Mundus Brief March 2023

Last month, the Mundus Brief pointed to a number of challenges facing Sweden – the burning of the Qur’an and its impact on Sweden’s reputation, the state of Sweden’s economy and the shambolic nature of its energy policy. Having posed questions, we then set out to answer them in the March Monthly Policy Review.

Let’s begin with the Qur’an burning. Should this have happened? We argue that there are a couple of reasons why Rasmus Paludan might have been disallowed to burn the Qur’an. Firstly, and most obviously, the act was offensive, setting out deliberately to upset people of Muslim faith, with the intent to provoke a strong reaction. If this was not its aim, what was? Secondly, it was clearly against the national interest, due to likely political, and as it turned out, social reactions from across the globe. At a time of many other challenges, the Government has been distracted by the need to try to mitigate the fallout from Paludan’s incitement. 

Frustratingly, for the Government, these do not necessarily present legal grounds for denying Paludan the right to conduct such protests. And, even if they did, ministers do not have a direct say in approving the permit – that is the job of the police. 

We asked a lawyer for an opinion. His answer was that it comes down to the hierarchy of laws under the Swedish Constitution, where a law with a higher legal status takes precedence over a law with a lower legal status. And freedoms of expression, assembly and demonstration are some of the fundamental rights and freedoms that all Swedish citizens are guaranteed. To cut to the chase of a rather detailed legal argument, as far as Swedish law is concerned, freedom of expression takes precedence except in very limited circumstances. 

Agitation against a population group is a crime in Sweden and could be grounds to deny a permit. But while it might appear obvious that this is what Paludan intended, there are semantic arguments that might make it hard to pin this charge on Paludan. This decision is untested by the Swedish courts. Hence, Paludan got his 5 minutes of fame.

Subsequent events and the deteriorating security situation arguably gave grounds to then justify a denial of permission to burn the Qur’an at the Iraqi Embassy. This position too is untested by the courts, and subject to appeal, but is now current praxis in Sweden.

What do Swedes make of it, and how should foreigners interpret these oddities? For instance, when a Swede of Egyptian heritage announced that he was planning on burning the Bible to provoke discussion regarding the “disgusting act of burning holy scriptures,” following the Qur’an burnings, his announcement was met by indifference. Similarly, efforts to burn the Swedish flag have aroused a lack of passion from Swedes, more inclined to smile wryly at a piece of cloth being destroyed. (Is there nothing that can provoke a Swede – perhaps not, if this humorous video of its culture is correct – check the bike accident at the 2min mark). But obsessiveness with the flag is associated with far-right movements and nationalism, and disapproved of, and cultural scholars point that Swedish identity is more related to its constitution and democracy. Here is the linkage back to Paludan and the Qur’an. For Swedes, it is the right to express oneself and to be different that is important. Under this mindset, Paludan is entitled to express himself by burning books, if that is what he enjoys. But, only to the extent that it does not impinge on another person’s right to worship the Qur’an. 

The Qur’an issue is just one part of the rolling saga around Sweden’s NATO application. It is beginning to feel like Groundhog Day, as a weatherman is trapped in a time loop, with the same day repeating itself. Certainly there are elements of repetition, with Sweden and Finland desperately trying to join NATO, Türkiye objecting, compromise being sought leading to positive noises, but then further complaint from Türkiye that Sweden has not delivered in giving up “terrorists.” Then the cycle repeats. February bore witness to the drama of the Qur’an episode, which led to planned talks being cancelled, and then rescheduled in March, and the tragedy of the terrible earthquake, which killed 50,000, with Sweden being generous with its emergency relief. But there were also variations to the theme, with a possibility now gaining support, for Finland to join NATO before Sweden. Neither country says that it wants this, but with Finland sharing a 1,340km border with Russia, it wants to be behind NATO’s nuclear shield even more. Another slight variant was the emergence of Hungary as a potential speed bump, having dragged its feet on ratification for months. A team of Hungarian government politicians visited Sweden, with some seeing this as an opportunity to twist Sweden’s arm over EU budget and rule of law issues. But, the trip passed without much rancour.

And, as we wrote in the previous Mundus Brief, the Government finds itself challenged by energy, climate and industry policies. Unusually, these all point in the same direction, more wind power. Actually much more wind power, plus other forms of renewable energy. It’s necessary already today just to heat homes on peak days, tomorrow to drive electric vehicles and in the near future to power the green industries that Swedish industrialists want to build. But, as has been remarked on before, that direction runs smack into national and local politics, with over 80% of wind projects being rejected by municipalities around Sweden. In the process of getting elected, Ebba Busch and the Christian Democrats (KD) took aim at the “Green Party’s endless steel forests of wind turbines.” Now as industry minister, Busch wants those steel trees to be growing as quickly as possible. A large part of the media and Swedish society, plus, of course, her political opponents, are holding Busch and the Government to account on this fact. 

The issue of trust was raised in the previous Mundus Brief, where we looked at the Government’s first 100 days. It hasn’t gone away. If there were an election today, Busch and her KD party would be lucky to get into the Riksdag. Despite an apparent pro-markets ideological alignment between the Government and industry, the reality is that industry can not afford to relent in its pursuit of getting more renewable energy built as quickly as possible. In February, the CEO of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, Jan-Olof Jacke, said that the Swedish business community wants to see more real action by the authorities, primarily to shorten the time it takes to issue wind power permits. Our MPR article “Rising Costs, Rising Tensions” looks at the raft of political challenges faced on energy. The article begins with the facts of what was promised and then delivered, and continues to cover the wedge that broken promises have created between the Government’s two leading lights, Busch and her Prime Minister, Ulf Kristersson (M). 

One final note. As remarked last month, Sweden’s economy is experiencing a rare down moment with the housing bubble unwinding under the pressure of high inflation and high interest rates. On 9 February, the Riksbank raised interest rates again to 3%, signalling more was to follow in April. Sadly, for mortgage holders, this may not be the end of it, as January’s inflation rate was reported at 11.7%. The new Governor of the Riksbank, Erik Thédeen said that he was worried about the effects of underlying inflation, and recommended that food shoppers look harder for bargains, forcing supermarkets to lower prices. The Minister for Finance, Elisabeth Svantesson (M), confirmed that she too was worried about core inflation, which is given as a reason that the Government is resisting calls to assist households in what are starting to be very challenging times.