Swedish PM hails 'deal of the century'

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SWEDEN and Finland came one step nearer to being deflowered by the European Union yesterday. But full congress will occur only if the Swedish and Finnish electorates are persuaded to vote 'yes' to EU membership.

For Sweden, entry into the EU would represent the first time it has joined an international alliance, likely to include a defence component, since the Napoleonic wars. Neutrality was Sweden's badge of honour during almost five decades of East- West confrontation.

Carl Bildt, the Prime Minister, did an expert job yesterday of portraying the deal reached with the EU as a national triumph. He likened it to Sweden's gold medal in ice hockey at the Lillehammer Winter Olympics last weekend. Sweden had defended its colours in Brussels and were now the world champions in European negotiations.

'The agreement in Brussels today between Sweden and the 12 EU countries is Sweden's most important international deal during this century,' Mr Bildt said. The two goals clinching the deal at the marathon Brussels match were milk quotas and budgetary contributions.

'Sweden got more than most thought possible' on the budget issue, obtaining a 'substantial reduction' on its payments for some years. 'In substance and detail this is a very good deal. In all essential matters, the EU countries have taken into account and met our viewpoints.'

But however gruelling the final negotiation, it probably was, for Sweden at least, the easy part. A trickier task will be how to seduce an insecure electorate into voting for membership in a referendum expected to be held this autumn. Opinion polls show the 'no' vote at 40 per cent, with 32 per cent for and 28 per cent undecided.

On Mr Bildt's ability to sustain yesterday's mood of national satisfaction depends the outcome of that referendum. Swedish fears about European entry are largely emotive, founded on a wariness of foreignness altogether.

One apprehension addressed in yesterday's negotiation was fear of salmonella from abroad (Denmark is currently in the throes of an epidemic and therefore importing most of its poultry from the Swedes).

Misapprehensions also abound: a Swedish official cites the example of an elderly Swedish housewife who is convinced that Jacques Delors intends to ban the use of the familiar appellation du in Swedish in the name of linguistic harmonisation with the rest of Europe.

One Swedish official reflected recently: 'There are, in short, no arguments left to put to the Swedish people to sway them in favour of membership - except possibly that, having passed the bulk of EU legislation anyway, we may as well assume a voice at the negotiating table.'

The Finns might be easier. For Finland, which has lived in the shadow of Russia since it declared independence in 1917, EU membership represents its firmest ever foothold in the Western camp.

Having finally rid themselves of the yoke of four decades of Soviet influence, the Russian shadow looms ever larger again. Vladmir Zhirinovsky, the Russian ultra-nationalist leader, has declared his intention to have Russia re-occupy Finland.

This has driven Finns into the embrace of Brussels. Opinion polls indicate that 39 per cent are in favour of EU membership, 25 against and the rest undecided.

Their problem is ensuring that the other member-states recognise the geographical 'otherness' of Finnish agriculture. 'The Nordic region is substantially different from Central and Southern Europe,' said one Finnish official. 'We must make sure that they don't try to apply the same rules to us as they do to the rest.' He cited the proposal that European paper production should use 50 per cent recycled material. Finland, a massive exporter of paper, 'must have a say in laying down the rules'.

The dates for the referendums in both countries have yet to be agreed, but they are expected to be in October. Finland being the more likely to see a positive outcome, many feel it should go first. Were a Swedish 'no' vote to precede a Finnish referendum, it is probable that the Finns would get cold feet. Sweden, an earlier colonial master of the Finns, is still regarded as something of a mother figure.

But as one Finnish official noted: 'The idea that we should take the lead is a bit alien to us. We are, after all, known for being the ones who lag half a step behind.'