When polls showed that the far-right populist Danish People’s Party was losing voters in 2016, Denmark’s Social Democratic Party—a center-left party that sprang out of the labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century, when Denmark was being rapidly industrialized—began adopting a new political language to appeal to disillusioned populists. Amongst several other anti-immigration proposals, the Social Democrats introduced a policy called integrationskrav, meaning, roughly, a requirement for immigrants to integrate. Swedes never pass up an opportunity to make fun of their southern neighbor, whom they see as an arrogant younger sibling with delusions of grandeur and a speech impediment, and were swift in their mockery and condemnation. The normally staid Swedish Institute for Public Affairs shared a caricature in which the leaders of the Social Democratic Party and the right-wing Danish People’s Party were dancing together, sharing a thought bubble that stated, “as long as I’m leading, everything is fine”; Swedish daily newspapers happily shared the EU’s criticism of the Danish policies, while columnists pointed out the absurdity of linking these requirements to women’s rights, as the Danish Social Democrats had done.
Only two years later, the second-largest party in Sweden has introduced their very own “integrationskrav” as part of their election program; on the local government level, municipalities now bring this word up on a regular basis. In Sweden, an unthinkable notion has become a political reality: in a country where politicians had bragged for many years about Sweden’s position in the world as a “humanist superpower,” where people had once gathered at Stockholm’s central station providing advice, care, and assistance to newly arrived refugees, this originally Danish concept has found a new home.
How did this happen? If a language has only the words it needs, what prompted this here, in Sweden of all places?
Three years ago, the famous photograph of a dead Kurdish boy on the shores of Bodrum briefly punctured the steadily inflating anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, and in a massive demonstration in Stockholm, 15,000 people huddled under umbrellas to protest the horrific conditions refugees were made to endure. In an uncharacteristically emotional speech, Sweden’s recently elected prime minister, Stefan Löfven, leader of the historically dominant Social Democratic Party, declared that his Europe did not build walls, that this was a country where refugees would be welcome. This speech resembled that which the previous prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt of the liberal-conservative Moderate Party, gave in 2014, wherein he asserted that we in Sweden needed to “open our hearts” to accommodate the growing numbers of refugees who were fleeing to Europe.
Lövfen’s openness would prove to be a short-lived policy. Barely two months later, he stood in front of cameras at a hastily arranged press conference with one of the leaders of the Green Party, with whom the Social Democratic Party had formed a coalition, and called for andrum, or “breathing space.” Sweden had taken in too many refugees, more than any other western country; flanked by an openly weeping Green Party leader, Löfven called upon other EU nations to take responsibility and declared that Sweden could do no more. And so temporary measures were introduced: border controls—in open defiance of the Schengen treaty—and financial requirements for anyone who wanted to support a non-Swedish family member.
These “temporary” measures quickly became the new reality. Since then, ideas that were once deemed too extreme to be viable policy have crossed the Overton window into the mundane. The party that historically stood up for minorities, refugee rights, and oppressed people across the world now openly uses far-right rhetoric and is in the process of implementing a variety of inhumane regulations in order to be seen as “tough” on refugees and crime, this election’s mantra. With each rhetorical outburst, the Social Democratic Party gives their base less of a reason to vote for them, trying instead to win back the many voters who have abandoned them in favor of the formerly neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats, now rebranded from främlingsfientlig (hostile toward immigrants) to Sverigevänlig (Sweden-friendly). A few years ago, the hodgepodge of alarmist compound words (not to mention recycled Nazi terminology) spoken by Sweden Democrats was openly reviled as racist dog-whistling; it is increasingly being co-opted by other parties, attracted by the apparent simplicity of the rhetoric. If they don’t call refugee children skäggbarn (beard children), as Sweden Democrat politicians do to in order to delegitimize the claims of unaccompanied minors making their way to Sweden, they are more than willing to use the Sweden Democrat–approved term massinvandring (mass immigration).
As with every fascist party in Europe, the allure of the Sweden Democrats is the clarity and simplicity of the solutions they offer in an increasingly complex world: It’s the immigrants. Other parties have struggled to find equally simple solutions, in spite of the fact that Sweden has the fastest-growing wealth inequality in Europe, which gives the (ostensibly) leftist Social Democratic Party ample fodder for We Are the 99 Percent–style rhetoric. And yet, the more-traditional political parties have been unable to give a hopeful and coherent vision of the future, bleeding voters to the Sweden Democrats (who hope to gain an astonishing 20 percent of the vote in this year’s elections). Meanwhile, the traditionally conservative Moderate Party has been flirting with the hitherto unthinkable idea of forming a coalition with the Sweden Democrats in the year’s most nausea-inducing will-they-or-won’t-they; the Moderates kick-started their election season by putting up ads that made young people giggle and old people nod their heads, with slogans like “In our schools the only gang sign that will be allowed is to raise your hand.” In an election campaign rife with hardman posturing, they have positioned themselves as the “sensible” alternative to the Sweden Democrats: roughly the same policies, but without the neo-Nazi undertones.
Thus, the Moderates added a new policy to their party program this year: integrationskrav, a term that before 2016 had mainly been used in Sweden to describe the laws of Denmark. New words are worth interrogating; the creep of Swedish political discourse has consequences far beyond the merely linguistic. “Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously,” as Victor Klemperer once put it. “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”
The Swedish language’s ability to combine words to create Frankenstein’s monsters of meaning and allusion—an ability it shares with Danish and German—has proven fruitful in political discourse, where new concepts can be mashed up from existing words. Integration means “integration” (you guessed it), but krav means “a requirement or demand,” usually a consequence of a contract; a mortgage can come with amorteringskrav (amortization requirements), while a piece of software’s terms and conditions often include systemkrav (system requirements). In these contractual terms, then, integrationskrav entails a requirement for immigrants to integrate as their end of the social contract entered into when they take advantage of the benevolent state. Immigrants can stay in Sweden, in other words, if they fulfill some preconditions.
For example, the current Moderate Party leader, Ulf Kristersson, vowed to “help people integrate into society, but we also need to make clear demands that someone who has just arrived in Sweden learns the language. It shouldn’t be possible to live off benefits year in and year out, without doing one’s utmost to learn Swedish and get a job.” The Moderates proposed that immigrants would have their benefits cut if they failed language tests; immigrants would not get permanent residency without passing a Swedish exam; and nobody could get Swedish citizenship without language skills, a regular income, and “knowledge about Swedish society.”
Of course, such demands are forbidden by EU law, which Sweden must adhere to: a 2015 ruling in the European Court of Justice deemed illegal any so-called integrationskrav tied to the right to extended residency. “Forcing residents to take a social integration test,” one judge explained, “goes against the principle of proportionality.”
But legality is not the point, nor is policy: the term is useful rhetorical politics because it absolves the state of the responsibility to integrate its own immigrants, making integration the burden of the immigrants themselves. More to the point, it grants the Moderates the illusion of being a serious political party while allowing politicians to dismiss research demonstrating just how difficult this “integration” can be. One study showed that people with Arabic-sounding names had a 50 percent lower chance to be called for a job interview than an identically qualified person with a Swedish-sounding name; another showed that men with Muslim names had a harder time renting an apartment; and a third study showed that once more than 4 percent of a neighborhood’s population consisted of people born outside of Europe, the Swedish residents would move out. If Swedes have an obligation to assimilate their neighbors, they have a lot of work to do.
To insist on integrationskrav for immigrants, however, allows politicians to ignore this work. It allows them to shrug off their horrifically flawed social housing and labor policies, and to ignore the underlying societal racism that renders true integration nigh impossible. If a society rejects you, how could you possibly be demanded to integrate into it? And yet the word’s inherent inconsistency is brushed aside, in the vain hope that a neologism can somehow solve a long-standing and self-inflicted problem, like an incantation.
Tour of Babel is a regular Popula column in which we translate the world’s words that can’t be translated, the phrases and expressions that don’t travel (but that also, it turns out, do).