”Europeans watch our referendum debate with fascination and fear”

Published in the Guardian, 24th of april 2016,

In Sweden, you would be hard pressed to find anyone – or at least anyone in a prominent position – who would use a milder term than “disaster” when referring to a possible Brexit. You will often find statements that Brexit would have even worse consequences for our country than the UK.

“For Sweden it would be devastating, for the EU worrisome and for the UK really bad,” says former finance minister Anders Borg about the threat of Brexit. “It would be worse for Sweden”, according to the headline of an editorial comment in Aftonbladet, Sweden’s biggest evening paper. “A catastrophe,” says the current finance minister, Magdalena Andersson. The feeling is widely shared across the Swedish political landscape. It is echoed by the business world – never failing to cite Brexit as one of the darker clouds over the economy – and even the trade unions.

Why the strong emotion? Well, of course there’s an economic case to be made. The UK is Sweden’s fourth largest trading partner. Danske Bank calculates that after Ireland, Luxembourg and Belgium, Sweden would be the EU country hardest hit if the British economy were cut off from the European economy (with a loss of up to 0.48% of Swedish GDP).

The sheer uncertainty of whether we are heading for Brexit is one of the most commonly mentioned negative factors at any presentation of the year ahead, be it for the Swedish economy or for any major Swedish company.

But there is much more at play than just economic worries. The UK does not seem to be aware of it, but Sweden rather feels it has a “special relationship” with the UK. Andersson spelled it out in an opinion article in February: “The UK is simply one of our absolute closest allies in the EU,” she said. Indeed, the prime minister, Stefan Löfven (a socialist), promised to do everything in his power to help David Cameron get a good deal in his negotiations with the EU earlier this year, so that the UK would stay.

That Sweden feels this strong bond with the UK has something of a mystery about it. For a start, anyone would be excused for thinking that the fellow Nordic countries must surely be mentioned as Sweden’s closest friends more often than the UK. That never happens. There is a historic rivalry here that keeps getting in the way.

Still, every attempt to enumerate the many areas where Sweden and the UK are such close allies invariably comes up with a rather short list.

Free trade is always mentioned as the top (staunch defenders, both of us). Then comes the EU budget (we both would like to pay less). Third, we have common interests as non-euro countries (we both fear losing out).

This amounts to a surprisingly short list for your “absolute closest ally”. Especially considering that the two overriding subjects in the Swedish political debate for years have been important societal issues where we do not seem to share any common interest with the UK. These are: the labour market (Sweden will insist on strengthening workers’ rights, no matter which government is in power) and migration (Sweden will defend remaining “open” and also defend giving equal rights to newcomers).

Even so, there is an obvious sincerity in the Swedish conviction that the UK is very close to Sweden. Former prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said he felt that Cameron was a “personal friend” and the Swedish media would often describe them as “best buddies”. Another former prime minister, Göran Persson, felt so personally close to Tony Blair that at press briefings at EU summits he would refer to him as simply Tony, as in: “Tony said to me…” Yet another exformer prime minister, Carl Bildt, described his relationship with his counterpart John Major as “outstanding”.

There are also linguistic and cultural factors that go a long way to explain the feeling of closeness and understanding. Swedish people tend to speak English more or less fluently but no other foreign language. For that reason they tend to read no foreign media other than British media. This is true for your everyday Swede and, of course, every Swedish politicians and most Swedish journalists.

Thus, our window on to the world, to Europe, can often be from a British perspective. This, incidentally, has contributed to shaping the Swedish view of the EU and our ideas on whether the EU is costing too much, spending money on the wrong things or is hopelessly bureaucratic. All in all, maybe it is not illogical that we should end up thinking of the UK as our closest ally.

A recent poll indicates that Swedish public opinion may be losing faith in the EU with only 39% declaring their trust in the institution in March this year, as opposed to 59% last autumn. Also, no fewer than two political parties in the Swedish parliament currently demand that Sweden follow in Cameron’s footsteps and ask for a renegotiation of our EU membership deal.

One should not, however, make the mistake of thinking that Sweden would be tempted to follow the UK if it were to leave the EU. ou will find that tThe two parties seeking a new EU deal for Sweden are at the very extremes of the Swedish political map – one, the former communist Left party and the other, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats.

And the disappointment in the EU recently expressed by Swedes is probably influenced by the experience of seeing no solidarity from the rest of Europe when Sweden was overwhelmed by an influx of immigrants last autumn. Including, of course, from the UK.

Also, any statement from Swedish politicians or business people about the gravity of the risk that Brexit constitutes will always be followed by the explanation for the worried: “… because it would be bad for the EU, it would endanger the European co-operation”.

In Swedish politics, you will find much bickering about the EU but a deep conviction remains that Europe needs the EU and a small country such as Sweden, trying to make its way in a global context, needs the EU very much. It would take a political earthquake to convince Swedish politicians that Brexit would be a reason for Sweden to also leave.

Sweden really, really does not want the UK to leave the European Union. Yet this does not mean that Sweden, if Britain did decide to leave, would be prepared to offer the UK a better farewell deal than would be in the interest of Swedish business and Swedish jobs. Because for all of the love that Sweden has for the UK, there is one country that Swedes love more. And that is Sweden.

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