Sweden has been offered no good reason to say yes

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The Independent Online

It seems a terrible thing to say, but the stabbing (mercifully not fatal) of the Swedish Foreign Secretary, Anna Lindh, in Stockholm yesterday might at least draw attention to the euro-referendum campaign going on there. Not that the attack was necessarily politically motivated, despite Ms Lindh's high-profile espousal of the "yes" campaign. But until now this Sunday's referendum had seemed noticeable most by the lack of international notice taken of it.

We should be paying attention. Sweden's referendum is a direct precursor of what might be expected here when, and if, the Government ever decides to join. And the difficulties the government in Stockholm is having in persuading a doubting public of the benefits of the currency give little cause for comfort. Virtually the whole of Swedish business is behind the "yes" campaign, and most of the political establishment, not to mention the press.

Nor is the "yes" campaign up against a vibrant opposition or a charismatic leader of the "noes". Rather the opponents are made up of a disparate range of groups from the environmentalists to the communists, from people who oppose Europe on nationalist grounds to those who oppose it for being insufficiently internationalist.

And yet all the opinion polls show a widespread reluctance to heed the calls of their political leaders, a stubborn reluctance to accept the idea that economic self-interest should overcome instinctive distrust. It's partly that the economic reasons themselves appear far from overwhelming to a country whose growth rates are higher than those in the eurozone and whose unemployment is lower. Where Sweden was finally brought to join the European Union a generation ago, largely for fear of missing out, there are far fewer concerns this time. In answer to the question "why not?", the public is inclined to say "but why?"

Tony Blair would face exactly the same question in Britain if he were to seek a vote before the next election. Growth over here has been quite fine and dandy without the euro. The "yes" lobby warns of falling investment and jobs if we don't join the currency, but (just as in Sweden) the argument lacks resonance among a people doing quite well without it.

Yet there is also a deeper factor in the Swedish situation which should give the political establishment here, and in the rest of Europe, pause for thought. Asked about their responses to the euro referendum, too many Swedes expressed a dissatisfaction with the EU in general. It isn't that they think it wrong to belong, it is just that they don't feel it is going anywhere or offering anything much.

This a pretty abysmal state of affairs, but a fair representation of public opinion through much of Europe at this time. Even before Europe has adopted a new constitution and brought in a whole new raft of members from the former communist countries, the sense of idealism and opportunity has slipped away.

Politicians must shoulder a good deal of blame for turning discussion of the common currency, the new constitution and even the great historic moment of gathering in the East into the West of Europe into an entirely domestic matter of national advantage.

President Chirac, who might have been expected to turn his leadership of anti-war opinion into a position at the head of Europe, has preferred to play an entirely French game of lordly contempt for the fiscal disciplines of monetary union. Gerhard Schröder is too mired in domestic problems to look beyond Berlin, while Silvio Berlusconi has so sullied the Italian presidency of the Union that many think that it will be impossible to agree a new constitution while the Italians are in charge.

British politics are no better. While the Tory party greets every action in Brussels as a sell-out (if Blair announced Britain was leaving the Union they'd still make it into a federalist plot) the Government has dived so low below the parapet on European questions that you'd have to bring in mechanical diggers to find it.

On one thing the Prime Minister is right. The new constitution proposed by the d'Estaing commission is not a great stride towards a more integrated community. Far from it. It is a determined attempt by the major countries to increase their control of European affairs, away from Brussels and the community institutions, to the detriment of the smaller countries. Which is not the least reason why the Swedes are so disillusioned.

Far from the enlargement of Europe representing a triumph of history, it looks set to become a travesty of political vision, in which the economic interests of the new members have been betrayed by a Franco-German deal to preserve western farmers and a constitution is imposed that will mean that none of the new entrants except Poland will have much say in the shaping of the Union.

For the British government, the Swedish vote will probably have little influence. If the noes have it, then that is what most expect. If it's a yes vote, it can be acclaimed. But for anyone who cares about Europe, we should be listening to Sweden. There are precious few moments of genuine democracy in European affairs. This is one of them.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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