Stefan Löfven talar i Almedalen 2012. Fotograf: Anders Löwdin

The End of Idealism? The Swedish adaptation of the immigration policy

3 mins read

By Niklas Ylander

In the beginning of the 2000’s, a nowadays forgotten political battle came to life. For more than a decade Denmark was criticized in Swedish political life due to its restrictive immigration policy. Suddenly, during the refugee crisis in 2015, Sweden changed its generous immigration policy overnight. Was this adaptation to the Danish policy the end of Swedish idealism?

The clash of political ideals

In Denmark immigration became a hot issue in the end of the 1990’s due to the growth of the far-right Danish People’s Party. In 2001 the new centre-right government, with support of Danish People’s Party, introduced a much stricter immigration policy. It was a core element of the rebellion against the left wing-liberal establishment. According to the new government, Danish values and Danishness were threatened due to immigration and the ‘politically correct’ world view of the establishment.  

While this political tone on immigration became harsher in Denmark, politicians, cultural profiles, scholars and journalists in Sweden strongly condemned the Danish tone. Denmark became the opposite to the self image of Sweden that influential opinion and decision makers wanted to maintain. This self image of Sweden was based on political ideals such as a generous immigration policy, multiculturalism and tolerance, which I here phrase as the Swedish idealism.

A significant debate developed in 2009 with the publication of the book Världens lyckligaste folk. It argued that Danish politics and especially the Danish People’s Party was dominated by nationalism and xenophobia. This message was widely spread in Swedish media. Any critique of the Swedish immigration policy was linked to the harsh situation in Denmark, while at the same time, critique of the strict Danish immigration policy in Denmark was linked to the ”naive” idealistic view among the Swedish elite. The Swedish publication was then followed by a Danish reply in Absolut Sverige in 2011 which stated that conformism dominates the Swedish public debate. In the Danish political circles it became a routine to portray Sweden as the pure symbol of a failed idealism that would result in ethnic segregation, gang violence and an undermined state authority.   

The rise of populism

In the 2010 parliamentary election the far right party the Sweden Democrats entered the parliament. It became more difficult to criticize the Danes since the Swedes now had a party critical to immigration in their own backyard. Together with the greens the center-right government liberalised the policy regarding work permits in 2011, and clearly stated that this was made to show that the Sweden Democrats was without influence. In the 2014 parliamentary election campaign Prime Minister Reinfeldt even urged the Swedish people to “open your hearts” to the increasing number of asylum seekers. In Denmark, many reacted with the  the ’traditional’ confusion to how the naive Swedes could have such a ”irresponsible immigration policy” and also isolate the Sweden Democrats in parliament. When the Sweden Democrats gained 13 percent in the election, many in the Swedish political establishment were in shock. Few believed that populism would gain this vast support in Sweden, a country which many thought was entirely dominated by idealistic values.

The Refugee crisis

In September 2015, in the middle of the refugee crisis, the Social Democrat and Prime Minister Löfven declared ”In my Europe you don’t build walls”. Civil society groups were on the streets and train stations to help organise the massive inflow of asylum seekers. More than 160 000 asylum seekers arrived in 2015 and there was an intense search for housing facilities in the whole country.

Suddenly in October the rhetorics of ’refugees welcome’ was replaced by ’the fewer – the better’. Agencies and municipalities warned that the system would collapse. A strict asylum law and border control were introduced. The government started to emphasize issues such as combating terrorism, deportations, and law and order. According to a survey in Spring 2018 the sceptics of immigration were counted to 60 percent and those in favour of immigration as low as 12 percent.

The End of Swedish Idealism?

Many Danish political commentators believe that the naive Swedes finally have realized the problems of immigration. This was evident after the recent 2018 parliamentary election when the Sweden Democrats received almost 18 percent. However they question why the Swedish center-right parties still refuse to form a government with support of the Sweden Democrats.

Swedish politics has changed significantly since the refugee crisis and a more restrictive immigration policy has been applied. The idea that Denmark’s restrictive policies are xenophobic is no longer of use anymore in media. When Denmark banned the wearing of head veils, explicitly the niqab and the burqa the reactions in Swedish media were limited. The world politics has changed with Trump elected, Brexit and the rise of populism. However,  the understanding of for example immigration has not changed if you read Swedish media. The Swedish idealism is still alive but no significant political leader advocates for it anymore. The defence of Swedish idealism is overtaken by less influential actors, for example the Center Party, whose a key player in the forming of government after the parliamentary election this September.         

What will the policy change mean for the image of Sweden, the defender of liberal idealism? Is it possible in the future to once again praise for openness, tolerance and solidarity and expect that others will believe in you? Are we in the future going to perceive the praise for openness simply as out of touch with reality? One thing is certain, the momentum is no longer in the hands of the idealists.    


Niklas Ylander has a master’s degree in political science with a special interest in Scandinavian politics. After his studies in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, he is constantly wondering about the differences and similarities between the countries.


Photo: Anders Löwdin on Flickr



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