The Nordic countries – including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland – have an international reputation as generous welfare states. However, in the midst of the migrant crisis, these states have responded with controversial new policies aimed at pushing refugees away from their borders. One German politician describes the European trend as a “re-emergence of state egotism and nationalism”. The trend has also been described as populist, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “support for the concerns of ordinary people” and which tends to distinguish between “the people” and so-called “enemies of the people”. Whatever you decide to call it, it is crucial to understand the social forces behind it. Far-right European parties are making gains across the board or in the case of Iceland, a new far-right political party is in the making. So why is this happening?
The Migrant Crisis & Rising Right-Wing Populism
Since the beginning of the migrant crisis, these countries have been overwhelmed by a high number of asylum-seekers. However, in 2016, the number of asylum applications dropped, likely due to harsh new immigration policies. In the last four months of 2015, approximately 23,000 people applied for refugee status in Norway – a national record. However, the number of asylum-seekers plummeted to 3,460 in 2016. While more than 21,000 refugees applied for asylum in Denmark in 2015, that figure plummeted to just over 6,000 in 2016. In Finland, the number of asylum applications went from 32,476 in 2015 to 5,651 in 2016. In Sweden, the number went from 163,000 in 2015 (more than any other EU state per capita) to 28,939 in 2016. Iceland is the only Nordic country that has seen a rise in asylum applications in the past two years, although the number was still quite low in 2016, sitting at 1,132.
The Spring 2016 Standard Eurobarometer survey shows that immigration is seen as the most important issue facing the EU. Another survey by Pew Research Center shows that the migrant crisis and the threat of terrorism are very much related in the minds of many Europeans. The survey also shows that people on the ideological right express more concerns about refugees, more negative attitudes toward minorities and less enthusiasm for a diverse society. Therefore, it makes sense that far-right parties – which seek to re-establish traditional values, hierarchies, and ethnic homogeneity – are gaining ground in Europe.
2013 – The Centre-Right Coalition in Norway: The Conservative Party & The Progress Party
The rise of far-right parties in Nordic countries began with the 2013 election in Norway. On 9 September 2013, the centre-right coalition won the parliamentary election with 96 of 169 seats. Ms Erna Solberg described her win as “a historic election victory for right-wing parties”. She has been Prime Minister of Norway since 2013 and is known for her tightening of immigration policy.
2014 – The Danish People’s Party (DPP)
Lars Rasmussen has been Prime Minister of Denmark since June 2015 and is the leader of the centre-right liberal party, Venstre. However, the Danish People’s Party has been making steady gains over the past decade and it became the second largest party in Denmark for the first time in the 2015 general election (with 21% of the vote).
2015 – The Finns Party
In 2011, another populist and nationalist-oriented party won 19.1% of the votes and became the third largest party in the Finnish Parliament. In 2015, the party received 17.7% of the votes, becoming the second largest party and joined the current government coalition.
2016 – The Sweden Democrats
In 2010, the Sweden Democrats gained parliamentary representation. In the 2014 general election, they received almost 13% of the vote share. Today, they are the third biggest party in the national parliament and the biggest right-wing party in Sweden.
2017 – The Icelandic National Front
According to the Iceland Review, this new far-right political party is being formed to “protect the sovereignty and independence of island, Icelandic culture, language, customs, and Christian beliefs”. The party rejects any ideas about multiculturalism and says it will fight the construction of a mosque and ban burkas and Islamic schools in Iceland.
Explanations for Populism
Many scholars have argued that populism arises in countries with low education and high socioeconomic inequalities. However, we do not see these factors present in the Nordic countries, yet populism is again on the rise. Amid relative economic stability, rising wages, and low employment rates, another wave of populism has hit the Nordic countries of Europe. Therefore, it is important to consider other explanations for populism such as race and culture, which may explain the rise in populism in the Nordic states more than low education.
Danish MEP Jeppe Kofod argues that there is a rise in populism because people are concerned about the much-cherished welfare state if the number of refugees and migrants keep growing. Right-wing populist parties are saying that refugees will dismantle the welfare state, playing on fears and frustrations about immigration and fuelling nationalist sentiment. The migrant crisis builds on long-standing fears about globalisation, multiculturalism, and a dilution of national identity. With harsh immigration policies and an embrace of populism, the Nordic countries may get to keep their welfare state. However, in the process, these countries might lose the essence of their identity: generosity.