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Last Updated: Monday, 8 September, 2003, 10:24 GMT 11:24 UK
Sweden's date with destiny

By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs Correspondent

On Sunday, Sweden's nine million people face a referendum on joining the euro which will help to decide the country's destiny.

It may also have a big impact on the drive towards European "unification" which has transformed Europe in the past 10 years.

Yes poster in various languages
Vote Yes posters are everywhere in the streets of Sweden
The Swedish prime minister, Goran Persson, is a firm believer in European integration.

When he announced this referendum, late last year, it looked virtually certain that Sweden would vote Yes.

Sweden has made a success of its membership of the European Union since it joined in 1995.

Powerful voices in business joined most of the mainstream parties in calling for Sweden to fulfil its "European destiny" by joining the 12 other countries in the euro zone.

And "Vote Yes" posters are everywhere in the streets of Stockholm.

Yet this year the picture has dramatically changed.

Business views

As of now, it looks as if the Swedish nation has made up its mind to say No.

DANSKE BANK POLL
No: 40%
Yes: 30%
Maybe No: 14%
Maybe Yes: 14%
Undecided: 3%
1,000 people questioned between 1-6 September
Opponents of the euro currency have been ahead in every opinion poll since April, by a margin of 5% or more.

In the final days of the campaign, key figures on the Yes side have stepped up the pressure, trying to win over the undecided voters.

The governor of the Central Bank, Lars Heikensten, said Sweden had lost economic influence, outside the euro zone.

If we now say No to membership, he added, the economic situation will worsen further.

Senior business figures, like the boss of the giant mobile phone company Ericsson, have warned that Sweden would lose foreign investment if it votes against the euro.

Prime minister Goran Persson, a Social Democrat, has told his countrymen that they must go in, or be swept to the margins of European decision-making.

'Arrogance'

But public enthusiasm has waned, as the euro zone countries have faltered economically.

Several factors have combined to sow doubt in the minds of Swedish voters:-

  • The arrogance of power: Goran Persson and his government seemed to take a Yes vote too much for granted, and began their campaign too late.
  • A divided government: The Greens and the Left, two small parties supporting the government, are firmly in the No camp. The Social Democrats themselves are deeply split about the euro.
  • Living standards: Many Swedes fear that the rules of the eurozone might force them to cut back their own extremely high standards of social welfare.
  • The EU's worsening image: Swedes share the concerns of some other nations in Europe that the EU is poorly led. France and Germany demand to be exempt from agreed rules on excessive public spending. Voters see such behaviour as unfair.

In reply, Mr Persson has criticised the overspending by Germany and France, and said that Sweden might exercise the right to delay its own entry to the euro unless others obey the rules.

In the campaign, he has accepted the help of an arch opponent - former Conservative prime minister Carl Bildt.

Mr Bildt is still much respected for his work as EU and UN administrator in the Balkans.

Outside interests

Will Sweden really vote No?

Will it add to the rollcall of past referendums in which nations rejected the idea of "more Europe" - like the Danes saying No to much of the integrationist Maastricht Treaty of 1991 and later to the euro?

Or like the Irish, who in 2001 said No to the Nice Treaty on EU Enlargement (though they later voted Yes)?

It is hard to see what could stop a Swedish No at this late stage.

The way the Swedes vote may influence attitudes in Europe as a whole - especially in Britain and Denmark, the two other EU states which have remained outside the euro area.

The governments of both are thinking about holding their own referendums. They will be closely watching the way the Swedes vote on the 14 September.

The vote will also be an indication of the public mood in Europe on another great debate - about the merits of the proposed European Union constitution.

So it is not just about keeping the Swedish krona or adopting the euro.

It is about the way the people of one European state think about the way the European "project" is going.


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