Swedes fear Union will rock their 'cradle': Spirit of compromise haunts European referendum

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THERE ISN'T even a word in English for the Swedish national institution of trygghet. Terms like security and safety do not properly capture the meaning of the national 'cradle' built up over most of this century. And now, with the Yes and No sides fairly even ahead of the 13 November referendum on European Union membership, many are convinced that the cradle will be dismantled by Brussels.

'They are cowards one and all,' said one staunch EU supporter, speaking of the No movement, which, after last week's general election, is co-ordinating its national campaign in earnest. The election saw the return of the Social Democrats who built the welfare state and are the only party to win enough trust to lead Sweden to a Yes vote.

The Swede is sullen, shy and slow, goes the saying. The country, one of the least populated in Europe, is divided into three parts, as reflected in the ancient national symbol of the three crowns. Most of the sullen breed is said to be found in Norrland, while the southern Svealand and Gotaland are supposed to have mellowed through continental influence.

But even in this central southern industrial town, the No side has its rabid supporters. If Maj-britt, a retired civil servant living in the tiny village of Eklangen, is to be believed, there is no end to the drawbacks. 'The latest I heard was that of the 18bn kronor (pounds 1.7bn) Sweden will contribute, 10bn kronor will be used to start new textile plants in Portugal. This makes me see red: we've had to dismantle our textile industry. Drugs will flow in in large quantities . . . and we've seen that the more central control there is, the more things fall apart. Look at Russia.'

There is a paradox about that uncompromising attitude. Some of the more eloquent advocates of entry say it is precisely the spirit of compromise that allowed Sweden to become what it is today.

Marit Paulsen, in her pro-EU book, A Small Book in a Big Question, writes: 'This way of running a society is laborious and sometimes very boring. But there is no system in the world which has given the ordinary, not very strong, individual such good conditions as this rather dull compromise system.'

Trying to evince views from the many undecided, who number as many as the Yes and No camps in Eskilstuna, is like pulling teeth. 'I'm leaning towards No, but I really don't know,' said a young female postal worker queuing at Systembolaget, the state alcohol monopoly. She would not even give her first name. A bearded giant working as an engineer for the multinational Alfa Laval company was equally unwilling to declare his intentions. 'We're more or less in already anyway. My company has more offices inside the EU than outside. Why do we have to join?'

Systembolaget, as it happens, was one of Sweden's most hated institutions until it became a sacred cow in the EU debate, symbolising the way Swedes are used to doing things. Controlling imports and distribution, it forces Swedes to queue up in large outlets with an electronic queue-numbering system, and is only open weekdays between 9am and 6pm.

This reinforces the idea that Swedes are doing something they should not. Many stare at the floor. 'I think it's right that the state retains control over hard liquor at least,' says the postal worker. 'Maybe we could have wine in supermarkets. But nothing stronger.'

In some ways, though, Sweden is still a victim of its own progress, so that it perceives the EU as on a level below. The position of women is one example: there is hardly a family in Sweden where the mother does not work outside the home, provided she is not unemployed. 'But in the EU as a whole, the percentage of working women is nearer 50,' said Tommy Jansson, a leader of the Eskilstuna No movement.

Yet by the same token, women tend to lead a more mature discussion on the implications of membership. Odetta, a mother in her late 20s, is opening her own fashion retail business in Eskilstuna.

'Before, I was very much against. There is so much nonsense being talked: that they will take away our falun sausage, our snuff, and that bananas must be a certain length.

'But as I've understood it, it is about open borders and joining forces to improve things, including in third countries with difficulties.'

This highlights another national trait of the Swedes: that of improvers of the world. Anyway, says Odetta, 'nobody can make the Swedish people do what they don't want to. Look at France: they haven't become any less French from being members. We may be smaller, but we're not exactly a Third World country. We don't need their money to survive.'

(Photograph omitted)