Swedes blame Brussels for the hard times

Mats Wiklund reports from a nation of Euro-sceptics
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The Independent Online
Stockholm - The Foreign Secretary may believe that in arguably the most Euro-sceptic country within the European Union he could easily persuade the Swedish people about the advantages of Britain's position on Europe. And, to a certain extent, he may be right. Mr Rifkind could win the hearts and minds of a majority of Swedes who, two years after their country's entry into the EU, ardently believe that their lives have changed for the worse and that Brussels in many ways is to be blamed for it.

On the political level, the governing Social Democrats are struggling to contain a strong anti-EU minority in the party while at the same time keeping all options open. The Prime Minister, Goran Persson, is thought to be in favour of joining the single currency - as is his Secretary of Finance, Erik Asbrink. So far Mr Persson and Mr Asbrink have decided to keep their views to themselves. But they will soon have to make up their minds. The future of Emu is to be decided by a party conference in the autumn.

As things stand at the moment, the Prime Minister faces a hard task should he decide to argue for Swedish membership of Economic and Monetary Union (Emu). Already one member of his cabinet has openly come out against monetary union; many party activists feel very negative about the EU in general and about Emu in particular.

And why? The obvious response is that the debate over Europe and Sweden's role in it began at a very bad time. The past five years have seen great changes in the Swedish economy and welfare system. In the early 1990s unemployment rocketed and benefits were slashed while the establishment tried to convey the message that thecountry's future depended on EU membership.

It succeeded, but at a high price. The yes-vote in the 1994 referendum on membership won by a narrow margin. The Social Democrats split over the issue and the party has yet to recover.

Since then unemployment has grown and the strains on a society built on the premise of pragmatism and cohesion are showing. Meanwhile, the former Communist party, Vansterpartiet, has recruited a large number of disaffected Social Democrats; it is now the third largest political party in Sweden. A substantial part of their success can be attributed to a strong, populist stance against Europe. Only the Conservatives and the Liberals are fully in favour of Emu. It seems most likely that Sweden will not join monetary union in 1999, though it will probably meet the Maastricht criteria.

As in London, the government in Stockholm is also trying to have it both ways, balancing the national interest against the party interest. For the moment, as in Great Britain, they are not always compatible. Mr Persson, however, is likely to be in a better position to do this than is Mr Major. Swedes go to the polls in September 1998; the moment of truth has not arrived.