Sweden's Euro Backlash

A Protest Against Those in Power

It is difficult to escape the interpretation that the “no” outcome in the recent referendum on Sweden’s joining the European Monetary Union is a protest against the political establishment. The outcome can also be described as a reaction against the “yes” camp’s die-hard professionalism during the campaign. In the strong mood of mutual understanding now reigning after the murder of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, Prime Minister Göran Persson has the opportunity to rethink his cooperation with parties critical of the European Union (E.U.) in his coalition. Bipartisan cooperation among the parties that favor a common currency, beyond the divisions of left- and right-wing camps, would enable Sweden to contribute to the E.U. in the future.

The high voter turnout in the referendum is, of course, largely a result of the national trauma after the tragic murder of the foreign minister. The referendum did turn out to be the manifestation of democracy that we had all hoped for. Let us at least hope that citizens who have not been going to the polls in recent years for lack of interest will start reevaluating their position. Anna Lindh’s assassination—whatever the motives for the murder—was an attack against an open and democratic society.

Our democracy, one of the most stable in the world, is often taken for granted. But the core sense of democracy is not forever secure. Democracy is by definition something fluid and dynamic. Every generation must claim it anew and adapt it to changing conditions. The victory of the “no” camp proves that the effect of the murder on voter opinion was weaker than many commentators and others had assumed. We would never have gotten a clear picture of how the terrible attack affected the outcome if the “yes” camp had won. The positive outcome of the referendum is that we don’t have to go through interpretive discussions about its legitimacy. The party leaders’ unanimous statements that the outcome of the vote should be respected were important, but of course that was no guarantee that other actors on the political stage—not only party representatives—might not come forward.

It is said that this latest referendum was the most controversial in our history. Several aspects of the campaign must also be judged as all-time lows. But referendums are always aggressive in tone. The public is focused on one question for an extended period of time. Arguments are pointed, and the tone of voice is sharp. To this we must add the polarized character of the debates that lead to confrontation: You either are for or against the issue at hand, and those who choose a more reasoned tone and discuss the topic in a more sophisticated manner are seen as vague, and often rightly so.

Conflict is thus at the essence of referendums. This runs counter to Sweden’s political culture, where values such as consensus and pragmatism have long been celebrated. The fact that the discourse over the euro vote was especially harsh, with increased negative campaigning, can be attributed to the professionalization of politics. Public relations firms and spin doctors enter the arena while political parties exit, which gradually changes the character of opinion-making. Discussion and argumentation are displaced by catchy phrases and slogans, produced according to the practices of the advertising business. From a strategic point of view this may be unavoidable. The conditions for opinion-making in our media-driven political world demand this kind of professionalism. But the long-term price is a diminishing of democracy.
The outcome of the referendum reflected the fallout from the “yes” campaign’s well-studied, thoroughly professional campaign strategies.

A contributing factor to the harsh tone that characterized the campaign to adopt the euro was that the issue split the political parties. The split in the largest party, the Social Democratic Party, has been the focus of constant attention. It is difficult to imagine any party leader in a more difficult position than Prime Minister Persson. He had to lead a deeply split party, where the resistance to the European Monetary Union has long been extremely strong. The campaign had obviously been influenced by the fact that Persson’s parliamentary position is made possible by the support of the two most openly anti-euro parties [the Left and Green parties], whose official goal is to withdraw from the
E.U. altogether.

It was easy to foresee the “Muzzle Debate” [extended discussions about Persson’s decision to order anti-euro Cabinet members to keep silent], but it was impossible not to be dragged into these discussions.

The position of the government in Parliament remains unchanged, even after the referendum. The mandate of the power structure is the same, and the prime minister has repeatedly expressed his intention to remain in power. His expressed ambition has always been to continue cooperating with the parties that support him, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

In the current atmosphere of mutual understanding, it will be possible to rethink this position. Other alternatives for political cooperation ought to be considered. Against the background of the national trauma Sweden is faced with, it seems only natural to go beyond the parliamentary blocs that for many years have functioned as mental iron curtains.

Such a reorientation might appear illogical, considering the outcome of the referendum. But it would send a strong signal to other E.U. members if Swe-
den’s government were to get support from the pro-E.U. groups in Parliament. A “no” to European monetary union combined with continued cooperation with the two political parties that are critical of E.U. integration could be problematic in the current efforts to participate in and affect the E.U. Nor is it improbable that there will be increased demands that Sweden’s separation from the union become permanent, as in the case of Denmark and Great Britain—which would mean that Sweden’s membership in the union would have to be renegotiated.

Lindh’s assassination has probably increased support for the Social Democratic leaders. Before the murder, Persson’s most pressing and difficult task, regardless of the referendum’s outcome, was to reach a consensus within the Social Democratic Party. The extent to which this would have been possible, and if so, how, was already subject to speculation.

The wound inflicted on the party during the campaign will heal. But the scar remains, and, in the long term, the main problem will be the same: Despite the temporary solution of Sweden’s role within the European monetary union, the Social Democratic movement in Sweden is split on the European issue. In the current flow of smaller, more isolated issues that the party has to deal with, this is less of a problem, but in a larger, constitutional sense, the split is deeply problematic.

The division within the Social Democratic movement on European issues is rooted in the party’s long-standing orthodox position on Sweden’s freedom from alliances in peacetime and its neutrality during war. When members of the conservative opposition in the 1950s claimed that the Social Democratic government—ambitious to create the most credible stance for Sweden’s politics of neutrality—underestimated the existing leeway when it formed opinions in choosing a social system, they misunderstood the political ambitions of the Social Democratic movement. Social Democrats simply lacked the same ideological connections with the Western democracies that the opposition held—connections that the opposition took for granted even within the government. However, according to Tage Erlander [Sweden’s longest-serving Social Democratic prime minister, who served from 1946 to 1969], writing in his autobiography, “We did not want to be placed in the group of states that regarded themselves as democracies but were still very far from what we saw as righteous societies.”

The cool attitude toward a united Europe is still part of the Social Democratic outlook and must be seen in its historical context. It is also worth pointing out that the party announced about 10 years ago that it had changed its position toward membership in the E.U. as part of a program to rescue the country from economic crisis.

If the party leaders do not succeed in winning over all those who are cool to a united Europe, it will become impossible to bridge the antagonisms that have cast a dark shadow over the party’s political ambitions during recent years. In the worst-case scenario, the antagonism will get out of control and will paralyze the party.

Anna Lindh was a devoted fan of a united Europe and thus belonged to a minority in her own party. Perhaps her views will become the determining factor in the party’s future positions on issues related to Europe.