Immigration Policy and Controversy in Sweden and Denmark

By N A
2011, Vol. 3 No. 03 | pg. 1/1

Controversy, in its etymology, expresses a significant change to something deeply rooted. Hence, differing degrees of controversy in response to immigration can be explained in terms of two main factors: 1) countries’ historical experiences, and 2) changing patterns of party competition, expressed through the electoral vacuums occupied by emerging populist-nationalist political parties. Drawing on the cases of Sweden and Denmark, this essay suggests that whilst patterns in immigration policy often are equivocal and challenging to interpret, history and party competition can explain a significant part of the difference in controversy from country to country.

Immigration falls into two large supersets: involuntary and voluntary migration. Although this separation is rigid, it encapsulates the main policy responses governments use to control immigration. Involuntary migration consists of forced migration and impelled migration. Forced migration is often conflict-induced: genocide, political persecution and civil war mean individuals are faced with the option of either staying and greatly risking their life or emigrating. Impelled migration is the same as above except individuals might not be directly affected or threatened, e.g. if they belong to the perpetrating ethnic group in a case of genocide but deem the overall security situation unsafe. Asylum and refugee statuses are two common direct consequences of the causes of involuntary migration.

On the other hand, voluntary migration encompasses economic and social migration: the former occurs when individuals migrate to places with better job prospects or generally more favourable economic conditions. The latter is migration due to e.g. location of family or partner. Illegal immigration forms a significant part of especially economic migration. On the whole, all types of migration can be analysed in terms of Lee’s (1966) theory of push and pull factors. In its essence, the theory argues that when the combination of factors ‘pushing’ individuals away from their location and factors ‘pulling’ them towards certain other locations are stronger than the incentives to stay, people emigrate. This essay will primarily deal with voluntary migration since governments here have the most flexibility in designing policies – in terms of involuntary migration there are international obligations to take certain quotas of refugees and asylum seekers, and governments can thus not operate within more than a tight policy space. While the Amsterdam Treaty has uniformed some aspects of European migration politics, there is still breeding ground for an analysis of differing levels of controversy from immigration since the Treaty “does not constitute supranationalisation” of the immigration issue (Geddes, 2000, p. 110). This will be dealt with in more detail further on.

The degree of controversy caused by immigration can either be analysed in terms of the attitudes towards immigrants in destination countries or in terms of government immigration policies. Attitudes among the public are largely shaped by the completeness of information – there is a strong negative correlation between higher degrees of education and anti-immigration sentiment (Hainmueller & Hiscox, 2007). Since governments determine policy outcomes, a study of governmental responses to immigration is more meaningful when the purpose is to analyse how immigration plays different roles from country to country. Hence, this essay will answer why immigration is more controversial in some countries than others from a policy perspective rather than an attitude perspective. The policy perspective can be separated into policy goals/outputs and policy outcomes. Whilst an all-embracing analysis of policy responses ought to include both a spatial and a temporal dimension of analysis, for reasons of brevity this essay will primarily deal with the spatial aspect. Moreover, the biennial European Social Survey adequately treats the time-series dimension (2008).

Historically, nation states fall into three categories according to how they have structured their economies in relation immigration: Settler countries, Old Europe, and New Europe. This distinction is important because initial approaches to immigration and the homogeneity of states play a fundamental role in determining the degree of current policy controversy. Settler countries only exist outside of Europe (e.g. USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and are thus not included in this essay’s analysis. Old Europe amounts to those countries that started to receive large-scale immigration from the Second World War (e.g. France, Britain, and Sweden); whereas New Europe are those countries that only in recent decades have received rather than sent immigrants (e.g. Spain, Portugal, and Greece). The historical experiences of countries are contingent upon whether large-scale immigration was initiated long before or after the economic migration in the years before the Oil Crises in the early 1970s. In the case of Sweden, the long history of immigration influx from Finland and the Baltics means that political accommodation of minorities has been commonplace in the country for an extensive period of time (Runblom 1994).

This accommodation can be seen in multiple facets of Swedish policy: the “sociopsychologic effects” (Runblom 1994) of Sweden’s acceptance of Danish and Norwegian Jews in the Second World War led to an early acceptance of immigrant caretaking. Moreover, the special protections given to the Sami and Finnish minorities in terms of educational provisions show that Swedish society is used to handling minorities with different wants and needs to the majority. This explains Sweden’s relatively lenient immigration policies and overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards immigration among the public compared to e.g. Denmark (Hainmueller & Hiscox, 2007, p. 42). The situation in Denmark is very different: This neighbour to Sweden did not open its borders until it needed labour migration in the last decades of the 20th century. Until then it was a remarkably homogenous country, more so than most other European states. Danish immigration policies are openly the strictest in the European Union according to the Government (Danish Ministry of Immigration, 2010). The large degree of homogeneity in the country has a bearing on this – since there is no experience of minority management, a large part of the population is sceptical towards foreigners.

EU standardisation of legislation has led to what has polemically been dubbed “Fortress Europe” (Marfleet 1999, Black 1996). This is indicating that while the European Union promotes the free movement of people within its boundaries it is becoming increasingly hard for non-EU citizens to enter the area. This is part of a wider degree of policy standardisation and harmonisation which tightens the policy space member states can operate within. Hence, controversy occurs when states have differing policy goals but cannot adhere to these – instead, they are forced to follow the EU standards set. For instance, a 1963 association agreement between the EU and Turkey means that Turkish workers are granted easier residence in the EU than other non-EU citizens (JP 2010). This is likely to cause tensions in the domestic affairs arena of countries, since governments cannot adequately implement their policies. In turn, this has given rise to right-wing Eurosceptic parties across most of Europe (PVV in the Netherlands, DF in Denmark, SD in Sweden, and Front National in France etc.), for a variety of reasons (van der Brug & Fennema 2006).

The emergence of Eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties across Europe is a response to “the identity crisis produced by atomization at the societal level, by globalisation at the economic level, and by supra-nationalism at the political level” (Ignazi 2003, p. 2). However, the timing and strength of such parties is very different from country to country. This is an important indication of the differing levels of controversy sparked by immigration – in Sweden immigration policy has fallen outside the established and largely uni-dimensional line of division on post-materialist and partially economic policies. Hence, immigration has been an uncontroversial topic until the recent emergence of Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats), the far-right populist and anti-immigration party. Immigration policy has thus atomised the political spectrum since many far-right parties occupy centrist economic policies even though their value-based politics are on the extreme right. On the other hand, Danish politics has been influenced deeply by anti-immigration rhetoric for several decades. Since it is increasingly difficult to find European countries in which immigration is not yet a contentious issue, it is reasonable to say that the difference in controversy between countries is on the wane.

A core reason for the controversy caused by immigration is the nature of the welfare state. Freeman elucidates this by arguing that the European welfare states are based on a fundamental principle of being closed systems (Freeman 1986). In economic theory terms welfare provisions are common goods, i.e. rivalrous but non-excludable. Essentially, this means that once a person becomes member of welfare society, s/he is entitled to social welfare goods on equal terms with those initially members of the society. This exerts pressure on the economic viability of welfare provisions. Therefore, tight immigration legislation and/or excludability are seen as necessary to adequately sustain these provisions, in case new members of society are economic liabilities rather than assets. One solution recently suggested by a Danish party is to implement five-year excludability from social services, which marks the emergence of alternatives to the anti-immigration rhetoric. In political jargon this is dubbed “open borders, closed kitties” (Liberal Alliance 2010). Such alternative policy is a challenge to the emerging anti-immigration parties and is likely to cause tension. Laczko argues (2002) that there are signs of a softening of EU-wide restrictive immigration policies, with countries increasingly acknowledging the benefits of labour migration to an ageing population. Moreover, “Unilateral policy measures can be expected to be further undermined by multilateral efforts of international policy harmonization” (Thielemann 2004), meaning that the political landscape on immigration will plausibly change in the years to come. It is difficult to find unequivocal patterns on immigration policy, but for now it is fair to say that the degree of controversy caused is high in most countries.

The historical experiences countries have gone through play a significant role in determining how controversial immigration is perceived. Those countries with long histories of managing minority groups are generally more open towards immigration. Moreover, power vacuums have been occupied by anti-immigration parties in some countries, meaning that the controversy from immigration is generally on the rise. Sweden’s recent experiences with the Sweden Democrats and Denmark’s sustained period of anti-immigration rhetoric are but two examples of the proliferation of a shift in policy dimensions, often coupled with Euroscepticism. Hence, it is evident that while the overall picture is not unequivocal, there are clear tendencies for countries with histories of minority management to be more welcoming of immigration. However, the recent waves of anti-immigration parties might change the overall picture in the years to come.


Black, R. (1996). Immigration and Social Justice: Towards a Progressive European Immigration Policy? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers , 21 (1), 64-75.

Broberg, M. B. (2010, November 27). Tyrkere kommer nemmere ind i landet (Turks are given easier immigration requirements). Retrieved November 29, 2010, from Jyllands-Posten:

Danish Ministry of Immigration. (2010, November 7). Nye Tider. Nye krav. Retrieved November 27, 2010, from Danish Ministry of Immigration:

Freeman, G. P. (1986). Migration and the Political Economy of the Welfare State. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science , 51-63.

Geddes, A. (2003). The politics of migration and immigration in Europe. London: Sage Publications.

Hainmueller, J., & Hiscox, M. J. (2007). Educated Preferences: Explaining Attitudes Toward Immigration in Europe. International Organization , 61 (2), 399-442.

Ignazi, P. (2003). Extreme right parties in Western Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Laczko, F. (2002). New Directions for Migration Policy in Europe. Philosophical Transactions: Biological Sciences , 599-608.

Lee, E. S. (1966). A Theory of Migration. Demography , 3 (1), 47-57.

Liberal Alliance. (2010, November 10). Åbne grænser, lukkede kasser (Open borders, closed kitties). Retrieved November 27, 2010, from Liberal Alliance:

Marfleet, P. (1999). Nationalism and internationalism in the new Europe. International Socialism Journal .

Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway. (2008). European Social Survey. Bergen.

Runblom, H. (1994). Swedish Multiculturalism in a Comparative European Perspective. Sociological Forum , 9 (4), 623-640.

Thielemann, E. (2004). Why Asylum Policy Harmonisation Undermines Refugee Burden-Sharing. European Journal of Migration and Law , 47-65.

Van der Brug, W., & Fennema, M. (2009). The Support Base of Radical Right Parties in the Enlarged European Union . Journal of European Integration , 568-608.

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