Sweden's Euro Backlash

Rebuffing the Union

The overwhelming Swedish “no” to the euro has sent shockwaves through the European Union (E.U.). A leading member of the union has rejected one of the union’s major core components. It is remarkable that the Swedes resisted appeals from a broad front of political, business, and media leaders who wanted to replace the krona with the euro.

This was the same popular revolt that [Norwegian Prime Minister] Gro Harlem Brundtland experienced in 1994 and that Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen faced in the Danish referendum on the euro three years ago. Now, [Swedish] Prime Minister Göran Persson has to learn the same lesson: Not even a massive bunch of well-meaning threats could compete with voter skepticism in a situation where fundamental values are at stake.

The Swedes have said no to their leaders—an alliance of politicians, union heads, businesspeople, and media figures. The voters’ reaction surprised both the “yes” and “no” camps, and, last but not least, opinion pollsters.

The technical explanation is that Persson tried to change Sweden’s economic policy according to a European model that is already on its way out among such leading members as France and Germany. The governments in Berlin and Paris are both operating this year with budget deficits that are 3-percent higher than permitted under the E.U.’s so-called stability agreement. This indicates that abandoning the mark and the franc for the euro did not create growth in the French and German economies.

In order to adhere to the rules of the game spelled out in the E.U. agreement, the French and Germans decided on a policy that—rather than putting priority on jobs—emphasized tax cuts. The European Commission has spelled out that in special cases “exceptions” could be made, which includes the smaller members of the E.U. as well. The question is whether every country will encounter the same understanding if it breaks the agreement.

The “yes” camp’s task was to convince a well-informed public of the benefits of the euro at a time when the economic and monetary union is in chaos. This was a bad starting point. The Swedes have never been entirely happy with their membership in the E.U., which began in 1995.

In addition, Persson chose the same tactics as Brundtland and Rasmussen before him: He obliterated the old dividing lines between capital and business. Persson undervalued a long-standing tradition that has given Sweden a strong social-democratic character. Sweden’s language, history, culture, ways of life, and customs strengthen the nation-state; only then do the Swedes see themselves as European. Persson made the same mistakes as his comrades in Norway and Denmark: In the heat of the debate, Social Democrats suffered because they portrayed their long-standing national tradition as a historical relic.

Persson has lost a referendum as well as a close friend—a colleague and a successor in the ranks of the Social Democratic Party. Anna Lindh was the strongest among those who created understanding of the E.U. before Swedes went to vote. In the end, leadership did not reach far enough. Democracy, however, did, as it once again made the earth shake on an E.U. issue.