Inside File: Swedes sit out hymns to European unity

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UPPSALA - Christmas in Sweden: the oddest thing about a service in Uppsala cathedral, the largest church in Scandinavia, is singing hymns sitting down. This Lutheran mitigation of fervour serves as an example of a country slightly off the beaten track of Europe.

In a pre-Christmas interview to a Swedish newpaper, Lady Thatcher summed up the perception of a Sweden apart with the following tirade: 'Somehow I think the undermining of the family has gone further in Sweden than in any other Western society. It is a lesson to us all. When a country has experienced such a long period of peace as Sweden has done - my goodness, you were spared both world wars - it is as though people lose the will to control their own lives. Instead of accepting the responsibilities of freedom, they turn to the state with all their problems.'

Now, a referendum about entry to the European Union is likely to be held concurrently with general elections in September. Paranoia, or, as the Swedish masses abbreviate it, noja, reigns. Much of it has centred on largely superficial symbols such as the future of wet snuff, which Swedes insert under the upper lip and which Brussels has sought to restrict as a health hazard; or Systembolaget, the state alcohol monopoly - never one of the Swedes' favourite institutions but now embraced as a darling of the no-to-Europe lobby. Doctors go on television to declare that fine, let the government go ahead and lift restrictions on alcohol, so long as it realises it will result in 4,000 deaths a year. (Here, in the vodka belt that stretches across northern Europe along latitudes roughly equivalent to the tundra, there is a conviction that people cannot handle the effects of their own drinking. The doctors' extrapolation, however, does not take into account the estimated additional 40 per cent of vodka produced by moonshiners.) Misunderstandings abound: a Swedish official recently reported as an example to the Foreign Ministry the case of an elderly Swedish housewife who swore blind that Jacques Delors was determined to ban the use of the familiar appellation du in Swedish because of linguistic differences with the rest of Europe.

The no-lobby is on a steep rise in opinion polls. The failed merger between Volvo and Renault is a case in point of the deep-seated mistrust towards abroad; it is not just that Renault is owned by the French (dubbed 'frog-eaters' by Swedish xenophobes); but that, to boot, it was owned by the French state, and expected to remain so. 'People could possibly countenance selling off Volvo to a French company, but never to the French nation,' said one Swedish diplomat.

The country's industry looks like it is falling apart. The failed Volvo merger prompted the ousting of one of northern Europe's most legendary industrialists, the Volvo chairman, Pehr Gyllenhammar. It just so happened that in the same period, the head of SAS, Jan Carlzon, resigned after a failed attempt to achieve a merger with a clutch of other European airlines, including KLM; and Stig Malm, the head of the Swedish TUC, was forced to resign after he was accused of handing out golden handshakes to union bosses.

The problem for Carl Bildt's conservative-led government is largely that the Swedish people feel duped by the EC-Efta agreement on a common European Economic Area three years ago. No referendum was held then; yet it was with that treaty that Sweden made its real concessions to Europe. It has since enacted more EU- compatible legislation than has Italy, a founding member of the European Community. The Swedes have finally woken up to that fact; they may use the September referendum to lodge a belated protest vote at not having been consulted. With the opposition Social Democrats holding virtually an absolute majority in the opinion polls, Mr Bildt's government risks losing the September election. In the run-up to then, it is only the Social Democrats who could reassure the electorate that it would be safe in Europe. It is unlikely that they would do Mr Bildt such a favour.