Is Sweden beginning to turn sour on immigration?

Sweden’s Social Democrats have started to talk of toughening the country’s immigration policies. Dropping Sweden’s haughty “moral superpower” toward neighbors would help improve cooperation among Nordic countries. However, opposition will be fierce.

Two Muslim women walk on the street in Sweden
The Swedish government responded to the refugee crisis in 2015 by widely opening the country’s door for them. Six years later, the general mood is no longer one of “refugees welcome”. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Sweden’s ruling party is changing its tune on immigration 
  • The government has been humbled on Covid-fighting policies 
  • Its “moral superpower” hubris waning, the country may return to effective Nordic cooperation 

In early November, the ruling Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Sweden, known simply as the Social Democrats, held a high-profile congress. The combined purpose was to elect a new party leader to replace Stefan Lofven, the outgoing chairman and prime minister, and prepare for national elections in September 2022. The mood was one of jubilant self-confidence. This tonality may have seemed rather odd given the multiple crises that face the country and the party itself. But in a broader perspective, there were grounds to feel upbeat. The Social Democrats were beginning to think the unthinkable and talk about what had long been a political taboo.

Going it alone

It has not been long since European social democracy was generally viewed as a lost cause, destined to follow the Greek PASOK into oblivion. Today, developments in the Nordic region suggest that the trend may be about to turn. In her acceptance speech, Magdalena Andersson, the freshly minted leader of the Swedish party and the country’s finance minister, noted that “the wind is blowing for us Social Democrats.” She could credibly argue that her party has been leading the way.

The Social Democrats have been in government in Sweden since 2014, in Denmark since June 2019, in Finland since December 2019, and in Norway since October 2021. Among the guests of honor in the front row at the Swedish party congress was a smiling Olaf Scholz, leader of the German Social Democrats and candidate to succeed the long-serving Christian Democrat Angela Merkel as chancellor. In his congratulatory speech, Mr. Scholz provided a warm glow by reminiscing about the great party icons of the past, such as Willy Brandt and Olof Palme.

When the neighbors opted for lockdowns, the Swedes chose ‘recommendations’.

Outside the congress hall, the climate was considerably cooler. An early gauge of the chill in the air was provided in September when the Nordic Council convened for its annual meeting. An important topic was the assessment of the shared experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. It could have been a time for self-congratulation, a time to look back at a common approach to keeping the rate of infection low, making it possible to maintain a Nordic “travel bubble” of open borders. 

But Sweden’s decision to stand tall against the world had torpedoed this scenario. When the neighbors opted for lockdowns and aggressive testing and tracing, the Swedes chose minimum “recommendations.” When its infection rate spiked and hospitals were pushed to the brink, the neighbors responded with border closures that decimated border trade and cross-border work commuting. Mutual recriminations caused added damage to relations.

The Swedish government responded to criticism throughout the pandemic by claiming that it was too early to judge its policies. Its public health authority also insisted that others will catch up with Sweden’s high death rates. That line of defense collapsed in late October 2021, when the government’s official commission investigating the country’s response to COVID-19 delivered a scathing 800-page report. 

Measures taken had been tardy and ineffectual. The slow pace of testing and tracing was labeled “a complete failure,” and the shortage of personal protective gear represented a “betrayal” of healthcare workers. With this vindication of the international critique, the stage was set for Sweden to normalize its relations to the other Nordic countries. The return of cross-border trade and work commuting will also help cause much of the previous bad blood to dissipate.

Small earthquake

However, that is not likely to eliminate the other reason why Sweden has become the oddball out in the Nordic region. True to its claims of being a moral superpower, the Swedish government responded to the refugee crisis in 2015 by widely opening the country’s door to them. Six years later, the general mood is no longer one of “refugees welcome.”

The combination of a liberal migration policy and a profoundly dysfunctional integration policy has caused the formation of suburban ghettoes, which in turn have served as incubators for violent gangs. Neighboring countries have become terrified of ending up in what is known in Denmark as “the Swedish condition.” Germany’s Bild even branded Sweden as Europe’s most dangerous country to live in. 

She said things that, until very recently, would have been branded as ‘racist’.

The reason why it may be warranted to speak of an earthquake in Swedish politics is that in her acceptance speech, Chairwoman Andersson took direct aim at the root causes of failing integration. She vowed that in the struggle against gangland violence, her government would leave no stone unturned. She said things that, until very recently, would have been routinely branded by her fellow ministers as “racist.” This alleged racism ranged from calls for reduced benefits for asylum seekers to demands that all who can work must do so and that all new arrivals must learn the language. Most importantly, the Social Democrats’ new leader suggested that Swedish political elites, having long vilified their southern neighbors as racist and xenophobic, are now coming together on the need to engage with and learn from Denmark.

The opposition’s move

There is much to learn. Successive Danish governments have formulated a strict policy on crime, ranging from double penalties for gang members to special “visitation zones” where police have a right to stop and search at their discretion, as well as deportation of aliens convicted of serious crimes. And they have taken radical steps to promote integration, ranging from mandatory work requirements for aliens enjoying state support to physical demolition of housing estates considered “ghettoes” and measures aimed at upholding Danish values. The latter feature bans against religious symbols like the niqab and burka in public and demands that children of migrants must attend Danish kindergarten from age one.

A scuffle between protesters in Stockholm Sweden’s ruling party
Stockholm, September 4, 2021: Left- and right-wing party activists clash during a demonstration against migrants. © Getty Images

In Sweden, the conservative parties long favored the Danish approach. In October 2021, the Riksdag’s nonsocialist parties – the Moderates, the Sweden Democrats, Christian Democrats and Liberals – put forth a common platform of 20 proposals to combat gangland violence, in part inspired by the Danish experience. If the Social Democrats chose to support the conservative proposal, it would have an ample majority. Many of the proposed measures could be introduced quickly, as they are in the legislative pipeline, but repeatedly have been delayed, postponed, and watered down by activists in government.

Regional angle

A scenario that may come out of such a change of heart within Swedish social democracy is one of enhanced Nordic cooperation. A Swedish government that parts with its “moral superpower” image and displays humility in learning from others will stand a good chance of finding ways to overcome bad blood and embark on regional partnerships.

The obstacle that may derail this optimistic scenario is the power of activists.

Rectifying the country’s self-inflicted wounds will still be a long slog. It is a tall order to salvage the rising tide of young non-European immigrants growing up in crime-infested suburban ghettos where unemployment is rampant, schools are underperforming and clan-based parallel societies challenge the rule of law.

This said, restoring civility to Sweden’s relations with the other Nordic countries would go a long way toward building common approaches on critical issues where there are common interests. Public health, for example, is an area where a regional distribution of responsibilities in emergency preparedness and coordination of pharmaceutical research and development could make a vast difference. It could also be helpful to formulate a joint stand on relations with the European Union on such matters as the conflict between the European Pillar of Social Rights (the 20 principles of the EU social policy regime) and the collective wage bargaining that is at the core of the Nordic welfare state.

The obstacle that may derail this optimistic scenario is the power of activists in social organizations and, even more so, in government agencies that will be called upon to implement new policies on migration and integration. These agencies range from the police and courts of law to the migration authority and social services agencies.

Yearning for change

A clear majority of the Swedish population has long been convinced that the country must take in fewer migrants. According to a recent study by Gothenburg University, 58 percent say this would be a good idea, while only one in five disagree. This being the case, it is striking how unperturbed the majority in parliament has been in finding new ways to keep the inflow high, ranging from family reunions to special grounds of compassion for granting asylum. 

Those who favor a stricter approach to crime also have overwhelming popular support. No less than 90 percent say that harsher penalties against gang-related crime is a good idea, while a paltry three percent disagree. Still, the majority in parliament has shown a canny determination in avoiding discussion of the bedrock presumptions of the Swedish legal system – namely, that prison must be a last resort and that sentencing must be lenient.

The Danish track record in protecting the nation-state, the welfare state and the rule of law has attracted attention.

Highly active criminals will benefit from a volume discount, meaning that, say, a serial rapist will be sentenced only for the most egregious case; the rest will be on the house. A convicted underage criminal will benefit from an age discount, meaning that a 20-year-old will only serve three-quarters of the sentence and a 15-year-old only one-fifth. And no convicted criminal will expect to serve more than two-thirds of an already discounted sentence.



The main reason why this system has proven so resistant to popular demands for change is that most violent crimes are committed by immigrants of non-European origins. Calls for a tougher response have been routinely dismissed as racism. The government has branded opposition parties as “blue-brown,” suggesting Nazi connections. Such intimidation has been strikingly successful in preventing open challenges to the activist priorities. 

The driving force behind a scenario of enhanced Nordic cooperation would be that the Swedish Social Democrats have learned from their Danish sister party that holding on to power is eminently possible to combine with a tough stance on migration and integration. To some leading party figures, the Danish track record in protecting both the nation-state, the welfare state and the rule of law does have a good deal of attraction.

Suppose those who want to follow the Danish example do get the upper hand. In that case, it is possible to envision a substantial election win in September 2022, paving the way for a sustained hold on power for the Social Democrats. The associated transformation in Swedish public values and priorities would also provide the key to unlocking prospects for enhanced Nordic cooperation. 

The alternative scenario is a victory for the activist agenda that would prevent rapprochement with Denmark. A continued “humane” approach to migrants and continued restraints on tools available to law enforcement would imply a continued growth of clan-ruled parallel societies and an escalation of the associated gangland violence. Even if this would cement the role of Sweden as a threat to the security of its neighbors and risk handing the September 2022 election to the conservative opposition, it remains the most likely outcome. 

The reason is that the Social Democrats have been able to weather election losses in 2014 and 2018 by allying with small parties, the Greens and the Centre Party, totally driven by activist agendas. The glue holding this alliance together is an aggressive branding of the opposition as racists and Nazis. Reaching out to cooperate with conservatives on such issues as immigration and law enforcement would cause an uproar within the ranks of activists. The party machine would be in no condition to fight and win another election. Swedish Social democracy has, in this sense, become a prisoner of its own success.

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