Sweden votes to join the EU

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The Independent Online
Sweden yesterday voted narrowly for membership of the European Union.

The result may sway the decision in Norway, taking the EU from 12 to 16; but it boosts the number of EU doubters, with a substantial amount of the population remaining unconvinced. With nearly all votes counted, 52 per cent voted ``yes'', 47 per cent ``no'', and 1 per cent left their slips blank.

This seemed to show a last-minute shift in favour of membership, after a week when opinion polls had showed voters veering back and forth. The last polls showed the ``yes'' vote narrowly in the lead, but the 20 per cent of the population that had been undecided may have plumped for membership at the last moment. As in Denmark, the result may mean continued problems over the pace of future integration.

The Swedish Prime Minister, Ingvar Carlsson, said the vote was ``good for Sweden and good for Europe''. Carl Bildt, the former prime minister who led Sweden's EU negotiations, said he was delighted. ``It seems as if we succeeded, and people in Sweden decided membership is better than non-membership,'' he said. The last stretch of the campaign concentrated on the potential costs of staying outside the EU, with the Social Democrat government warning a ``no'' might lead to a collapse in the currency and rising interest rates, making a further austerity package necessary.

But the Social Democrats - by far Sweden's largest party - remained deeply split on the issue. Speaking for the Social Democrats who opposed membership, Anders Ygerman said that ``people were on our side, but the money was somewhere else''. He warned that the party was still unconvinced, and said that it would not be easy to heal the rift. ``We're a divided nation,'' he said.

The north of the country was solidly against EU membership. The cities of Stockholm, Malmo and Gothenburg were all in favour, but the remoter, rural areas were opposed. This pattern is echoed in Norway, which votes on 28 November. Sweden now joins the EU on 1 January, along with Austria and Finland. Sweden may well prove to be an ally for those EU countries sceptical of deeper integration, such as Britain and Denmark.

A neutral state, Sweden is not a member of Nato or the Western European Union. Its membership will boost the number of EU neutrals to three (with the Irish Republic and Finland), reinforcing the trend towards a multi-track Europe advocated by John Major.

A ``no'' vote would have been seized on by British Euro-sceptics as proof that membership was not the only option. Sweden will be on Britain's side when, as a contributor to European funds, it considers EU decisions on free trade and budgetary discipline. However, with its insistence on high environmental, social and welfare standards, as well as its resistance to secrecy and closed-door decision-making, it will also find itself on the opposite side of the debate from Britain in many important areas. With Social Democrat governments in power in Denmark and Sweden, and likely in Finland, the EU is set to take a turn to the left over the next year.

Once the Nordic question has been solved, the EU will have to turn to the question of membership for the central European countries who are already banging on the door.

EU awkward squad, page 10

Leading article, page 15

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