NEW YORK—A tense argument pitted two members of a Swedish nationalist party against a handful of New York University students and professors on Thursday. Josef Fransson and Tobias Andersson, who belong to the Sweden Democrats, presented their case for cutting immigration into Sweden, getting “tough” on crime and scrapping the United Nations Convention on Refugees. They say that only those who adopt “Swedish culture” should be welcome in Sweden.
Professor Christian Martin, also on the panel, minced no words in denouncing the Sweden Democrats’ platform. “Your party has positions that are outright racist,” he said to the politicians.
Although the panel was meant to address backlashes against globalization, it quickly turned into a discussion about migration, race and culture, with members of the audience questioning and challenging Fransson and Andersson.
The Sweden Democrats is a conservative nationalist party and currently among the most popular parties in Sweden. Since the refugee crisis hit its peak in autumn of last year, the party has grown increasingly popular, eclipsing the governing Swedish Social Democratic Worker’s party. The party has ties with other nationalist, Eurosceptic parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party, and is part of a larger group of nationalist and nativist parties across Europe.
Political analysts, including Martin, regard the Sweden Democrats as a “populist” and “right-wing extremist party.” “Populist parties are parties who, in their ideology and their political outlook, pit an imaginary ‘us’ against another people, a ‘them,’ or against the political elite,” said Martin.
Fransson, a member of the Swedish parliament, rejected this label as “one that you use very lightly for people you don’t agree with.” Later in the discussion, Andersson, national president of the Sweden Democrats’ youth organization, remarked that, “If it’s populist to listen to the working-class people, then you can call me a populist, I’d be totally fine with that.”
The Sweden Democrats are hard set against more immigration into Sweden, which had the highest number of asylum applications per capita of all countries in Europe in 2015, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Last year, the Swedish government set aside 40 billion crowns (4.4 billion USD), four percent of its overall budget, for asylum and integration spending in 2016, but the Swedish Migration Agency stated that it would need an additional 70 billion crowns (7.7 billion USD) by autumn of 2017.
For Sweden Democrats, the additional debt issued to front these expenses is an unsustainable burden. Nevertheless, Sweden’s state debt as a percentage of GDP is among the lowest in Europe.
Andersson drew particular attention to sexual assaults committed by asylum seekers, about which he has written an article for the conservative news website Breitbart. “The asylum seekers who come to Sweden have been in the majority when it comes to rapes and sexual assaults,” Andersson said. In his article he calls Sweden the “rape capital of the Western world.”
Fransson and Andersson repeatedly said that migrants should accept “Swedish culture,” which Fransson declined to define. “People often ask that question as a trap,” he said. “You cannot define Swedish culture, it cannot be done. But if you actually look out into the world and see some parts of other cultures you can quite easily define: that is not Swedish culture,” such as beating one’s wife, going veiled in public or treating the genders unequally.
Several audience members joined Martin in criticizing this notion of culture. “The smarter part of the European right has replaced the term ethnicity with the term culture,” Martin said. “The idea is that you can’t be a real German unless you’re born from German parents.”
Martin insisted that Sweden accept and integrate refugees in accordance with the United Nations Convention on Refugees. “You have, obviously, a huge problem with migration in Europe,” Martin said. “[But] these people won’t just go away just because [you] say [they] can’t come to Sweden. Yes, they won’t be in Sweden, but what kind of solution is that? … We have to deal with that problem in a humane way … If we don’t deal with that now in a way that is rational, open and compassionate, I don’t know what is going to happen, but the effects will not be good.”
Fransson says the Refugee Convention should go. “This was created for a totally different time,” he said. “In the end we are going to have to change this, because this doesn’t work when we have billions and billions of people wanting to come to Sweden and Germany.”
Kyle Walker contributed to this report.