Sweden's women of the welfare state keep euro at bay

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The Independent Online

Outside the sprawling, concrete hospital complex in the Stockholm suburb of Huddinge, Ilse Bodin proudly sports a "no" badge as she pledges to vote against Swedish membership of the euro in next weekend's referendum.

"It will make no difference to me," says Ms Bodin, a laboratory technician and union official who has worked in the Swedish health service for 40 years and is near retirement. "But I am voting for the younger people. The euro would not be good for jobs, and not so good for patients either." Her views reflect those of hundreds of thousands of Swedish women who have proved more hostile to the euro than men.

In a society renowned for liberalism, its lavish welfare system and for 30 years of feminist advances, women may be about to deal a crushing blow to Sweden's European integration. One survey found 52 per cent of women expect to vote "no", and pollsters say opposition to the single currency is solid among older female voters and public-sector workers.

Swedes were always reluctant Europeans, joining the EU only in 1995 after a narrow referendum victory. Membership went against the grain of a national tradition of neutrality, which kept Sweden out of the 20th century's wars and let it emerge prosperous enough to build a society of high taxes and generous benefits. Total tax revenues equate to 51 per cent of GDP, compared with 38 per cent in Britain. The highest rate of income tax exceeds 60 per cent; Britain's is 40 per cent.

Belief in the superiority of the Swedish social model is deeply entrenched. Thus most opposition to the euro comes not from right wingers (as with British or Danish Eurosceptics) but mainly from the left, including the Left party and the Greens. Maj Britt Theorin, a social democrat, has spent 30 years campaigning for women's rights, first as an MP and now in the European Parliament. Although her party leadership backs the euro, the title of her campaign leaflet makes her position clear: "Monetary union - a trap for women".

Ms Theorin says the key to equality for women is financial independence through work. That means providing child care, help for elderly relatives and improving women's clout in the workplace and politics.

By these yardsticks, Sweden scores well. Nearly four out of five women work, and female unemployment is lower than that for men. Women are entitled to 14 months' parental leave for each child (this can be shared with male partners who are entitled to a minimum of two months). Subsidised, all-day child care is provided for all, and old people have regular help at home. Nearly half of all Swedish MPs are women.

Ms Theorin says: "What we have managed for women in Sweden is extraordinary, unique, and I am proud of it. It has been a long fight and we are not satisfied but still we are better off than in other countries in Europe. But you need to have high taxes to fund this." Inside the euro, she says, Sweden would lose autonomy and have to sacrifice its ability to fund welfare. Jobs would go and services would be cut.

Such talk has put the "yes" camp on the defensive. Its main argument has been that euro membership is vital if Sweden is to boost trade and generate the prosperity it needs to fund benefits. But another, more high-risk strategy, has emerged, challenging the assumed superiority of Sweden's social model and the complacency of its supporters. Euro enthusiasts say the country is no longer one of Europe's richest but has slipped, ranking only as an average EU performer in terms of gross domestic product per head.

Unemployment is low but those on sickness benefit number 800,000, equivalent to one sixth of workers. While the state supports women better than in most EU countries there is no substantial difference between Sweden and neighbouring Finland, which is a member of the eurozone. Health and childcare provision in France, Germany and Belgium has caught up.

Margot Wallström, Sweden's European commissioner and euro supporter, pulls few punches in campaigning at Stockholm University. "When we compare ourselves to others we forget that we have lost out recently in the league on gross domestic product. We are front-runners in legislation to protect the role of women. But, on child care or health care, you cannot say that we are better than every other country. Swedish women are already aware that the system is not complete or perfect."

Whether such plain speaking proves persuasive remains to be seen. But, with a close result likely in the 14 September poll, the fight for the votes of Swe-dish women will be decisive.