, supported by Stiftung Mercator, offering spaces to think through and discuss Europe’s strategic challenges. For more information on the EU28 Survey and the EU Coalition Explorer, the tool presenting the survey results, go to www.ecfr.eu/eucoalitionexplorer.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.