Long live Vastergotland

All Europe is getting a little more ordinary, more like the evening crowds in Kungstradgarden
SWEDEN IS one of the largest of the small members of the European Union - or if you like, one of the smallest of the large ones - so its capital seems to me a good place to contemplate the congeries of lesser states, nations and aspirant minorities that will be the foot soldiers of the European confederation, when it happens; for even in the most liberally progressive of armies there are privileged staff officers and poor bloody infantry.

In Stockholm I often find myself thinking about the quandaries through which all those varied communities must struggle towards their European fulfilments. Consider for a start Kungstradgarden, the pleasant oblong park which runs down to the waterfront in the heart of the city.

On a February evening this is a very picture of bourgeois contentment. Skaters whirl and tumble around a floodlit skating rink to the thump of loudspeaker rock. Comfortable, well-wrapped couples, arm in arm, inspect the not-too-modern art in the gallery on the west side of the square, or pop into the Volvo showroom at the top end, or swathe themselves in blankets for alfresco cappuccinos outside the Restaurant Victoria. Nobody looks very rich, nobody looks very poor, there are no bloated plutocrats in sight, as there are certainly no beggars. Everybody looks - well, in the middle.

But at the bottom end of Kungstradgarden, a statue of King Karl XII of Sweden (1682-1718), holding a sword in one hand, points with the other peremptorily in the direction of Russia. He is not kidding. Under his fierce dynasty this plump, undemonstrative, comfortable populace really did make itself one of the great powers of Europe, humiliating Russians, Danes, Poles, Saxons, Livonians and heaven knows who else.

Karl XII used to be a great hero of Swedish patriots, but nobody seems to take much notice of his grandiloquent statue now. When I asked a Swedish acquaintance which period of their history most citizens were nostalgic for, he replied without hesitation "the 1950s". It was then that the Swedes first discovered themselves as a modern state, pre-eminent in design, industrially successful, socially progressive, but still not too far from the little red house among the lakes and larches which is the Swedish sentimental epitome.

They apparently don't pine for Karl XII and his armies storming across the continent. The stupendous 17th-century Swedish ship Vasa, magnificently restored in its museum beside Stockholm's harbour, greatly moves me but evidently does not stir the Swedes to any imperial nostalgia. Swedish soldiers still do footling soldierly things around the guardhouse of the immense Royal Palace, but the palace itself has no king inside it, Karl XVI Gustav and his queen having migrated to a gentler palace out of town.

Half the small nations of Europe have pasts of similar grandeur. The Austrians, the Belgians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Portuguese, all had empires once. The Catalans and the Scots have been gloriously martial in their time. The Irish, the Welsh and the Corsicans had famous champions of their own. All once revelled in generations of swagger and their belligerent illusions.

For as we surely recognise by now, power itself is illusory, and the first challenge facing them all is to accept the transience of glory. The Swedes, it appears to me, were long ago reconciled to lost consequence, and the Irish seem willing to abandon recrimination and reproach. Not all their peers, though, have yet swallowed their pride and laid their seductive old ghosts to rest. The Austrians seem half-stuck in the flowery allure of Hapsburgism. The Belgians honour their Belgianness with preposterous ceremonials that are not only for the tourist trade, the Scots go on about Robert the Bruce, the Welsh about Owain Glyndwr, the Portuguese about Henry the Navigator.

Often one sees in Stockholm representatives of that ethnic abstraction, the Immigrant Community. They may be Turkish, or Kurdish, or Arab, or Serb, or African, or Gypsy, but they are everywhere in Europe, and the smaller the country, the more they show. The truth is that multiculturalism can be easily absorbed in big countries, but makes small countries feel less special, and specialness means a lot when there are not many of you.

Only yesterday a Swede was complaining to me that Swedishness is in need of imaging. It has no universally recognisable icon, he said, no national logo - no Big Ben or Eiffel Tower or Brandenburg Gate, no Tour de France or Pope or Pamplona bull-run, no game specific to itself, no familiar distinction of custom or habit. Wearing Christmas candles on your head is not enough. Even the presentation of Nobel Prizes in Stockholm Town Hall gets hardly more than a flicker on the world's TV screens.

He was right in a way. The Swedes have evened themselves out so successfully, and on the whole assimilated their immigrants so sensibly, that they have made themselves more or less unnoticeable. Only now and then does somebody in the Stockholm crowd seize my eye - with a loping walk that seems to speak of snowbound forests, or the sudden lovely flash of a Nordic smile.

There is still a nobility of Sweden, 600 families strong, with a House of Nobles where it holds biannual meetings, but its effect upon the ambience is minimal. The single-chamber Parliament, too, is a pale, clean, scoured archetype of your non-confrontational, equal opportunity assembly, with not an eccentric in sight.

So is this how all the little European countries will be, when Europe is confederated? English, the universal language, is already making everyone seem a bit more like everyone else, and the colossal force of economics, the power behind all our thrones, year by year smooths out inherited bumps and normalises quirks. All Europe is getting a little more ordinary, a little more like the evening crowds in Kungstradgarden. But I suspect the little states and nations will maintain their individualities longest: towered over as they are by neighbours of greater influence, they have had to work harder to maintain their identities.

I always prefer to speak of a European confederation, rather than a federation. I am not at all sure of the technical difference, but I know that the United States regarded itself as a confederation until 1789, when the Congress made a tighter federal union of it. To my mind, con-federation is what the small nations of Europe need, and what is already recognisably coming about everywhere from Finland to Catalonia. Nationalist arrogances are softening, history is blurring at the edges, the preoccupations of defence and foreign affairs are beginning to be seen as matters beyond the competence (or perhaps the interest) of the European rank and file.

It means no loss of self-respect, only a series of national redefinitions. Germany and France are the European powers they always were. Britain wavers. Italy, Spain and Greece adjust. But the small nations, from Belgium, Austria and Sweden down, are obliged to find new ways of being themselves. A confederation of Europe can absorb all their devices. Unlike the United States of America, it can sustain within itself all manner of variety: of the 15 members of the European Union today, eight are still monarchies, and show few signs of becoming Republics.

A small state can be conformist in some ways, esoteric in others - 14 McDonald's are marked on my map of downtown Stockholm, but the heir to the Swedish throne is still HRH Crown Princess Victoria Angrid Alice Desiree, the Duchess of Vastergotland!

More and more, too, the smaller members of the confederation can realise themselves, and maintain their singularities, in inner cultural and linguistic alliances - the Swedes still with the Finns and Danes, the Celtic countries together, Catalans with Provencals and Corsicans perhaps.

"How do you like the Swedes?" I asked an Italian resident of Stockholm the other day. He made one of those balancing gestures with his hand, the cosi cosi gesture. "So, so," he said. "They're not like us. Their souls do not sing." Thank God for that, I thought. Who wants Sorrento in Norrmalm?

The Swedes may have no vibrato in their hearts, but they have the ice and the midnight sun there, and the Saab convertible, and Strindberg, and that little red house among the lakes, and HRH the Duchess of Vastergotland. Vive les differences!