In this interview series, we reach out to some of our liberal party leaders to hear their thoughts on liberalism, Europe and beyond. In this episode, we discuss with Annie Lööf, leader of Centerpartiet in Sweden, to hear what she thinks on the Conference on the Future of Europe, what liberals can do to win back support from populist forces and what is her party’s vision for the green economic recovery. She also reveals the parallels between politics and football!
Annie Lööf, you have been leading Centerpartiet for 10 years now. What have been some of the key highlights and challenges of this past decade for you?
This past decade has been a very important time for Centerpartiet. We have grown our support base and carried out politics and policy reforms both in government and more recently as a very active opposition party. In 2018 we celebrated our best general election result in 30 years, and in the 2019 European Parliament elections we achieved our best election result ever.
The biggest challenges have been linked to the rise of the populist right-wing party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats). They have gained a lot of political power and transformed the Swedish political landscape, making the fight for liberal politics even more important and urgent. I am really proud of the fact that we are standing up for our liberal values and that we have successfully managed to implement important liberal reforms during this past decade. These reforms make a real difference for people in their everyday lives.
You became one of the youngest MPs in the Swedish Riksdag and Minister at 28. How can we encourage more young people to join politics?
The great thing about politics is that anyone can become a politician or contribute to a political party. Politics should represent and reflect the people, and therefore it is important to have a broad representation of different people with different backgrounds and of different ages within political parties.
It is essential that young people take part in the discussions and get the opportunity to influence the political decisions that will affect and shape their own futures. We have to offer varying and flexible ways for young people to get involved, so that they can combine political engagement with studies or work. We need to create opportunities to get engaged with the specific political issues that they are passionate about. I believe that the political youth and student organisations play an important role in reaching out and providing a forum for meeting other young people with similar interests and ideas. I started my own political career within our youth organisation Centerpartiets Ungdomsförbund (CUF)!
There are sometimes concerns that politicians are too detached from the citizens and their everyday challenges. In your view, how can political leaders and parties ensure they stay approachable to citizens?
I think we have to show results and prove to our voters that we have implemented the political policies that we promised. We need to make a real difference so that people can see a positive change in their everyday lives and in the society at large. It is important to be honest and direct in your communication as a politician – and to also show some heart and soul in the political work you do. Finally, I would like to stress the most important thing: to really listen to the experiences, feelings views and opinions that citizens express and to value their points of view highly.
Speaking of heart and soul, what is one fun fact about you that most people don’t know about and what does it say about you as a politician?
I have played football and went to an athlete programme in secondary school that specialised in football. I was a goalkeeper, and I feel there are a lot of similarities between being a goalkeeper and being a politician, and a party leader in particular. You are part of a team, but also have a specific, independent role. I believe that a party leader has to be both the goalkeeper and the forward of a party. We have to push things forward, be out there and “score goals”, but also to be the stable ground – the one who is able to manage high pressure and hits from the opposing teams’ attacks.
When it comes to attacks on liberal values, what do you think are the main shared challenges liberal parties and Europe are currently facing, and is the EU doing enough to address these challenges?
Europe is facing several large and serious challenges that I believe the EU needs to do a lot more to address. The economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the key topics, as well as re-building our citizens’ freedom of movement and cross-border cooperation within the EU. We have a climate crisis, which continues to be a burning issue for all of us and which requires powerful international measures.
The EU member states also need to take a greater joint responsibility for refugees entering the EU – this is especially important during times when we will face a large number of refugees as a result of increasing wars, humanitarian crises, oppression, and other undemocratic events in areas not far from the EU’s borders.
And is there anything liberals can do to win support back from the populist parties in Europe?
The rise of populist and authoritarian parties – both on the right and on the left – is forcing liberals to navigate a new political landscape. The populist forces are a very real threat to our liberal democracy, and it is increasingly important to fight for the liberal values and policies that will give people more freedom.
I believe that liberal politicians all over Europe have to combat these populist tendencies by giving people a better option – and showing them that we, liberals, are that option: the option to fix the economy, unemployment, housing shortages, education system, social welfare systems, and to combat crime to re-establish security. Earning the trust of those citizens that feel like they have been abandoned by politicians in the past is crucial.
You mentioned the importance of economic recovery as well as tackling climate change. How is your party working to ensure a green economic recovery?
Centerpartiet is just about to present a series of new reforms for a green economy, which we consider important for both the green transition in Sweden and the economic recovery after the financial crisis and recession caused by the pandemic. We will present this package of reforms at our party conference in September.
Generally speaking, we believe in lower income taxes for workers and for small- and medium-sized companies, in stimulating the economy and creating more jobs, and taxing things that are harmful for the environment. We also believe in subsidies and other economic stimuli to benefit green options. This was also important to us when we designed the broader financial rescue packages during the pandemic.
Europe is facing many challenges in years to come. How important is the Conference on the Future of Europe in finding common responses to these challenges?
I think this broad discussion will be a very important first step. The Conference on the Future of Europe is the first of its kind, and it will be very interesting to follow it. I believe that people need to be at the very centre of all public policy and that we need a broad spectrum of voices and people represented in the political fora where the discussions and decisions are taking place. This is a great platform for people to make their voices heard and make sure they reach out to top politicians across Europe.
But, another important thing is what we as politicians proceed to do with the feedback we get from our citizens. To listen is just the first step; we also need to do the real work and make the changes people ask for. I think this is crucial if we want to maintain, or regain, people’s trust in the political systems and in politicians themselves.
Follow Annie Lööf on social media:
Follow Centerpartiet on social media: