Hear the word “Denmark”, and you may well think of “hygge”, bikes, and scenic coastlines. Similar images likely spring to mind with all the country’s Nordic neighbours.
What many people in Europe overlook is the rather darker news coming from the north. Yet Europeans should not ignore some of the increasingly problematic politics of the Nordic countries.
The Danish secret service was recently revealed to have helped the United States spy on high-profile politicians in Germany and across Europe, including German chancellor Angela Merkel. This made a few headlines at the time. But, if the perpetrators had instead been from a central or eastern EU member state, there is no doubt that the episode would have slotted nicely into a narrative of how some countries’ questionable domestic politics risk undermining the European Union. As it is, Denmark has suffered barely a dent in its image in Germany or anywhere else.
That is not the only recent scandal: this year the Danish government announced plans to move refugees arriving in Denmark to asylum centres in “partner countries” outside Europe. This angered only not human rights activists but also drew rebukes from the United Nations and the EU itself. Denmark has form here: it previously wanted to imprison “unwanted foreigners” on a hard-to-reach island in the Baltic Sea. The government stepped back on that occasion, but it was not dissimilar to Brexit-flavoured suggestions made by the United Kingdom government.
The Danish policy is the product of a Social Democrat-led government but has come about under the influence of the far-right Danish People’s Party, sustained over many decades. What happened to the liberal Denmark of the past? Politico asked recently. And, given these dramatic shifts, how can this image of a liberal, social-democratic welfare paradise still stand?
Sweden is exhibiting similar tendencies. Just recently, the Left party worked with the far-right Sweden Democrats to topple the prime minister, Stefan Lofven, over a dispute about market-controlled rents. He has since been restored to his former post, but the Sweden Democrats emerged from this midsummer crime story stronger than ever. They will unlikely be in government after the September 2022 election, but they will certainly have more influence, being already the third largest party in the Riksdag today. The conservative Moderates party and the Liberal party have both said they would not rule out cooperating with the Sweden Democrats on a case-by-case basis.
Finland, too, is not immune to these shifts. The right-wing Finns Party has lately been rising in popularity, as local election results in June confirmed. And in May, its MPs attempted to block the Finnish parliament’s approval of the EU recovery fund.
Such developments do not generate anywhere near the same amount of concern as they do when they take place in more recently joined EU member states, or in France. Of course, the Nordics are older and more stable democracies. But why else could this be – are they really that small and unimportant?
Financially, this is not the case, as all three countries are net payers to the EU budget, giving them quite some influence in talks about money. Instead, it is likely that successful marketing of the Nordic “brand” has really paid off. And these states make the most of this, presenting themselves as forerunners, ensuring they, for example, use negotiations to persuade the EU to go further and faster on issues such as gender equality and the environment.
Indeed, Sweden meticulously checks its global image on a regular basis, publishing reports and opinion polling on how the country is perceived abroad. The Swedish Institute took up this work even more seriously during the pandemic, when Sweden really was in danger of losing standing against its neighbours and around the world. Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
Nordic countries’ hugely positive image is so well established that more difficult news simply does not fit into the established frame. As a result, the recipient of bad tidings tends to dismiss what they hear. West European states – including, certainly, Germany – still look up to and wish to emulate their northern cousins.
It is time to cast a cooler eye over Scandinavia’s domestic politics and what these could mean for the rest of Europe. If we assume they can never do any harm, one may, for example, be taken by surprise at the coalitions that form after the next European Parliament election. Like the unthinkable of Brexit, European leaders might be unprepared when asked to sit down with new politicians who still bask in the glow of a Nordic reputation – but who have a wholly different approach to politics, European integration, and rights and freedoms. In 2020, the Sweden Democrats vetoed the rule of law conditionality for accessing EU funds and thereby cosied up to Poland and Hungary. This gesture was repeated when members of the Sweden Democrats abstained in the European Parliament resolution condemning Hungary’s controversial LGBTIQ law. It was the only Swedish party that failed to support the motion – quite a statement to be made by MEPs from the most LGBTQ+ friendly country and a global advocate for equal rights.
Those who support European integration and the defence of human rights within the EU should more urgently acknowledge this state of affairs, rather than brush it aside. If deeply illiberal and Eurosceptic right-wing parties continue to become more influential in Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, then it is not only the citizens of those countries who will bear the consequences.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.