The New York Times Sponsored by Starbucks

September 14, 2003

For Swedes, Vote on Euro Will Be About Independence and Economics


BJORKLINGE, Sweden, Sept. 11 — As she prepared to shop at the Spar supermarket in this bucolic woodland town, Monica Junevall barely hesitated when asked if she would prefer to shop with the krona, the Swedish currency, or the euro single currency.

She chose the krona.

The same question will be put to this land of nine million people in a referendum on Sunday. The vote follows an impassioned campaign that became yet more emotional and uncertain when Sweden's foreign minister, Anna Lindh, a fervent supporter of the single currency, was fatally stabbed last Wednesday.

But, as Ms. Junevall's reply suggested, however, the vote will be not so much about economics, but about a more visceral question: are Swedes ready to abandon fully what they call their special way — of welfare, prosperity, independence and harmony — in favor of a closer bond with other Europeans, whom they do not really consider their equals?

"Europe isn't complete or ready yet — maybe in 10, 20, 30 years," said Ms. Junevall, a nurse in a senior citizens' home, referring to the European integration that will roll eastward next year when the 15-member European Union, 12 of which already use the euro, adds 10 more countries. "This is not about the krona as a symbol."

The real issue, she said, is that by ceding monetary control to the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, "we would have to be integrated with other countries that will have to catch up with us." That meant, she said, that she would be firmly voting to keep the krona.

Opinion surveys before Ms. Lindh's death put the no vote consistently ahead by 10 to 15 percentage points, although the outcome is now less clear. The vote is not the first on Sweden's relationship with the rest of the continent.

In 1994, Sweden — overcoming its worries about forfeiting its cherished neutrality and political independence — voted to join the European Union on terms that committed it to adopting the single currency.

But Swedish politicians have been too divided on the euro issue — even within the highest levels of the dominant Social Democrats — to consider adopting it without a popular mandate.

There is, said Goran Rosenberg, a leading columnist and author, "a hidden conflict within us, an unresolved conflict about Sweden's self-image which was not resolved in 1994."

Prime Minister Goran Persson believed he could overcome the doubts when he called the referendum, but the anti-establishment "no" campaign has stubbornly resisted a huge, slick and expensive bid by the political, business and intellectual elite to sway voters behind the euro.

Within the European Union, only Britain and Denmark have also remained with Sweden outside the single currency and, whatever the economic issues, many people in all three countries believe that the final choice turns on the politics of the holdouts' relationship with the rest of Europe.

"To me as an individual," said Jacob Wallenberg, one of two cousins leading Sweden's dominant business dynasty, who favors the euro, "I think the most important and overwhelming argument is a political one: should I be inside or outside? Are you going to be at all the decision-making tables or not?"

That is where the arguments run into the deep emotional crosscurrents that make decisions about the euro so harrowing for nations that have remained outside.

"We are not voting about E.M.U.," Mr. Wallenberg said, referring to the European Monetary Union, which underpins the currency. "We are telling the world what we think about the European Union."

The euro debate, said Mr. Rosenberg, the columnist, "is a new prism for the argument about the European Union."

Indeed, some contend, the debate involves the very identity of a nation fiercely proud of a free-thinking heritage that has striven to create the perfect civilization, insulated by a tradition of political neutrality that kept Sweden out of two world wars and fostered a sense of aloof independence.

Some "yes" voters see that self-image as outdated.

"Swedish people think they are independent, but they aren't," said Helene Sandal, who is training for the clergy, as she left the Spar supermarket in this town 50 miles north of Stockholm. "We need Europe. We can't just be a small country up in the north."

In the early stages of the campaign, both sides fought on economic grounds, about the effect of euro membership on interest rates (Sweden's are 0.75 per cent higher than in the euro-zone, where they are set by the Central Bank), trade and jobs.

Ultimately, said Nils Lundgren, a prominent economist who opposes the euro, the economics came down to a simple equation contrasting the euro-zone doldrums to the more active and expansive Swedish economy. "We have a different economy and need a different monetary policy," he said.

But in recent weeks, the economic arguments have given way to more emotional ones, Mr. Lundgren said. "Emotions, ideologies and feelings are coming in." Swedes, he added, "have a feeling that by joining the euro, they are doing something that damages them, that means they are no longer in control of their country."

Sweden's sense of identity is defined in part by what some regard as a heritage that sets them apart from much of continental Europe.

"This country has been blessed by the fact of not being involved in a war for 200 years," said Olof Ruin, a political scientist, so the idea of the European Union as a guarantor of peace "does not have the same appeal as on the continent."

Moreover, he said, many Swedes worry that euro membership will further damage the country's cradle-to-grave welfare provisions.

Mr. Lundgren, the economist, said that Sweden's neutrality in World War II and the cold war nurtured an aloofness that made it skeptical about the value of membership.

"The population has grown up in an atmosphere in the postwar period where Sweden was not part of any alliance and that has produced an extra resistance to handing over our decision-making to anyone else," he said.

Some Swedes contend that the experience of being in the European Union has inspired a strong reaction in the euro debate.

"We had this very strong idea that Sweden is special and has been able to follow its own line," said Ake Daun, a prominent sociologist here. But being forced to collaborate, he said, "if you have the idea that they are more backward, this generates a fear that you will be held back by them."

Magnus Karlsson, a factory worker who had pulled in here to shop on his way to Stockholm from further north, seemed not too worried about the possibility of adopting a new currency.

"Swedes will still be Swedes, whether we have the krona or not," he said.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top