Political approaches to immigration in Scandinavia since 1995

Immigration has been described as one of the policy areas where Denmark, Norway and Sweden have differed most since 1995. In 2018, Denmark was amongst the most restrictive countries in Western Europe, Sweden the most liberal and Norway somewhere in-between. These differences can be explained, at least to some extent, by divergent approaches to national identity and party political dynamics in each country. Increasing politisation of immigration and integration has occurred in all three countries, but has been more marked in Denmark.

Muslim woman walking over road
Utlendingsdirektoratet, Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. Photo: Brage.aronsen, Wikimedia

Like almost everywhere else in Europe, immigration and integration have become highly salient topics in the Scandinavian countries in recent years. The Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) share many background factors considered important for how states respond to immigration: they all have small, open economies built around universal welfare states; they have similar histories of immigration; and, egalitarianism is held in high esteem, as are individual autonomy and constitutional rights. Yet, despite these similarities, the differences between Danish and Swedish immigration and integration politics have been the focus not only of scholarly but also public and political attention since at least 2010. It is not uncommon for Danish politicians to argue for more restrictive immigration policies with reference to the undesirable ‘Swedish conditions’ that would purportedly result from a too liberal approach. The ‘political correctness’ of Swedes is presented as an obstacle to talking about real and serious problems with immigrant integration. On the other side of the Great Belt, Swedish ministers dubbed the restrictive Danish asylum policy ‘disloyal’ (osolidarisk) during the 2015/2016 refugee crisis, and, in Sweden, the climate of the Danish debate is considered polarising and potentially damaging for integration. The reasons for the differences in – and the consequences of – these policies is worth exploring further.   

Similar immigration (policy) histories

In contrast to some other Western European countries (especially the major colonial powers with large industrial economies such as France and Britain), the Scandinavian countries had little experience of immigration prior to the 1960s. People have moved between the Nordic countries for centuries, not least as they were part of the same states in various constellations, and they still do. However, immigration in significant numbers from outside the region was rather limited until the post-war period and the economic boom in the 1960s. Since then (and until recently), similar immigration patterns can be discerned across the three countries.

In the 1960s, an increased number of labour migrants came from Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, and Yugoslavia. After the economic recession in the early 1970s, labour migration was consequently tightly restricted in all countries, but refugee numbers from then on increased resulting in migration to Scandinavia continuing.  Additionally, while  ‘guest workers’ of the 1960s were expected to leave after a period of work, many stayed and were joined by their families, which was possible given the liberal right to family reunification that existed in all three countries.

Recent decades of divergence, 1990s to today

Since the 1990s, the Scandinavian countries have diverged in their immigration and integration policies. While rankings vary depending on the policy indices used and areas examined, researchers generally consider Denmark among the most restrictive countries in Western Europe today. Sweden is considered the most liberal and Norway somewhere in-between, recently leaning more toward the Danish model than the Swedish.

Especially since 2001, Denmark has seen a long succession of more or less incremental policy changes that have tightened asylum rights, raised the bar for access to permanent residence and citizenship, and restricted immigrants’ rights to social welfare benefits. During the same period, Norway introduced a mandatory integration program that immigrants must pass to obtain permanent residence, and most recently also introduced language requirements and a citizenship test as prerequisites for naturalisation, moving the country further in the Danish direction. For most of the period from 1990s to 2015, Swedish policies have remained liberal. Only in the years since the 2015/2016 refugee crisis when public concern grew over the substantial numbers of refugees accepted by the country has Sweden introduced a slightly more restrictive policy on asylum and family reunification. However, these laws are still more liberal than those of most other countries in Europe.

Table 1 displays the requirements for citizenship in the three countries (updated from Jensen, 2016, page 25). As can be seen, Denmark has made the most substantial changes, while Norway recently became more restrictive. Sweden has maintained a liberal citizenship regime throughout. Note, however, that Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven in his inaugural speech on January 21, 2019 suggested that language requirements and a course in ‘basic civic studies’ will be requirements for receiving citizenship in the future.

Requirements for citizenship in the Scandinavian countries since 1995 ('-' means no requirements)
Language Requirements Citizenship test Social benefits Dual citizenship allowed Years of residence
1995 Informal - - - - - - - - - - - 7/6 7 5/4
2005 B1 - - Yes - - - - - - - Yes 9/8 7 5/4
2019 B2 800h/A - Yes Yes - Yes - -
Coming Yes 9/8 7 5/4

The drivers behind policy differences

Typical explanations for a country’s approach to immigration and immigrant integration, such as, the country’s economy and welfare state regime, its immigration history and dominant values cannot account for the divergence in this case as Denmark, Norway and Sweden are relatively similar in these areas. Researchers have suggested two alternative explanations; one grounded in conceptions of national identity, the other in party competition dynamics. These explanations are not mutually exclusive but may supplement each other to give a more nuanced account of the causes of Danish – and to some extent Norwegian – policy movement versus Swedish stability.

city center with lots of signs, stores and people walking around

Nørrebro, Copenhagen. Photo: Yadid Levy / Norden.org (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).

National identity

Although the Scandinavian countries share some of the same basic values and norms, the way in which these values are understood and prioritised differ. In particular, social cohesion and conceptions of integration differ in significant ways, which are consequently reflected in policy developments. For instance, based on analyses of parliamentary debates, government publications, and party manifestos, Kristian Kriegbaum Jensen argued in 2016 that Swedish, Norwegian and Danish integration politics have been structured by different ideas about the relative determinism/voluntarism in national identity construction:

  • In Swedish politics, the nation’s identity is presented as moldable, being shaped in processes of collective negotiation. At the individual level, national identity is seen as something one can choose. In other words, immigrants can become part of the dynamic Swedish nation by actively choosing to belong.
  • Denmark’s national identity, in contrast, is presented as historically determined, and immigrants must engage in long processes of socialisation to become Danish. This view may explain the recent focus on compulsory childcare and early initiatives to socialise the children of immigrants, born in Denmark.
  • The Norwegian understanding of national identity has oscillated between the two apparent poles of assimilation on the one side (Denmark) and multicultural acceptance on the other (Sweden). Jensen suggests Norway “has been more ambivalent—perhaps even confused—giving expression to more moderate versions of both kinds of arguments.”

Party political dynamics

Party political dynamics can also help to explain the differences in the immigration and integration policies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. One significant factor is the presence of a successful extreme right-wing party. Both Denmark and Norway have had long-standing experience with such parties. Initially named ‘the Progress Party’ in both countries, in Denmark it was succeeded by ‘the Danish People’s Party’ in 1995. This is a more recent phenomenon in Sweden. However, the 2018 electoral success of ‘the Sweden Democrats’ (receiving 17.6% of the vote) may be a signal of change. The presence of such parties is not itself sufficient to change government policy. The strategies of mainstream parties in response to the success of anti-immigrant parties and the different conditions for centre-right coalitions are also important factors. These factors influence whether immigration and integration issues become politicised and whether policy changes present themselves as necessary to the electorate.

In Denmark, minority Conservative-Liberal governments since 2001 have depended on parliamentary support from the Danish People’s Party, because the centrist Social Liberal Party switched 'sides’ to cooperate with the the Social Democratss and was therefore no longer seen as a viable government partner. In Norway, centre-right parties have sought to defuse integration issues together with the centre-left, thereby seeking to create a strong norm for consensus around this policy area over the past 20 years. However, in 2018, the Progress Party became part of the government with the Conservative Party which explains at least in part the most recent shift in a more restrictive direction. In Sweden, the Liberal-Conservative Party, which was in power from 1991 to 1994 and from 2006 to 2014, chose a moderate approach as its centre-right coalition partners have all advocated a pro-immigration platform. The strategy of mainstream parties has been to block the influence of the Sweden Democrats, the right-wing, anti-immigration party. Despite the public support for the Sweden Democrats and the extraordinary difficulties in forming a government after the 2018 election, mainstream parties seem to have succeeded in maintaining this position, for now at least. On January 18, 2019, the Social Democrats formed a government with the Green Party, supported by the Liberal Party and the Centre Party, on a promise to keep the Sweden Democrats out of the sphere of influence.

What are the consequences of varying immigration policies in Denmark, Norway and Sweden since 2015?

It is a difficult and complex task to identify and isolate potential consequences of the different political directions that the Scandinavian countries have taken on immigration and integration policy. Consequences include, however, Sweden’s immigrant population being significantly bigger than that of Denmark and Norway.

Another consequence is that it is harder to obtain citizenship in Denmark than Sweden or Norway. In a study from 2017 on refugees, the current Danish citizenship regime was shown to make it significantly more difficult for applicants to be eligible for citizenship in comparison with Swedish and Norwegian citizenship requirements. In particular, the high demands on language proficiency appear to be a main excluding factor.

Recent research has also shown that it is easier for immigrants and their descendants to feel a sense of belonging in countries where the political discourse is more open and inclusive. A political climate where the tone of the debate on immigration is more negative (such as the Danish case) has been demonstrated to damage first- and second-generation immigrants’ faith in democracy.

Majority populations are affected too. In a 2008-study on the effect of party political cues on public opinion in Denmark and Sweden, it was found that people are more likely to associate their ideological position with their attitude toward refugees in Denmark than in Sweden. In other words, Danes think of immigration issues as ideologically polarising because politicians have politicised this field to a greater extent than their Swedish neighbours.

While many factors are at play, including conceptions of national identity and party political configurations, greater politicisation of immigration is clearly a decisive factor, driving both Scandinavian divergence in policy and potential consequences. This is so across the three Scandinavian countries, despite the climate in Denmark being more politicised.

Further reading:

  • Christopher Green-Pedersen & Jesper Krogstrup. ‘Immigration as a Political Issue in Denmark and Sweden’, European Journal of Political Research (2008) Vol. 47. Issue 5., pp. 610-634
  • Karin Borevi, Kristian Kriegbaum Jensen, and Per Mouritsen, 'The Civic Turn of Immigrant Integration Policies in the Scandinavian Welfare States', Special issue in Comparative Migration Studies (2017) Vol. 5. Issue 9.
  • Kristian Kriegbaum Jensen, Scandinavian Immigrant Integration Politics: Varieties of the Civic Turn (Aarhus: Politicas PhD-Serie, 2016)
  • Kristina Bakkær Simonsen eds., 'Integration af indvandrere i Danmark', Special Issue in Politica 49, 3 (2017) (includes Bech et al. study on refugees’ eligibility for Danish citizenship compared to Swedish and Norwegian citizenship models + Simonsen study on second-generation immigrants’ belonging in Denmark)
  • Kristina Bakkær Simonsen, Do they Belong? Host National Boundary Drawing and Immigrants’ Identificational Integration (Aarhus: Politicas PhD-serie, 2017)