Sweden’s Stefan Löfven has a unique perspective among EU leaders on working people’s concerns, having started his career on the factory floor rather than gliding into politics from an elite university or law firm.
This week, the welder-turned-prime minister co-hosts an EU “Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth” in Gothenburg that he hopes can supercharge the response to some of those concerns — and help his Social Democrats fend off a challenge from the right in next September’s national election.
In modest Swedish style, Löfven manages a humblebrag when asked by POLITICO who is going to be Sweden’s prime minister in a year’s time, after the vote: “You will have to put up with me again.”
Co-hosting the summit will endear him to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has made the construction of an EU “Social Pillar” one of his pet projects. But it’s unclear how much it will boost his standing among voters: Few ordinary people know what the Social Pillar is, while businesses and conservative politicians dismiss it as an attempt by Brussels to interfere in areas of national competence.
Germany’s Angela Merkel won’t attend the one-day summit, as it clashes with coalition talks in Berlin, and locals in Gothenburg, recalling the riot-hit EU summit there in 2001, fear a day of disruption.
However, for Löfven and other European Social Democrats, this is a chance to put traditional center-left issues such as working conditions, equality and welfare for the unemployed back at the top of the agenda and turn back the tide of populism that seems to be engulfing them.
The European left is losing ground to anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic populists adept at exploiting working-class concerns about job security and access to public services. This year, the French and German left were routed in elections and Italy’s Democratic Party could lose to Silvio Berlusconi next year, leaving Portugal and Jeremy Corbyn’s U.K. Labour opposition among the rare bright spots for Europe’s left.
A setback in next September’s vote for the Social Democrats, who have dominated Swedish politics since the 1930s, would rattle not just the European left but much of the EU establishment if it involved strong gains for Jimmie Åkesson’s far-right Sweden Democrats (SD).
With nearly a year to go before the vote, Sweden is already braced for a tough contest: The latest poll by Demoskop shows Löfven’s SDP-Green coalition and their Left allies with a wafer-thin lead over the center-right Alliance led by the conservative Moderates, at 40.1 percent versus 38.8 percent of voter intentions.
The Moderates, who governed under Fredrik Reinfeldt from 2006-2014 and chose Ulf Kristersson as their new leader last month, saw support rise from October to 21.9 percent. In third place with 18.1 percent, the anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic Sweden Democrats have seen their support more than triple since 2010, when they won their first seats in the Riksdag, riding a wave of concern about crime and immigration. They are formally excluded from the four-party Alliance, but could provide it with external political support.
Stefan Löfven meets Swedish troops taking part in the military exercise Aurora 17 | Jessica Gow/AFP via Getty Images
Hence Löfven’s intention to focus his campaign for the coming year on the theme of “safety” — he used the Swedish word trygghet, which has no direct translation but conveys a broad sense of security and comfort.
“People need to feel safe in this global economy. People need to have a job. It also means feeling safe from crime, so we are combating crime,” the prime minister said in an interview in Brussels.
Paying the price
“Too many people are worried” about job security — in some cases because the EU’s vaunted single market means a company has chosen to transfer production to another EU country, Löfven said.
“That’s when people start to think ‘I am actually paying now for being in the EU. I am paying now, by losing my job, for being in the EU,’” said Löfven. When EU subsidies, unfair competition or lower wages via looser working conditions accelerate that trend, “it decreases the legitimacy of the European Union.”
“That is a toxic formula that breeds populism, extremism and it doesn’t strengthen the EU’s competitiveness — on the contrary, it weakens it.”
In practical terms, the Social Summit will discuss a scoreboard to rate EU countries’ performance, linked to the system already in place for monitoring economic performance on key indicators such as debt and deficits. Countries will be rated in areas such as equal opportunities in the job market, upward mobility, living conditions, the structure of the labor market, and the provision of services and social protection.
Löfven is not so naïve as to suggest that all of Europe should aspire to the Swedish model, with its well-established dialogue between employers and workers that has helped to produce “20 years in a row of wage increases.” But, he argues, “the social dimension is a prerequisite for a sustainable Europe.”
European business sees it as interference. At an October meeting of employers, unions and EU institutions, industry lobby Business Europe’s President Emma Marcegaglia warned that “heavy-handed intervention from the European level … can only trigger opposition and division.”
“To use President Juncker’s motto, we must unite to be ‘big on big things,’ and avoid micromanaging what is either better done at national level or better done by the social partners than by the legislator,” she said.
Her sentiments are shared by Sweden’s Moderates, whose MEP Gunnar Hökmark dismissed the Gothenburg summit as a “symbolic” attempt to give the EU an artificial “social dimension.” The Social Democrats’ real aim was to foist Swedish-style labor and social policies on the rest of the EU, he added.
“We need to deliver for people’s everyday lives, that’s what we need to do” — Stefan Löfven
“We don’t all need the same rules for parental leave, for example, and we can’t, because the pre-conditions are different in Sweden and a country like Latvia due to different levels of prosperity and different priorities,” said Hökmark. “The Swedish model is based on a long-term balance between social partners.”
‘Win, win, win’
Löfven says he fully intends to “respect national sovereignty” but insists Europe can benefit from striving for the kind of balance he experienced as a shop steward in the metalworking industry in Örnsköldsvik, about 450 kilometers north of Stockholm.
A burly 60-year-old with a lived-in face, Löfven recalls that his union and bosses spent about 80 percent of the time working together and 20 percent “struggling about how to divide the results.” But when push came to shove and blue-collar jobs got axed, the Swedish system came up with enough financial support and retraining to ensure any redundancies would be bearable and temporary.
Stefan Löfven wants to put traditional center-left issues back at the top of the agenda | Michael Campanella/Getty Images
“With my experience, I know you can find a degree of balance where it is win, win, win — where the employees feel safer, they see that the future is also for me, with the changes and restructuring that will take place I am still on board,” he said. This way, workers “will be a positive factor for change.”
“As a Social Democrat, I believe strongly in this, but I know it works because I have seen it for real,” said the prime minister with regard to the Social Pillar. “This is not first and foremost a party thing — this is what I believe in for Europe, and for the world for that matter.”
“We need to deliver for people’s everyday lives, that’s what we need to do,” he said, slapping the table, and adding that what is at stake is nothing less than “the legitimacy of the European Union.”