STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats have reversed their policy of calling for the country to follow Britain out of the EU as the party gears up for a European Parliament election in May that could see right-wing parties make major gains.
Citing uncertainty over Brexit and the growing resistance to federalism in many other European parties, party leader Jimmie Akesson, said on Wednesday the Sweden Democrats, which has long advocated a vote on a so-called “Swexit”, now hoped to change the EU from within.
Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29 but remains locked in complex and increasingly acrimonious negotiations on the terms of its divorce.
“We will not make any demands for leaving the EU or conducting a referendum,” Akesson told Reuters in an interview. “There have never been such great opportunities to change the way the EU is functioning from within as today.”
Elections to the European Parliament help determine who leads major institutions such as the European Commission and are also important as a bellwether of sentiment among the EU’s 500 million people.
A surge in support for right-wing parties across the EU in the wake of the recent migrant crisis has raised fears that, after the elections, nationalists and populists could hijack the agenda and force a retreat on pillars of the EU such as free movement of people and deeper economic integration.
“We want to be part of the EU internal market. We should cooperate in areas which benefit Sweden, but we need to get away from supra-nationalism,” Akesson said.
Akesson poured cold water on attempts by U.S. President Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon to gather eurosceptic forces into one group.
He said concerns over Russia would make it very hard for the Sweden Democrats to cooperate with some other right-wing parties “that are more or less Putin friendly”, referring to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“It will not succeed, there will be no such group,” he said.
His party, which joined the European Conservatives and Reformists Group last year, cited the uncertain outcome of Brexit as one reason for not pushing to leave.
“It would be rather irresponsible to push for an exit before we know what the consequences will be for the only country that has tried to leave,” he said, referring to Britain.
The Sweden Democrats, the country’s third biggest party, has been a fierce critic of the EU since the party was founded in the late 1980s. Sweden joined the EU in 1995.
But the party’s euroscepticism has hampered attempts to build bridges with the mainstream centre-right and, despite making strong gains in September’s parliamentary election, the Sweden Democrats remain shut out of power.
“Our opposition to the EU has been used as a stick to beat the party. I think it’s good to show that we are not for protectionism,” he said.
Swedes are generally positive about the EU and resistance to the country’s membership has decreased in the last year, a survey from the statistics office showed in December.
Editing by Gareth Jones