Can Sweden lead the debate back to equal treatment?

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

MIPEX shows that Scandinavia, like many regions in Europe, is undermining its slow and steady progress on integration policy. Many European mainstream parties are not keeping their commitment to equal treatment and equal opportunities, as far-right parties try to set the immigration agenda. Sweden needs strong dialogue bodies to build a national consensus on integration among local communities, social partners, civil society and immigrants themselves. 

Last month, I spoke at the international “Tallberg Forum” in Sigtuna, Sweden. My workshop addressed how population growth and diversity will affect Swedish society, companies, and politics. I argued that Sweden can restart a national and European debate on comparable rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for all residents.

Sweden and integration: a high bar for success

Sweden’s MIPEX results demonstrate the state’s longstanding commitment to equal treatment in law. Recent governments have worked on fighting discrimination and mainstreaming immigrants into everyday life. The current government wants newcomers to more quickly find jobs and learn Swedish. Rather than change direction, the Employment Ministry–now in charge of integration–is focusing on improving the law’s incentives, implementation, and impact.

Sweden, like many states, faces daunting challenges to make equality a reality. Few European countries are as far as traditional immigration countries on an effective implementation, enforcement and evidence-based approach for integration or anti-discrimination. The bar for success for immigrants is comparatively high in Sweden, a society enjoying some of the highest standards of living and levels of development, educational attainment, competitiveness, and active citizenship. The Swedish welfare state comes with its own set of obstacles for “outsiders,” including high levels of employment protection for “insiders”, little appreciation of foreign qualifications or work experience, discrimination during the job-hunt, closed-off political partiespoor results for students from poor non-Swedish-speaking families. Immigrants also have very different starting points.  Sweden has its fair share of humanitarian migrants and legal respect for all families, including foreigners. The government has learned that it needs to open to more discretionary migrant workers, much like other inclusive countries of immigration like Canada, the UK, and Southwest Europe.

Will Sweden — and Europe — keep its commitment to integration?

Over the past three years, MIPEX found that today is not so bad for non-EU immigrants in Europe–but the future may not be so bright. Most EU countries create as many obstacles as opportunities for immigrants to participate as full and active citizens. Sweden’s legislation is at least favourable for equal treatment. The fact that integration policies in the average EU country improved at least 1-out-of-100 MIPEX points suggests that some political will still exists in most EU countries, despite their different histories of immigration. EU law also helps make integration policies more strong and similar on MIPEX, so observed Sweden’s EU Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem.

However, MIPEX also concluded that few changes were based on hard facts. Increasingly, elections and public (mis)perceptions are driving policy. Integration is becoming extremely politicised in countries like Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. New conditions for immigrants that many natives could not pass may eventually delay or discourage integration in four MIPEX leaders “in reverse”: Norway with its 2010 Immigration Act, Italy with its 2009 Security Act, the UK with its 2009 Earned Citizenship Path, and even Sweden with its 2009 Family Reunion Requirements. Politics changes quickly, even during the MIPEX public debates. The Finnish integration minister promised that her country would become #1 on MIPEX, just before the True Finns were elected the largest party. Sweden’s own integration minister felt this chilling effect not only from Finland, but from EU Member States’ discussions with Cecilia Malmstroem:

Sweden is searching for new ways to fight extremism and promote inclusion and equality, in the face of its small but rising far-right. Nationwide research suggests that local politicians who turned to advocating for restricting immigrants’ rights made the Swedish Democrats more attractive to voters–not less, as they had hoped. With the far-right now in the Swedish Parliament, all other parties at national level have taken another approach: a sort of ‘cordon sanitaire’ agreement on immigration policy. This historic agreement contains many potential solutions.

Another solution: dialogue 

One solution that Sweden has not tried is dialogue with immigrants and wider society. Although Sweden scores high on nearly all dimensions of MIPEX, it scores a 0% on Consultative Bodies. Many exclusively “immigrant councils” run since the 1970s and 1980s have closed as part of the policy on mainstreaming. Immigrant organisations are supported to participate in general consultations with civil society that the Swedish government regularly initiates (for more, see the Sweden POLITIS report). The Swedish government has started a general dialogue on urban development with NGOs and municipalities in local areas with “widespread exclusion.”

Sweden should consider many other methods to organise an integration dialogue. They come highly recommended in studies for the European Commission’s Handbook on IntegrationCouncil of Europe and European Economic and Social Committee. Innovative practices are popping up in several countries of immigration, including neighbouring Finland and Norway, leading German cities and states, and newcomers Portugal and Spain:


Sweden needs to experiment with new dialogue structures where all major actors in society take a role on integration. Here are my recommendations based on the MIPEX indicators and lessons learned from other European countries:

1) Sweden cannot build national consensus without structural and interconnected bodies at both local, regional, and national level. They can meet more regularly and bring local experience up to the national level;

2) Civil society often starts these bodies, but they eventually need political support and a legal mandate. Many leading Swedish NGOs were interested in the idea after the MIPEX event in Sweden, where the national partner is the Swedish Red Cross;

3) The members should not just be immigrants or NGOs supporting immigrants, but also all actors that make integration a reality: municipalities, employers, trade unions, foundations, and public leaders;

4) Members should not simply be appointed by government, but elected or nominated from these actors themselves. Members should include both men and women and people of different origins and generations;

5) Immigrants and authorities should share the leadership roles like who convenes meetings and who sets the agenda;

6) For participants to be proactive and representative, they need dedicated funds to consult and inform with their stakeholders and the public.


Together, immigrant organisations, authorities, and social partners could debate problems and solutions for unequal opportunities in law, implementation, and practice. By solving problems through public debate, Sweden could sustain the political will that drives the country’s leading integration policies, build broader societal consensus for equal treatment, and help inspire other EU countries to meet the goals they all agreed in the 2010-2014 “Stockholm Programme”:

"The objective of granting comparable rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for all is at the core of European cooperation in integration, taking into account the necessity of balancing migrants' rights and duties. Integration is a dynamic two-way process of mutual interaction, requiring not only efforts by national, regional and local authorities but also a greater commitment by the host community and immigrants."