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Home Opinion The refugee crisis will define Löfven’s legacy
State of the Left - Sweden

The refugee crisis will define Löfven’s legacy

Katrine Marçal - 11 November 2015

The Swedish prime minister does not have the luxury of a majority as he manages an unprecedented inflow of asylum seekers

When Stefan Löfven became prime minister last year he must have had all sorts of ideas about what his political project would be. Fixing the failing Swedish schools? Pushing unemployment down? Modernising the tired Social Democratic party?

Whatever it was, it doesn’t matter now. A year later there’s only one political project in Sweden, and only one political issue: the refugee crisis.

Sweden is anticipating the arrival of up to 190,000 asylum seekers this year, the largest per capita inflow for any EU country and more importantly: more than twice as many refugees as forecast only five months ago.

If the Löfven government handles it well they will be a success, if it does not it will be a failure – no matter what it does on other issues.

The situation in Sweden was more or less manageable until this summer when the sudden rush of arrivals through Turkey and Greece took everyone by surprise. For largely unknown reasons a large number of unaccompanied Afghan children have also come to Sweden and children naturally require more care than adult asylum seekers.

Sweden’s army has now been called on to help the civilian administration. The biggest short-term problem is the lack of housing. State-owned accommodation has been full since 2012 and it is difficult to find more affordable private housing.

The reception of asylum seekers is one of many areas that have been privatised in Sweden. Private companies are able to make profit from finding housing for refugees and with demand far outdoing supply they are right now able to charge the state huge amounts.

Reports have claimed that Aleris, a big company owned by the powerful Swedish industrialist family Wallenberg charges as much as 84,000 Swedish krona (£6,600) a month to place a refugee child with a foster family. Naturally this has caused public outrage and it is expected that the government will try to pass reforms to this sector.

Löfven, however, has a tricky situation to deal with in parliament. Unlike Angela Merkel, the Swedish prime minister has to handle the crisis without a majority government. His coalition government, unlike Merkel’s does not command a majority of seats. Löfven does not just have to negotiate policy with his junior coalition party, the Greens, but he also needs to secure wider support.

This complicates things.

It was a big success for Löfven when, on October 23, he was able to present a cross-party agreement on migration together with every party in parliament except the Left and the far right.

The far right was not invited to the negotiations and the Left dropped out.

The parties agreed to introduce temporary residence permits rather than permanent ones. Families with children and unaccompanied minors will however be excepted. It will also become mandatory for all municipalities to take in a share of refugees and 10bn kronor will be shared between them in 2015 to help with the influx.

There is a lot of pressure on social democratic finance minister Magdalena Andersson to abandon her hawkish stance on public finances. Sweden, with its very low public debt, should use the crisis to boost its economy, the argument goes. The country had a housing problem well before the refugees started to arrive, school results were falling and with this many refugees the country needs significant investment in healthcare, language training and state subsidised jobs for new arrivals.

Whether Andersson will listen on this ear, however, is another question. In any case, she will have to negotiate with other parties no matter what she decides to do.

Stefan Löfven’s task sure is not easy, but maybe no leader chooses hers or his time.

Or hers or his political project.

Katrine Marçal is a columnist for Aftonbladet

This article is a contribution to State of the Left – Policy Network's regular insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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