Euro vote has some in Sweden worried about policy changes

Friday, August 29, 2003

STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- Sweden has always thought of itself as being ahead of the curve -- more egalitarian, less hung-up about sex, more respectful of women, untouched by war, a land as safe and solid and streamlined as a Volvo station wagon.

In fact, so ingrained is this certainty that it's giving the government a major headache.

That's because Sweden faces a fateful decision Sept. 14. A referendum will decide whether Sweden adopts the euro, the common currency of the 15-nation European Union.

Opponents say Sweden, like Britain and Denmark, is better off staying out. Joining the euro, they say, is another step toward a European superstate that will tie Sweden's hands in setting tax rates and maintaining its generous welfare system.

The government maintains that by snubbing the euro, the nation of 9 million risks becoming a marginal force in the new, borderless European giant.

Right now the "Ja" vote trails the "Nej"-sayers by 10-15 percentage points in the polls, and Prime Minister Goeran Persson and his Social Democratic party will have to campaign hard to close the gap.

But they find themselves in an odd spot. They have to play down a recent economic trend -- showing better growth and unemployment figures in Sweden than the EU average -- while gently pointing out to the voters that "the Swedish model" isn't what it used to be.

Though welfare benefits remain high, the days have gone when Sweden's tax-funded schools, hospitals and social services were the envy of neighbors struggling to recover from two world wars. What was once unique to Sweden is now the norm in many European countries.

Inferiority complex

Yet many Swedes are convinced things are inferior "paa kontinenten" -- on the continent.

Switching to the euro would mean ditching the krona, with its bank notes honoring such greats as the 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus and soprano Jenny Lind, the 19th century "Swedish nightingale."

The fear of diminished Swedish sovereignty is confined to small far-right groups, while most euro-resistance comes from the left, defending the cradle-to-grave welfare system.

"I'm going to vote 'No,"' says Ronny Eriksson, a 50-year-old standup comedian in Piteaa, 80 miles south of the Arctic Circle. "I want a society in which we together own and pay for our fundamental goods. They're not interested in that in the European Monetary Union."

Sweden's anti-European reflex can be traced back to 1961, when Social Democratic Prime Minister Tage Erlander said no to the nascent European bloc. The rest of the world should follow Sweden, not the other way round, he said.

The image of an economically and socially superior Sweden has persisted, especially on the left, with the same tenacity as the myth of Swedes being suicidal. (In fact, according to the World Health Organization, Sweden's suicide rate is comparable to the United States' and well below several European countries.)

Sweden finally joined the union in 1995, together with Finland and Austria.

Pro-euro sentiment surged temporarily after Sweden held the rotating EU presidency in 2001, and again when euro coins and notes were introduced in 12 EU countries Jan. 1, 2002, with much less disruption than expected.

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