Why Sweden's Borders Concern Europe

The gains of an ultraright-wing party are a bad omen for immigration
Illustration by Bloomberg View

Sweden’s center-right government has given its electorate lower taxes, strong economic growth, and low public debt. So its defeat in the Sept. 14 election at the hands of the center-left Social Democrats, and the gains of an ultraright-wing, anti-immigration party, need some explaining.

Sweden’s immigration policies generally work. The country has developed an effective way to ensure businesses can get visas for foreign talent, and it has historically been generous in accepting refugees. In 2012 the government offered automatic asylum to applicants from Syria, and as a result it has received more Syrian refugees per capita than any other European Union country. By now, just under 16 percent of the country’s population is non-native-born, among the highest levels in Europe and more than the U.S., where that figure is just above 14 percent.

Yet there is a limit to what any individual government can do to control the flow of humans fleeing misery. Europe’s governments need to face honestly the evidence that immigration and a broader fear of globalization are leading parts of their populations down an ugly ultranationalist road. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden was among the few leaders who have forthrightly—and admirably—made the case for immigration. Many politicians are panicking, mimicking just enough of the positions of anti-immigrant parties to win back votes, thereby fueling the fire.

At the same time, immigration is an area in which the EU can come together to better control the flow. At a time when the union’s reputation among ordinary citizens is at a low ebb—it’s no accident that the anti-immigration parties are also anti-EU—the union might prove its value.

The Schengen Area, for example, which comprises 26 European countries that have removed internal border controls to allow free movement between them, cries out for common budgets and policies to redress the geographical imbalance that makes some countries—Italy and Greece in particular—gateways for immigrants. The EU could substantially increase the proportion of its budget, currently just 1 percent, it devotes to handling immigration. A harder task would be to adopt a common policy on accepting refugees and distribute the burden more fairly.

None of this would address Europe’s deeper failure to integrate immigrants, something only individual governments can do. Yet such steps would help alleviate the sense of unfairness and impotence many Europeans feel. Without better coordination, the EU risks seeing further gains for anti-immigration parties from the U.K. to Greece; the unraveling of the Schengen Area; and the adoption of national immigration policies that would create a fortress Europe, built to the detriment of its trade and economy.

In Sweden, the vast majority still voted for mainstream parties that welcome immigrants and refugees. But protecting that support will require more than Swedes’ liberal idealism. It will demand European action.

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