Magazine | January 26, 2015, Issue

Open Hearts, Open Borders

Immigration chaos brings down Sweden’s libertarian Right

In 2006, Fredrik Reinfeldt led the Swedish Right to power after more than a decade in the wilderness. His star reached its peak as fiscally prudent Sweden weathered the euro-zone crisis well. In the United States, Reinfeldt’s success was closely monitored by Henry Olsen at National Review Online and by Republican political strategists. The Economist predicted that “by 2014 Mr. Reinfeldt will have been in power for eight years. Given the economy’s strength, few would bet against his winning again.”

Far from winning again, Reinfeldt and his coalition parties on the right suffered a crushing defeat in the 2014 elections. The combined Right received only 39 percent of the vote, its lowest share ever recorded. But neither were there many smiles on the faces of the victorious Social Democrats and their allies. The Left coalition started its election campaign with a massive lead. When the votes were counted, it was stunned to see that it had made zero net gains. The only victors were the Sweden Democrats, a one-issue, anti-immigration party that more than doubled its vote share, to 13 percent.

After Reinfeldt fell, a new coalition of Social Democrats and Greens came to power. The latter view open borders as a human right. Like Reinfeldt, the left-wing government has declared immigration policy non-negotiable. The economic strains and the growing divide in opinion between the public and the political elites is tearing Sweden apart. Despite relentlessly pro-immigration media, only 18 percent of Swedish voters consider it a good proposal to take in more refugees, according to a recent poll. A reticent yet defiant plurality of 50 percent state that doing so would be a bad idea, with the remaining respondents declining to state an opinion. A few weeks ago, budgetary chaos brought on by the new political situation forced the Social Democratic government to announce a snap election, the first since 1958. Far from having been thwarted, the Sweden Democrats now enjoy increasing support, according to recent polling.

But this was not the end of political upheaval. After secret negotiations between the Right and the Left, the prime minister and the leaders of the opposition gave a joint press conference and announced that the snap election had been canceled. The Swedish opposition on the right instead agreed to support every budget put forth by the left-wing government until 2022, with the Left giving the same guarantee should the Right come to power. Such a cartel to circumvent parliamentarianism is unprecedented in Scandinavian political tradition and has caused a sharp backlash. The immigration crisis has transformed Sweden’s boringly stable politics into something reminiscent of southern Europe.

It may be useful to look closely at the background to these events. Sweden is not a nation of immigrants. Geographically isolated and culturally insular, Scandinavia was until recently among the world’s most homogeneous regions. In 1900, only 0.7 percent of Sweden’s population was foreign-born. Today, Sweden takes in more immigrants relative to its population than the U.S. did at the peak of the transatlantic migration. Swedes have been better at admitting refugees than at integrating them into their society. Around 82 percent of working-age native-born Swedes are employed. The figure is only 58 percent among immigrants and lower still among non-Western immigrants. The gap in employment between the native-born and immigrants is the second highest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The ministry of labor reports that “almost 60 percent” of newly arrived refugees lack a high-school education, and Sweden’s high-tech, skill-intensive labor market has shown little demand for low-skilled labor. Today, immigrants constitute 16 percent of the Swedish population, 51 percent of the long-term unemployed, and 57 percent of recipients of welfare payments.

Such facts are rarely reported in the Swedish media because bringing attention to them is easily perceived as bigotry. The media and a deep-pocketed business lobby campaigning for additional migrants and guest workers have instead bombarded the public with the message that immigration from developing countries is somehow profitable, even necessary. Hugh Eakin of The New York Review of Books, writing in the New York Times, has noted that “in Sweden, a closely patrolled pro-immigration ‘consensus’ has sustained extraordinarily liberal policies while placing a virtual taboo on questions about the social and economic costs.”

This blackout on facts thought to cast immigration in a negative light has trapped the elites in a cocoon of willful ignorance. At the most recent meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Reinfeldt stated that immigrants to Sweden “worked more” than natives. He might even believe this demonstrably false claim. Bringing up negative aspects of immigration is taboo, while presenting uplifting claims about it is rewarded, regardless of the claims’ accuracy. The immigration policy devised by a consensus of Swedish libertarians and socialists in this intellectual climate is correspondingly radical.

#page#Sweden constitutes less than 2 percent of the population of the European Union but, according to Eurostat, accounted for approximately 20 percent of all asylum approvals granted by European Union countries in 2014. When Reinfeldt took over, the immediate cost to taxpayers of processing and settling new arrivals was around $1 billion per year. This year the cost will be $3 billion, and it is projected to reach $5 billion soon.

At first, the media simply did not report the cost increase. But, as Philip K. Dick quipped, reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Runaway costs reduce available resources whether the media report them or not.

As the 2014 election neared, Reinfeldt was down in the polls and needed a game-changer. In a notorious speech, he decided to report the budgetary projections, partly because they were simply becoming too large to ignore. The prime minister referred to Sweden as a “humanitarian superpower” and pleaded with the Swedish public to “open their hearts.” His speech was hailed as a success by the media but was followed by a record loss of votes from the Right to the Sweden Democrats, a scandal-plagued, deeply unpopular party with xenophobic roots. This did not signify any newfound enthusiasm for the Sweden Democrats. Rather, when immigration became more salient as an issue, its opponents found their way to the only available alternative.

Reinfeldt’s party, Moderaterna, once offered a more moderate immigration platform, but its libertarian wing has since gained control of immigration policy. The party has now followed its open-borders ideals to their logical conclusion. Reinfeldt himself appears to be a true believer in the libertarian open-borders ideology. In one speech to Middle Eastern immigrants, he declared that “the fundamentally Swedish is merely barbarism. The rest of development has come from abroad.”

Following his defeat, Reinfeldt has become even more open-hearted in his political philosophy, raising eyebrows both in Sweden and abroad. In one widely ridiculed interview, dismissing the strains that record levels of immigration have put on the country’s economy and social fabric, he offered this analysis:

What does the word “enough” mean? Is Sweden full? Is the Nordic region full? Are we too many people? We are 25 million people living in the North. I often fly over the Swedish countryside. I would recommend more people to do the same. There are endless fields and forests. There’s as much space as you can imagine. Those who claim that the country is full, they must demonstrate where it is full.

Reinfeldt recently questioned the right of Sweden to enforce its borders, bizarrely suggesting that ethnic Swedes also tend to be recently arrived immigrants:

What is Sweden as a country? Is this nation owned by those who have lived here for four generations, or by those who invent some borders? Or is this an open country made up of people who arrive here, in midlife, perhaps born in another country? And it is what they make of Sweden that is Sweden.

For the record, Swedes who arrived four generations ago are trivially few. Sweden was historically an isolated country, hardly one recently populated by immigrants. The ancestors of most ethnic Swedes have lived there for hundreds or even thousands of years. Until recently, this indisputable fact made it difficult even for Marxists to question the moral legitimacy of Sweden and its borders. Today, elderly Swedes who literally participated in building the country are forced to listen to the political leader of the Right deny their historical legitimacy. As a Kurd, I am particularly sensitive to attempts to use revisionist history to delegitimize a people.

The bipartisan consensus on immigration in Sweden did not produce successful policy. The ironclad cartel merely allowed the elite to override the marketplace of ideas and pursue a course that has so far proven disastrous. This holds lessons for Americans as well as for Swedes. The conservative establishment in the United States increasingly consists of “Davos men,” who identify more with elites in other countries than with domestic non-elites. Their interests and values increasingly differ from those of the people who have delegated power to them and elevated them to office. This makes elite collusion a real danger to the popular legitimacy of the institutions of representative democracy, a problem that is not limited to the immigration issue.

– Mr. Sanandaji writes from Stockholm.

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