Sweden -- Yes, Sweden -- Leads Anti-Immigration Shift

In tolerant Sweden, a far-right, anti-immigrant party has set off a government crisis.

Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Loefven hopes to defeat the far-right at the polls.

Pontus Lundahl/AFP/Getty Images

Europe's far-right parties, once a distant threat to the political establishment, may be becoming an immediate danger. On Wednesday, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats forced the government to hold the first snap elections in 50 years by backing the opposition's version of the budget and toppling the governing center-left coalition. 

The upheaval in Sweden is the latest illustration of the growing power of anti-immigration parties across Europe. The U.K. Independence Party recently was able to capture two seats in the House of Commons, and in France, the National Front's leader, Marine Le Pen, leads in the polls for the 2017 presidential election. The Swedish party, however, is already strong enough to swing a hammer. 

Sweden's political culture stresses tolerance. The Sweden Democrats, however, have a history of racism, despite a recent effort to appear more mainstream. This year, the party had to pull one of its candidates for a parliamentary seat after a photo of her wearing a swastika armband was published. The far-right group won 13 percent of the vote in the last elections, its highest result, giving it a decisive role in the balance of power in parliament. The crisis that forced the government to call new elections was sparked by the Sweden Democrats' decision to oppose any budget   that didn't take into account its demand that immigration be cut by 90 percent. Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Loefven announced he would call elections in March.

"Unique crisis," tweeted Carl Bildt, foreign minister in the previous center-right government. "Very little will be the same after this."

Contributing to the crisis was the government's decision to grant immediate residency to refugees from the Syrian conflict. Last year, Sweden took in a record 86,700 immigrants, the biggest number for a European Union country relative to its population, according to a recently released report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

In part thanks to the EU's free movement policy, in part because of the political establishment's liberal values, European countries take in large numbers of immigrants. The U.S. only allowed in the equivalent of 0.3 percent of its population last year, compared with 0.9 percent for Sweden, 0.8 percent for Austria and 0.5 percent each for Germany, the U.K. and Spain. In absolute numbers, Germany, the U.K., France and Sweden together took in more immigrants than the U.S., though their combined population is 30 percent smaller.

Perhaps not surprisingly, nationalist parties have been most popular in countries with the highest percentage of new immigrants. The influence of these groups appears to grow faster after immigration crosses the o.5 percent of population mark. In Austria, for example, the far-right Freedom Party took in more than 20 percent of the vote in last year's parliamentary elections.

This presents a dilemma for the establishment parties, which could be tempted to move closer to the positions of the far-right to maintain their dominance. 

Those positions, however, sometimes veer close to outright racism, and so far, traditional European parties have been willing to suffer electoral and political setbacks to avoid crossing that line. 

This is one area where Germany, with its powerful traditional center-left and center-right parties, provides strong leadership. Europe's biggest economy is now the world's biggest recipient of new asylum claims, and yet it has no strong anti-immigrant party. Recently, when an immigrant from Serbia killed a young woman of Turkish origin, Tugce Albayrak, for defending two girls from thugs at a McDonald's, the victim,  Albayrak, was celebrated as a national hero

The Swedish elections in March, which the Sweden Democrats plan to turn into a "referendum on immigration," will be a test for the mainstream parties. If they can stand their ground, show voters the benefits of diversity and ensure the German approach to immigration prevails, Europe may even offer an example to the U.S., where the immigration debate is at an impasse. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.