Sweden is far from perfect. Since the 1990s and particularly under the previous Alliansen government –made up of the Moderates, Christian Democrats, Centre Party and the Liberal People’s Party– more and more of Sweden’s welfare state has been privatised. Education is suffering as Sweden’s PISA result drops, the privatisation of ambulance services is being criticised in the media for taking profit based decisions on sending emergency-care and Sweden has been undergoing the biggest increase in inequality of any OECD country over the past 25 years. Support for the Sweden Democrats (SD) –a former white supremacist and neo-nazi party that now runs on an anti-immigration platform– has also been growing, with the party reaching 13% in the last election.
For all that, Sweden until now had not taken the path of its neighbours in Denmark, Norway and Finland in accepting the far right. All the parliamentary parties in Sweden took a stance of shunning the Sweden Democrats, leading to the extraordinary decision last year of the opposition and government making a pact –the so called December Agreement– to not vote down each other’s budgets for the next eight years (two parliaments) to prevent the Sweden Democrats from having a deciding vote in which budget is approved.
Sweden has also taken an almost unique approach to migration. A long-standing consensus has existed amongst all parliamentary political parties, except the Swedish Democrats, that migration into Sweden is positive. And Sweden has long had a generous asylum policy, announcing in 2013 under the centre-right government that all Syrians entering Sweden would be offered permanent residency. However, that is not to say that the conditions for those arriving are ideal – the 2013 riots in Stockholm threw a spotlight on the segregation experienced by some immigrants in Sweden.
Things, though, are changing rapidly in Sweden and the consensus which made Sweden special is changing. In September of this year, Sweden put pressure on Denmark to accept asylum claims under Dublin rules, leading to the (very anti-immigration) Danish government closing its borders with Germany. In October, the Christian Democrats, swiftly followed by the Moderate and Liberal People’s Party, announced that they no longer supported the December Agreement, potentially opening the door for the inclusion of the Swedish Democrats, who polling suggests could now have around 20% of the vote, as kingmakers in budget votes. Two weeks ago the government announced it would institute border controls – only allowing those with valid ID cards or passports to enter Sweden. And just two days ago, the Social Democrat-Green government announced a range of measures to restrict asylum for the next three years. This includes rolling back Sweden’s asylum acceptance rules to EU minimum standards, ID checks on all transportation entering Sweden and severe restrictions on family reunification. The leader of the Green Party became visibly upset at a policy that goes against the Green party platform, but she neither resigned nor brought down the government, and marked a departure from the words of the Swedish Foreign Minister, who only in September stated: “We have to show that we are capable of dealing with these numbers…We’ve done it before, in the 1990s with the Balkans. It will be a strain on our systems — education, housing — but we can do it with help. If we shared responsibility between 28 [EU] countries, it would not be a strain.”
The policy shift is being framed as a response to overwhelmed immigration authorities: An estimated 190,000 asylum seekers are expected to arrive in Sweden this year, to be absorbed into the existing population of 10 million.
However, the total number of asylum seekers in Sweden only breached historical highs this autumn. The previous highest year was 1992, during the breakup for the former Yugoslavia. And while undoubtedly Sweden has stood as an exception in the EU in welcoming refugees since the beginning of the Syrian civil war and before, and has accepted a vastly higher number of refugees per capita than any other European country, it is also uniquely placed as a country where acceptance of immigration amongst the public is high, and where asylum claims in high numbers have been processed efficiently for decades.
The reasons for these changes can perhaps be more closely attributed to a capitulation to the demands of the Sweden Democrats, as seen by the Moderate party’s seeming desire to occupy the far right’s position on refugees and the failure of the Social Democrats and Green Party to make a compelling case for Sweden to endure as a progressive force for a fairer world and to challenge the anti-immigrant narrative. The results of this decision are likely to be felt in two important ways not only for Sweden, but also for the rest of Europe.
Firstly, Sweden’s model has served as a check on the more extremist tendencies of other European states. The example that Sweden had shown on the official level in keeping its doors open to refugees and working within the spirit of the Refugee Convention put pressure on other European countries to do the same. Whether this worked or not, the counter-pressure in Sweden restricting asylum is likely to intensify the pressure on Merkel to adopt an ever more restrictive asylum policy in Germany, the only other EU state willing to accept a large number of refugees relative to other EU countries. Recently, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia closed their borders to those who don’t have Syrian, Iraqi or Afghan documents, or who look likely to have come from one of those countries. Hungary has erected a fence, and other countries have threatened to follow suit. It is likely that any change in German asylum policy would create a huge backlog in Greece, which is already under immense financial pressure from the Troika and further push from EU member states for a Turkish solution, to force refugees to remain in camps on the Turkey-Syria border.
Secondly, this move is likely to strengthen the rise of the SD. The decision of the Alliansen parties to breach the December Agreement could very well lead to the SD having a role to play in the next budget vote, the first step into ending the consensus of exclusion. With their increased vote-share, this could also be a sign that Alliansen is looking to SD to support them should they become the biggest bloc but fall short of a majority in the next Swedish election, thus following the path taken with the Danish People’s Party in 2001 and that Finland is currently taking with the PS party. If Sweden were to take this route and incorporate a party that only this summer plastered Stockholm with racist posters and whose MPs in 2010 threatened to beat up a Swedish comedian of Kurdish origin with iron pipes on the streets of Stockholm, it would mark a radical departure from both Sweden as a perceived bastion of multiculturalism and humanitarianism in Northern Europe as well as undermining the role Sweden has played in being a leading defender of human rights. This would also likely echo across Europe, as a symbolic rehabilitation of the extreme right in Sweden could empower other right wing parties in Europe and convince more traditional political parties to partner-up with the extreme right.
The developments in Sweden should worry us all. Whether the reality matched the idea, Sweden has long been a standard to which other governments have compared themselves when wanting to look favourable to their electorate. Swedish people and their government are conscious and proud of this and the role they play in the international arena.
With this decision, the Social Democrats and Green Party risk being the harbingers of a new Sweden that resembles much more closely other northern European countries and will beg the question of whether Sweden was ever truly exceptional, or rather a country that just held out a little longer than Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands in embracing the extreme right and reviving the politics of the early 20th century.
by Jackson Oldfield
Picture by: L.E Daniel Larsson (CC by 2.0)