Explore the BBC
Today Programme Report - Text Only Version
BBC Radio 4
Print This Page

Back to HTML version

Monday 15th September 2003

Sweden's Euro Referendum

Voters in Sweden's Euro referendum have decided not to join the single currency. James Naughtie has spent the weekend in Stockholm watching the voting unfold and he sent us this report.

Stockholm is a beautiful city. I first came here as a schoolboy in the sixties, sailing up the fjiord on a rather battered old liner which was packed to its gunnels with rather wild Scottish schoolchildren.

We were on our way to Leningrad, as it then was, and we weren't at all sure what to expect in Stockholm (though stories of Copenhagen's commitment to free love and its accoutrements were causing us great exictement about our visit there). I still remember the dawn coming up over the pine woods on the islands that guard the entrance to the city's natural harbour, and that sparkling cleanliness that seems part of its very character. We loved it. And that spirit is still intact.

And the Euro referendum has had a great deal to do with spirit. Sweden's pride in its way of doing things - in its style - was challenged by the horrible murder of Anna Lindh, the foreign minister, last week. Everyone believed it was right not to postpone the vote, most voters seemed to take the democracy even more seriously because of the murder, and nearly all of them seem to have decided that they shouldn't change their minds as a result of it.

As a result, the referendum turned into something of an act of defiance. It was directed not simply at the inchoate violence marked in the pile of flowers and candles outside a department store downtown here, but also at distant Brussels and indeed against the political establishment in Sweden which had been united, more or less, in arguing for a Yes vote.

That they failed, by a whopping fourteen per cent, was a spectacular gesture against the Governmnet. It dominates Parliament (wiith more than twice as many seats as its Centre-Right rivals) yet on this question is seen to be quite out of step. Why? Carl Bildt, the former prime minister from the right, told us on the programme this morning that he believed it was because the ground hadn't been prepared. The broader European argument - about engagement, partnership, economic interdependence - hasn't been put with enough force.

On the No side, the case is put quite differently. A distant, remote political elite has been confounded by a popular movement, and one which will be matched in other countires. We shall see, but it is clear that Brussels' old problem of a lack of connection with the people of the EU countries is as obvious as ever.

To hear Romano Prodi, the Commission president, speaking about the need to interconnect with the citizenry is to hear a scratchy old record whirring round once again. They said it after Maastricht, they said it when the old Commission collapsed in a shambles, they said it during the row over beef and the CAP and again when the Euro was launched they say it now.

Anyone talking here to voters will realise the extent to which the Brussels world still seems a distant planet, revolving to its own pulses. In different ways, all the national leaders in the EU recognise the depth of the problem. One of the solutions is meant to be the new constitution, which is meant to be ratified before Christmas.

But can anyone really believe that it is a document that inspires enthusiasm. It may reassure ardent pro-Europeans that a clarified and more streamlined bureaucracy will produce better leadership, but it also convinces sceptics that the drive to a "united Europe" is faster and more dangerous than ever. In that atmosphere, such explosions of popular feeling as we've seen in Sweden this weekend are surely inevitable. Once again "the people" will be pitched against the political establishment.

It is very hard to know what governments, or indeed the Commission, can do about this in the short term. In the streets of Europe there is a new kind of politics. Some of it is driven by a frustration with globalisation and the corporate world, fuelling a new leftism, and some of it springs from a more Rightwing-centred dislike of the big and the bureaucratic. Together, this is a potent mixture. A Euro "project" seems distant. European Central Bank governors seem, as they have appeared on the posters on the lampposts of Stockholm, as grey, faraway men with their own concerns.

This is the lesson from Sweden. All the talk about this being a country with its own kind of pragmatism, and some special sense of independence, doesn't meet the case : if politicians elsewhere don't look at the way the referendum has swung decisively No they will miss an important lesson. Looking dispassionately at the argument, it's clear that the Yes campaign simply failed to turn its convictions about future threats to prosperity into a message that seemed relevant or contemporary, whereas the No side was able easily to argue that there was no good reason why Swedes should cede control over an economy which provides such a distinctive and comprehensive welfare state. Any country proposing a referendum, or anyone sitting in Downing Street who may be contemplating one, must find out how to manage that trick. Without it, they are doomed.

The climax of this campaign was, of course, shrouded in the sheer horror of the Lindh murder. But what happened here overnight has even more drama to it than that dreadful event. Stockholm may be different. Cleaner, sharper, more invigorating than most European capitals and to that extent it may seem a place a long way away. No. It's rather close to the heart of things this morning. In Brussels, they know that. The question is: do they kinow what to do about it?

The BBC is not responsible for external websites

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy