While we were in Abisko, the United Kingdom held a referendum on whether or not to leave the European Union. With 72% of the electorate voting, the final tally was 52% declaring for “Leave” and 48% for “Remain.” That translates to 1,269,501 more people voting to leave than to stay. The world media labeled this reportedly idiotic result “Brexit,” or “Brixit,” take your pick. I hail from a country that elected George W. Bush President. Twice. And now, we’re possibly on the cusp of electing Donald Trump, of all people. I know idiotic and Brexit is not it.
If you have read a newspaper or turned on a TV since that vote on June 23, you know that virtually every journalist, commentator and mainstream politician was stunned that the “Leave” vote prevailed. Kind of like how the same people were surprised by the worldwide financial meltdown of 2008 and the flood of emigration out of the Middle East and Africa in 2015, both of which continue to significantly impact the European continent, if not the world, today. This inability of the powers that be to forecast or deal with problems of such magnitude does not instill confidence, to say the least.
About a week before we left for the Arctic Circle, we visited Sweden’s Parliament building, the Riksdaghuset. I had just about given up trying to write a post about that visit and Sweden’s government because I found it so difficult to understand how the government of this consensus-driven country is able to function at all. But it does, and it does so quite well, for now, anyways.
What made comprehension so difficult for me was the interplay between Sweden’s local and national governments on the one hand, and the European Union on the other. Even the government pamphlets I picked up at the Riksdaghuset say that 60% of the acts of local government here are impacted by EU compliance. Having been the mayor of a small town myself, I can’t imagine how a city – much less an entire country – can function if it has to interact on a daily basis with some far-off bureaucracy with continental designs. At the national level, does this mean that the Swedes (like the Brits) have given up most of their national sovereignty by joining the EU? I think it might.
Then when I view the situation here through a financial lens, focusing on the fact that Sweden, like the UK, is a net contributor to the EU (in 2014, Sweden: €2.3 billion; UK: €4.9 billion), it’s hard for me, as an American, to understand why either country (as opposed to its individual citizens) would want to be part of the Union. After all, Norway never joined the EU, nor did Switzerland, and they seem to be doing just fine without it.
[Here’s a tale you probably haven’t heard, that of the original “Grexit:” Greenland, at the time a Danish colony, joined the European Community, the EU’s predecessor, in 1973. Six years later, Greenland gained autonomy from Denmark. Then, in 1982, due to a dispute with the EC over fishing rights, Greenland held a referendum in which 53% of the electorate voted to leave, which is exactly what it did, negotiating a treaty with the EC and departing in 1985. No animosity resulted and the EU continues to be Greenland’s principal trading partner. Of course, today Greenland is melting, so apparently there is ultimately a price to pay for seceding from the Union.]
Now, I’m not stupid and I’m pretty well read and schooled on this subject. It’s even likely that more than one demographically-based poll would put me in the “elite” category that was so surprised by the result of the UK vote, in the unlikely event my opinion was ever solicited.
Nor am I a Eurosceptic; I am not. As an annual visitor to Europe, I think the EU is great: no visa requirement; no border crossings; common currency, for the most part, anyway. And before any of my well-educated and cosmopolitan pals “Un-Friend” me, I want to be clear that I am not questioning anyone’s opinion or belief about the wisdom of the UK’s referendum. What I do question, as I always do, is the media-sponsored, conventional wisdom that, in this case, says the vote was solely the result of bigotry and small-mindedness. I don’t think it was. Like it or not, there is a move afoot toward nationalism, a backlash against the perception that the world’s international institutions only exist to benefit the well-off and powerful.
Well, enough about the EU. Let me get back to Sweden and its Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, its national legislative body.
Sweden is a nation of 9.6 million people – half the population of Florida, but three times its size. If Sweden was one of the United States, it would rank 11th (Florida is 3rd; Washington is 13th). Sweden’s three largest urban areas are Stockholm (1.8 million), Göteborg (1.0 million) and Malmö (300,000). By way of comparison, the Miami metro area has a population of 5.8 million; Seattle-Tacoma has about 3.5 million. Sweden is the same size as California, but has only one-fourth of California’s population.
Before I describe the government here, let me first show you the Riksdaghuset, Parliament House. Completed in 1905, the original Riksdaghuset was actually two buildings, the eastern portion was the home of the then-bicameral national legislature…
In 1971, the Swedish parliament became unicamerial and the Swedish National Bank was moved to a different site. The old bank quarters were modified and refurbished and the newly elected, 349-member parliament moved into the new Riksdag Chambers. The original Riksdaghuset was converted into meeting rooms for the various parliamentary committees and the old Chambers became meeting rooms for the political parties in power.
Here’s the view of Stockholm’s City Hall (the tower) from the hallway behind the gallery of the new Riksdag Chambers.
For voting purposes, the country is divided into 29 districts or constituencies which basically correspond to its län (similar to counties). Every four years in September there is an election throughout the country at which the citizens vote for their elected representatives at three levels of government simultaneously: Riksdag (national); län (county); and, kommuner (municipality). But the voting is not done the way we do it in the United States.
I previously mentioned that Sweden is a consitutional monarchy. It is also a representative domocracy, based on a parliamentary system with proportional voting. This means that voters do not cast their votes for individual candidates. They vote, instead, for a political party and, if it wins in a district, the party then decides who will serve as its member in parliament for that particular district.
At the end of the election, when all the votes are tallied, the political parties are allocated representation in Parliment in the same proportion as they achieved in the vote. So, for example, if the Swedish Social Democratic Party wins 31% of the national vote (as it did in the last election in 2014), then it gets 31% of the seats in the Riksdag. Now, that, in and of itself, wouldn’t be sufficient to govern – that would take a majority – but by forming an alliance with one or more other parties (there are 8 in the current Riksdag) to create a larger voting bloc, it would likely be able to form a government.
Following the election, the members of parliament are seated according to geography, not party, in these Chambers:
Parliament’s first order of buiness is to elect its Speaker who, in turn, consults with the heads of the most powerful parties and proposes a Prime Minister, the head of the government. The Prime Minister gets to live right across the canal in that smaller, white building in the middle:
If ratified by the parliament, the Prime Minister then appoints his 23 cabinet members and the parliament assigns members to standing committees (there are 15 of them) consisting of 17 members in the same proportion as they have in the parliament as a whole. I’m not even going to try to explain how the committees interact with the cabinet members or the bureaucracies they oversee which are generally quite autonomous; it’s all quite byzantine.
And, of course, I’m completely ignoring the EU and its rules, regulations, interplay and oversight.
Just like the United Kingdom will soon be doing.