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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: Please stop turning Scandi words like ‘friluftsliv’ into viral trends

Originally a Norwegian invention, 'friluftsliv' is popular across Scandinavia and is one of many exported words which portrays the locals as special mythical beings when, in reality, they are much more like the rest of us than the online trends suggest.

OPINION: Please stop turning Scandi words like 'friluftsliv' into viral trends

Norway is known for its abundant nature, and Norwegians are known for their love of the outdoors. Typically, the word best used to describe this marriage of nature to outdoor enthusiasts is friluftsliv, a term also used in the other Scandinavian countries.

Getting outdoors, being close to nature and feeling a surge of calmness and contentment wash over you as you take in your surroundings is the general gist of how you are meant to feel if you are doing it ‘properly’.

Or that is how you are supposed to feel, according to the endless stream of articles, lifestyle blogs and marketing materials online.  

Many push the idea that friluftsliv is some state of mind or way of life inherent to Scandinavians. 

Don’t believe it! Despite what the various, omnipresent lifestyle trend articles tell you, the locals are just like anyone else. 

They do love to be outdoors, yes. But they much prefer to be outdoors when the weather is good, and the conditions are preferable.

For all of Norway’s many inventions, such as the paperclip and, uhm, the cheese slicer, they cannot take credit for coming up with being outside when the weather is good.  

Like the rest of us, when the conditions are rubbish, most would instead take a raincheck. 

And for pretty much all Scandinavians, friluftsliv isn’t a state of mind, concept, way of life or the key to happiness and health that babies in these countries are born clutching onto. 

Instead, the locals have more of a no-nonsense interpretation of the word. Everyone has heard it, everyone knows what it is, and to them, it just means getting outside and enjoying yourself. 

A perfect case in point would be kindergartens and schools in Scandinavia. When it’s time to go outside, kids are just sent out to brave the elements, whether that’s in a sunhat and SPF50 or in a thick waterproof snowsuit. There are no ceremonies, rituals, or lessons stressing the importance of friluftsliv.  

The more outdoor-orientated kindergartens, such as Norway’s naturbarnehage and friluftsbarnehage, do place more of an emphasis on the importance of being outside.

Even then, they stress the importance of enjoying the outdoors responsibly rather than engaging in any holistic brochure talk (unless you live in the west of Oslo or Bærum and Asker).    

This isn’t to criticise Norwegians. Far from it, it is a relief that they do not possess some special ingrained quality that allows them to march up mountains for miles or glide across the snow when temperatures dip below -10C and the rest of us would rather be at home.

The Norwegians, and by extension Swedes and Danes, who embrace friluftsliv have every right to be proud: of the region’s beautiful landscapes, for getting out and seizing the day, or just for enjoying a close relationship with nature. 

Furthermore, the authorities should be congratulated for facilitating an active outdoor lifestyle through well-maintained hiking trails and public access rights which allow you to forage, camp, hike and swim wherever you choose.

READ MORE: Friluftsliv, or the reason I moved to Sweden

The real frustration lies with the jumbled, exaggerated vomit of words, concepts and catchphrases which come together to form a kind of bingo card of Scandinavian lifestyle trends.

You’ll have seen the buzzwords everywhere, magazines, articles, blogs and posts pointing to Scandi words as the reason why locals are happier, healthier and generally better than everyone else in every conceivable way (people from Norway, Sweden and Denmark do little to play down this notion, and who can blame them?). 

Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes apparently spend their lives sitting in silence, savouring the contentment of lighting a candle and sharing a lovingly made hot chocolate with a friend (hygge), taking a break from the hustle and bustle of work to have a coffee and chat with a colleague (fika), or creating cosy memories with the family while playing board games around the fire (kos). 

None of those are to be confused with the more recently trendy version of sitting around, this time perhaps in a more relaxed and informal setting – such as eating a takeaway before binging some Netflix (mys). 

Given how many of these other “lifestyles”, “states of mind,” and “concepts” seem to involve a lot of time sitting around, it’s a surprise that anyone has any time to be outside. 

READ ALSO: Five suggestions for the next hyped Swedish lifestyle trend

Enjoying the great outdoors is certainly one of the best things about living in one of the Nordic countries, and what makes it better still is how happy many locals are to share friluftsliv with you and encourage you to find your own version. 

However, the constant mystification of a few mundane concepts which boil down to ‘having a sit down for a bit’ or ‘going for a walk’, is simply too much. 

Sure, these words might help marketers flog a few more candles or publishers to shift a few more glossy magazines. 

But, for the most part, the best thing about these concepts is that they are really just unique words for quite normal, boring things: things that normalise the locals in Norway, Sweden and Denmark rather than exalt them and portray them as having an almost alien view of life and how it should be lived.