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OPINION: Get organised or Sweden’s open society will be a distant memory

Sweden turned hostile to immigrants and asylum seekers several years ago, but continued to pretend that it was a welcoming nation. Now official politics has caught up with reality, argues David Crouch

OPINION: Get organised or Sweden's open society will be a distant memory
Refugees arriving in Sweden in 2015 queue for buses at Hyllie station: Johan Nilsson / TT

The agreement announced on Friday by the four parties which won Sweden’s election feels like the moment in an episode of Road Runner, where the coyote character spots there is only air beneath him.

For those unfamiliar with the classic Looney Tunes cartoon, there were often scenes in which a character called Wile E. Coyote would run off a cliff, keep running in thin air, look down, realise there was no ground beneath him, and only then fall.

Sweden turned hostile to immigrants and asylum seekers years ago, but continued to pretend that it was a liberal and welcoming nation. Now, with the suddenness of that Road Runner moment, official politics has abruptly caught up with reality. 

Late last year, outgoing Social Democrat justice and migration minister Morgan Johansson was asked in parliament if Sweden had succeeded in reducing asylum rights to the EU minimum. His answer was full of soothing words about protecting people in a troubled world, about humanitarian needs, about a sustainable and humane system. But yes, he said, Sweden’s asylum framework was now the EU minimum and the numbers were the lowest for 20 years. 

With the Tidö Agreement, those soothing words are gone, and there is no longer any pretence that Sweden will continue to take into account individual freedoms, equality or human rights for non-Swedes. The agreement is a relentless, detailed, cold-blooded statement on how this government will cut the rights of all non-Swedish citizens to the bare minimum required by EU law.  Wherever possible, it adds, migrants will be encouraged to return to wherever they came from.  

The new approach will affect every aspect of life for non-Swedes, starting with access to healthcare, housing, child support, schools, and other benefits. It is all designed to minimise the “incentives” for people to come to Sweden. The Local has parsed the document here.

In some sense this is refreshingly honest: there is no longer any need to see through fancy political rhetoric to get to the meat of what is going on.

But it is still a shock to read, for example, that Sweden will change its constitution with the aim of “limiting the rights of asylum seekers as far as is legally possible” (page 34), or that “criminals” who lack Swedish citizenship will be deported “without having been convicted of a crime” (page 19).

In many areas, the groundwork for the shift had already been laid by the outgoing government. As The Local has reported in depressing detail over recent years, life has become harder both for people coming here to work or seek asylum, and for those with non-European backgrounds who already live here.

Attitudes in Swedish society have changed more broadly. A defining feature of this year’s election campaign was that immigrants were for the first time described as a problem in themselves, with politicians of both left and right drawing a connection between immigration and crime.

The media have both reflected and reinforced this shift. As he describes in a new book, the journalist Christian Catomeris left SVT’s flagship Agenda programme because of its negative approach to immigration.

“When [leading Sweden Democrat] Björn Söder now says that public service broadcasting must change, I laugh a little, because I feel that change has already taken place, that the SD’s questions and perspectives have permeated journalism since 2015 and probably also this election,” Catomeris told the journalists’ trade union last month.

The Tidö Agreement refers over and over again to utlänningar, “foreigners”, an unpleasantly pejorative word for non-Swedes. But outgoing prime minister Magdalena Andersson had already started to use the word earlier this year in a rhetorical shift that mirrored the language used by the Sweden Democrats and prepared the ground for her later remarks about “Somalitowns” and talk of forcibly removing immigrants from problem areas.

As an immigrant myself, married to a family of immigrants, who found Sweden’s generous response to the refugee crisis of 2015 inspiring, I am saddened and dismayed by the Tidö agreement. Even if it is only continuing trends already apparent in Swedish society and politics, it both strengthens and accelerates them.

But there is also room to push back. The agreement calls for a large number of inquiries to be set up to investigate how to do all the things the new government wants to do. The word inquiry (utredning) appears in all its different forms no fewer than 182 times throughout the document.

The parties to the agreement each have a right to veto any proposal that emerges from these discussions.

This means there will be many opportunities for Swedish civil society to intervene and make its voice heard. Immigrant, expat and asylum-seeker organisations will need to organise themselves like never before if they want to defend multiculturalism and prevent Sweden’s open society from becoming a distant memory.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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OPINION: Why Germans’ famed efficiency makes the country less efficient

Germans are famous for their love of efficiency - and impatience that comes with it. But this desire for getting things done as quickly as possible can backfire, whether at the supermarket or in national politics, writes Brian Melican.

OPINION: Why Germans' famed efficiency makes the country less efficient

A story about a new wave of “check-outs for chatting” caught my eye recently. In a country whose no-nonsense, “Move it or lose it, lady!” approach to supermarket till-staffing can reduce the uninitiated to tears, the idea of introducing a slow lane with a cashier who won’t sigh aggressively or bark at you for trying to strike up conversation is somewhere between quietly subversive and positively revolutionary – and got me thinking.

Why is it that German supermarket check-outs are so hectic in the first place?

READ ALSO: German supermarkets fight loneliness with slower check outs for chatting

If you talk to people here about it – other Germans, long-term foreign residents, and keen observers on shorter visits – you’ll hear a few theories.

One is that Germans tend to shop daily on the way home from work, and so place a higher premium on brisk service than countries where a weekly shop is more common; and it is indeed a well-researched fact that German supermarket shopping patterns are higher-frequency than in many comparable countries.

Bavarian supermarket

A sign at a now-famous supermarket in Bavaria advertises a special counter saying “Here you can have a chat”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Another theory is that, in many parts of the country (such as Bavaria), supermarket opening hours are so short that there is no other way for everyone to get their shopping done than to keep things ticking along at a good old clip.

The most simple (and immediately plausible) explanation, of course, is that supermarkets like to keep both staffing and queuing to a minimum: short-staffing means lower costs, while shorter queues make for fewer abandoned trolleys.

German love of efficiency

Those in the know say that most store chains do indeed set average numbers of articles per minute which their cashiers are required to scan – and that this number is higher at certain discounters notorious for their hard-nosed attitude.

Beyond businesses’ penny-pinching, fast-lane tills are a demonstration of the broader German love of efficiency: after all, customers wouldn’t put up with being given the bum’s rush if there weren’t a cultural premium placed on smooth and speedy operations.

Then again, as many observers not yet blind to the oddness of Germany’s daily ‘Supermarket Sweep’ immediately notice, the race to get purchases over the till at the highest possible rate is wholly counter-productive: once scanned, the items pile up faster than even the best-organised couple can stow away, leaving an embarrassing, sweat-inducing lull – and then, while people in the queue roll their eyes and huff, a race to pay (usually in cash, natch’).

In a way, it’s similar to Germany’s famed autobahns, on which there is theoretically no speed limit and on which some drivers do indeed race ahead – into traffic jams often caused by excessive velocity.

Yes, it is a classic case of more haste, less speed. We think we’re doing something faster, but actually our impatience is proving counterproductive.

German impatience

This is, in my view, the crux of the issue: Germans are a hasty bunch. Indeed, research shows that we have less patience than comparable European populations – especially in retail situations. Yes, impatience is one of our defining national characteristics – and, as I pointed out during last summer’s rail meltdown, it is one of our enduring national tragedies that we are at once impatient and badly organised.

As well as at the tills and on the roads, you can observe German impatience in any queue (which we try to jump) and generally any other situation in which we are expected to wait.

Think back to early 2021, for instance, when the three-month UK-EU vaccine gap caused something approaching a national breakdown here, and the Health Minister was pressured into buying extra doses outside of the European framework.

This infuriated our neighbours and deprived developing countries of much-needed jabs – which, predictably, ended up arriving after the scheduled ones, leaving us with a glut of vaccines which, that very autumn, had to be destroyed.

A health worker prepares a syringe with the Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine by Biontech-Pfizer. Photo: John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Now, you can see the same phenomenon with heating legislation: frustrated by the slow pace of change, Minister for Energy and the Economy Robert Habeck intended to force property owners to switch their heating systems to low-carbon alternatives within the next few years.

The fact that the supply of said alternatives is nowhere near sufficient – and that there are too few heating engineers to fit them – got lost in the haste…

The positive side of impatience

This example does, however, reveal one strongly positive side of our national impatience: if well- directed, it can create a sense of urgency about tackling thorny issues. Habeck is wrong to force the switch on an arbitrary timescale – but he is right to try and get things moving.

In most advanced economies, buildings are responsible for anything up to 40 percent of carbon emissions and, while major industrials have actually been cutting their CO2 output for decades now, the built environment has hardly seen any real improvements.

Ideally, a sensible compromise will be reached which sets out an ambitious direction of travel – and gets companies to start expanding capacity accordingly, upping output and increasing the number of systems which can be replaced later down the line. Less haste now, more speed later.

The same is true of our defence policy, which – after several directionless decades – is now being remodelled with impressive single-mindedness by a visibly impatient Boris Pistorius.

As for the check-outs for chatting, I’m not sure they’ll catch on. However counterproductive speed at the till may be, I just don’t see a large number of us being happy to sacrifice the illusion of rapidity so that a lonely old biddy can have a chinwag. Not that we are the heartless automatons that makes us sound like: Germany is actually a very chatty country.

It’s just that there’s a time and a place for it: at the weekly farmer’s markets, for instance, or at the bus stop. The latter is the ideal place to get Germans talking, by the way: just start with “About bloody time the bus got here, eh?” So langsam könnte der Bus ja kommen, wie ich finde…

READ ALSO: 7 places where you can actually make small talk with Germans