Sweden has long been a lodestar for left and the right – an exporter of political ideas for people from all political persuasions. The world capital of free schools and tax cuts (for those who like that sort of thing) and of the welfare state (for those who don’t). The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman once said that every time he hears an American denouncing Europe’s welfare, he has an ‘urge to take that person on a forced walking tour of Stockholm’. He wrote that four years ago; he probably wouldn’t write it now.
Even a tourist, walking through Stockholm this summer, would notice something unusual. The city has new visitors, who are changing its character. They sit outside coffee shops and on street corners, outside underground exits and bus stops; friendly people, saying ‘hej hej,’ while holding an coffee cup filled with a crown or two. Their belongings are often kept in large piles in the street, which no one moves. To visitors, it’s baffling: why is this tolerated? Where are the police? Why does no one keep order?
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On health, wealth and equality Sweden stands atop the world league tables. But when it comes to sharing that prosperity with immigrants – well, that’s where Sweden falls down. In 2013, the OECD published an integration index: the unemployment rate for immigrants, relative to natives. In Britain, the USA and Canada there are hardly any differences; that means they are pretty good melting pots. But the unemployment rate for foreigners in Sweden is a scandalous 2.6 times as high as for natives – the most daunting ratio in the developed worlds, except for Norway.
There are many explanations for this. Swedish is a tricky language to master, even for Europeans – and Swedish employers are notoriously insistent on good language. So if you don’t know your ‘ljus’ ('candle') from your ‘jos’ ('juice'), you may struggle to be hired. Then come the more subtle factors like Sweden’s un-hierarchical employment system, where bosses prefer to drop hints rather than issue instructions.
To outsiders, it can be tough to play this game of guess-what-the-boss-really-wants. The concept of “lagom” is hard for outsiders to understand, but at least there’s a word for it. No word covers the strange rules of the Swedish workplace.
Moreover, it’s very hard to fire workers in Sweden – so bosses are wary about hiring. Strong employee protection laws build a wall around the world of employment – great for those inside, but dismaying for outside. Often the young, and immigrants. When there are riots in countries with high employee protection, like Sweden and France, you can usually spot certain ethnic minorities who struggle to find work. When Britain riots, as it did four summers ago, it’s like a Benetton advert: the racial composition reflects that of the cities themselves. It’s a strange advert for British race relations: ebony and ivory, looting in perfect harmony.
One of David Cameron's many reforms has been deregulating the labour market; making it easier to fire people, and harder for employees to file spurious complaints against their boss. Never has it been easier to fire workers in Britain; and never have more workers been in employment. Cameron was able to boast at the last election that more jobs had been created in Britain than the rest of Europe put together. Around two million new jobs in all, half attributable to immigration. The British jobs miracle has been shared with the world.
But we must also consider the type of immigrant. Britain’s economy hungrily digests Polish plumbers and Greek baristas – the UK has been lucky to have some of the best immigrants a country can ask for (and, reader, I married one). But while Britain has focused on economic migrants, Sweden’s speciality has been taking on asylum seekers; significantly more of them than the UK. Quite something, when you consider that Britain’s population is six times as large.
Britain has huge concerns about EU membership; we’re even having a referendum to decide whether to pull out. But we’re pretty good at finding jobs for the immigrants who want them. And almost all of them do (our immigration policy sees to that). Cameron has created more jobs for Frenchmen than Francois Hollande; more for Greeks than anyone in Athens.
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It’s a paradox: Britain may be queasy about immigration, but it loves immigrants. For Sweden, the reverse is true. It loves immigration so much that its last Prime Minister lost an election by telling worried voters to ‘open their hearts’ to the newcomers. But when it comes to actually hiring them? In Britain, the phrase ‘EU migrant’ could call to mind a Polish workman or a French financier. It’s odd to see that, in Sweden, even the Prime Minister uses ‘EU migrants’ as a euphemism for beggars. And, to me, it’s a slur on the vast majority of EU migrants who came to Sweden to work, to fit in, and to be good citizens.
A controversial anti-begging campaign by the Sweden Democrat party. Photo: Pi Frisk/SvD/TT
My wife’s parents were, once, ‘EU immigrants’ to Sweden; refugees who fled Soviet Czechoslovakia. They were given accommodation, taught Swedish and given everything by a wonderful, generous country whose famous openness was – and remains – a beacon for the world. But that openness may now be eating itself. And for those of us who love Sweden, it’s painful to watch.
As Oxford University’s Paul Collier argued in The Spectator recently, if a country accepts immigrants faster than it can integrate them then it creates problems. Sweden is better than almost anyone at welcoming immigrants, but worse than almost anyone at integrating them in the workplace. This is the recipe for a political disaster.
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If the main political parties fail to talk frankly about those problems, they create a vacancy for a party that will. In Sweden, that vacancy is being filled by the Sweden Democrats – who now claim the support of about 20 per cent of Swedes. And the Swedish Conservatives and ruling Social Democrats so abhor this upstart party that have persuaded themselves that, if they start to talk frankly about immigration, it is a sell-out and a concession to the enemy. It’s a bad case of political myopia: an ability to see the party, but not the voters behind it.
And what of the SD voters? Are they deemed ‘racist’ and ‘neo-fascist’ too? Or might they be ordinary Swedes, concerned about the future of their country – and sick to death of the failure of mainstream parties to talk about this like adults? I make a living being critical of David Cameron and the now-departed Ed Miliband, but I’ll say this much for both: they were able to talk frankly to British voters about immigration, its benefits and its challenges. Votes for the British National Party fell by 99 percent at the last general election.
Cameron toughened his stance on immigration, saying he’d will deny welfare to newly-arrived EU immigrants and deport those – French or Romanian – who lack the means to support themselves. During the UK campaign, I met a delegation of Swedish political advisers who had come to study the debate and they were shocked by the coarseness of the language in Britain. Even the Labour Party wanted to deny welfare to new immigrants! But both were trying to win back voters from Ukip; the Tories actually succeeded.
Here lies the paradox: Britain’s politics may sound dirty, but that’s how we keep things clean. Britain has its (many) problems, but you won’t find many stories of beggars being viciously attacked in the streets.
I will admit that I am in the minority in arguing that immigration to the UK has been a stunning success. But I truly believe it – and now, when I’m in Sweden, that success seems even more remarkable. Cameron’s immigration target has been a laughable failure, but he won points for trying. If there is a lesson that Swedes can learn from Brits, it is this one: it’s amazing just how far you can get with open, calm and honest talk about immigration. It may be uncharitable, but I’d quite like to see the Sweden Democrats crushed – but the way to do this is by open conversation with lost voters, not calling your enemy names.
Fraser Nelson is the editor of UK-based political magazine The Spectator. This column for The Local is a revised version of a debate article originally published in Swedish for the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper.