Sweden's Chill on Immigration

Sweden's voters have spoken.

Sweden's center-right government has given its electorate lower taxes, strong economic growth and low public debt in its eight years in power. So its defeat in Sunday's parliamentary election, and the rise of an ultra-right-wing anti-immigration party, needs some explaining.

No doubt a rising unemployment rate played a role. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's privatization and overzealous austerity policies made many Swedes, brought up in one of the world's most generous welfare states, uncomfortable.

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But the victory by the center-left Social Democrats, who promised to expand welfare benefits again, was overshadowed by the showing of the far-right Sweden Democrats. They more than doubled their vote share, to 12.9 percent, despite campaign scandals that exposed the neo-Nazi beliefs of some of its candidates. Both the Social Democrats and Reinfeldt's coalition have said they won't work with the far-right party, yet the result is that the Social Democrats may struggle to form a government at all.

Sweden's immigration policies generally work. The country has worked out 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.'s slightly more than 14 percent:

Yet there is a limit to what any individual government can do to control the flow of humans fleeing misery. Instability in Syria, Libya and Iraq guarantees that the pressure on Europe's borders will increase further.

Europe's governments need to face honestly the evidence that immigration and a broader fear of globalization are leading parts of their populations down a potentially ugly ultranationalist road. Sweden's Reinfeldt is among the few leaders who have forthrightly -- and admirably -- made the case for migration. Many politicians are instead 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 one area in which the EU can usefully become more unified to better control the flow. At a time when the union's reputation among ordinary citizens is at a low ebb -- it isn't accidental that the continent's anti-immigration parties are also anti-EU -- the bloc might prove its value.

The border-free Schengen Area, for example, which comprises 26 European countries, cries out for common budgets and policies to redress the geographical imbalance that makes some countries -- Italy and Greece in particular -- gateways for migrants. Italy has been shouldering the entire cost of its naval operation to patrol the Mediterranean. Since January, more than 100,000 migrants have been picked up from Italian waters; 1,900 have died. Last month, the EU set up a joint operation to replace the Italian one -- yet the EU body in charge of running it lacks the funds to do an effective job.

The EU could take the simple step of substantially increasing the proportion of its budget, currently just 1 percent, that it devotes to handling immigration. A harder task would be to adopt a common policy on accepting refugees, in effect a regional update of the 1954 Geneva Convention that governs asylum, and distributing the burden more fairly across member-states.

None of this would address Europe's deeper failure to integrate immigrants into the wider society, something only governments can do. Yet such steps would help alleviate the sense of unfairness and impotence that many Europeans feel. Without better coordination, the EU risks seeing anti-immigration parties from the U.K. to Greece make further gains; the Schengen Area unravel (France briefly resurrected border posts with Italy in 2011); and a Dutch auction of national immigration policies that leads to the creation of a fortress Europe, built to the detriment of its trade and economy.

In Sweden, the vast majority 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.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Katy Roberts.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net