A Doubtful
Referendum
   
Part II

The stars of the European Union shone bright in the Swedish heavens, in this fairly typical illustration from the ”information” distributed by the government.

…All in all, the public debate was an extremely lopsided affair. In addition to its enormous economic advantage and the eager complicity of the mainstream press, the ”yes” side was able to exploit the resources of the national treasury and administration-- even though the government was duty- and honour-bound to observe strict impartiality. In point of fact, it assisted the ”yes” campaign in several crucial ways.

One such involved a bit of creative scheduling. There were three other countries voting on EU membership in 1994, and it was arranged for the four referendums to take place in order of likely approval. The obvious intent was to encourage “yes” votes by letting the two most positive populations influence the two most hesitant: first, solidly positive Austria and Finland, followed by doubtful Sweden, and finally the obstinate Norwegians. A proposal to preclude such a domino effect by holding the three Scandinavian referendums on the same day was dismissed out of hand.

The potential effect of timing on indecisive voters has since been clearly demonstrated by the Danish people’s rejection of the EMU in September of the year 2000. Following the ”no” vote in that referendum, Swedish opinion became decidedly more negative toward the EMU and has remained at the same level ever since, i.e. roughly fifty percent against, 30 percent in favour, with the balance undecided. Without any doubt, something similar would have happened in 1994 if Norway had voted before Sweden, as Ingvar Carlsson and his strange bedfellows clearly understood.

Another yes-serving application of government power was the composition of six special commissions on the consequences of EU membership for such basic issues as social welfare, foreign policy and the economy. It just so happened that 98 percent-- ninety-eight percent-- of the commission members were self-declared supporters of EU membership, and they submitted reports to the nation in full accordance with their predilections. Naturally, all of the reports were given extensive coverage by the mainstream press and cited frequently as authoritative sources.


Bright and shining future

As if that were not enough, the Foreign Ministry distributed two separate “information” folders to every household in the nation. They contained a few basic facts and a good deal of propaganda, including such outright falsehoods as the claim that Sweden would retain the right to legislate and maintain stiffer environmental laws than the EU; as subsequent events have shown, there was no such guarantee.

In general, this costly state-financed propaganda had only good things to say about EU membership. As Rune Premfors noted, “The Swedish people were fed the idea that there are no negative consequences worth mentioning.” That message was heightened by the design of the folders, which conveyed an image of a bright and shining future within the Union.

Since the Swedish civil service had until then earned a reputation for incorruptible professionalism, the Foreign Ministry’s biased household information may be assumed to have influenced the outcome of the referendum in a positive direction.

Equally blatant was the media circus surrounding the appointment of Anita Gradin to the European Commission just a few weeks prior to the referendum, and months before Sweden actually entered the EU. A casual observer, innocently exposed to the euphoric news coverage of that premature event, might easily have received the impression that Sweden had already joined the Union, and that everyone was absolutely delighted--which, of course, was the purpose of the exercise.

This sort of behaviour may be fairly common in some parts of the world. But prior to the EU referendum, Swedish politics had been relatively innocent of such shenanigans.

In short, it was not a particularly glorious moment in the history of Swedish democracy. Among other things, it demonstrated that EU enthusiasts were so bent on reaching their goal that they were willing to sacrifice just about anything-- including the widespread trust in political leaders and the democratic process that had been conscientiously built up by preceding generations.


Dreadful finale

But despite all the money and manipulation on behalf of EU membership, opinion polls indicated that a slender majority was still threatening to vote “no” as the campaign entered its final week. Things looked so dark to Carl Bildt that he began practising how to pin the blame on Ingvar Carlsson for having failed to lead his followers into the promised land.

Among the most reluctant to follow were the large numbers of lower-income women who feared that membership would lead to further attacks on the general-welfare state. It was clearly time for the “yes” side to roll out the heavy artillery, which included:

  • a widely-publicized debate article by four of Sweden’s most powerful business leaders, threatening to locate future jobs and investments abroad if the people would be so foolish as to reject membership in the EU
  • a half-promise by Kjell-Olof Feldt, the former finance minister and current board chairman of the central bank, that a “yes” vote would yield lower interest rates
  • scary headlines in the mainstream press linking a downturn in financial markets to investor anxieties about a possible “no” vote in the referendum (the temporary downturn was, in fact, an international trend that had started in Tokyo; the upswing a few days later was barely mentioned)
  • a warning from Göran Persson then Finance Minister, that rejection of EU membership would require additional heavy cuts in social programmes (he made them afterwards, anyway).

Finally, the SDP leadership abandoned its relatively low profile and made a final, frenzied effort to overcome resistance among the party faithful. Heavy pressure was exerted on key union leaders to sign on in the last crucial moments. One who caved in was Lillemor Arvidsson, popular head of the female-dominated union of municipal workers, who knocked the wind out of the ”no” campaign when she abandoned her neutral stance just days before the referendum. (She was subsequently appointed to the post of county governor, a well-paid sinecure traditionally awarded for loyal political service.)

Mona Sahlin, then deputy prime minister and an inspiration to many female voters, let it be known that she was worried sick over the dreadful consequences of remaining outside the EU. Prime Minister Carlsson talked himself literally hoarse in repeating his basic message--that membership in the EU offered the only hope of preventing the decline of Sweden’s general welfare.


Unfamous victory

It worked. The referendum result turned out to be “yes” by the surprisingly comfortable margin of roughly 52-48 percent. In the end, Social Democratic leaders had succeeded in reducing opposition within the party from 70 percent to just under 50 percent. A third of all voters made up their minds during the final week and, of those, 70 percent voted for EU membership.

At the victory celebration of the Conservative Party, they gleefully chanted the praises of the man who had made it all possible: ”There is only one Ingvar Carlsson! There is only one Ingvar Carlsson! There is only one Ingvar Carlsson!”

But it could hardly be counted as a famous victory. All indications are that a majority would have preferred to retain Sweden’s neutral independence, but that sufficient numbers were frightened or in other ways persuaded to vote against their better judgement. The crucial shift occurred among sceptical women, who were apparently persuaded by the argument that they had more to fear outside the EU than within it. Political analyst Maria Oskarsson concluded that Finance Minister Persson’s threat of heavy cuts in social benefits (see above) had the intended effect: “I think that many women simply did not dare to vote ‘no’ after that.”

Analysis of voting patterns revealed that men were far more positive toward the EU than were women, white-collar workers more positive then industrial workers, the older more than the young. The most striking division was between the cities, which were strongly in favour, and the rest of the country where the reverse was true; the same pattern applied in Finland and Norway, as well. All of which tended to reinforce the perception that EU membership was of greater interest and potential benefit to the more comfortably situated than to the less advantaged.

Some EU enthusiasts suggested, on the other hand, that the key factor was cosmopolitanism--i.e., that those who voted “no” did so because they were unfamiliar with, and unnecessarily suspicious of, the larger world beyond Sweden’s borders. Others, including a few leading editorialists, suggested in so many words that the large “no” vote could be explained by the fact that some people are just not very bright.

But this is a doubtful line of reasoning. By any standard, Swedes are among the best educated and most well-informed in Europe or anywhere else; and their comparatively great interest in international affairs is well-documented. Opinion research has shown that interest in such matters is greatest among those segments of the Swedish population that are most sceptical toward the EU. It therefore seems more appropriate to question the knowledge and wisdom of those who are most enthusiastic.


Open sore

Stupidly or not, there remains a great deal of bitterness among the Swedes who opposed membership during the referendum campaign. Their ranks have since been swelled by many ”yes” voters who soon concluded that they were duped. Even among those who remain committed to the EU, there are honest souls who argue for a new referendum on membership, since the duplicity and extreme bias of the first is so obvious.

The Social Democratic Party was left with an open sore that will take some time to heal, if it ever does. Many among the grassroots complain that, with its actions, the party leadership made a mockery of all the initial pretty talk about a gentlemanly disagreement. The spectacle of Ingvar Carlsson working hand-in-hand with archrival Carl Bildt was etched in many memories and has not been easy to eradicate.

Party member Per Kågeson was one of those troubled by the enormous disparity in resources: “Much has been said and written about the ’democratic deficit’ in the EU. I am more concerned about the democratic deficit in the process by which the country became a member of the Union. Victories like this one can breed contempt for politicians and the political process, especially among young people. . . .

“My daughters state categorically that the referendum was won by cheating. Not in a formal sense, of course, but rather through the direct opposite of fair play-- as when a doped-up athlete wins a race. What can I say in reply? That it is in keeping with the rules of the game that one side has ten times more resources at its disposal than the other? If so, where does one draw the line? Would a 50-1 advantage be acceptable, or perhaps even 100-1?. . . . After the past few months’ exercise in the mainstream press, many editors and reporters ought to consider whether or not they might feel more at home in the advertising racket.”


Warm welcome

Reactions within the EU were overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the high esteem in which Sweden is generally held abroad (despite the relentless efforts of political conservatives and their mainstream press to destroy the country’s reputation). EU officials breathed a deep sigh of relief, candidly admitting that a rejection by Sweden would have delivered a heavy blow to the Union’s future development. Less than a year previously, there was a widespread feeling that progress had come to a halt as a result of internal divisions and general inertia.

That the Swedes appeared for so long to be resisting the allure of membership no doubt added to the sweetness of their eventual surrender. The fact that the country will be helping to finance the EU probably did not hurt, either: On a per capita basis, Sweden’s net contribution is among the highest in the Union which, for anyone capable of reflection, should be rather surprising for a country that had been repeatedly described in the world press and financial markets as an economic basket case during the years prior to the referendum.

But it would appear that the reasons for all the rejoicing go deeper than that. A 1993 opinion survey among citizens in EU countries found that Sweden was the most desirable of all potential new member-states. Its entry was especially welcomed by forces within the EU concerned with issues of peace, social policy and environmental protection, in all of which areas Sweden is recognized as a world leader by those who care about such things.

The EU’s retiring chairman and French Social Democrat, Jacques Delors, exulted: “Now I can leave my post with full confidence in the future. Sweden will make a great contribution. I believe that the Nordic model of society, will have an impact and change the EU’s social and economic policies in a direction that appeals to me, personally.”


Inverted conversion

The unusually warm reception suggested that, despite its modest size, Sweden might have the kind of influence that Ingvar Carlsson promised his followers. The announced strategy was to build an alliance with kindred souls and parties within the Union, and together reshape its destiny into something more Social Democratic. ”I believe in the potential of political action,” declared Carlsson during the EU campaign.

Of course, there are other interests within the EU that also believe in the potential of political action, and have been rather successful in employing it for very different ends. It is no secret that the Union is dominated by the same transnational corporate interests which, by Carlsson’s own account, have seized an overwhelming political advantage at the national level. Among countless other confirmations of that reality was the fate of EU’s respected Minister of the Environment, Carlos Ripa de Meana, who resigned in protest in 1992 on the grounds that business interests had consistently blocked needed reforms. Not much has changed since then.

In any event, it was never very likely that conservative forces would sit idly by while Ingvar Carlsson and his new allies converted the EU into a Social Democratic project. Nor can the Social Democrats always expect to be in charge in Stockholm; there will be other governments, with very different agendas. Since the Union’s structure has the effect of shifting power from national parliaments to administrations, it will be a fairly easy matter for a new government to reverse its predecessor’s EU policy.

Another obstacle to Ingvar Carlsson’s hopeful vision is the increasingly neo-liberal profile of the EU’s Social Democratic parties, or at least their leaderships. Virtually all of them have adopted policies that are strikingly similar to those of traditional conservatives. Under its current leader, Göran Persson, Sweden’s SDP is headed in the same direction.

It was noted during the referendum campaign, for example, that Ingvar Carlsson had more in common with Germany’s Helmut Kohl, a conservative Christian Democrat, than with Spain’s nominally Social Democratic Felipe Gonzalez. Such a state of affairs may bode well for co-operation between Sweden and Germany, but it certainly does not add up to a genuinely Social Democratic future for the EU. A related issue is the sorry state of the European labour movement, whose influence has steadily declined since it, too, was incorporated into the Union.

Jens-Peter Bonde, a veteran Danish member of the EU parliament, stated flatly in 1994 that, ”The notion that the Swedish Social Democrats can convert the EU to their kind of politics is absurd.” Subsequent developments during the six years of Swedish membership have confirmed the accuracy of that assessment. Most indications are that the conversion actually taking place is just the opposite.


Normally negative

Meanwhile, resentment and disappointment over the results of the 1994 referendum remain widespread. Opinion data from Statistics Sweden disclose that, during the entire period from 1992 to the present, there was only one occasion on which a majority of opinion has been in favour of EU membership-- on the day of the referendum in 1994 and for a brief period thereafter.

Since then, the situation has returned to normal. At the start of 2001, as the government of Göran Persson takes over the presidency for the next six months, 43 percent of Swedes have a negative image of the EU while 26 percent have a positive image. This is nearly the exact opposite of the EU average, which is 43 percent positive and 18 percent negative.

On this and other dimensions, Swedish opinion is the most sceptical and critical within the entire European Union. In addition to the questionable proceedings of the membership referendum, the reasons for this persistently negative attitude are many and will be documented here in the months ahead.

Al Burke    
1 January 2001  
  

Return to Part I