The Real Crisis in Sweden that Nobody is Talking About

Author: Robin Bankel, PhD Candidate, School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal gave two leading Sweden Democrats– representing what many Swedes consider to be a racist party–a prime opportunity to spread their prejudiced and unbalanced view of the situation in Sweden.

Their commentary in the reputable newspaper purported to support President Trump’s claims about the sparsely populated Nordic country, although neither the government, media nor anyone else in Sweden–that is, with the obvious exception of the Sweden Democrats–had a clue of what sparked the President’s concern of ”what’s happening in Sweden last night”.

Thus somewhat perplexingly, the Sweden Democrats declared that ”Trump is right”, and went on to lash out on decades of a fairly open immigration policy, which has enriched Sweden with people and cultures from all over the world. Of course, for the Sweden Democrats, who similar to a rising number of European far-right political parties, openly seek to culturally cleanse ”their” nations, such development is frightening.

To discredit what they deceptively refer to as ”open door immigration”, they conjure up an image of Sweden based on lies and exaggerations. Some of the statements in the article were demonstrably false, such as the absurd claim that riots have become ”everyday life”. Another claim alleged that Jews from the city of Malmö have been forced to escape and become internal refugees. This aroused skepticism and anger from the city’s Jewish congregation, whose leader noted that such exaggerations only serve to obfuscate the very real problems the minority is facing.

To conclude their Kafkaesque rant, the party leaders declared that they have a good chance of becoming the most popular party in next year’s general elections. While this too appears farcical, sadly, it may be less so than most of the statements underpinning their main thesis–i.e. that Sweden is suffering through a crisis. In fact, the Sweden Democrats have been remarkably successful in changing its image from an ostracized racist and fascist-like party, to a victimized legitimate political party, entitled to democratic influence by virtue of its popular support (some 16 percent according to recent polls). Its critique of Swedish policy on immigration and the government’s ostensible tolerance towards minorities has found a place in many of the editorial pages in mainstream media–who somewhat paradoxically maintain their opposition against the party. In many ways, the change in discourse is irrefutable, and the contribution of the Sweden Democrats as a legitimating and thus facilitating force in this cannot be understated.

Politically, there had already been a few signals from the traditional right-wing parties hinting at a more restrictive immigration policy following the 2014 election, but no major shifts occurred until late in the summer of 2015. In November, after welcoming an increasing number of desperate refugees, allegedly setting off a ”systemic crisis”, the Swedish government suddenly decided to all but close the country’s borders, stranding tens of thousands of refugees in neighboring Denmark–a country where citizens risk prosecution for sheltering those escaping war. With the mere pronouncement of a crisis that none of us Swedes had experienced ourselves–but seen experienced by the tormented victims of war– the incapacity of one government agency (the Migration Board) to organize the reception had turned into a national crisis.

In subsequent moves to tackle the ”crisis”, the government coalition of the Green Party and the Social Democrats drove through a series of new legislation that severely impedes refugee family reunification and many other fundamental human rights, in an effort designed to align its policy with the minimum level of EU requirements. Through these extraordinary measures, the government effectively bought into the Sweden Democrats’ worldview, which places focus on the self, rather than the refugees who have lost everything. Their crisis thus became our crisis, and so it has continued.

Recently, the leading right-wing party broke a taboo when it declared its willingness to initiate some form of cooperation with the ostracized party, thereby threatening to spark a government crisis. The threat, notably untypical of Swedish domestic politics, was justified in terms of the supposedly harmful direction the country is heading in, exemplified by the influx of criminal gangs, problems on the labor market and so forth. This rhetoric fits well into the fear mongering of the Sweden Democrats, and the wish to spread their perception of a systemic crisis.

It is true that many public sectors have been experiencing major problems, with insufficient resources at their disposal. This includes the education system, health care and elderly care sectors to name a few. However, while these problems are felt by many of us in Sweden, the share of GDP allocated to the welfare sector has remained steady over the last couple of decades. Moreover, the Swedish economy is actually doing quite well. Apart from concerns regarding the overheated real estate market, which in large part has to do with decades of political unwillingness to build affordable housing, the EU commission’s country report praised the developments on the labor market, with increasing levels of employment, a healthy balance in the public finances, as well as prosperous GDP growth. Two months ago, Sweden topped Forbes magazine’s annual list of the best countries for doing business. Hardly supporting the pitch-dark image of Sweden portrayed by immigration skeptics.

As for the public sector, the real major structural change since the beginning of the 90’s is the incorporation of New Public Management and the subsequent wave of semi-privatization, which sees government funds financing private corporations and entrepreneurs to perform welfare services. If anything, to understand the problems in this sector, it is the consequences of the overconfidence in rational decision-making and market efficiency that demands scrutiny (a leading Swedish political science journal will soon publish a special issue on the subject matter), rather than the unsubstantiated and, at most superficial, connection between poor welfare services and immigration.

Yet, despite the prosperous conditions of the Swedish economy, the discourse in Sweden has become fixated on the connection between immigration and costs. Economists debate the issue as was offering refugees shelter a matter of financial investment, rather than an act of solidarity with other human beings. With such dehumanizing discursive tendencies, emblematic of a time of so called rational decision making, it is easy to understand why the problems emanating from socio-ethno-economic segregation have become a tool to strike down at the victims, rather than to hold those responsible for the failures accountable. Indeed, those made to suffer for the failure of integration are the ones who are now being blamed, and even worse, are odiously used as examples to strip the human rights of those who have nothing at all to do with it–the asylum seekers.

When we choose to turn our backs on these refugees, the same mothers, fathers, siblings, sons and daughters that we see suffering via our flat 60-inch TVscreens, regardless of whether the justification is our own domestic failures to integrate with minorities, or because of the end result of imperfect economic calculations, it does not represent the solution to a purported systemic crisis, whose existence is traceable to an intolerant and primitive ideology. Instead, it exposes the very real crisis of our time: the moral crisis, upon which history will judge us.