Scandinavia Falls Off the Pedestal

“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few,” were famous words uttered from none other than Adolf Hitler. Since the heyday of the Third Reich, many populist leaders have demonstrated this philosophy to be a successful strategy.

Brexit was a shocker. As was Trump. The rise of populism in the western world has truly shaken beliefs and norms that many believed were long cemented into the fabric of western society and therefore unchangeable. Le Pen’s French Front National, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party of Austria, and Frank Petre’s Alternative für Deutschland are only a few of the far-right parties that have spawned under the noses of long-time, established parties in Europe.

The cause is partly due to a weakened EU and partly due to the migrant crisis, which comes with its own set of challenges that shape anti-immigration culture.

However, if anyone had paid attention to the gradual abandon of generosity in some of the top Scandinavian countries sooner, one might have had a clue of what was to come. Particularly Sweden and Denmark, who are often described by liberals as utopian countries, have been transformed right before our eyes.

A Liberal Utopia

The progressive havens of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland have commonly been considered optimal and model countries due to their strong systems of welfare, education, and social security. The Nordic model, as it’s referred to, “includes a combination of free market capitalism with a comprehensive welfare state and collective bargaining at the national level.”

It is highlighted that “while there are differences among different Nordic countries, they all share a broad commitment to social cohesion, a universal nature of welfare provision in order to safeguard individualism by providing protection for vulnerable individuals and groups in society, and maximizing public participation in social decision-making. It is characterized by flexibility and openness to innovation in the provision of welfare.”

“So how have these countries fallen from the pedestal?”

It’s no wonder Bernie Sanders consistently referenced Scandinavia during his bid for presidency, stating in the CNN debate last October, “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.”

Why does Scandinavia topple all lists for countries that simply do humanity better than others? The reasons are plentiful.

Take Sweden, for example, where a Swedish parent gets 480 days of paid leave, 90 days of which are reserved for the dad. In Sweden, gay sex was legalized as early as 1944. Swedes work on average 31.6 hrs/week (compared to Americans 34.4) and typically enjoy much longer vacations.

Denmark has free universities, free childcare, and free medical care. The other Scandinavian countries have similar, if not slightly, different policies.

When it comes to sustainability, they also top many countries. According to the Swedish Ministry, Sweden aggressively recycles and “only 1 percent of waste ends up in a rubbish dump.” According to Bloomberg, “99 percent of its electricity consumption is by running water through turbines.”

Sweden isn’t far behind, with a 52 percent production of renewable sources for energy, of which 92 percent comes from hydropower. Denmark, also an epitome of green initiative, has made an unprecedented commitment to rid the country of all fossil fuels by 2050.

Schools, world competitiveness, civil rights, etc. all rank high in Scandinavia.

All of these shared values also contribute to making their citizens happier, apparently. The fourth World Happiness Report considered Denmark the happiest country in the world just last year. And the top five included Norway, Finland, and Iceland. Comparatively, the U.S. came in 13th and China came in 83rd.

How can Scandinavia afford to extend this quality of life to its citizens? Taxes. High taxes are what cover the costs, as personal income tax in Sweden is a staggering 57.10 compared to the U.S. personal income tax which topples at 39.6

A New Reality

What has unanimously made Scandinavia stand apart from other regions of the world has been its stance and attitude towards immigration. Scandinavia has had deep and generous immigration laws stemming back for many decades.

Sweden has welcomed more refugees than any other European country in relation to its population. In 2015, there were 165,000 asylum seekers in Sweden, one-third of them were Syrian. Many were unaccompanied children.

So how have these countries fallen from the pedestal?

In the last two decades, the national dialogue and debates in Scandinavia, with the exception of Iceland, have been steeped in xenophobia and fear. Naturally, this has been quite embarrassing for the countries’ respective liberal identities.

No one spells this out better than The Swedish Migration website, which reminds the reader that “Sweden’s self-image as open and tolerant is challenged as asylum applications pile up, housing becomes scarcer and xenophobia more visible.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Sweden now have an openly racist party, Sverige Demokraterna–a party that Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called a “Nazi and racist party”-is as an active member of its government with 49 seats. Similarly, Norway has the Progress Party and Finland has The Finns.

“It makes perfect sense, of course, that a country burdened with assimilating too many migrants too quickly would give rise to discontent and nationalism among its population.”

In step with these anti-immigrant overtones, Denmark enacted a law last year that forced migrants to hand over any valuables that exceed 10,000 kr ($1442.59) upon entry–i.e. jewelry, money, etc. to pay for their stay in the country. After much backlash, however, they modified the law to exempt things of sentimental value, such as wedding rings.

Also, the government of Denmark went the extra mile by posting ads in Lebanon to discourage migrants from making the journey to their country. Washington Post reports, “The advertisement lists a number of factors that would make Denmark an undesirable destination for refugees, including recent legislation that would reduce social benefits to arriving refugees by 50 percent.”

Tensions have also spilled over into relations with formerly friendly neighbors. Finland has closed its border to Sweden because of the number of Iraqis who were coming through the porous borders, as they couldn’t get on the Stockholm-Helsinki ferry, which requires documentation that many of the migrants lack. Sweden has secured its border to Denmark, which has made commuting back and forth between the two countries a much longer and congested experience.

Additionally, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark have enacted laws that will make it harder for migrant parents to reunite with their families.

It makes perfect sense, of course, that a country burdened with assimilating too many migrants too quickly would give rise to discontent and nationalism among its population.

The Queen Margrethe II of Denmark urged Muslims, particularly, to adopt Danish values. Speaking of their values, she said, ”We cannot pretend that it wears off by itself. It won’t. Many of us thought that people who come to a strange place are a kind of a blotting paper that absorbs everything new.”

She may have a point, albeit one that is seemingly impossible to enforce. “The task becomes harder, however, when so many people having various backgrounds and a particular religion arrive at once. They risk isolating themselves regardless of their will,” she acknowledged.

Danish Refugee Council (DRC) secretary-general Andreas Kamm thinks the recent migrant policy changes in Denmark are harmful for the long term wellbeing of the country. In this article, he points out that “Denmark’s recent welfare cuts for asylum seekers and changes to when refugees can bring their families to the country are not only unethical, they are short-sighted. It makes new arrivals in the country poorer and less engaged socially, giving rise to bitterness, alienation and anger, and making integration harder in the long term.”

Perhaps the only hope for a solid Scandinavia lies in incorporating into its politics the Danish term “hygge,’’ which Meik Wiking popularized in his book “Little Book of Hygge-Danish Secrets To Happy Living.” The term means “to make cozy,” of sorts, as there’s no official equivalent in English. It is a term that essentially inspires creating a happy home.

He writes, “In all the work I have done within the field of happiness research. This is the point I am surest about: the best predictor of whether we are happy or not is our social relationships.”