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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

For Swedes, To Be or Not to Be European

STOCKHOLM -- Some years ago one of my Swedish friends asked her father, a moderately important public figure, what aspect of his nation's history gave him most pride. "It was the day Sweden changed from driving on the left to the right, and there was not a single accident," he replied.


Reorganizing traffic flows is the kind of thing that Sweden excels at. Another is regulating the consumption of alcohol, although one has to say that the country's astronomically high liquor taxes do not stop thousands of Swedes from hopping aboard the ferry to Denmark to stock up on cheap booze. However, in the eyes of many Europeans, Sweden's greatest achievement since 1945 has been the creation of a welfare state that seems to provide prosperity and security for everyone from cradle to grave. Some might argue that there is a darker side to the Swedish way of life -- for example, the self-righteous social workers who monitor parents' upbringing of children like a kind of nasty morality police. Still, Swedes themselves seem happy enough, and there is no doubt that in education, health care and other areas they set standards that the rest of Europe can only admire.


Later this year, Swedes must decide how far to let the outside world intrude on this cozy existence. The question facing voters in a referendum will be whether or not to join the European Union. Austria, Finland and Norway will also hold referendums. At the moment, it looks as if Finnish voters, disturbed by the electoral success last December of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, will vote "yes" to the EU, identifying the European embrace as a form of protection against Russia. But the votes in Austria and Norway could be close. Austrians want to limit the number of EU heavy trucks on their roads, and Norwegians want special arrangements for their fishing industry. In Sweden, a recent poll showed 34 percent against EU membership, 28 percent in favor and 28 percent undecided.


Those Swedes who oppose joining the EU cite issues such as erosion of national sovereignty, threats to environmental standards, the risk that foreigners might flood the job market, and the possibility that remote northern regions might lose generous state subsidies. But the heart of the matter lies elsewhere. It lies in the feeling some Swedes have that letting the EU into Swedish life would be equivalent to a national deflowering.


Since the Napoleonic wars, Sweden has kept out of Europe's bloody conflicts. But the world has changed beyond recognition in the last five years, and Sweden has no choice but to change with it. Neutrality is a questionable concept when there is no NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Europe. The influx of refugees from ex-Yugoslavia since 1991 demonstrates that even a war in the opposite corner of Europe can have an impact on Sweden.


Above all, three years of deep recession have driven home to Swedes that they cannot expect to remain unaffected by wider European economic developments. Unemployment has climbed to 8.8 percent, and among youth it is as high as 30 percent in some parts of Sweden. The krona was battered on Europe's currency markets when the EU's Exchange Rate Mechanism went out of control. In such circumstances, it would seem better for Sweden to be part of Europe -- so that it can maximize its influence on events -- than to be outside. But you can never tell with Swedes. The illusion of innocence still retains its appeal. A "no" vote in the referendum is quite possible.