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Dec 20, 2012 | 11:17 GMT

Nationalist Parties in Nordic Europe

Nationalist Parties in Nordic Europe
MARTTI KAINULAINEN/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

Nationalist parties in Europe's biggest Nordic countries — Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway — have softened their public image and used a pointed criticism of immigration to broaden their support. As their political clout grows, these parties' strong anti-European stances could hinder their countries' integration with the rest of Europe.

Nationalism in Nordic countries usually takes one of two forms. Some nationalist parties present themselves as viable alternatives to mainstream parties. These include the Danish People's Party in Denmark, the Progress Party in Norway, the True Finns in Finland and the Swedish Democrats in Sweden. These groups are considered right-wing populist parties because of their criticism of immigration and their defense of the welfare state. Other far-right groups and political parties hold extremist political positions. However, these groups tend to be relatively small and poorly organized, and they operate on the fringes of the political system.

Entering the Mainstream

Nationalist parties in Nordic Europe share a number of common characteristics. First is the defense of national identities. They see immigration as the main threat to national identity and believe that identity needs to be protected.

Mass immigration is a relatively recent phenomenon in Nordic countries. Most modern nationalist parties began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when these countries sought to attract immigrants to increase their workforce.

Nationalist parties especially oppose the arrival of Muslim immigrants. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Muslims account for 2 to 5 percent of the population, while that proportion is believed to be smaller in Finland. These numbers are relatively small — in France, by contrast, Muslims account for roughly 8 percent of the population — but the nationalist parties believe the presence of Muslim immigrants has disrupted what are traditionally homogeneous societies.

Nordic nationalist parties view efforts to assimilate immigrants — especially Muslim immigrants — as having failed and think their countries should implement stricter policies to reduce the flow of immigrants. They propose establishing annual quotas for foreign arrivals and tightening the requirements for acquiring citizenship.

The second characteristic of these parties is their complex stance on economic issues. Many Nordic nationalist parties — most notably Norway's Progress Party and the Danish People's Party — originated in the 1970s as protest movements against high taxes. Over time, they turned their stance toward greater support for the welfare state and increased state investment on infrastructure projects.

Nationalist Nordic Parties Electoral Performance chart

Nationalist Nordic Parties Electoral Performance chart

Most of the Nordic nationalist parties now advocate the economic and even cultural importance of the welfare state. For them, the welfare state is threatened by the incompetence of traditional parties that waste state resources and by the growing influx of immigrants, who consume services that belong to nationals. These economic positions are paired with a staunchly conservative outlook on social issues.

These parties also tend to be critical of traditional political elites, aiming to appeal to "ordinary people." However, unlike other countries' nationalist parties, which tend to have a lower-class membership, Nordic nationalist parties have successfully attracted middle-class voters.

In an effort to broaden their appeal, these parties have recently softened their public image. They seek to separate themselves from extremist parties, often expelling members who are involved in neo-Nazi or far-right groups. In Norway, the Progress Party distanced itself from Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 terrorist attacks on government buildings in Oslo and the island of Utoya, who was a member of the party in the mid-2000s.

As a part of this strategy, Nordic nationalist parties have also chosen to focus their criticism of immigration on economic reasons — for example, immigrants' impact on the welfare state — rather than focusing on ethnic or religious differences. Most important, these parties are willing to participate in elections and to seek alliances with centrist parties.

This strategy has been successful. In the last decade, the Danish People's Party has obtained between 12 and 14 percent of the vote in general elections. As a result, the party was an external ally of the Conservative-Liberal coalition government from 2001 to 2011, meaning the coalition relied on the party's parliamentary support. The True Finns received 19.5 percent of the vote in Finland's 2011 election, making them the country's third-largest party.

In Norway, the Progress Party has received more than 14 percent of the vote in every national election since 1997, reaching as high as 22.9 percent in 2009. The party is currently negotiating an alliance with the Conservative Party for the 2013 elections — something that indicates its growing acceptance within the Norwegian political system.

While the Swedish Democrats are considerably weaker than their other Nordic counterparts, they have also benefited from their recent political moderation: The party's electoral support grew from 1.4 percent of the vote in 2002 to 2.9 percent in 2006 and 5.7 percent in 2010, the year the party made it into the Swedish parliament for the first time.

Fringe Groups

A wide array of neo-Nazi, anti-immigration and white supremacist groups and political parties exist in Nordic countries. These groups tend to be anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim and often commit violent acts against minorities. They include the Danish National Socialist Movement and the Danish National Front in Denmark, Suomen Sisu and the Finnish Resistance Movement in Finland, Vigrid and the Norwegian Resistance Movement in Norway, and the Swedish Resistance Movement and the National Democrats in Sweden.

The Internet has given these groups a new channel of recruitment, communication and propaganda. However, recruitment is usually more successful online than in real life. These groups often have thousands of followers on social networks like Facebook, but their real membership (understood as members paying monthly fees) often numbers less than 100 people.

Unlike in countries such as Hungary and Germany, where there is evidence of links between violent groups and traditional nationalist parties, most Nordic European nationalist parties have moved away from these extremist outfits. Still, smaller far-right parties maintain ties with these groups.

The Impact on European Integration

These parties are not yet strong enough to form their own governments, but if their electoral performance remains strong, their political influence will continue to grow. This could affect Europe in several ways. 

First, these parties are likely to have a greater say in the design of immigration policies. Denmark is the best example of this process. In 2002, the Danish People's Party used its alliance with the ruling coalition to push for tougher immigration laws. The new laws tightened the requirements for obtaining Danish citizenship and limited immigration based on family reunification.  

Some of these reforms were relaxed in 2012 by the center-left government of Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, reflecting Denmark's ongoing balancing act between the need to attract workers and the pressure from nationalist parties.

In Sweden, the progressive relaxation of immigration laws led to a notable increase in immigration (from 49,000 people in 1998 to almost 100,000 in 2010). During the same period, support for the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats increased. In 2010, the party achieved its best-ever electoral results, entering the Swedish parliament for the first time on a stringent anti-immigration platform. Political tension linked to immigration will likely keep growing in Nordic Europe, just as demographic changes challenge countries throughout the Continent.

These parties could also affect their countries' European policies. Nationalist parties generally have a negative view of the European Union, and they often propose that their countries leave the Union — or at least stop ceding sovereignty to Brussels. The Danish People's Party has proposed a referendum on Denmark's EU membership, and the True Finns want Finland to leave the eurozone. In Norway — the only one of these countries that is not a member of the European Union — the Progress Party does not consider EU membership a priority.

Even when these parties are not in the government, mainstream parties often adopt their agendas. Again, Denmark provides the clearest illustration. In 2011, the Danish People's Party succeeded in pushing the government to temporarily re-establish border controls — a move that goes against the Schengen Agreement, which eliminated border controls within Europe. The True Finns strongly criticize Finland's contributions to bailouts for the European periphery. That position was later taken up by the Finnish government, which threatened to block the bailouts. 

Unlike other European countries, the main challenge that Nordic nationalist parties present to their countries is not a potential increase in ethnic violence, but a potential growth of euroscepticism. If these parties gain political influence, they will likely pressure their countries to adopt a tougher stance on immigration and to increase cooperation among Nordic countries while distancing themselves from the European Union.

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