EU AGENDA: Sweden and the European Union

Article excerpt

Ole Elgstrom comments on the impact of Sweden's membership of the European Union.

Almost five years have now elapsed since Sweden joined the European Union. The Amsterdam Treaty has come into force, monetary union has been introduced and a new round of enlargement negotiations is on the verge of beginning. This article reflects upon some Swedish experiences as a member-state and relates these to Swedish public opinion. Are Swedes more pro-European today than they were five years ago? Has `medel-Svensson', the average Swede, noticed any big differences due to membership?

When Sweden decided to apply for membership back in late 1990, the underlying reasons were primarily economic. It was widely perceived that the country's economy, which flourished in the 1950s to the 1970s, needed the backing that membership would provide. The level of unemployment -- a key indicator especially for Social Democratic governments -- had started to rise and the Swedish krona was under strong pressure. Membership promised to solve both problems. The fall of the Berlin Wall and Russian decline made an application possible: no longer was Swedish non-alignment seen as an absolute obstacle. But although the Swedish elite was generally in favour of membership, this did not stem from ideological convictions or from strong feelings of European identity.

The Swedish population was -- and is -- deeply divided. In the membership referendum, 52 per cent voted `yes' while 47 per cent were against. More politically important was the fact that large differences existed between southern and northern Sweden, between countryside and cities, between social classes and between age groups. In the more heavily populated areas, more than 60 per cent were pro-membership. In Jamtland, far away from both Stockholm and Brussels, 72 per cent voted `no'. Well-educated people tended to be in favour, whilst unemployed and manual workers were more negative and the old were more positive than the young.

Voters for various political parties also differed in their opinion on membership. The Moderate Party, a conservative party, had 86 per cent of their followers saying yes to the European Union. Voters for two parties, the Green Party and the Left Party, overwhelmingly rejected membership. And the Social Democratic Party -- in power for most of the time -- was deeply divided, with half of its followers pro- and the other half antiEuropean. This latter fact has made it extremely difficult for any Social Democratic government clearly and unambiguously to support further integration. It has to walk a thin line between Europeanist sentiments and vehement EU critics.

Public opinion has obviously contributed to Sweden's role of `reluctant European'. About half of the population still believe that membership has not been beneficial to Sweden, and equally many are against participating in monetary union. The parties that are against membership have experienced electoral successes. Sweden has been accused of having a negative over-all attitude towards integration and increased co-operation. Indeed, like the United Kingdom, Sweden has never had any experience of federalism and the concept carries with it clearly negative connotations. Most Swedes are against the development of the Union in a supra-national direction. So, although Sweden has been very efficient in adapting to existing EU law, the acquis, and comparatively quick in implementing new directives and regulations, it still has the reputation of being `difficult': it did not join the monetary union, it is not in favour of enhanced security co-operation (with the exception of the Petersberg tasks -- peace-keeping and conflict prevention -- which it supports strongly) and it does not want common tax laws. …