Citizenship & Identity Elections & Institutions In Print 

Sweden: Stronghold of the North

From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue “Europe Under Fire

By Jonathan Ewing 

Stockholm, Sweden—A rough-looking and obviously drunk man walked half a step behind a Gypsy woman on a crowded street in Stockholm, the capital of a country famous for its historical tolerance. Teetering and threatening, it wasn’t clear if he was going to strike her, as he said something in barely-audible Swedish near her ear. The crowd didn’t appear inclined to help until a tourist yelled at the Swede in English, and the Gypsy used the distraction to disappear into the crowd.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the tourist, an Australian woman, said. And in something close to perfect English, the Swede argued back, “Why doesn’t she beg in her own country? What about me? I’m Swedish. I need help too. They need to go home; they shouldn’t be here.”

There has been a dramatic influx of foreigners immigrating to Sweden from places like Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, as well as Gypsies from Eastern Europe. The charge that there are too many of them and that they are taking jobs and benefits from ethnic Swedes was the main thrust of the xenophobic party, Sweden Democrats, which became the third largest group in parliament during September’s election. Rooted in the neo-Nazi movement, the Sweden Democrats won votes by playing on fears of immigration and by attacking the government for spending taxpayer money on immigrants and asylum seekers instead of on native Swedes.

The Sweden Democrats tapped into a growing sense of frustration, which is bubbling across generations in poor and struggling rural communities throughout Sweden. And now the far right party, because of its numbers in parliament, have become de facto king makers, and the Social Democrats might find governing difficult without their support or the support of other opposition party members.

Jimmy Åkesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, has threatened not to support the government’s budget proposal, which is set to be voted on in parliament in early December. The Sweden Democrats said that they would very likely vote for another proposal presented by the opposition center-right Alliance. If that happens, the government would then not have the necessary votes to pass its budget and that would very likely result in new elections.

Sweden now boasts some of the highest growth in inequality among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, a gulf that is also among the most rapidly widening. It’s also worth throwing into the equation the reality that 23 percent of young people are barely achieving good enough grades to enter senior high school, while around 46 percent of non-European immigrants to Sweden are unemployed.


People in Sweden are disoriented, while fearing a loss of their cherished welfare state and their much-deserved and carefully nurtured reputation for innovation, neutrality, diplomacy, and tolerance. The country is struggling to reconcile its glorious social democratic past with its more workaday present, and Swedes are struggling with this crisis of identity in many of the same ways as Norway, Denmark, and the rest of the Nordic region.

In Denmark, the ultra-right, anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party, or DPP, entered parliament in 2001 as the country’s third-largest party. Now it’s underpinning a center-right government coalition, which has drafted tough new asylum policies and cut aid to the developing world. In 2014, the DPP won EU Parliamentary elections as the largest party in Denmark with 26.6 percent of the vote. In Norway, concerns about immigration and the growing belief that Islam is challenging national values and identity are widely shared by Norwegians and among many on the right, who in 2013 voted the Conservative Party into office. The anti-immigration Progress Party earned enough votes to find itself a place in the new government. The Progress Party came under intense scrutiny in 2011, when Anders Behring Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. He then killed 69 more, mostly teenagers, in a mass shooting at a summer camp on the island of Utøya. Breivik had been a member of the Progress Party. He has said that he was attracted by its anti-Islamic slant, from 1999 until he was removed from the rolls in 2006 for not paying dues. He reportedly quit the party because it was not radical enough.

So even as the gap between rich and poor grows, questions related to identity have become politicized and moved to the foreground. Sweden’s public debt is hovering at around 40 percent of GDP—about half of Germany’s. Its triple-A-rated economy emerged from the global economic crisis in better shape than most of its European Union peers. But the center-right alliance government still lost the September election by a narrow margin to the Social Democrats. They lost, in large part, because of the public’s exasperation with the alliance proclaiming its adherence to the Swedish model, while also systematically lowering taxes and privatizing or spinning off everything that mattered: the railway system, telecommunications, the postal service, schools, health care, and education.


The estrangement felt by ordinary Swedes hasn’t been helped by the perception of an old and cozy relationship between government and big business. Because of its relative isolation in northern Europe and the relatively small size of its domestic market, Sweden has historically been dependent on exports. The business landscape has mostly been dominated by a handful of large, defense-oriented companies such as Saab, Ericsson, and Bofors.

For years, Sweden has been a top manufacturer of weapons, targeting systems, and electronic surveillance equipment. The companies producing these items have been critical to the economy, 
but regulatory con
trol over them has 
been limited. This 
lack of oversight has 
been responsible for
 a growing number 
of corruption scandals. Many of these 
scandals have typically involved the
 defense industry and 
the government—
especially its lack of
 transparency, and the
 anonymity involved 
with political donations by businesses 
to political parties. One set of allegations concerns a partially state-owned telecom company, TeliaSonera, which sold and provided technical assistance to authoritarian leaders in former east bloc dictatorships, who then used the technology to listen in on mobile telephone calls and text message exchanges of political opponents, human rights workers, and journalists in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

In 2012, TeliaSonera was slammed for not doing enough to prohibit the misuse of technology which, through an old Soviet-era surveillance system called SORM (System for Operative Investigative Activities), lets police monitor communications in real time. Use of this technology by security services meant that activists and journalists were arrested, harassed, and jailed. Swedes were shocked when this story of electronic surveillance made international headlines.

The incident was especially troubling in light of criticism from the Council of Europe, which has repeatedly condemned Sweden for allowing anonymous financial donations to political parties. The previous government had promised to review the system, which fails to comply with Council of Europe standards on transparency, but no correction was ever made.

The TeliaSonera report and additional reports of deepening connections between Swedish intelligence services and the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), as well as with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), have left Sweden feeling even more unsettled.

In 2013, Swedish media reported that Sweden’s National Defense Radio Establishment, known as the FRA, has been conducting a clandestine surveillance operation, targeting the internal politics of Russia. The FRA, which was conducting the operation for the NSA, then sent the data to Washington. The operation further targeted Russian energy interests and individuals in the Baltic States. It was also revealed that Sweden, along with German, French, and Spanish intelligence services, developed methods of domestic mass surveillance of Internet and phone traffic, in close partnership with Britain’s GCHQ electronic surveillance agency.

Much of the spying is carried out through direct taps and the development of secret relationships with telecommunications companies. This kind of eavesdropping alliance has made it easier for intelligence agencies from one country to develop ties with corporations from another, according to GCHQ documents leaked by the former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.

What all this means, in the end, is that Sweden’s historic neutrality, which gave this country of 9.5 million people outsized diplomatic clout and moral standing, is now up for debate and reinterpretation. And another corner of Europe is finding it increasingly difficult to recognize and orient itself in the European Union and the outside world, while also preserving its own particular political and social identity.



Jonathan Ewing, an international investigative journalist based in Sweden, is a frequent contributor to World Policy Journal.

[Photo Courtesy of Barbaro Bjornemalm]


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