Yeah, I'm scared. A police cordon between a Sweden Democrat gathering and anti-racist demonstrators. Stockholm, 16 September 2010

The fear factor

The Sweden Democrats’ breakthrough at the polls on 19 September is no anomaly: throughout northern European, in societies hitherto admired for their tolerance and cohesion, overtly xenophobic parties are now riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.

Published on 21 September 2010 at 14:35
Yeah, I'm scared. A police cordon between a Sweden Democrat gathering and anti-racist demonstrators. Stockholm, 16 September 2010

First of all, the results bear out what the Economist so graphically and clinically calls “the strange death of social-democratic Sweden”. For years socialists in and outside Europe have admired the lead Scandinavian nation’s brand of democratic socialism, at once austere and magnanimous, capable of combining high taxes and heavy public spending with a robust economy and high standards of living. Its neighbouring “kinsfolks”, Finland, Denmark, Norway, even the Netherlands, tried to successfully emulate the model, which also included a remarkable degree of – sometimes downright audacious – tolerance in the way of civil rights accorded to fellow citizens and immigrants alike.

After the mysterious assassination of prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, which was never entirely cleared up, the first louring clouds came up over social-democratic paradise in Stockholm. Cracks opened up in the prevailing political stability, the conservatives made it into government, and in 1994 Sweden signed the treaties to join the European Union. With the EU’s progressive enlargement towards post-Communist Eastern Europe, the Swedes, fed up with the socialist model that overtaxes compatriots and overindulges foreigners, faced an insidious two-pronged problem that has beset all of Europe for years: economic crisis in conjunction with uncontrolled immigration.

Legacy of tolerance has been all but overturned

On the economic front, the moderate conservatives led by prime minister Frederik Reinfeldt, in power since 2006, handled the crisis competently and sensibly, without striking at the foundations of the social-democratic system, but reining in its ideological excesses and introducing free-market flexibility to give private industry more leeway. The compromise panned out: the gross product went up, unemployment went down. Present-day Sweden ranks among the shining lights in the world economy. The contrast with the troubles in several European countries is more than striking: it’s near-devastating.

But at the end of the day, Sweden, economically restored and restabilised, now faces the same danger permeating the rest of Scandinavia and much of the rest of Europe. But it takes on a particularly neurotic cast in Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Flanders: i.e. in the most highly evolved northern civilisations which, till just yesterday, were the most tolerant and culturally amenable to living with outsiders, exiles, immigrants in search of food and protection. The legacy of tolerance, charity, in those frosty northern climes of Protestantism and social democracy has been all but overturned by the great fear of immigrant hordes knocking at every door on the Continent. A mental short-circuit triggered by the dread of foreign invasion – “xenophobia” is just rhetorical shorthand for this ancestral fear – is setting off a political backlash even in ultra-civilised Sweden. Now that Jimmie Akesson’s party have jumped the 4% electoral hurdle, we’re watching the umpteenth “premiere” of the embarrassing entry of right-wing extremists into parliament.

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Sweden is anything but an anomaly

There’s no telling what will happen in Stockholm over the next few days. But we do know this: fear is spreading through the north. The self-styledReal Finns, who exalt the “dignity of woodland traditions”, are gaining momentum in Finland. The People’s Party, campaigning on the immigrant card, are picking up steam in Denmark. And in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party have already got 24 seats in parliament and are cosying up to their Flemish nationalist kinsfolk in the Vlaams Belang. All of them, including radical nationalists from Budapest and Bucharest, will be descending on Amsterdam in late October to celebrate the now legendary Geert Wilders.

So Sweden is anything but an anomaly. Europe has shrunk, while fear, which we should study rather than reject out of hand in the name of an anaemic “political correctness”, is spreading everywhere. Condemning the “bad guys” en bloc will not suffice. We need to make an effort to explain how and why they got that way, from the Baltic to the Danube.

Translated by Eric Rosencrantz

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