No such thing as free lunch if Sweden wants to join EC

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THERE are few places in the world where the EC flag is wildly popular, but Sweden is one of them. The 12 golden stars on a blue background have had a special resonance for Swedes ever since their government put up its already high sales taxes, and restaurants responded by using the flag to advertise cheapie specials at 'low' European prices.

Today, the Swedes remain one of the most highly taxed people in the world: according to recent figures, their government takes almost 57 per cent of income in tax, compared with an average of 39 per cent in the Community.

But some things change. This morning, the European Commission is due to issue a formal avis, or opinion, on Sweden's application to join the EC. Negotiations will start early next year, if the Maastricht treaty is ratified and the EC budget agreed on. And by 1994, the Swedish government hopes to have pushed the terms through parliament in time for an autumn referendum.

Sweden has already sent 'heaps of information' to the lowly officials at the Commission who have been preparing the avis. But the job is certain to be less arduous than Britain's application was. As one of the seven members of the European Free Trade Association, Sweden is a signatory to a free trade deal with the EC, covering about two-thirds of the ground of a full application.

Of the remaining third, agriculture will be difficult. Inside the EC, Swedish farmers will have to get used to less subsidy than now; despite that, they support the idea of joining, probably because of a wisely cynical view that the EC's own bloated farm subsidies are unlikely to fall much further.

With only 3.3 per cent of its 8.6 million people on the land, Sweden will suffer less than its fellow-applicants Austria, Finland and Switzerland, which have on average twice as many of their people in farming. Along with Finland, Sweden will be asking for special treatment for farmers who grow their crops in near-Arctic conditions.

The Commission is expected to pronounce Sweden fit to join on this and other counts, but to express reservations about its former policy of neutrality. At Maastricht, the EC committed itself to a common foreign and security policy, and raised the spectre of common defences too. For Sweden, abandoning 'non-alignment' could be traumatic: many Swedes remember acutely that theirs was one of the few countries to stay aloof from both world wars.

In its application, Sweden said that unlike Austria, it was imposing no conditions. But the Commission does not seem convinced that Sweden accepts Maastricht: despite all the debate on the subject, the avis is expected to reiterate that Sweden will be asked to show that it accepts the Community's post- Maastricht aims.

The biggest problem, however, will remain whether Swedes themselves want to join. Recent polls show a slight improvement over May figures that suggested a majority against membership. The Community certainly wants Sweden; it is 17 per cent richer than the EC average, and would thus be a net giver of EC funds. And Swedish industry is convinced Sweden will have more jobs, more productivity and a better future inside the EC.

But there are certain to be ups and downs before the expected joining date of 1996. Commission officials were reported this week as saying they wanted to stop the unauthorised use in Sweden of the EC's flag. For the moment, they would be wise to hold off: all those cheap meals are valuable Swedish publicity that Brussels may badly need.

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