WITH CONSIDERABLE RELUCTANCE and under repeated threat of severe economic punishment, a slight majority of Swedish voters decided with a national referendum on 13 November 1994 to join their country to the European Union (EU). In so doing, they agreed to surrender an as yet undetermined portion of national sovereignty in exchange for an equally vague assortment of great expectations.
It has with good reason been called the most fateful national decision in nearly two centuries, one that raised serious questions about Swedens continued existence as an independent nation-state. That much is implicit in the oath incumbent upon members of the powerful European Commission: They are required to swear their first allegiance to the EU, and not to the national governments that appoint them.
In December of 1994, the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) confirmed the referendums outcome with a constitutional amendment that had the effect of subordinating Swedish law to that of the EU. The citizens of Sweden therewith became subject to over 10,000 laws devised by foreign politicians for whom they had never voted, and in most cases never heard of.
For Per Gahrton, Riksdag member for the Green Party and a bitter opponent of EU membership, the import of the subordinating amendment was quite clear: This is the day that the Riksdag decided to transform Sweden from an independent nation to a sort of province within an expanding superpower, in the process converting itself from a legislative body to little more than an advisory panel.
But that sort of talk was dismissed by advocates of EU membership as exaggerated, and essentially irrelevant. The leader of the Conservative Party, Carl Bildt, declared that the nation-state was for all intents and purposes dead as an independent actor on the world scene. His predecessor and successor as prime minister, Ingvar Carlsson of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), was not prepared to go quite that far-- publicly. But on the eve of the referendum, he justified his enthusiasm for the EU by explaining that, National politicians have a formal decision-making power over an increasing powerlessness.
It was a rather contradictory assertion for someone who had recently regained political power on a very different premise. This was pointed out by author and lifelong Social Democrat, P-O Enqvist: The two campaigns present a paradox. The Social Democrats won the parliamentary election with a promise to actively defend the Swedish model. . . . But two months later, they would turn to the same voters and say. It s no good. We cannot accomplish anything on our own. We have to go out and join Europe in order to prevent disaster. It was a 180-degree change of course.
Whichever way the winds of power were actually blowing, it was for many Social Democrats a bitter irony that one of their own should end up manoeuvring the ship of state into an enterprise that had long been regarded as an instrument of the rich and powerful. The EUs inner market, for example, had been built up according to a blueprint drafted by the transnational electronics giant, Philips.
In Sweden, pressure to join the EU began to mount during the 1970s, when the it was still known as the European Economic Community (EEC). During the ensuing two decades, membership was almost exclusively the goal of political conservatives and international business interests. The latter professed anxiety over the possibility of one day being frozen out of crucial European markets-- despite free trade agreements with the EEC that functioned more or less without friction.
Political conservatives, whose interests tend to coincide with those of big business, saw in the EEC a device for prying the country loose from what they considered to be its dangerous isolation. It was felt that incorporation into Europe would force Sweden to abandon its long tradition of peaceful neutrality, and put an end to the presumptively unhealthy excesses of the welfare state.
For the same reasons, Social Democrats were considerably less enthusiastic. Tage Erlander, prime minister during 1946-69, set the Social Democratic tone: It would be a dreadful mistake to allow economic factors to determine Swedish foreign policy. We will co-operate with Europe, but Swedens neutrality prevents us from seeking full membership. (The main issue here was and is the inclusion of most EU member-states in NATO, the United States military instrument in Europe and, as it now appears, even beyond that sphere.)
This was still the unshakeable position in May of 1990, when Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson noted that, In order for Sweden to become a member of the EEC, one of two conditions would have to be met: Either we must be assured that the risk of war in Europe has been completely eliminated; or, the EEC must decide not to develop a common defence and foreign policy.
There were no encouraging developments in that regard during the following months. In fact, it would later emerge that Germany, the U.S. and others were already messing about in the Balkans, deliberately aggravating tensions that would soon erupt into a decade of ethnic violence.
It therefore caused a sensation when the Carlsson government announced in October of the same year that it was planning to submit Swedens application for membership in the EU. The abrupt reversal came as a rude shock to most Social Democrats, for two reasons: it violated the traditional policy that had been emphatically reaffirmed at the most recent party convention; and it was presented as a sort of minor footnote at a press conference ostensibly dealing with emergency economic measures.
Villy Bergström, a prominent Social Democratic economist who has since become a director of the Swedish central bank, has observed that, To do what Ingvar Carlsson did-- to present the application for EU membership as an appendage to an economic stabilization package-- is totally reprehensible. It is difficult to discern any trace of democratic legitimacy in such a process.
Ingvar Carlsson and his inner circle have since offered a variety of explanations for the bewildering turnabout, but the sudden urge to enter the EU remains a mystery. One popular theory is that the switch was, at least in part, a panicky attempt to recapture political ground lost to the disastrous economic policies of the preceding decade (see The Politics of Self-delusion). A related explanation is that the leadership of the Social Democratic Party had been taken over by individuals who tended to interpret the world in much the same way as industrial leaders and political conservatives. It is likely that both factors were involved.
In any event, it was a decision with obvious implications for Swedens traditional neutrality, which Carlsson had reaffirmed as recently as the spring of 1990. Since then, the unpleasantness in the Balkans has erupted into a protracted slaughter in which the EU-- with the full support of successive Swedish governments-- has played a highly questionable role. At the same time, and using the Balkan disaster as an excuse, the EU has been systematically laying the foundation of a common defence and foreign policy within the framework of Pax Americana.
None of this has led to any discernible second thoughts on the part of the SDP leadership concerning the wisdom of EU membership. On the contrary, it is now very apparent that, despite the unequivocal statements of Tage Erlander, Ingvar Carlsson et al., it has been decided to allow economic factors to determine Swedish foreign policy.
Tilted playing field
Whatever the causes of the Social Democratic flip-flop, those interests which had long been in favour of EU membership were naturally delighted at the sudden turn of events. Among the most influential of these were the Swedish Employers Confederation and the Federation of Swedish Industries, which had been conducting a lobbying campaign during the preceding two decades. The campaign was based on a steady barrage of messages to the effect that the country was falling behind economically and could no longer afford the delusion of independence, much less any nostalgic attachment to the Swedish model of society.
Now, it was simply a matter of stepping up the intensity of the barrage. The crucial component of the propaganda apparatus was the mainstream press, the owners and editors of which were overwhelmingly in favour of membership. Following the Carlsson governments policy reversal in October of 1990, editorials and news analyses were full of the benefits that EU membership would doubtless bring. A fundamental tactic was to pound in the notion that membership was inevitable: The phrase, When Sweden joins the EU. . ., became a daily incantation of the news, endlessly repeated by journalists without the slightest trace of reflection or embarrassment.
A content analysis of the countrys four largest newspapers during the month preceding the referendum found that 48 percent of all articles on the subject included information and/or arguments in support of EU membership, while only 15 percent documented contrary positions. A clear bias for EU membership was detected in 38 percent of the articles, as against five percent for opposing viewpoints.
Apart from its lack of access to national media, the opposition was confronted with a nearly united political-economic elite. The yes campaign has declined to provide an accounting of its expenditures; but a research project led by political scientist Rune Premfors of Stockholm University has estimated that it had at least ten times more money to spend than the no campaign, not counting the substantial value of the organizational resources at the establishments disposal. The total economic advantage of the yes campaign is believed to have been about 20:1, perhaps even greater.
This gross imbalance contrasted sharply with the chronic lament of the business interests which dominated the yes campaign. For decades, they had been complaining bitterly about the failure of government policy to provide a level playing field in matters of economic competition. But when it came to the most fateful national decision of the past half-century, a level playing field was obviously the last thing that big business and the government of Ingvar Carlsson had in mind.
Despite the enormous disparity in campaign resources, opposition to EU membership among the general public remained strong. Opinion polls indicated that a clear majority was consistently opposed during the entire two years prior to the November 1991 referendum.
Especially worrisome to EU enthusiasts was the obstinate scepticism of most Social Democrats, whose superior numbers supplied the key to the referendum. In 1991, grassroots democracy was still a valid ideal within the party, and the reversal of EU policy was but one in a series of decisions by the Carlsson government that violated majority opinion. As author and loyal Social Democrat Sven Lindqvist sardonically noted: The decision comes first, and the discussion afterwards. When it comes to such minor matters as giving up Swedens independence, abandoning its neutrality, replacing the krona with another currency, and sacrificing full employment for the sake of a fixed exchange rate--on such occasions, no one is interested in our opinions.
Nor did it help matters very much when seventy percent of delegates at a special convention in early 1994 obediently approved the leaderships EU initiative-- at a time when seventy percent of the general membership was opposed. Under such circumstances, party leaders had little choice but to adopt a cautious approach in the referendum campaign, and to declare that a good Social Democrat could be either for or against EU membership.
However, only those in favour were able to benefit from the vastly superior resources of the EU forces to the political right; and as the campaign unwound to its anxious finale, the SDP leadership abandoned its cautious approach for a somewhat desperate urgency, complete with appeals to personal loyalty and dire warnings of impending economic disaster.
Although advocates of EU membership had been steadily propagating their views since the 1970s, and opponents theirs since 1990, the campaign did not enter its critical phase until after the national election on the 18th of September, 1994.
The Social Democrats election victory was an essential precondition for a yes vote in the referendum less than two months later; for, it was generally understood that sufficient numbers of Social Democrats could be induced to overcome their doubts and suspicions only if Ingvar Carlsson were reassuringly in place as prime minister. Thus it came to pass that a leader of the Swedish labour movement became indispensable to the business interests and conservative politicians who were most eager to join the EU.
The referendum campaign touched upon virtually every aspect of Swedish society and its relationship to the outside world. The issues were so numerous and complex that the most common reaction was one of bewilderment. With a few bold exceptions, not even the most well-informed pretended to grasp the full implications of membership. Compounding the general confusion was the rapid pace of change in both the EU and Sweden: It was like trying to aim simultaneously at two targets, both moving in some baffling relation to each other.
In the end, most voters seized on one or two issues of particular interest or ease of comprehension. For some it was the perceived threat to democracy, for others it was the promise of reduced unemployment. At one point, the fate of oral snuff--a vital component of numerous Swedish male existences-- became the topic of intense discussion. A report that the EU planned to outlaw the sale of snuff provoked quite serious speculation that such a measure might guarantee a no vote in the referendum.
Another effect of the debates complexity was the formation of peculiar alliances, since most issues relating to EU membership could be interpreted in at least two contradictory ways. The predominately leftist and environmental interests behind the no campaign found themselves in very unwelcome agreement with racial purists and other inhabitants of the lunatic right.
Among its other oddities, the yes campaign offered the spectacle of Ingvar Carlsson struggling side-by-side with the Conservatives Carl Bildt toward the same goal-- the former in order to strengthen the Swedish general-welfare state, the latter in hopes of weakening it. . . .