Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Can Small States Influence EU Norms? Insights from Sweden's Participation in the Field of Environmental Politics

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Can Small States Influence EU Norms? Insights from Sweden's Participation in the Field of Environmental Politics

Article excerpt

IN A FORTHCOMING BOOK, Christine Ingebritsen challenges the view that small states lack power in international relations by pointing to the Scandinavian countries' influence on the setting of international norms. For example, since the early 1970s, Sweden has been particularly active in pushing for environmental norms in various international settings. The Swedish government announced it would continue to do so as well in terms of its EU membership. In 1995 the government promised a skeptical electorate that it would not compromise domestic environmental norms (Kronsell 1997A). Looking back at Sweden's six years of EU membership, we note some evidence that these ambitions have at least partly materialized. One important example is the EU acidification strategy (COM 2001); another, the efforts at common legislation on the control of the use of chemicals. The commitment to environmental issues was stressed further as the strategies for the Swedish presidency of the EU during the first part of 2001 were announced. The main goals of the Swedish presidency were enlargement, employment, and environment. The foundation for the arguments in this article is a set of interviews conducted with participants in EU environmental policy making, (1) as well as studies commissioned by the Swedish government. (2) The main goal in this article is to challenge the arguments that small states have little or no influence in global politics by analyzing Swedish relations to the EU in the area of environmental issues. The article will assess that relationship in terms of what kind of influence can be discerned.


Ingebritsen (2001) suggests that small states like the Scandinavian countries can make important contributions to world politics as norm setters or as "entrepreneurs of good practice" even with limited power and resources. Norm setting can hence be a means of influencing world affairs. Like other international organizations, the EU too is a norm-generating arena, even more extensive than other international or regional organizations. If we take Ingebritsen's thesis as valid for the international context, it may be relevant to the EU as well. Before looking at exactly how Sweden has exerted influence in the EU, I want to briefly outline the background of Sweden's involvement in international environmental politics and highlight aspects that are relevant for the Swedish position on environmental issues in the EU today.

Over the years, the pollution problems perceived as particularly threatening and urgent by policy makers and the public have been problems of a transnational kind. Motivations for Sweden's active involvement in international environmental policy making have been largely associated with environmental vulnerability and a perceived threat to national interests. In other words, many of the environmental issues that Swedish policy makers have pursued internationally have also been issues related to environmental problems that could only be resolved by other nations also taking action.


In the 1960S, there was an increasing problem with urban air pollution in Sweden. Within a few years Swedish scientists had discovered that urban air pollution could be traced to high contents of sulfur in heating oil. When alerted to the problem, politicians simply outlawed the use of high-sulfur oil. (3) The urban air quickly improved but acidification remained a problem because the jet stream brought winds, particularly from Germany and Great Britain, with precipitation that polluted Swedish lakes and forests. Starting in the 1970S, policy makers and experts, who had exhausted what could be done within the borders, tried to come to terms with acidification by inaugurating international cooperation. The first UN conference on environmental issues was held in Stockholm in 1972, partly on the initiative of Swedish policy-makers, who also presented their position paper on acid rain to the conference. …

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