If Brexit, then Swexit?
Sweden’s relationship with the EU is almost as problematic as Britain’s. It only joined in 1995 – 25 years after the UK – and on the basis of a pretty narrow popular vote. At the same time, Norway voted to stay out. Like the UK, Sweden has spurned the euro. The bigger political parties are all pro-Europe. Sweden used to have a party like Ukip, known as Junilistan (‘June List’), which won 15 per cent of the vote in the 2004 European elections, but has withered away since. A recent opinion poll put its support at 0.3 per cent. There’s also a Folkrörelse (‘People’s Movement’) opposed to EU membership on mainly socialist grounds. The Vänsterpartiet (‘Left Party’, ex-communist) is 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.
Broader public support for continued membership has been waning – down to 44 per cent in a recent poll (but with a large number of ‘don’t knows’), mainly because of the rest of Europe’s reluctance to share Sweden’s refugee burden. The Swedes have had other issues with the European bureaucracy over the years. It stopped them exporting snus, for example: the little sachets of snuff you insert between your teeth and gums; and has its greedy eyes on Sweden’s Systembolaget, the government liquor-store monopoly.
You’d expect the Swedes to have some sympathy, then, with Britain’s predicament. And also a material interest in it, if – as recent polls are predicting – 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 project. Is it really on the cards? It must raise the stakes.
The coverage of the build-up to the British referendum in the quality Swedish press and on TV has been extensive. There’s more reporting than comment. There’s plenty about the British situation they could mock if they wanted to: stereotypical old buffers like Nigel Farage and many Conservative backbenchers; Britain’s post-imperial delusions. There’s been some comment to the effect that the debate hasn’t shown the British ‘at their best’. (Prime Minister’s Question Time does a lot of harm to Westminster’s reputation abroad.) But on the whole the Swedish press has resisted the temptation to make too much fun of us, and has covered the debate pretty fairly and responsibly.
But there’s also puzzlement here. Why do the Brexiters want to leave? Or the Remainers want to stay? Swedes can see good reasons on both sides of the argument when it comes to whether or not they should stay in the EU. But no one seems certain which are the important ones for the British. Democracy? Trade? Bureaucracy? Immigrants? Xenophobia? Solidarity v. individualism? Pro or anti-Cameron? 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.
Read more in the London Review of Books