Integration on the move. How the 2018 Swedish electoral campaign has affected integration narratives in Sweden

Integration on the move. How the 2018 Swedish electoral campaign has affected integration narratives in Sweden

Sarah Scuzzarello

As national elections in Sweden are approaching, the question of migrants’ integration in society has become a highly debated issue in the political campaigns of all parties. While traditionally the ‘bones of contention’ in Swedish electoral debates have been about employment, welfare, and taxes, migrants’ integration is perceived as the third most important political issue of the 2018 elections – as of April 2018. Equally important are issues about immigration regulation and criminality. In the run up to the 2014 elections the rhetoric was dramatically different. The then prime minister, and leader of the center-right Moderates Fredrik Reinfeldt, warned voters that the influx of asylum seekers in the near future was going to be challenging and that people should ‘open their hearts’ and ‘show solidarity with the world’. The then main opposition party, the Social Democrats, decided instead not to discuss issues of immigration and integration at all to avoid a direct confrontation with the anti-immigration party the Sweden Democrats.

In contrast, during the 2018 election campaign, the ‘failed integration’ narrative is not only played out, but fully embraced by most parties. In an attempt to stave off the electoral success of the Sweden Democrats, who are polled to become the country’s second largest party, as of June 2018 (at 22.4% with the Social Democrats on 24.5% and the Moderates on 19.8%.  To win voters back, both Moderates and the Social Democrats are proposing stricter asylum and immigration regulations and present an underlying crisis narrative with regard to a perceived lack of integration of migrants and their off-spring. The narratives about integration emphasise language proficiency (or lack thereof), segregation, utanförskap (outside-ness), and benefit dependency. It is not uncommon to hear politicians associate narratives of failed integration with issues of honour killings, terrorism, and criminality in the same speeches. Long gone seem the days when Sweden was complacent about its comparatively generous migration policies and defined integration primarily as an economic matter of labour market participation.

Why does the way in which leading political figures talk about these issues matter? Are they just words? There is reasonable consensus among scholars that political actors’ narratives about a policy problem tell citizens stories about the relations between citizens, between citizens and the state, between states, and so on, in politically selective ways that impact back on the set of social relations that they describe. Through emphasising a few salient features and relations of an otherwise complex reality, politicians describe what is wrong with the present situation in a way that shapes its future transformation. In the context of the current election campaigns in Sweden, integration is presented as ‘failed’ by most politicians across the political spectrum. This failure is seen one of the roots to migrants’ self-segregation, cultural clashes, unemployment and crime. The proposed solutions to the alleged ‘integration crisis’ range from support to find appropriate employment, to requesting immigrants to learn the language and comply with Swedish values. A relative exception is the liberal Centerpartiet who, although it proposes compulsory civic education in both rights and expectations from the society for all immigrants, also stands by Sweden’s traditionally generous asylum regulations and argues that ‘successful integration’ has been achieved in the country.

Before the 2018 electoral campaigns, the recurrent narratives about integration in Sweden were significantly different. Since the mid-1990s, governments from both sides of the political spectrum have promoted business-friendly policies that mobilize human capital, foster entrepreneurial spirit, and maximise regional and local comparative advantages. In relation to integration, politicians implemented policies that stressed the importance of employability, entrepreneurship and ethnically run small companies, and saw migrants as a flexible resource for regional economic growth. The key-word then was arbetslinjen, or the ‘the work first principle’ emphasising that, rather than providing social benefits, the government should strive to reduce unemployment so people can work and support themselves. The onus of integration shifted from being the state’s responsibility in securing equal outcomes (that characterised Sweden’s early approaches to integration) to one where the state provides equal opportunities for individuals to participate in society.

Very little seemed to shake this approach. Not even the 2008 global financial crisis, that brought many countries financially to their knees and that had a negative impact on Sweden’s labour market, did influence the ways most political actors spoke about migrants’ integration significantly. For instance, the 2009 Integration Bill for newly arrived immigrants (Prop. 2009/10:60) was adopted to respond to a widespread perception that “Despite the high ambitions stated in the goals of municipalities and public agencies, [newly arrived migrants’] link to the labour market is too weak” (Prop. 2009/10:60, pg. 35). The lack of clear leadership and coordination between state agencies was presented as the main cause behind immigrants’ failed integration in the labour market and in Swedish society broadly speaking (pg. 38-40). The bill also suggested that immigrants themselves were not strongly motivated to find employment quickly and “more responsibility should be put on the individual to find support from an introduction guide to plan for his/her future in Sweden and to actively establish him/herself in the labour market and be financially independent” (pg. 140).

There have always been political actors in Sweden criticising immigration and migrants’ integration over the past 20 years. Mostly, this criticism was channeled through the Sweden Democrats who however received little legitimacy from mainstream parties. Historically, the strategy has been to isolate the Sweden Democrats and refuse any collaboration at the national level of government. The party managed to secure enough votes in the 2010 elections to enter parliament. It was not until the 2014 elections, that saw the party becoming the third largest party in the country, that it became a political force that the other parties had to deal with.

The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ that peaked in 2015 provided a window of opportunity for the Sweden Democrats to push their claims further. During the crisis, 163,000 asylum-seekers mainly from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Somalia arrived in Sweden, making it the OECD country with the largest ever recorded per capita inflow of asylum seekers. While still politically isolated, the Sweden Democrats’ claims gained visibility in the media, resonated with the dissatisfaction of many Swedes, and achieved a degree of legitimacy in the public discourse – something the party leader Jimmy Åkesson was keen on pointing out in his “Speech to the nation” on public broadcast television in May 2018. Initially, the government’s response to the crisis was one of openness. The prime minister Stefan Löfven said for instance in a public speech in September 2015 that “in my Europe, we don’t build walls. We help each other”.

A few months later, the influx led the government to temporary, knee-jerk, reactions such as the closure of border with Denmark in January 2016 (still in place) and the adoption of a new temporary migration legislation (Prop. 2015/16: 174) which, in line with the EU minimum standards, reduces welfare spending for asylum seekers. The refugee crisis was quickly linked to a narrative of ‘integration crisis’ which was articulated through several sub-narratives that emphasise issues about security, culture, values, and national identity. This has also affected how politicians talk about integration, especially as the elections are approaching. In an attempt to scramble for votes, most parties across the political spectrum have put forward proposals about how to manage the allegedly failed integration of migrants and their off-springs.

The new way to talk about integration is characterised by clear demands for migrants to learn the language and to work. ‘One needs to learn Swedish and everyone who can work, should work’ said the PM Löfven in his televised Speech to the nation.  Immigrants also need to embrace Swedish values. The latter are explicitly defined by parties like the Sweden Democrats, while other parties tip-toe around what they mean by it. Generally, ‘Swedish values’ are defined by what they are not: honor-related violence, gender inequality, terrorism, and criminality. These narratives suggest that immigrants in Sweden live parallel lives and contribute to economic, social, cultural and urban segregation in Swedish society, and that their culture and values are fundamentally in contrast with Swedish progressive ones.

These narratives incite at worst moral panics of cultural annihilation, and at best they deepen the social distance that minority groups perceive in relation to the mainstream Swedish society (Scuzzarello & Carlson forthcoming). One solution put forward by most parties to address migrants’ ‘failed integration’ emphasises the importance of law and order, which often translates into promises for police support. For instance, Jonas Sjöstedt, leader of the Left party, has promised in the leader debate on public television in May, that a vote for the Left meant a vote for more police officers. The PM Löfven argued in his public speech on May 1st that law and order are one of the Social Democrats’ key issues.

We obviously have to wait until the electoral results in September to see the degree to which these new narratives will influence the new government. Undeniably, the ‘refugee crisis’ has created an unprecedented shock to the political system. Given that the Social Democrats and the Moderates have moved towards more restrictive and conservative understanding of integration and migration, and that most political parties are suggesting policies that would have been impossible a few years ago, we can expect changes in this policy domain. Sweden is not unique in this. In the past years, narratives about problematic immigration, crisis, and ‘failed integration’ are at the forefront of the political debate across the western world. The strategy adopted by the leading Swedish mainstream parties is highly risky. As voters consistently think that Sweden Democrats are better at addressing with questions around immigration and integration, Jimmie Åkesson could well become the 2018 election’s big winner and the country’s understanding of integration might change beyond recognition.

Scuzzarello, S. and Carlson, B. Forthcoming. ‘Young Somalis’ social identity in Sweden and Britain. The interplay of group dynamics, socio-political environments, and transnational ties in social identification processes’, Migration Studies.


Sarah Scuzzarello is a Research Fellow at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research and Department of International Development at the University of Sussex

Image: Norrkoping, Sweden – June 6, 2014: Immigrants and native Swedes participating in National day celebrations in Norrkoping. Photograph credit: Rolf_52, Copyright: Shutterstock