As the coronavirus continues to wreak global chaos, the absence to produce a pan-European response has forced countries to implement more local strategies. Among them, Sweden—one of Europe’s most socially and economically prosperous nations—has queried why its coronavirus strategy has resulted in one of the worst mortality rates in the world, at 240 deaths per million people.
The coronavirus has evidently incubated residual nationalism. Sweden’s right-wing party, the Sweden Democrats, blames the country’s health crisis on immigrants and Swedish multiculturalism. Even Sweden’s former chief epidemiologist, Johan Giesecke, conflated rising deaths amongst the elderly with the non-compliance of ‘refugees’. Contrary to what those proponents of Sweden’s banal, liberal nationalism who say, ‘let Sweden be Sweden’ might wish, the pandemic is a reminder that Isaiah Berlin was right to warn that the ‘bent twig’ of nationalism lashes out in times of crisis.
The Prime Minister, Stefan Löfven, initially recommended that Swedish citizens ‘socially distance’ during the outbreak, as the government declined to introduce a policy that would restrict physical movement.
Europe’s disjointed approach to the pandemic skirts cooperative institutions such as the EU. Commissioner Ylva Johanssen’s calls to re-open borders have been thwarted. Other Nordic countries have been angered by Sweden’s unwise refusal to close borders. Yet the Swedish government’s decision to over-ride its neighbours’ protestations enjoys fairly broad support: a poll of 1,600 citizens suggested 51% still considered the government’s approach ‘thoughtful enough’.
Gina Gustavsson has argued Sweden is in danger of ‘blind allegiance’ to liberal nationalism that privileges independent thought and what is ‘best’ for the nation. In fact, Sweden has reaped rewards from a long tradition of non-alignment in its peaceful recent history. But that same liberal nationalism is now catalysing a residual right-wing nationalism.
Sweden’s response to the pandemic fits into its broader history of non-alignment. Despite working closely with NATO, Sweden is a non-member state that prefers a position of neutrality. This is to some extent a function of pragmatic diplomacy given Sweden’s proximity to Russia. But more generally, Sweden’s commitment to liberal nationalism is bound up with its current health crisis.
Growing support for the right-wing Swedish rhetoric was unpredictable. The Sweden Democrats, headed by Jimmie Åkesson, gained a mere 0.02% of the national vote in their first election and improved only slightly to 1% in 2002. However, the party has employed visceral rhetoric in recent years that opposes the government’s liberal outlook on immigration. It has also appealed to disgruntled blue-collar workers and to fiscal conservatives who want to end the country’s ‘expensive’ refugee policy. In 2018, following tighter border controls, the party improved its electoral standing to capture 17.6% of the national vote. The pandemic has reignited the immigration debate once more.
Michael Billig theorises that discursive formation invades the unconscious mind. Åkesson’s nationalist rhetoric evokes a nation under attack by external forces (immigrants), and it blames a nation’s cosmopolitanism. Billig calls this manoeuvre ‘banal.’ But the far-right’s success is in elevating that rhetoric to a national level. It impugns Swedish multicultural identity itself as responsible for this national health crisis.
Haris, a Swedish YouTuber who goes by the pseudonym ‘angry foreigner’ embodies growing support for the far-right’s message. He suggests that Sweden’s dire corona performance requires greater introspection about the ‘flawed nature of globalism.’ According to Haris, globalism ought to be replaced with ‘ethnic uniformity’. Haris is himself an immigrant who fled war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s. The irony in this remark speaks volumes to the far-right’s ability to manipulate the pandemic to push an anti-immigrant sentiment.
‘Let Sweden be Sweden’ was once a ubiquitous call for multiculturalism. Now, the pandemic prompts Swedes to question the country’s core values. The far-right is redefining nationalism, and its message resonates across a spectrum of Sweden’s socio-economic classes. Just as with Brexit, a country that is forced to debate its national identity is open to profound social and political division. This presents a worrying reality for immigrants who represent 18.5% of Sweden’s population.
This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.