A shift in Scandinavia’s open societies?

Posted on 20. April 2015

by Noora Löfström

Noora Lovstrom NEWAround the world, Scandinavia is often portrayed as a role model: the welfare system, close to gender equality, no corruption, good quality of school systems and safe and secure environments. Openness and transparency shape the Nordic societies. You could think that being born in Northern Europe was like winning the lottery. In my world, this image was scarred by several events:

Finland, 2007: A gunman killed eight people and himself at a school in southern Finland, the second school shooting followed just a year later.

Norway, 2009: Right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in the terror attacks in Oslo and the nightmare on Utøya. I was about the same age as many of the young people at the camp and thus it really got to me.

Denmark, 2015: The most recent tragedy in Copenhagen in mid-February came equally as a shock as the others, although Denmark had had a high-risk profile for a while now.

The attacks in Denmark were committed by a young Muslim man, who was born in Denmark to Jordanian-Palestinian parents. The gunman was 22 years old. Radicalized and having become extremely religious, he was as old as Anders Breivik when it is said he started to plan the terrorist attack in Oslo and Utøya. In Norway, it was about a person from the country, not an immigrant who had become radicalized somewhere else and returned.

Had Breivik been a Muslim or had foreign roots, the discourse would most likely have been different. As he was Norwegian, the blame could not be put on another religion, immigration or the numbers of refugees admitted. However, both events represent a challenge to our open society. After Utøya, the Norwegians were praised for defending exactly those values, for responding with more freedom and democracy on the brutal terrorist attacks.

The opposite seems to be the case in the aftermath of the attacks in Denmark: Discussions take place around Europe on allowing the right to remove the passport and nationality of a person convicted of terrorism. Even if the situation and mood in Finland is not equally on the edge as in the neighboring countries, the gloominess has a spillover effect. In Finland, the national parliament elections are coming up on the 19th of April. The rhetoric used by the Finns party is influenced by Copenhagen giving them new ground to stand on and additional flesh on the bones of their racist arguments to those who listen.

It was in 2011, when the Finns celebrated their first success: The party, led by Timo Soini, grabbed 19 percent of the vote – forming the biggest opposition party to the six-party government. The right-wing populist Soini adheres to the standard set of xenophobic, nationalistic and anti-Islamic positions. But at that time, his success was mainly due to its party’s Eurosceptic discourse following a trend in other Nordic countries. In the following, Soini made headlines with his attempt to abolish compulsory Swedish tuition in public schools. The minority and immigration policies of his party have been criticized as going against the constitution. Soini defends his ideas saying that this would drive the national interest and – interestingly enough – defend the right of self-determination.

I am a bilingual Finn, having both Swedish and Finnish as my mother tongues. In Finland, 5% of the population speaks Swedish and it is the constitutional right of the Swedish minority to get state services in their mother tongue as Finland is officially bilingual. The discussion that the Finns party leads on abolishing the obligatory Swedish tuition in schools threatens the right of self-determination of the Swedish minority and goes against their core identity.

But you could quickly see that the campaign of the Finns party had shown some effects: There was a citizen’s initiative opposing mandatory Swedish-language classes in the Finnish school system and a debate on switching compulsory Swedish to Russian in the Eastern parts of Finland. This would threaten the situation and rights of the Swedish speakers, but the initiative was voted down in parliament 134-48 on the 6th of March. The anti-minority rhetorics of the Finns party also affected the discourse in parliament: The governing parties have taken a more cautious approach towards the Swedish language – and with the parliamentary votes 93-89, there will be an official study conducted on the regional options to studying Swedish in schools.

I was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but grew up in Tampere, a monolingual Finnish city where I attended the sole Swedish speaking school. I have learned from a very early age to be cautious with my second language: We stopped speaking Swedish in the city center with my friends as teenagers when we realized we got odd looks, comments and remarks from strangers. Although Finland is officially bilingual, I do not attempt to speak Swedish in cafés or restaurants, as I simply find it less of a hassle. I have not encountered hostilities, but I have heard of people who have been denied service or even been beaten because they spoke Swedish.

Because of these tales and the recent success of the Finns party, I feel disappointed in my home country when negative voices are raised on Swedish language learning and the Swedish speaking minority. It would be nice to turn off the restriction of keeping to Finnish when running errands and be sure the status of Swedish will not be weakened. While many criticize and are hostile against the Swedish speakers, many more stand up for the minority rights. People do recognize the importance of a bilingual society and that every language is an added value. In Parliament, the Swedish People’s Party which has been in government since 1975 would not allow weakening the status of the Swedish language.

Nevertheless, the Finns with their loud rhetoric and grass root campaign seem to have hit a nerve with nonvoters in the elections in 2011. As my experience show, the Finns have not invented the resentments against the Swedish minority, but their aggressive discourse has found their way into mainstream politics. And it does not seem impossible that they are in the next government. If this is the case, there will most likely not be space for the Swedish People’s Party although Soini has not excluded forming a coalition with them. Ahead of the elections, the Finns play a hostile game also on other fronts: They want to cut the already low numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. They claim that we should not repeat the mistakes of our neighbors.

Soini’s strategy is clear: He tries to profit from the mood of anxiety after the Copenhagen attacks: Norway, Sweden and Denmark have tightened security measures as a reaction. Although in opinion polls Soini’s party rate lower than in 2011, he can already claim a victory: He has influenced the discourse and policies of the other parties towards minorities and the public debate.

However, the younger generation gives me hope. My impression is that they become more and more connected, increasingly international and even global. I hope that they realize that the solution does not lie in turning inwards and closing borders, but in being extrovert and embracing other cultures. We need to defend the values, the Nordic model is known for around the world: the welfare state and our open society. Because this is our success story.

This blog post has been published in German on Süddeutsche Zeitung in the framework of FutureLab Europe and Süddeutsche Zeitung’s cooperation.