Immigration, crime propel Europe's move to right, analysts say

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In Europe, political analysts are pointing to Sweden and Italy as possible harbingers of a political mood shift across the continent driven by a growing wariness of immigrants as well as anger over rising crime rates.

The startlingly strong performance of the far-right Sweden Democrats in this month’s Swedish parliamentary elections and polls showing that the nationalist Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) party is poised for victory in this weekend’s contests in that country have both been spurred by those two issues, analysts told Yahoo News.

“Gang violence in Sweden was the issue in the election,” said Gunilla Herolf, a researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs who specializes in European integration. It’s a problem, she added, that is weighing on every Swede. “Some are furious. Some are just terribly upset.”

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi arrives to speak at the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday in New York.

In Italy, “security issues are being exploited by right-wing forces,” sociologist Giovanna Campani told Yahoo News.

At a glance, the two countries share relatively few commonalities. Sweden is a wealthy, cohesive welfare state, which over the past 90 years has typically been led by leftist coalition governments. By comparison, Italy’s economy, which is burdened by massive debt, is reeling. Costs of living are soaring, and over the past decade, its government has changed nearly every 18 months. But in both places, rising crime and misgivings about immigrants are prompting a political realignment.

The Sweden Democrats, originally formed as a neo-Nazi party in 1988, were one of four right-leaning parties that won a combined 176 of 349 seats in Sweden’s Parliament in last week’s election, besting the center-left coalition by six seats. Now, details of which parties will partake in the new coalition government, and how much influence the Sweden Democrats will actually have, are being hammered out. Despite being ostracized by mainstream Swedes, the party won 20.5% of the vote, elevating it from the fringes to Sweden’s second-most popular party. Its campaign in Sweden — where 20% of the population is now foreign-born, and the country has become known as “the gun violence capital of Europe” — was built on promises to control crime perpetrated by young migrants and to deport some foreign-born Swedes.

Giorgia Meloni, the leader of Fratelli d'Italia, intervenes during a meeting in Palermo for the 2022 Italian elections.

Jimmie Akesson, the new leader of the Sweden Democrats, insists his party has shed its fascist leanings, though the party remains staunchly anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim and keeps pounding home its messaging linking foreign-born Swedes and crime. The party points to recent crime trends showing that drug-peddling armed gangs have emerged in some migrant communities during the past five years. In 2021, Sweden experienced some 360 gang-related shootings and 47 deaths; by September of this year, 47 had already died in shootings.

“Sweden used to be a completely peaceful country — and safe,” Brussels-based Roland Freudenstein, vice president of the independent think tank GLOBSEC, told Yahoo News. “Now it’s become one of the most unsafe places in Europe” — not only because of its gang shootings but also because of high number of incidents of rape. “So that’s brought an end to the political correctness,” he said. “Even the [liberal] Social Democrats are talking about immigration, law and order, and getting tough on crime.”

The rate of armed violence is growing faster than anywhere else on the continent, according to a 2021 report by the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. “The increase in gun homicide in Sweden is closely linked to criminal milieux in socially disadvantaged areas,” according to the report.

Until recently, it was all but taboo in Sweden for mainstream politicians to acknowledge the problem.

Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, delivers a speech at the party's election watch in Nacka, near Stockholm, on Sept. 11.
Jimmie Akesson, the leader of the Sweden Democrats, delivers a speech at the party's election watch in Nacka, near Stockholm, on Sept. 11. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

“That's why the Sweden Democrats are gaining in popularity,” said Eric Adamson, a Stockholm-based project manager at the Atlantic Council’s Northern Europe office. “They were the only ones talking about this” in recent years. Both socially and politically, he said, the topic had previously been off limits for Swedes to discuss.

In Italy, a Sept. 25 snap election necessitated by the July collapse of the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi seems likely to result in the most conservative leadership there since Benito Mussolini seized power in 1922. The likely new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has also run on an anti-immigrant platform, vowing to mobilize the Italian navy to prevent African refugees from reaching her country.

Like Sweden, Italy has also been dealing with rising violent crime, though much of it doesn’t involve the immigrants who have sought safe haven there in recent years. Youth gangs of Italians, which some 6% of Italian teens are believed to belong to, are becoming a nightmare for the country, especially around Naples and the south, though some African migrants appear to be starting to form them as well.

This June, however, an estimated 1,500 African youths went on a rampage in the northern town of Peschiera, breaking windows, roughing up tourists and allegedly sexually assaulting young women on a train. Matteo Salvini of the League, which is part of a right-wing political alliance with Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in the upcoming election, lambasted the attack. Meloni, the Brothers of Italy leader, who has promised to protect Italy from “Islamization,” seized on the uproar, posting a video on her Twitter account of an African man allegedly raping a woman in broad daylight.

Lega (League) leader Matteo Salvini gestures at the closing electoral campaign rally of the center-right's coalition in Rome on Tuesday.
Lega (League) leader Matteo Salvini at the closing campaign rally of the center-right's coalition in Rome on Tuesday. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

The bigger issue for Meloni, however, may be the changing face and complexion of Italian citizens. The woman who promotes “God, homeland and family” frequently laments Italy’s low birth rate and fears the extinction of Italians and their replacement by immigrants from Africa, a conspiracy she has accused the government of the European Union of orchestrating. “The EU is complicit in uncontrolled immigration, the invasion of Europe and the project of ethnic replacement of European citizens,” she wrote on her website in February.

Campani thinks there are a number of factors at work in Italy that end up working in the right’s favor — including anger over the bureaucracy of the European Union, which imposes rules on many aspects of Italy’s government, such as the treatment of migrants, how to utilize COVID funds, what sorts of energy to invest in and how to handle its debt crisis.

Meloni has promised to challenge Brussels’ authority, vowing that if she’s elected to lead Italy’s government, “the fun is over.”

If she does become prime minister, Freudenstein said, European policymakers will find “a more pugnacious and feistier Italy.”

“She’s a fresh face — and I think Italians want to try out something new,” he added.

According to a December 2021 YouGov poll of residents in 10 European nations, both Italy and Sweden were among the top three European countries saying that the number of foreigners allowed to immigrate to European countries has been excessive — a statement with which 77% percent of Italians and 73% of Swedes agreed.

Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson speaks during a press conference after she presented her resignation to the speaker of the Swedish Parliament on Sept. 15.
Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson at a press conference after she presented her resignation to the speaker of the Swedish Parliament on Sept. 15. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, young migrant men, protesting the planned burning of the Quran by a Swedish provocateur in towns across the country, kicked off riots in three cities that injured more than 100 Swedish police — just one disturbing event that forced then-Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, a Social Democrat, into admitting a problem with violence among some migrant communities, and the existence of “parallel societies” of many foreign-born in Sweden. “Segregation has been allowed to go so far that we have parallel societies in Sweden,” she told reporters. “We live in the same country but in completely different realities. We will have to reassess our previous truths and make tough decisions.”

The issue in Sweden, said Herolf of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, isn’t immigration itself. It’s the mafia-like Eastern European clans and gangs that made it into the country along with legitimate asylum seekers and refugees.

“There are people coming into Sweden who bring criminality with them,” she said, including some from the former Yugoslavia. “But there were also loads of decent hardworking people from there too. So [previously] we didn’t want to talk about that and risk hurting the good people.”

What’s more, she said, it’s now widely recognized that Sweden has taken in far too many refugees since 2015, when the civil war in Syria broke out creating a refugee crisis, and that the government in Stockholm has been reticent to force them to integrate into Swedish society. “We have a responsibility to make demands on them to learn Swedish, to join in Swedish society," and not just live in foreign bubbles.

A gun casing is pictured on cobblestones after police shot in the tires of a car that failed to stop at a halt and broke through barriers on Via Paulo VI in Rome at the border of the Vatican on June 19.
A gun casing on cobblestones after police shot the tires of a car that failed to stop and broke through barriers on Via Paulo VI in Rome, at the border of the Vatican, on June 19. (Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

“Sweden has been an extremely tolerant and antiracist country,” Johan Martinsson, a political science professor and research director of the Laboratory of Opinion Research and the Citizen Panel at the University of Gothenburg, told Yahoo News. He pointed to an incident in 2002 when a politician suggested that foreigners should be given a basic language test before being given citizenship. “It was considered an outrage,” Martinsson said. “He was called a racist for even suggesting it.”

The increasing popularity of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in Europe, such as Marine LePen’s rise in France, underscores the need for mainstream politicians to openly admit to issues as they emerge, and to stop worrying that acknowledging them simply reinforces the radical right, said Freudenstein. “Integration policies for migrants have to become much tougher,” he added, and governments need “to be tougher about language, about [banning the wearing of] burqas, and about prohibiting afternoon [Islamist] schools where children unlearn what they learned in the morning about women’s rights and the separation of church and state.”

Freudenstein, for one, is concerned about what the rise of far-right parties will mean for the cohesion of the European Union — all the more with soaring energy prices and potential shortages, even the possibility of natural gas rationing — as the continent heads into the colder months. “We know a crisis winter is coming,” he said. “And it’s going to reinforce this feeling of ‘Let’s try something new,’ and the feeling that the structures and powers in place have failed.” He points to the growing possibility of “a severe recession that will dramatically increase social tensions.” The next six months will be crucial, he believes, and will “decide the future of politics in Europe.”