After the referendum on European Union (EU) membership for the United Kingdom (UK) resulted in 52% voting to “Leave” against 48% voting to “Remain” many wondered about the possibility of contagion to other EU member states with Sweden mentioned as a possible candidate for “Swexit”. A poll conducted by Sifo on 20 April found that 36% of Swedes would want to leave the EU and only 32% of respondents would want to remain if Britain opted to exit the EU. More recent polls, including one that took place after the UK referendum, find that a majority of Swedes would like the country to continue as a member of the EU.
While these results suggest that Swedes would opt to stay within the EU, last week’s events in Britain (and existing research from other countries) suggest that the EU is a divisive issue. It creates tensions amongst voters, representatives and within political parties. In this post we explore to what extent European integration causes similar intra-party tension in Sweden. Are Swedish parties internally divided on the issue of EU integration?
Mainstream right parties most split on EU issue
Intra-party dynamics are important for the politics of the UK (see David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum and the controversy surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party) and of Sweden (see the leadership contest of the Christian Democrats and its impact on the December Agreement). Therefore, we use two data sources to examine the preferences of political actors towards the EU at different levels of political parties: The 2014 wave of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey (CHES) measures party leadership’s positions on EU integration and the 2015 Swedish Party Membership Survey (SPMS) gives us an idea how Swedish party members feel about EU integration.
The SPMS ask respondents to answer a question about whether European integration “has already gone too far” (0) or “should be pushed further” (10) with responses potentially ranging anywhere between the 0-10 extremes. In turn, the CHES question asks respondents to place the “overall orientation of the party leadership towards European integration in 2014.” Here, responses range from “strongly opposed” (1) to “strongly in favor” (7). We rescaled the CHES variable to facilitate comparison with the SPMS, and present the mean values for both groups’ positions on the EU in Figure 1.
Two general patterns are clear in Figure 1, both of which are consistent with other analysis of party positions on European integration: 1) party elites are generally more supportive of the European project than party members, and 2) opposition to European integration is concentrated on the extremes of the left-right scale. While the elite of most mainstream political parties seems to be the group most supportive of the EU project, not all party elites are closely aligned with their members on the issue. The figure shows that party elites of the Left Party and Feminist Initiative are quite close to the party members’ position. But the political elite of mainstream parties on the right are much more supportive of the EU project than their members (see Christian Democrats, Liberals and Moderates). The question of a Swexit could cause internal trouble for those parties.
Party elite of mainstream left parties most split on EU issue
The relationship between the political left and European integration is more complicated when we consider internal division on the issue. The CHES survey also includes a variable that measures dissent within the party leadership on the question of European integration. The scale ranges from 0 “party was completely united” to 10 “party was extremely divided”. We display the means for the Swedish parties in Figure 2, which shows that the Social Democrats were the party most internally divided on the question of European integration in 2014. This suggests that the question of a Swexit would likely cause most controversy within the party leadership of the Social Democrats and less so amongst the political elites of the other Swedish parties.
Comparable data for the UK (Figure 3) shows that the Conservative party elite is most divided over the issue of Europe, as is clear from the Prime Minister David Cameron’s initial decision to hold the Brexit referendum and in the subsequent Tory leadership contest visible in the media over the last week. In fact, the Conservatives have by far the highest value of party dissent on the EU issue for any party in the 2014 CHES data. Although the Social Democrats are the most divided party in Sweden on the EU, based on these data we expect that the question of a Swexit could cause trouble within the Social Democrats but not the same amount of political turmoil that it has for the British Tories. Looking at the salience of European integration for both parties further supports this interpretation. Expert respondents placed the Conservatives at 7.4 and the Social Democrats at 3.6 on a 0-10 scale measuring the salience of European integration for the party leadership.
These Swedish political parties’ attitudes towards EU integration provide information on the potential traction and ramification of a Swexit. It would find most support amongst political parties of the far left (Left Party, Feminist initiative) and far right (Sweden Democrats). But these parties together currently carry too little electoral support and have too different interests to form a likely coalition to lobby together for a Swexit. Swedish mainstream parties, on the other hand, appear unlikely to support a Swexit.
If a more serious discussion of Sweden leaving the European Union were to occur, it would likely cause the most intra-party problems for parties of the mainstream political right and for the party elite of the mainstream political left. However, these controversies would probably not amount to the same political drama that the UK is currently experiencing.
It should also be noted that the above data precede the UK’s referendum on EU membership, and for the most part were collected prior to the height of the refugee flows that took place over the past year. Party positions and public attitudes on European integration may have shifted during this period. Further, in addition to concerns about the scale comparability between the party leadership and party membership surveys, there is also reason to be somewhat cautious about the comparability of these scales between countries. In previous work one of us has provided evidence that the economic left-right positions of political parties are cross-nationally comparable, but our work on this question for the European integration scale is still ongoing.