Uphill struggle as Swedes move towards joining EU

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SWEDEN'S reluctance to join the European Union is slowly eroding, according to the latest opinion polls. But with nearly one in four voters undecided, the 'yes' campaign has an uphill struggle over the next 11 weeks.

A Gallup poll released yesterday showed 40 per cent in favour of joining the EU, 37 per cent against and 23 undecided. Voting intentions have vacillated greatly, with the 'no' vote always strong. But in recent months the 'yes' vote has improved. 'It would be silly to draw any instant conclusions from this information when there is still such a high percentage of 'don't knows',' said a spokesman at the Swedish Representation in Brussels yesterday.

The enthusiasm of the European Union's 12 existing member states to open their club to four more countries has not been matched by the enthusiasm of electors there, despite the accession terms struck in March which allowed everybody to come away with something from the deal. Sweden won its key demands: to stagger its EU contributions, secure special help for Arctic farmers; and still to use a particularly noxious form of snuff that is banned elsewhere in the EU but regarded as part of Sweden's cultural heritage.

The greatest common fear in the applicant countries is that membership will cost money and involve dismantling lucrative state-subsidies without bringing any obvious advantages - the four will contribute an estimated net amount of pounds 1.26bn a year, although there will be a lengthy phase-in period.

Of the four would-be applicants only Austria has voted resoundingly in favour. The Finnish referendum, to be held on 16 October, looks set to approve membership despite misgivings from the agricultural sector. It has been deliberately scheduled in advance of the Swedish vote in the hope that the country will decide it cannot afford to stay out of the Union once Austria and Finland have joined. Norway, still overwhelmingly anti-EU, will go to the polls on 28 November.

In Sweden, EU membership would constitute a political sea-change in a country that has prided itself on its neutrality - EU membership would be the first time since the Napoleonic Wars that Sweden has been part of an organisation with a defence component.

The watershed decision is complicated by the fact that there is a general election on 18 September. The centre- right government of Carl Bildt, who in his three years in power has tried to adapt the Swedish welfare model to fit into a free-market economy, looks set to be outvoted by the Social Democrats who are led by Ingvar Carlsson, a former prime minister.

The country is slowly coming out of its worst recession since the Thirties, unemployment stands at a record 14 per cent and government debt has exploded; the pain of efforts to re-balance the economy is being laid at Mr Bildt's door.

Campaiging for EU membership has dominated the summer because both parties are anxious not to lose momentum by confusing EU entry with electoral politics. Mr Bildt, who along with both unions and management is an ardent supporter of EU membership, has complained that Mr Carlsson has been reluctant to give the 'yes' campaign active backing, because his own party is split on the issue with rural supporters opposed.

Some political observers believe that once the election campaign is over, Mr Carlsson will play a more vigorous role in trying to convince undecided electors to vote 'yes'. The issue has attracted huge public interest.

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