Open and Shut: Sweden’s Identity Crisis.
Ivar Ekman |Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015
Sweden, the biggest country at the heart of rich and peaceful Scandinavia, is in many ways in the eye of the current migration storm tearing through Europe. Although it is admitting fewer refugees than Germany in terms of sheer numbers, Sweden is—and has been for several years—the European Union’s (EU) biggest per capita recipient of refugees by quite a wide margin. In 2014, Sweden, a country with just 9 million inhabitants, received more than 80,000 asylum applications. This year, that number is set to grow substantially.
Yet, looked at from another angle, Sweden seems to be on the verge of a political implosion. For some time now, amid the crises in their near and not-so-near abroad—the crumbling of the modern Middle East, the war in Ukraine and the European debt crisis—Swedes appear beset by a rapidly growing sense of insecurity. The record number of refugees, combined with the arrival of thousands of mainly Roma panhandlers from Eastern Europe, declining measures of educational outcomes and a sense of military vulnerability to Russia, has informed a widespread sense of impending doom. Politically, this feeling has manifested itself in the rise of the extreme right-wing Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-Nazi roots that garnered 13 percent of votes in the 2014 elections but is now polling at close to 20 percent.
Today, the big question is how this combination of strength and insecurity will play out in Swedish politics in the years ahead. Sweden could follow the path of its neighbors. In terms of security policy, this would mean becoming a NATO member, as Denmark and Norway already are and as Finland is now considering. For domestic policy, it would mean embracing a kind of new, nativist Nordic model already on display in Finland, Norway and Denmark, where anti-immigrant, populist parties have all become established parts of governing coalitions. If such a backlash comes, chances are Sweden will embark upon this path with a vengeance, given how politically open the country has been up until now.
Alternatively, Sweden can continue upon its historically enlightened, exceptionalist path, remaining militarily nonaligned or politically open, or both. Thus far, Sweden’s politicians have been strikingly insistent on staying this course, despite setbacks in public opinion polls, political turbulence and slow progress in getting other European countries to share the burdens of the current refugee crisis.
So what will happen? To answer this question requires examining the domestic and foreign forces, as well as lessons from Sweden’s recent and not-so-recent past, that will determine this almost existential choice.
How Did We Get Here?
The postwar decades were a golden era for Sweden. Having avoided the destruction of World War II, the country had a largely intact industrial base, and its export-fueled economy grew rapidly. With this growth came the expansion of the welfare state. Social Democratic governments introduced social reforms at a furious pace during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Universal pension payments were raised; universal child-support payments were introduced and increased; legally mandated paid vacations became progressively longer; universal health insurance was established; a system of free schools and universities was expanded; students were provided with stipends; the pace of building apartments subsidized by the state was accelerated, and so on.
In terms of security policy, Sweden had been neutral in the war and stayed nonaligned throughout the Cold War. Part of the newfound wealth was used to build up a military of sizeable proportions, with sufficient manpower and equipment to stand on its own, whoever the enemy was—including the neighboring Soviet Union, the threat that everyone had in mind.
For Sweden, this was a time of great optimism, when all of society’s problems, be they unemployment, poverty, crime, inequality or foreign threats, appeared as but practical engineering challenges to be solved by a much-trusted state apparatus and bureaucracy. The future seemed ever brighter—until it didn’t. By the late 1970s, growth had begun to slow. But the political will for visionary reforms was too weak, so instead the economy was boosted through financial deregulation. This only postponed the reckoning, which came in the form of a deep financial and banking crisis in the early 1990s. The crisis was felt throughout Europe, but Sweden was struck harder than most. Growth was consistently negative from 1990 to 1993.
Nevertheless, the crisis was a turning point for Sweden. Again, the answer was reforms, which came at a rapid pace but differed from those of the postwar years. Deregulation and globalization were their guiding principles. Sweden became an EU member in 1994, swiftly adapting to the union’s internal market. The pension system was thoroughly reformed to become a much less generous pay-as-you-go system. Schools, hospitals and transport systems were just a few of the many public institutions that were now opened up for private competition. The welfare state was still there, but it was becoming cheaper to maintain and more streamlined.
Perhaps more importantly, the Swedish welfare state became less ideologically anchored, particularly as a legacy of the political left. From a vision of the future guided by principles of social justice, it became an inheritance from the nostalgic past to be fought over. This was underlined by the fact that many of the reforms of the 1990s were initiated by the conservative-led coalition government of Prime Minster Carl Bildt, in power during the crisis, but carried out with, and then deepened by, the Social Democrats under Goran Persson—the same Social Democrats that had built up the welfare state in the earlier decades.
This bipartisan consensus on reform following the crisis in the 1990s created the perception that the difference between the center-left and the center-right was practically gone, thus opening up space for a new political force in Sweden. In the 1991 general elections, Ny Demokrati, or New Democracy, a right-wing, populist, anti-immigrant party, gained 6.7 percent of the vote. Part of the party’s appeal grew out of a national debate over immigration that had emerged since the 1980s. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sweden had taken in migrant workers, mainly from southern Europe, to cover the needs of its expanding industrial sector. But from the mid-1970s on, refugees and asylum seekers became dominant among immigrants, first from Latin America, later from countries like Iran, Turkey and, during the wars in the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia. This opening to migrants was largely based on the idea that Sweden, as one of the world’s richest countries, could afford to help. It was a policy that enjoyed wide support.
But a political reaction to Sweden’s open-door policy emerged in the 1980s, stretching from generally right-wing populists like Ny Demokrati to neo-Nazi skinheads marching in the streets. Ny Demokrati only passed the electoral threshold to make it into parliament in one election, and imploded soon thereafter. But in the party’s shadow, a profound shift in Swedish politics began to take place.
Waiting for a New Future
In 2006, a right-wing coalition won the general elections—the first time the right had returned to power since 1994 and only the third period of non-Social Democratic rule since World War II. Fredrik Reinfeldt—leader of the Moderates, a conservative party that he, together with a close-knit circle of advisers, had rebranded as the New Moderates—became the new prime minister. Traditionally, the Moderates had argued for classic conservative and right-wing policies: less state regulation, weaker unions, pro-business reforms, lower benefits and so on.
But Reinfeldt promised something else: He wouldn’t kill the Swedish welfare state so much as reinvent it. The New Moderates’ tagline, “Sweden’s only workers’ party,” sent a clear message to the Social Democrats’ voter base that their party had failed them. During the postwar boom and until the late 1980s, Swedish governments had had the stated policy of “full employment,” and unemployment had indeed been kept at around 2 percent—anything approaching 4 percent was considered a national crisis. In 1989, the official unemployment number was still 1.5 percent. But the economic collapse following the 1991 financial crisis ushered in a new normal. Unemployment rose to 8.2 percent in 1993 and has not fallen below 4 percent since. Many working-class voters who had traditionally turned to the Social Democrats viewed this as a great betrayal. With this in mind, the appeal of a “smarter” welfare state, above all through a lowering of payroll taxes for lower-income earners, was strong.
The main reform of both Reinfeldt governments—he was re-elected in 2010—was to shrink the relative size of the state and taxation. Public spending fell from its peak of 67 percent of GDP in 1993 to 52 percent in 2013, and taxes were cut drastically: As a percentage of GDP, overall taxes went down from 51.4 percent in 2000 to 44.3 percent in 2012.
But Reinfeldt’s other accomplishments are also resonating today. To begin with, he steered Sweden through the 2008 financial crisis, which in many ways proved how salutary the 1991 financial crisis had been for Sweden: The reforms carried out in its wake created an internationally integrated economy, able to handle both the benefits and the challenges of a globalized world. Growth fell dramatically after 2008 but picked up again quite quickly, as Sweden had already carried out the reforms that proved necessary—if fiercely resisted—in many other European countries. Sweden now reaped the benefits.
Reinfeldt also continued to use the “peace dividend” of the end of the Cold War quite aggressively. By the mid-1990s, the Swedish defense budget had already been drastically reduced, but now this policy was made more visible: Mandatory military service, the core component of a large “people’s defense,” was ended in 2009. At this point, the Swedish military consisted of a tiny standing force mainly used to take part in international, U.N.-sanctioned missions, such as in Afghanistan and Libya. This stood in contrast to its still-bloated defense industry, a remnant of Sweden’s Cold War-era policy of self-sufficiency, best illustrated by the fact that the country still produces its own fighter jets. As most of Sweden’s military materiel is produced for export, government support for the defense industry was—and is—in reality industrial policy disguised as security policy.
The rapid shrinking of the Swedish military has had another unintended but very important consequence. Sweden is a vast, sparsely populated country. One of the main methods used to keep smaller towns alive amid rapid 20th-century urbanization was the placement of regimental headquarters and bases in these less-populated areas. When these military installations disappeared, few economic opportunities remained in many of these places, causing deep disaffection among those left behind.
Another important legacy of the Reinfeldt government was its insistence on maintaining an open immigration policy. Key to this was a reform of the legal framework regulating how asylum claims were handled. Previously, the government, and at times even individual Cabinet ministers, handled appeals to asylum decisions made by the Swedish Migration Board. This had made the process intensely politicized, especially in cases where local opinion was mobilized to help an asylum seeker stay. In 2006, this system was replaced by a legal process in which appeals to the Migration Board’s decisions were heard in special courts, removing many of the political difficulties in handling individual cases.
But the reform also eliminated the ability to regulate the total number of refugees fleeing any given crisis that would be allowed to stay in Sweden. It is a law-based system, without quotas, which uses humanitarian law to define the circumstances—conflict or other—that grant refugees the right to asylum. Accordingly, if the independent judges at the migration courts interpret the law to mandate the admission of refugees fleeing a certain crisis—Syria, for example—then any refugees fleeing that crisis who make it to Sweden must be admitted, no matter how many arrive. The law can of course be changed, but this is a slow process, so Swedish politicians had in effect washed their hands of the matter, leaving much of Swedish asylum policy to be determined by external events.
In terms of governance and policy, the eight years that Reinfeldt governed Sweden were in some fundamental ways a success. The economy remained stable, and the welfare state was further trimmed but remained intact. Regarding migrants, Sweden accepted many fleeing fear and prosecution—not least during the darkest days of the Iraq War, when it took in many more Iraqi refugees than did the U.S., for example. And politically, at least in a narrow, tactical sense, the Moderates’ move toward the center, coopting the language and even some of the policies of the welfare-state-creating Social Democrats, had thoroughly weakened the latter, still the Moderates’ main opponent.
But Reinfeldt failed at cutting unemployment to the pre-crisis levels most Swedes were still dreaming about, and with this, he failed at his main goal: to re-establish the Swedish welfare state’s ideological core and create a widespread belief in a new Swedish future. That failure was central to the rise of the Sweden Democrats.
Sweden’s Far Right
The Sweden Democrats party was founded in 1988. Its extreme-right and even neo-Nazi background is clear and well-documented: The party was the result of a merger of several nationalist and overtly racist far-right organizations active in Sweden in the 1980s, mainly Sverigepartiet (The Sweden Party), Framstegspartiet (The Progress Party) and Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish), though it also attracted members from openly white-supremacist factions.
In the mid-1990s, the Sweden Democrats took measures to improve the party’s credibility, severing ties with its openly Nazi and racist elements. For example, symbols reminiscent of World War II, as well as the wearing of uniforms, were banned from party gatherings. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, the party removed many members with openly extreme views, while others left voluntarily for the more extreme far-right Nationalsocialistisk Front (National Socialist Front) and Nationaldemokraterna (The National Democrats). The purge continued and intensified in the early 2000s, especially after a tight-knit group of young men from southern Sweden, led by Jimmie Akesson, took control of the party. Akesson became the Sweden Democrats’ leader in 2005.
The party’s transformation—represented by the change of its symbol from a hand holding a torch to a liverleaf, an unassuming blue spring flower—was accompanied by a rhetorical shift to defending the Swedish welfare state while touting an anti-immigration ideology. This was, both for historical and more contemporary political reasons, fertile ground. When the Social Democrats began laying the foundations of the Swedish welfare state in the 1930s, they used some of the same nationalistic language and symbolism as the era’s fascist movements that were then rising in Europe. One of the main slogans the then-Social Democratic leader and prime minister, Per-Albin Hansson, used to describe the new society they were creating, for instance, was “Folkhemmet,” or the People’s Home.
Back in prewar Sweden, coopting this type of language was a deft move, both to defang the extreme right on the rise in Sweden and much of the rest of Europe and to gather broad popular support for a radical, reformist policy agenda. Indeed, Folkhemmet, whose populist and nationalist overtones might be unsettling in other European countries, is a slogan that still resonates widely among Swedes.
This is something that the Sweden Democrats understood well. The cover photograph of Jimmie Akesson’s political biography, for instance, shows him sitting on a sofa with a poster of Per-Albin Hansson in the background. And the economic program of the Sweden Democrats is a curious combination of classic neo-right-wing policies combined with a strong defense of the Social Democratic welfare model, which distinguishes it from other more neoliberal or populist anti-tax parties.
For the Sweden Democrats, the solution to this seemingly impossible combination of lower taxes and a very generous welfare state centers on Sweden’s immigrants—more specifically, their removal from the country. The party, then, not only emphasizes immigration as a cultural threat but as a threat to the Swedish model. This strategy has been labeled “welfare chauvinism,” a populist approach that pits the needs of different social groups against each other. The most blatant and infamous expression of this came in the party’s campaign ad during the 2010 elections that showed a retiree hobbling forward while a hoard of Muslim women in burqas charges past to pocket money from the national budget. The choice, a voiceover said, is to “cut money from immigration budgets, or from pensions.”
For the Sweden Democrats, welfare chauvinism is a strategy that so far has been stunningly successful. The party has gone from polling 0.37 percent in the 1998 elections and 1.4 percent in 2002 to roughly 3 percent in 2006, when Akesson became the party’s new leader and the liverleaf replaced the torch as the party emblem. In 2010, when the campaign ad mentioned above was aired, its popularity reached 5.7 percent, exceeding the 4 percent threshold for parliamentary representation. In the last general elections in 2014, the party received 12.9 percent, becoming the third-biggest party in the Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament. Now, the Sweden Democrats poll at around 20 percent. But what comes next, for the party and for Swedish politics, depends as much on the direction of global crises as it does on the political skill of the leaders of Sweden’s newest political force.
In the lead-up to the 2014 elections, a kind of perfect storm hit Sweden, consisting of three components. First, thousands of Eastern European panhandlers, mainly Roma, arrived in the country and became very visible on the streets of its major cities. Sweden is a country where street begging has been extremely rare for many decades, making the sight of people sitting with a paper cup outside practically every Swedish supermarket greatly unsettling to many Swedes. The “EU migrants,” as they became known, also built makeshift camps, another unfamiliar phenomenon that caused great consternation in rich, rule-bound and rather cold—in February, temperatures average between minus 7 and 26 degrees Fahrenheit—Sweden.
The second factor was the rise of the so-called Islamic State, now in control of sizeable parts of both Syria and Iraq. As in the rest of the world, the group’s graphic execution videos and violent, religious end-of-times rhetoric received widespread attention in Sweden. The fact that a few hundred young Swedes—300 is the number usually cited, but it is highly uncertain—joined the Islamic State in Syria or Iraq fed a growing unease in Sweden about Islam.
The third factor was a rapid rise of asylum seekers coming to Sweden, mainly from Syria, but also from Eritrea, Afghanistan and Somalia. The numbers went from around 25,000 in 2009 to more than 80,000 in 2014—a year before the migration crisis hit Europe. After arriving in Sweden, migrants are placed in asylum centers while waiting for their applications to be processed. These centers are often repurposed, previously unprofitable hotels and conference centers in small towns and villages in more sparsely populated parts of the country—often the same small towns that lost both employment opportunities and regular contact with the outside world when the Swedish military was reduced so drastically in the 1990s and early 2000s. All of a sudden, this outside world returned, but now in the shape of Syrians and Eritreans. In smaller communities, it has not been uncommon to see populations double with a sudden influx of just 500 asylum seekers.
Not quite part of this perfect storm, but fueling the uneasy social mood, has been a massive debate and national soul-searching regarding declining measures of educational performance. Sweden’s ranking in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Program For International Student Development study has been dropping rapidly. Although the Reinfeldt governments prioritized education, they failed to reverse the negative trend. Research shows that declining academic performance is only partially related to immigration, but the discussion—above all among Sweden Democrat sympathizers—often veers in that direction.
Then, a month before the 2014 elections, with the Sweden Democrats poised to become the third-biggest party in parliament, Reinfeldt, then the prime minister and clearly behind the opposition in polls, gave a surprising, heart-felt, but strategically questionable speech. In it, he called for all Swedes to “open [their] hearts” to people “who, under threat to their lives, flee, flee toward Europe, flee to freedom, flee to a better life.”
When the election results came in a month later, they revealed that many hearts had remained closed, and Swedish politics were thrown into turmoil. There had been some hope that the new Social Democratic leader, Stefan Lofven, a square-shouldered former welder and previous head of the big industrial union IF Metall, would be able to do what Fredrik Reinfeldt could not: unite the old reform-oriented workers’ paradise with the new liberal, multicultural, globalized Sweden. But even though the Social Democrats finished first in the elections with 31 percent of the vote, they failed to secure a majority in Parliament with their junior coalition partners. The left-wing bloc—comprising the Social Democrats and the Green Party, with the support of the post-communist Left Party—held more seats than the so-called Alliance, led by the Moderates along with three smaller liberal-conservative parties. But the Sweden Democrats, despite just 13 percent of the popular vote, held the decisive swing votes in parliament.
In this situation, neither of the two blocs was prepared to negotiate with the Sweden Democrats, so Lofven formed a minority government. Following the elections, the new government’s budget didn’t pass in parliament. The Lofven government called for a snap election, but after a few tense weeks in which the Sweden Democrats continued to rise in the polls, the left and right reached the so-called December agreement, by which the non-Sweden Democrat opposition allowed a budget to pass without majority support. The December agreement only exacerbated the already strong feeling among Sweden Democrat sympathizers of being unfairly and even undemocratically treated by “the establishment,” and the party continued to rise in the polls.
This was the situation in August 2015, when a surge of mainly Syrian refugees hit Europe, making their way through the Balkans, crossing into the EU in Hungary and then traveling north to Germany and beyond. To Swedes, what appeared so new and dramatic to many other Europeans did not seem like much of a crisis. In raw numbers, more asylum seekers are arriving in Sweden now than a year ago, but not by an order of magnitude. Since tens of thousands of refugees already arrive yearly, Sweden has a well-functioning system to handle the influx. This means that Sweden hasn’t seen huge numbers of refugees sleeping in train stations, walking on highways or dying in the back of trucks. In other words, it is a matter of more of the same, rather than a dramatic shift.
What has shifted dramatically is the terms of the debate over what to do about it. Against a backdrop of pictures of dead Syrian children on Greek beaches, tear-gassed refugees on the Hungarian border, Danes spitting and Finns shooting fireworks at weary refugees—and Germans openly demonstrating their welcome—a policy of open hearts suddenly seemed to resonate strongly. By late September, this was reflected in polls showing both a sharp increase among Swedes in support for a policy of taking in refugees, from 26 percent in February to 44 percent in September, coinciding with a halt in the rise of the Sweden Democrats.
The shift, however, is not quite a reversal of earlier trends. The Swedish political landscape is clearly in dramatic flux. Polarization is more pronounced than ever, and things could move in many different directions. Much is dependent on intangibles, such as political leadership, and on factors beyond Sweden’s borders. One main factor is German politics and, with it, EU politics as a whole. Will Germany continue to show openness? If not, will Sweden take on an even-larger burden alone? Will the German-Swedish axis on burden-sharing throughout the EU prevail? And even if it does, will it go beyond symbolism and make a tangible difference on the numbers of people coming to Sweden? Another major factor is the trajectory of the Syrian civil war and Middle Eastern stability more broadly.
Amid global turbulence and a political scene in flux, Swedes are questioning many deep-held beliefs and decades-old policies. For example, a majority of Swedes now support NATO membership, as do several parties that traditionally opposed it.
But most signs point to immigration being the issue that will determine the shape of both Swedish politics and even the Swedish self-image in years to come. Beyond the current crisis, in the slightly longer run, much comes down to the concrete challenge of integrating those who have already arrived and those who will arrive in the foreseeable future. Work, housing and schooling are already challenging policy areas in Sweden. Unemployment remains stubbornly high at 6.4 percent. The housing market is overheated, and new construction is much too slow. And schools are still struggling with results.
The past few months have seen many examples of Swedes going to extraordinary lengths to open their hearts, as the former prime minister had called for them to do: Fundraising for refugee-related nongovernmental organizations has broken records, and many have taken on more substantial volunteer efforts, such as becoming foster parents for unaccompanied minors. But it is still too early to tell how deep this surge of goodwill is, and how it will relate to the existential and everyday challenges facing Swedish society and the state.
A more acute question is whether Swedish politicians are well-equipped to deal with the crisis and avoid following a trajectory that deepens polarization of Swedish society. By early October, the December agreement fell apart, when the small Christian Democrat party decided it would no longer participate. The Sweden Democrats immediately called for a snap election, which Prime Minister Lofven dismissed. Still, nobody knows if his government’s budget will pass when it is reviewed in late November, and what will happen if it doesn’t. The Swedish drama continues.
Ivar Ekman is the host of National Swedish Radio's foreign affairs show Konflikt. He has previously written for Foreign Affairs, the New York Times and the Financial Times.