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Stephen Booth is an international public policy analyst political commentator.
The Scandinavian social model is often held up as the best answer to marrying global capitalism and liberal democracy. However, the recent politics of asylum, immigration, and integration in Sweden and Denmark suggest that the Nordic model is coming under increasing strain.
On January 1, Sweden took charge of the EU’s rotating presidency with the bloc deadlocked over proposals to share the burden of managing the increasing number of refugees and asylum applications. The Swedes would have traditionally been expected to push such an agenda forward in Brussels, but no longer.
Concerns about refugees escaping the war in Ukraine have obscured media focus on the re-emergence of migration movements in the southeast. According to the EU border management agency, Frontex, around 330,000 irregular border crossings were detected last year. This is the highest number since 2016 and an increase of 64 per cent from the previous year. Migration and asylum are firmly back at the top of the political agenda across Europe.
In the years up to 2015, Sweden took in more asylum seekers per capita than any other EU country. At the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, Sweden’s then Social Democrat Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, gave a rousing speech to a pro-refugee rally, urging other EU nations to follow his country’s generous approach. “We need to decide right now what kind of Europe we are going to be. My Europe takes in refugees. My Europe doesn’t build walls,” he said.
However, Sweden is no longer pushing its EU neighbours to do more. Due to a dramatic domestic political shift, the new government no longer wants Sweden to be seen as Europe’s most welcoming country.
In October last year, a new centre-right government, led by the conservative Moderate Party, in coalition with the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, became the first in the country’s modern history to take power thanks to the support of a far-right protest party, the Sweden Democrats.
The Sweden Democrats, which came second in the election with 20 per cent of the vote, are not members of the government but have formally pledged their support in exchange for shaping policy. The Sweden Democrats successfully campaigned on the issues of immigration, integration, and law and order after a recent surge in gun violence linked to criminal gangs.
The so-called Tidö Agreement – named after the castle where negotiations between the three governing parties and the Sweden Democrats took place – specifically addresses asylum seekers, including a goal of lowering the number of asylum seekers accepted per year to the lowest possible level under EU law, making it possible to withdraw residence permits for asylum seekers who are no longer in need of protection, abolishing permanent residence permits for asylum seekers, and “return migration” programmes to encourage returns to countries of origin.
In a sign of the times, this week the Migration Minister, Maria Malmer Stenergard, and Sweden Democrats’ parliamentary group leader, Henrik Vinge, jointly announced an international media campaign to promote the “paradigm shift” currently taking place in Swedish migration policy. “In the long run, the goal is that fewer people will come here,” Stenergard said.
While Sweden’s policies on immigration and asylum have historically tended to be liberal, the approach of its Scandinavian cousins in Denmark has long been far stricter. Right-wing parties emerged in the Danish political system much earlier than in Sweden. In the 1970s the Progress Party combined economic libertarianism with anti-immigration policies. In the 1990s, it gave way to the Danish People’s Party, which dropped the liberal economics but kept the focus on migration and mixed it with a dose of euroscepticism, having a significant influence over centre-right coalition governments throughout the 2000s.
But just as Swedish politics have become more Danish, Denmark’s mainstream parties have upended the traditional system of government by blocs of the left or right. In November 2022, just a month after the vote in Sweden, Danish elections produced a grand coalition government of the centre-left Social Democrats, centre-right Liberals, and the Moderates, a new party set up explicitly as a means of delivering a centrist government.
A grand coalition has been made possible due to the waning popularity of the Danish People’s Party in recent years, falling from 21 per cent in 2015 to 8 per cent in 2019. However, the Social Democrats’ recent success in winning back voters has coincided with its adoption of much of the People’s Party’s tough stance on immigration. Under the Social Democrat Mette Frederiksen, Prime Minister since 2019, the Danish government has arguably administered the harshest policy on immigration in Europe.
Frederiksen’s government has enthusiastically implemented the controversial “anti-ghetto law” limiting the share of “non-western” immigrants living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and kept a law enacted by the previous government allowing police to confiscate cash and valuables from refugees to pay for their stay in Denmark. “Non-westerners” are defined as being people from outside the EU, eight associated European countries, the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
However, despite the adoption of anti-immigration rhetoric and policies by the mainstream parties, it appears that anti-establishment, right-wing populism remains alive and well in Denmark. Founded as recently as July 2022, the Denmark Democrats, whose name echoes that of its Scandinavian cousins, achieved eight per cent of the vote to become the fifth largest party in 2022. If you add the rest of the anti-immigration vote fragmented among the smaller New Right and the rump of the Danish People’s Party, altogether it totalled around 15 per cent. There is little sign that the lure of the populists will fade anytime soon.
In contrast to the UK, these countries are relatively new to immigration from outside of Europe. Despite our own problems, policymakers in the UK should count themselves lucky. Overall, the social integration of immigrant communities in this country – by accident as much as design – has worked well enough that we can and should distinguish between the immediate small boats crisis and asylum policy, and the longer-term necessity of ensuring that our diverse society is a continued source of strength and global prestige.