Sunday 27 September 2009

Is Sweden becoming a normal EU country?

Almost fifteen years have passed since Sweden joined the European Union together with Austria and Finland, on 1 January 1995. Neutrality and national sovereignty have deep roots in Sweden, one of the few corners of Europe to have stayed outside the European armed conflicts since the Napeolonic Wars.

Officially, joining the European Union and the supranational decision-making within the European Community was a major step for Sweden, but despite the positive referendum, basic Swedish attitudes did not change much.

Many Swedes saw European public services, public administrations and environmental norms as inferior to their own (unlike the situation in the former Communist countries).

They may have felt that they had more to teach the European Union than they had to learn from it.


Euro referendum

Despite the treaty obligation to adopt the common currency, Sweden arranged a referendum in 2003 on the adoption of the euro. After the negative outcome, Sweden and the European Union have connived to regard Sweden as technically falling foul of the Maastricht convergence criteria.

Slowly, Swedish acceptance of the euro currency has been on the increase. In May 2009 SR International – Sveriges Radio reported the first opinion poll with a more respondents in favour of adopting the euro (47 per cent; 44 per cent against).

Even if a referendum about a clear treaty obligation is as absurd in the future as it was in 2003, Swedish politicians dare not take the decision without a plebiscite. The Liberals (Folkpartiet) have clearly come out in favour of a new referendum in 2011.

It is possible that a new government following the September 2010 elections agrees to offer the Swedes a second chance during the following four years to join the Eurozone.

In case of a positive outcome, Sweden would become more of a normal EU member state.


Green Party

In October 2008, after an internal poll, the Green Party (Miljöpartiet de gröna) decided to drop their demand for Sweden to secede from the European Union.

Almost 13 years after Swedish EU accession, they became able to work in a realistic setting of Swedish EU membership and to cooperate more naturally within the European Green Party, although the party’s international information is rudimentary.

In Swedish politics the Greens are building an opposition block together with the Social Democrats and the Left Party.


Left Party

Even the ex-Communist Left Party leader Lars Ohly has now proposed abandoning the EU secession demand (Sveriges Radio, 26 September 2009).

When the ex-Communists are beginning to adapt after a decade and a half of Swedish EU membership, Sweden starts to look like a (more) normal EU member state.


Swedish EU Council Presidency

Swedish governments have been fairly low key in European Union affairs. Politically they have not been that far from British viewpoints about free trade and intergovernmental cooperation, but they have acted in a less contrarian manner. They are also less averse to fundamental and social rights, taxation or business regulation.

The Lisbon Treaty caused the usual popular demands for a referendum with the customary horrors painted, but after a long gestation period and much talk about the “Swedish labour market model”, the Parliament approved the amending treaty by a huge majority.

On the other hand, the Government (regeringen) and the Parliament (riksdagen) communicate openly about EU affairs (as about other matters), and they make continuing efforts to educate their citizens about the European Union and its policies. Parliamentary EU scrutiny is well ingrained, although possibly not as well documented as in Denmark and Finland.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s centre-right party Moderaterna did not emigrate to form the anti-European political group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), in the European Parliament, with the UK Conservative Party, the Czech Civic Democrats (ODS) and the Polish Law and Justice. The Swedish Moderaterna sits in the largest EP group, the mainstream European People’s Party (EPP).

The Swedish Presidency of the EU Council, from July to the end of this year, has certainly kept the key Ministers and civil servants busy. From a netizen’s point of view, they have produced the best Presidency communications ever, and their professionalism has given practically no cause for public criticism.

It is hard to tell how interested ordinary Swedes are in the activities of the Council Presidency, but at least until now they could take pride in how their representatives are doing.

Difficult issues lie ahead during the coming months, but it is possible that the Swedes feel a shade more like stakeholders in Europe after the second Presidency.


One of these days, is it possible that Sweden wakes up to find that it has become a normal EU member state, and just possibly that the European Union is as much a learning experience as a teaching mission?

Ralf Grahn

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