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10 September 2018

Sweden is the latest EU 27 nation in political tumult. What does it all mean for Brexit?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: unclear election results, the far-right on the up, and social democracy at an all-time low.

By Patrick Maguire

 An inconclusive result, the radical right in the ascendant, and social democracy slumping to a historic nadir. Haven’t we heard this one before? It could only be another European election: this time it’s Sweden getting the colour-by-numbers treatment.

After a rancorous campaign dominated by bitter debate over immigration, no party has a clear majority. With counting almost over, the governing coalition of the Social Democrats and Greens, supported in parliament by the radical left, has 40.6 per cent of the vote, while the centre-right Alliance, led by the Moderates, is on 40.3 per cent. Stefan Lofven, the prime minister, has vowed to fight on despite calls for his resignation.

This will go down to the wire. And once it gets there, expect several more weeks of it going down to the wire. Both blocs will struggle to scrape together a majority, especially given that neither will govern with the far-right Sweden Democrats – who, for most English-speaking observers, were the only show in town. It isn’t quite the spectacular breakthrough that some expected but have nonetheless come a strong third, with around 18 per cent of the vote.

That result, while a marked improvement on their performance at the last elections in 2014, is some way short of the 25 per cent many had expected and a million miles away from the first place finish some of its luminaries had predicted. They hold the balance of power, but nobody wants to let them use it. Though the ruling Social Democrats have recorded their lowest share of the vote in more than a century, the story is one of attrition rather than cataclysmic collapse (and they have fared much better than their sister parties across Europe).

The Forward March of Populism Halted? The Strange Rebirth of Liberal Sweden? Not quite. The liberal centre has little to celebrate, despite what looks like its durability. As was the case with Mark Rutte in the Netherlands last year, it has stunted the electoral growth of nationalist populism by stealing its clothes: both the Social Democrats and Moderates adopted a tough stance on migration during the campaign.

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But allowing the Sweden Democrats to set the agenda – which would have been unthinkable this time eight years ago, when they had a grand total of zero seats – did not save the centre. Even without a place in government, it wields greater influence than ever before. Nor was it one-way traffic to the far-right. The Left, who rejected anti-immigration sentiment, made gains too. The electorate is polarised and the parliamentary arithmetic nightmarish. Whichever bloc tries to govern as a minority will have a hard time trying to navigate the mutually exclusive demands of the radical left and right.

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Political tumult in yet another EU27 nation leads us to the obligatory question: what does it all mean for Brexit? Tory Eurosceptics, whose own populist project is the ideological lodestar for the continent’s anti-Brussels politics, welcome this sort of thing. Cracks are appearing in the EU’s edifice of unity, etc. There are indeed signs that a change of tack is in the offing: the FT reports that member states have given Michel Barnier a new mandate to compromise and deliver a deal.

What that actually means is compromising in order to deliver something that looks a bit like Theresa May’s Chequers proposals. Whatever happens in European capitals, there is still no majority for that or arguably any other deal in the Commons (former DexEU minister and Leave svengali Steve Baker warns May this morning that 80 MPs are ready to vote down her Brexit plans). If you want to know where Brexit is going in the immediate term, don’t look to Stockholm or Rome. Look to Andrea Jenkyns and Iain Duncan Smith.