“VICTORY,” exclaimed a high-ranking member of the Sweden Democrats (SD) on Facebook after his country’s national elections on Sept. 11. His party had won more than 20 percent of the votes, enough to garner the second-largest number of seats among all parties in parliament and a likely place in the next government. An American observer might be forgiven for finding this a bit head-scratching. But make no mistake, this is a seismic development in Swedish and European politics, perhaps one of the most significant among recent political events on the Old Continent.
The most notable characteristic of Swedish politics over the last century has been the utter dominance of the Social Democratic Party (SAP). The party was continuously part of ruling governments from 1932 to 1976; since that time, it has been in government for all but 17 years, and it has been the controlling force of each government since 2014. As a result of this dominance, other parties have had to embrace key Social Democratic ideals, even during periods when they consigned the SAP to opposition.
Among these ideals were a generous welfare state, income equality, openness to immigration, and high societal-trust concepts such as Allemansrätten, the right to wander on virtually any land. Of course, Sweden’s political parties have engaged in the same impassioned rivalries one would find in any other democracy, but the country’s policies have remained unfailingly stable. Stray too far from Social Democratic dogma, and you would be a pariah.
Enter the Sweden Democrats. Making an issue of immigration at a time when such talk was tacitly forbidden in Sweden, the party won seats in the Riksdag for the first time in 2010. Just three years ago, the Christian Democrats, arguably the party’s closest ideological partners, yet firmly entrenched in the mainstream of Swedish politics, made headlines by opening policy negotiations with SD. Prior to that, any collaboration with SD was strictly forbidden in the ruling class. In that sense, the party resembled Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front) in France.
No Longer a Position of Opposition
The Sweden Democrats have also mirrored National Rally in that they have transformed national dialogue from a position of opposition. As recently as 2005, Chilean-born Liberal Party parliamentarian Mauricio Rojas drew widespread condemnation for a parliamentary speech in which he warned, “The failure of integration is clear. The country is drifting apart, and the government shows a complete lack of ideas and proposals on how to stop the grim spiral of social exclusion.” The Left Party executive committee called the speech “racist” and accused the immigrant parliamentarian of “stigmatizing immigrants.” That same year, some Swedish journalists boasted that French authorities, confronting widespread riots in the banlieues, had looked to Sweden for inspiration. Indeed, Swedes had long since conferred on themselves the distinction of “moral superpower.”
Not even two decades later, the landscape is dramatically different. Far from being verboten, the subject of urban (heavily immigrant) gang violence was arguably the central issue of this year’s campaign. Even outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson campaigned on it. After decades of toiling in opposition and enduring ridicule for sounding the alarm on the country’s unrestrained immigration policies, the Sweden Democrats could take credit for having moved the Overton Window.
Regardless of what has happened in the political sphere, the country’s social landscape has become unmistakably altered. The Swedes, grudgingly, haltingly, and decades behind, for example, the French and the Dutch, have had to acknowledge this. The country’s gun homicide and total homicide rates now greatly exceed the European averages. Explosions have become a fact of urban life. “It’s not normal to see these kinds of explosions in a country without war,” said Linda Staaf of the Swedish National Police’s intelligence unit.
Sweden now documents the second-highest number of rapes per capita in the world (behind Lesotho). Rapes and sexual assaults at mass gatherings such as music festivals have become distressingly common. This is no longer the idyllic country of Abba, Ikea, and Volvo, the fairytale land with top-five national wellness and happiness rankings. (The author’s experiences in Rosengård, Malmö’s notorious no-go district, are documented here.)
The country has also failed to manage immigration to the country’s economic benefit. This shouldn’t have come as a shock. Milton Friedman stated, “It’s just obvious that you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” In a rare moment of agreement, Paul Krugman asserted that “open immigration can’t coexist with a strong social safety net; if you’re going to assure health care and a decent income to everyone, you can’t make that offer global.” The Swedish Pensions Agency estimates a net loss of $8 billion, expressed in net present value, from new immigration in this century. Data from 2017 show only 61.9 percent of foreign-born individuals gainfully employed, and only 56.3 percent of those from outside Europe; the figure for the native-born was 84.4 percent. Studies ranging from 2015 to 2019 suggest an estimated annual cost to the state of $7,000 per migrant. This represents a dramatic change from the 1970s, when immigration created consistent economic growth in Sweden; since that time, refugee immigration has replaced the economic variety, and the results have reversed.
One Somali interpreter explained, “When it rains and is green and the camels give milk, the nomads do not have to make the effort. They discuss and talk, and at night you play games. …When the same people come to Sweden, it rains all the time — social assistance, child support, housing allowance, and all other grants… here in Sweden, you can take it easy all year, sit in a café and talk. When life is so good, why should you work?” This sort of cultural clash never factored into Swedish immigration policy. So it happens when politics supersedes sensible policy. Swedish voters could no longer ignore all of these developments.
The Swedes’ Awakening
The Swedish people’s long-awaited awakening will have political consequences not just in Stockholm, but in Brussels. The Swedes have long been some of the most reliable allies of EU bureaucrats. They have been at the forefront of European integration, immigration policy, energy policy, and more. At this point, Brussels is used to opposition behind the former Iron Curtain. (In fact, one of the EU’s first actions after the Swedish election was to issue an ill-informed, politically driven condemnation of Hungary.) Thus, one might dismiss recent political angst in Czechia and Slovakia. Italy made headlines this week by electing conservative Giorgia Meloni at the head of a right/center-right coalition. Yet Italian politics is known for its volatility, and right-populist Matteo Salvini served as deputy prime minister just three years ago.
Sweden is different. A model EU member and Nordic welfare state, it isn’t supposed to offer any real deviation from political norms. Eurocrats in Brussels are sweating this development, probably more so than they are the Italian elections.
After years of political self-immolation, the Swedes have finally voiced a protest for their own national welfare. It is a body blow to European federalism. Even if the establishment forces should return to power in the next national elections, this genie is finally out of the bottle. Now that Swedish voters are willing to question long-held assumptions, their politicians in both Stockholm and Brussels will need to offer legitimate alternatives if they want to endure.