“It is not correct to describe Sweden as a country in a situation of mass-employment. If one looks at ethnic Swedes at the prime of their life, we have very low unemployment,” Reinfeldt said to a reporter from news agency TT on Monday.
The comment was made in answer to a question based on a report carried out by the Swedish Fiscal Policy Council (Finanspolitiska rådet), which had criticized the government’s overly cautious fiscal policy.
Reinfeldt’s choice of words soon kicked off a political firestorm with commentators on both sides of the political spectrum questioning his use of the term “ethnic Swedes” and speculating as to what he might have meant.
Two hashtags quickly emerged on Twitter, #ReinfeldtTT and #Svenskarmittilivet, with many questioning whether it was appropriate from the prime minister to speak of ”ethnic” Swedes.
At first it was mainly left-leaning commentators that reacted to the statement and started to question what Reinfeldt’s motives.
“The right-wing government’s ethnification of our societal problems is worrisome…” tweeted Daniel Swedin, editorial writer at social-democrat leaning tabloid Aftonbladet.
“Should we interpret FR’s statement as if he doesn’t feel that unemployment among immigrants (even 2nd or 3rd generation) is an especially large problem?,” Social Democrat pollster Carl Melin tweeted.
But several liberal commentators also had something to say about the prime minister’s gaffe.
”It is slightly worrisome if Reinfeldt doesn’t think that a problem is a problem before they occur to his neighbours in Täby,” wrote Liberal commentator Isobel Hadley-Kamptz, referring to the upscale Stockholm suburb that Reinfeldt calls home.
“If you’re only counting middle aged ethnic Swedes, we don’t have one refugee child arriving alone in Sweden,” another liberal, Marcus Bohlin wrote.
Fredrik Federley, an MP with the Centre Party, one of the four centre-right parties that make up the Alliance government which Reinfeldt leads, also expressed his concern over the prime minister’s statements.
“It is most unfortunate that the prime minister is choosing to split the population into those who are ethnic Swedes and those who aren’t. We will pay dearly for this in future,” he said to daily Aftonbladet.
According to Federley, Reinfeldt’s comments “play right into the hands of the [far-right] Sweden Democrats”.
However, other politicians on the right defended Reinfeldt, pointing out that statistics show that unemployment is higher among immigrants and young people.
“That those born outside of Sweden are underrepresented in employment is an important societal problem that needs highlighting. It takes a lot more to reach full employment,” wrote Moderate politician Tomas Tobé, chairman of the Riksdag’s committee on the labour market (Arbetsmarknadsutskottet).
Ann-Charlotte Marteus, a columnist with the Expressen newspaper, explained that Reinfeldt shouldn’t be blamed simply for using the term “ethnic Swedes”, arguing that speaking of immigration in Sweden is tricky to say the least.
“The Swedish language seems as badly prepared for a multi-cultural reality as the Swedish labour market,” she wrote in the paper’s opinion pages blog, Opinionsbloggen.
She added, however, that unemployment is going defending its record on unemployment until the next election.
“If the message over the next two years is going to be that unemployment isn’t really an unemployment problem but an immigration problem, that’s going to be uncomfortable for everyone — except for [Sweden Democrat head] Jimme Åkesson and his entourage,” she wrote.
Speaking to the Nyheter24.se website, Åkesson on Tuesday praised Reinfeldt’s apparent change of heart in how he viewed unemployment in Sweden.
“It’s great news that the prime minister has come to his senses regarding one of the many negative consequences of his irresponsible immigration policies,” said Åkesson.
“Reinfeldt seems to want to see mass immigration as a burden that he can’t do anything about.”