Sweden’s relationship with the EU is almost as problematical as Britain’s. She only joined in 1995 – 25 years after us – and on the basis of a pretty narrow popular vote. At the same time, her neighbour Norway voted to stay aloof. Like us, Sweden has spurned the Euro. The majority political parties are all pro-Europe. Sweden used to have a UKIP of her own – known as Junilistan – which won 15% of the vote in the 2004 European elections, but which seems to have withered away since. The latest opinion poll put its support at 0.3%. There’s also a Folkrörelsen (‘People’s Movement’) opposed to EU membership on mainly socialist grounds, which is the direction you would expect Swedish Euroscepticism to come from. The ‘Vs’ (Left; ex-communist) are also anti-Europe. The right-wing Sverigedemokraten’s policy is to renegotiate the terms of Sweden’s membership, rather than to leave. The Greens are swithering. So the UK is not the only ‘semi-detached’ member of the EU.
Broader public support for continued Swedish membership has been waning recently – down to 44% in a recent poll (but with a large number of ‘don’t knows’), due mainly to Europe’s reluctance to share her refugee burden with her. The Swedes have also had other issues with the European bureaucracy over the years. It stopped them exporting snus, for example: those little sachets of snuff they insert between their teeth and gums; and has its greedy eyes on Sweden’s beloved Systembolaget, or State liquor-store monopoly.
All this might be thought to give the Swedes some empathy, at least, with Britain’s present predicament. And also a material interest in it, if – as recent polls are predicting, alarmingly – Brexit might push the sceptics into an absolute majority, and lead to Sweden’s following Britain out into the cold. (It’s already being called ‘Swexit’.) That could scupper the whole European project. (See http://www.euractiv.com/section/uk-europe/news/poll-majority-of-swedes-want-to-leave-eu-in-case-of-brexit/.) Is this really on the cards? If so, it must raise the stakes.
In view of all this, I’ve been interested to see – now I’m back in Stockholm – what the local media are making of Britain’s current civil war over Europe. The coverage of it in the quality press and on TV has been extensive. (There’s a discussion of it on SVT as I write.) Most of it is on the level of reportage, rather than comment. There’s plenty about the British situation for the Swedes to mock, of course, if they wanted to: stereotypical old British buffers like Nigel Farage and most Conservative backbenchers; and old myths about Britain’s post-imperial delusions to fall back on. There’s been some comment about how, generally, the debate ‘hasn’t shown the British at their best.’ (Prime Minister’s Question Time does an awful lot of harm to Westminster’s reputation abroad.) But on the whole the media have resisted the temptation to make too much fun of us. They have covered both the issues and the personalities involved in the current debate fairly and responsibly; in contrast, one has to say, with most of the British press.
But they are also puzzled. Why do the Brexiters want to leave? Or the Remainers want to stay? From their own national standpoint, Swedes can see good reasons on both sides of the argument. But no-one seems certain which are the important ones for the British. Democracy? Trade? Brussels bureaucracy? Immigrants? Xenophobia or –philia? Solidarity versus individualism? Narrow political calculation – pro or anti Cameron, for example? – And what would the Brexiters, in particular, do with their newly-won economic freedom if they got it? What exactly would a post-Brexit Europe look like? Let alone one without Sweden, if Swexit followed on.
In itself, however, that could be said to be a pretty fair reflection of the British situation. We’re asking the same questions. So the Swedish media have got it just about right.
(Thanks to Kajsa for essential help with this. A version of it was posted on the LRB Blog this morning.)
PS. I’ve just learned that the Swedish state is paying me a small retirement pension, in return for the little tax I’ve paid while here (mainly on our sommarhus). I’ve tried to turn it down, but they insist. I bet HMRC wouldn’t. Another reason for me to vote ‘Remain’.