Sweden Shuts the Door

Petter Nilsson

Sweden takes its generosity toward refugees as a point of pride. So why did it just impose harsh limits on asylum seekers?

One of the Swedish "white buses," which rescued thousands from concentration camps during World War II. Christensen Tage

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Sweden’s humanitarian posture towards refugees plays an important role in the self-image of the nation.

During World War II, the country’s “white buses” saved 25,000 people from concentration camps. They have survived in the popular consciousness, inspiring the demand for “white boats” between Syria and Sweden.

During the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland 70,000 Finnish children were sent to Sweden, a stark contrast to Finland’s current unwillingness to let refugees pass into Finland through the Swedish border. Around 100,000 refugees entered Sweden in a short time during the war in Yugoslavia, in what is often held up as a model for today’s challenge.

The number of refugees now streaming into Sweden shows that this relative generosity still exists. Yet the last few decades have seen it gradually constricted, and on November 24 the country executed a sharp volte face by adopting the European Union’s minimum asylum standards. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, leader of the Social Democratic Party, announced that from April on asylum seekers would receive only temporary residence permits and see their rights to family reunification severely curtailed.

Jacobin spoke with Petter Nilsson, a member of the Center for Marxist Social Studies the Left Party in Stockholm, about the political context for the new restrictions and the prospects for challenging them.

Sweden announced a shocking tightening of asylum rules last week. What’s some of the background to the decision? Is it publicly supported?

Petter Nilsson

To understand the specific Swedish response to the refugee crisis I think one has to go back to at least 2006.

In the election that year, the right-wing parties — the moderates, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals, and the Center Party (previously known as the Farmers’ League) — decided to form an electoral bloc, the Alliance. They won two consecutive terms but were unable to gain a majority in the last election in 2014.

Traditionally this would mean that the Social Democrats would govern with the support of one or more of the other parties. But with the right-wing parties tied up, and the far-right Sweden Democrats gaining 13 percent in the national elections, the Social Democratic Party found themselves unable to form a majority.

After a bit of political maneuvering the result was a weak minority government of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, with passive support from the Left Party. The problem is that when the Sweden Democrats voted in favor of the Alliance budget, it meant that the government couldn’t pass its budget and the right-wing alliance couldn’t rule without support of the far-right — something that still remains beyond the pale for the center-right parties.

To avoid the kingmaker role being granted to the Sweden Democrats, the “December agreement” was pulled together to allow the government’s budget to pass, stipulating thorough “bipartisan” compromises. Today, Sweden is saddled with a weak red-green government unwilling to do much of anything but stay in power and with the need to seek endless compromises with the Right.

At a moment when the number of refugees is the largest since World War II, Sweden’s international reputation made it the favored destination for many coming from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In a situation where most of Europe has behaved disgracefully, persecuting or brutalizing refugees, the relative civility of Swedish immigration policy made it stand out.

Civil society in Sweden has generally responded with open arms and where the state failed to keep up with refugee needs, volunteers stepped in with food, shelter, and legal advice. In a country where state and municipal institutions are generally trusted to be effective, it’s quite an achievement for this kind of mobilization in civil society to happen.

At the same time there has been an increase in attacks on immigrants and arson against designated refugee asylums. Far-right populist speeches, like the Sweden Democrats’ bid for people to “defend their country” against asylum seekers, has fed the xenophobic reaction; as has a significant shift in the mainstream-right press, now regularly spinning headlines of “a society on the brink of collapse.”

Initially the Social Democrats and the Greens made proud statements about Sweden setting a leading example, repeating them as late as September at the largest refugee welcome demonstration. They have now been contradicted, both in speeches and in actions.

The government was continually attacked from the Right, which repeatedly invoked the image of a collapsing society. To try to evade the issue the government entered into a bipartisan agreement on migration in October, buying the opposition’s support with restrictions on immigration (shifting to only temporary residence permits), further tax cuts, and workfare policies tying residence permits to their employer’s good graces.

If this initial attempt was meant to silence the debate it failed miserably. The ink hadn’t dried on the agreement before the right-wing parties demanded more restrictions. One week ago they began enforcing border controls and a battery of new restrictions designed to discourage asylum seekers from coming to Sweden were introduced.

It’s hard to make a definitive statement on the level of public support. In general polls show that Swedes are supportive of immigration and have become increasingly so over the past few decades. On the other hand there is an increase of support for the far right, which has made significant inroads in the mainstream rhetoric.

Short-term polls during the last months have pointed in different directions. If I were to wager I would say that there is a stable majority in favor of Sweden setting an example and having a generous immigration policy.

Yet politicians obviously feel they are dealing with an electorate that leans towards generous immigration policies. Restrictions are formulated as serving the interests of refugees and the need to scale up public institutions (such as schools and hospitals). To sell the proposition to the general public it is presented as the demand of public servants who are “out in the field” and unable to handle the increase in work. Even the party leaders enforcing them describe the latest restrictions as “a sad day for Sweden.”

There have already been strong reactions from the electoral base as well as the rank-and-file of the Social Democrats and the Greens. The Greens have had an especially hard time maintaining party discipline, with high-profile MPs denouncing the package.

This demonstrates the general problem of a weak center-left government maintaining power on the condition of not enacting any significant political reforms. Of course, the number of refugees coming to Sweden represents a challenge for systems that aren’t up to scale, but it wouldn’t be the first time Sweden met challenges through massive political mobilization.

The increase in refugees becomes an acute problem in the light of a government unwilling to increase taxes, invest in infrastructure, or commit to any substantial political action. If no one is willing to do anything, then it may very well seem like nothing can be done.

It might be that this represents the general development of Europe and public opinion in Sweden, but then what is the point of voting for a social-democratic government or of social democracy at all?

Does this say anything wider about the inroads being made against the social-democratic model and self-perception in Sweden?

Petter Nilsson

Well, yes and no. It’s a fine line to thread between admitting the actual inroads made and not signing off on the neoliberal notion of the Nordic welfare state as only a thing of the past. Some of the trenches still stand.

Up until last week Sweden still had one of the most generous immigration policies in Europe — which maybe isn’t saying much, but still. The debate has therefore been centered on just that imagery of Sweden as a moral example. The refugee movement could lean not only on a tradition of being decent, but also the historical examples of large immigration enriching Sweden both financially and culturally.

On the other hand the right-wing argument is — as always — that the time of Swedish exceptionalism is over and that we have to adjust economically as well as on questions such as immigration.

So it’s the same struggle as is being waged on questions of labor rights (and in many ways concretely tied to it) but it also shows the strength of the Nordic welfare imagery, where the majority of Swedes can still harken back to a more generous policy because “that is the way we’ve always done it.”

How should we view the Sweden Democrats? Is it a fascist formation or a right-nationalist one?

Petter Nilsson

The Sweden Democrats were formed in 1988 out of the remnants of the explicitly fascist and neo-Nazi “Keep Sweden Swedish” organization. They spent their first ten years as a run of the mill gathering of skinheads and outcasts, more or less the completely inefficient political wing of the white power movement.

In 2005 they started a renovation of the party, changed their symbol from a torch to a blue anemone, banned uniforms and skinhead outfits, and started a wave of expulsions of the rank-and-file that continues to this day.

Today, they try to present a tidied up version of xenophobia and an official party ban on racist rhetoric have made it possible to expel party members who speak out of turn. The ban is a way to maintain party discipline but will never be fully enforced, as high-ranking MPs have been involved in attempted assaults and racist slurs without being disciplined.

The Sweden Democrats are gaining ground now on classical populist anti-elitism, presenting the other seven parties as a homogenous liberal conspiracy selling the country to multiculturalism. The centrist compromises and the lackluster performance of the Social Democrats have made it possible for the Sweden Democrats to call for rejuvenating the classical Swedish welfare state, but in their histories the welfare state was not built by the labor movement but by an ethnically homogenous population.

They have shed their paramilitary fringe and filed off some of their roughest edges so at the moment they are closer to a National Front of France than the National Alliance of Italy.

Their meteoric rise between the blocks of contemporary Swedish politics have garnered them an undue influence. They are still quarantined in national politics but influence politics by looming large. The argument is put forth by centrists, for example, that restrictions on immigration have to be made lest the Sweden Democrats gain more ground.

What of the response from the Left, both in terms of the Left Party and the broader movement in solidarity with refugees?

Petter Nilsson

The Left Party is the only party besides the Sweden Democrats that refused to sign the bipartisan agreement on migration. The more progressive proposal has been the suggestion that Sweden should withhold the yearly €40 billion fee to the European Union to push the EU to accept more responsibility for the refugees.

As a 5 percent party outside of government, the Left Party’s influence is limited, but the party has been a part of the broader solidarity movement. The state institutions have been unable to keep up with the increase in refugees and the solidarity movement has made a heroic effort in concrete assistance on the ground.

The major task of receiving refugees is still being carried out by the solidarity movement, comprised mainly of the Left, organizations like the Red Cross, and also the former Swedish state church which has a long history of progressive stances on refugees.

This has been one of the bigger political mobilizations in Sweden in modern times, but perhaps the scale of the effort has also taken all the energy that could have been used in lobbying the government. There have been welcome demonstrations with good turnouts in all major cities and people are now organizing to protest the latest restrictions.