The Center Retreats in Sweden

(The Bloomberg View) -- Sweden’s hard-right populist party, theSweden Democrats, didn’t do as well in Sunday’s election as some polls had predicted, but the preliminary results were still enough to cast a cloud of uncertainty over the country. With almost 18 percent of the vote, and 62 seats in the 349-member parliament, the insurgents have made it impossible for business-as-usual coalitions led by the center-left Social Democrats or center-right Moderates to form a government.

Difficult negotiations lie ahead. Conceivably, the populists could end up in government with the center-right — but even if that doesn't happen, a party with neo-Nazi roots, energized by anti-immigrant sentiment, will be exercising outsized influence in a country known hitherto for its stability, moderation and strong humanitarian instincts.

This dismal prospect is the most startling instance so far of a pattern seen across much of Europe. As in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, the migrant crisis that peaked in 2015 has put far-right populism firmly on the electoral map. Mainstream parties have suffered a loss of trust, and dangerous insurgents have stepped forward.

In Sweden, mainstream parties tried to shore up support by hardening their policies on immigration. But this mainly benefited smaller parties that held a firmer line against the insurgents, leaving the populists to take credit for forcing the big parties to budge. The net effect of the center’s accommodation was to weaken itself and sow deeper division.

All across Europe, centrist parties still haven’t found the right way to talk about migrants from outside the European Union. They need to acknowledge less grudgingly the pressures caused by a sudden surge of arrivals, because leaving extremists to make this issue their own is a formula for disaster. Equally important, the centrists’ policy response must be substantive more than rhetorical. The human and financial resources required to manage and integrate migrants must be found and mobilized. At the very least, inflows need to be regulated with greater caution.

Sweden illustrates the point dramatically. Over the past five years, some 600,000 people have arrived in a country of 10 million. (The equivalent influx in the U.S. would be almost 20 million.) Accommodating and integrating so many people is a formidable challenge — one that the government seemed unprepared for and sometimes unwilling even to acknowledge.

The EU as a whole has likewise failed to respond to the crisis. Governments continue to be more interested in shifting the burden to partners than in developing a coherent, cooperative and adequately resourced strategy on migrants. The growing power of the Sweden Democrats is one more reminder of how large the costs of this failure might be.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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