Mixed Feelings

Description: Sweden, Europe and the U.S.

I’m very happy to be here. For the last five years, my wife Inger and I have represented Sweden in New York, and in a good portion of the United States. The district (as it’s officially called) of the Consulate General of Sweden in New York extends across the entire United States, with the exception of California and the greater Washington D.C. area.

Neither Inger nor I come from the world of diplomacy. Inger was the director general of the Office of the Disability Ombudsman and vicepresident of the board of Stockholm University. I have a background in business, and have been a member of Swedish Parliament, under-secretary of state for finance and budget, and editor-in-chief of Sweden’s largest newspaper.

So, do I represent Europe or Sweden? Clearly, the answer is Sweden. It’s fairly typical that the European Commission has adopted the idea of a new label: Made in Europe ­ as opposed to Made in Italy, Made in Sweden, etc.This concept has met with vigorous opposition. The different countries of the EU all have strong unique identities, and are all competing to promote their own products, cultures and national concepts in the international arena, not least in the U.S.

It will take a long time, a very long time, before we ever see a UnitedStates of Europe. Europeans are not as willing to relocate as Americans are. The unified European labor market still exists only in theory ­ and we speak many different languages in Europe. (Although, for sure, there are many more languages than English being spoken in Florida.)

May of 2004 will mark a giant step in European history. It will signify the final (symbolic?) end of communist oppression in Europe. But the expansion of the EU does not necessarily translate into a European mental unification.

As former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt said in a speech in New York about half a year ago, ”one cannot totally rule out the possibility that the on coming enormous enlargement of the EU by the accession of ten states atone and the same time could lead to a watering down of the competence of theUnion. One cannot totally exclude the possibility of the development of a much closer cooperation within a smaller inner core.”

Add to this the fact that, within an expanded EU, there will exist an impulse to create larger regional spheres. In her annual foreign policy statement to the Swedish Parliament, Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs Laila Freivalds spoke of the ”Nordic-Baltic context”. The Nordic InvestmentBank ­ which historically has been a prime example of transnational cooperation in Scandinavia ­was recently expanded to include the threeBaltic states.

At one point ­ 350 years ago ­ Sweden was a major power, encompassing all of the Baltic Sea, with Stockholm as the central hub. There still exists a notion of economic cooperation within this same geographic region. TheCzech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and perhaps also Poland are all part of a similar sphere.

I’ve chosen the title ”Mixed Feelings”. The main reason for this is the rejection by the Swedish people of the euro currency in last September’s national referendum. This very definitive outcome can be explained on three levels:

Firstly, Swedish politicians have always maintained a very pragmatic stance when it comes to the EU. While the Germans and the French have seen the EU as a means of once and for all abandoning a legacy of historical conflict,of securing a lasting European peace, the Swedes have focused on issues of employment, interest rates and trade advantages. As these advantages have failed to materialize, enthusiasm and support for the European project has dwindled.

It’s also important to remember that Sweden has a stronger transatlantic link than most other European countries. There is no country, with the possible exception of our Nordic neighbours, with which Sweden has had a closer relationship than the U.S. Not only did one fifth of the entireSwedish population at one point immigrate to America; 20% of those who came to the U.S eventually returned, sparking a political and economic revival in the old country. American influence was strongest among the lower and middle classes and in the context of the growing democracy. The upper classes were still keeping their eyes on imperial Germany.

The U.S. is the most important country in the world for Sweden. Not just because the U.S. is the political superpower, but because the United States is by far Sweden’s most important trading partner, accounting for 10% of all trade. 200,000 people work for Swedish firms in the U.S., while American companies have 100,000 employees in Sweden. No country invests more in Sweden than the United States. All major Swedish companies are at least partly owned by Americans.

Culturally, Sweden is somewhat of a 51st state. We have the Ricki Lake Show and Dr. Phil on Swedish TV. Conversely, the popular Survivor series is based on a Swedish format, generating Swedish export revenue on a weekly basis.

All of this makes for a solid foundation on which to further develop the relations between Sweden and the U.S. Swedish public opinion is sometimes referred to as ”anti-American”. This is hardly the case. When asked inopinion polls ”If you had to flee the country but couldn’t enter any of theNordic countries, where would you go?” the Swedish people year after year answer: ”the U.S.”

The Swedish Government and the current U.S. administration have different views on the international role of the United Nations. But this does not mean that Sweden is opposed to military action: Sweden supported the firstGulf War and contributed to the coalition with a field hospital. We supported the war against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and sent military personnel. In the latest war in Iraq, Sweden welcomed (along with all decent nations) the fall of Saddam Hussein and his regime, but would have preferred actions based on a solid international consensus and the direct involvement of the U.N. This would have probably made the current situation more manageable.

In addition to its close ties with the U.S., Sweden is unique in that the country hasn’t been at war in more than 200 years. This has made Swedes less understanding of and receptive to the need for military force. It also means that the European project may not resonate as strongly with Swedes as it does with people who have lived through war and oppression.

A second reason why Swedes voted against the introduction of the euro is that, more than anything, they protested against a system in which political decisions are considered too far removed from the people. Anyone who has lived in the U.S. knows what the general population thinks of ”Washington”. Likewise, in Sweden, ”Stockholm” is seen by many as having too much decision-making power. And, of course, no one of that opinion is likely to vote for the continued transfer of power to Brussels or the European CentralBank in Frankfurt.

Thirdly, the rejection of the euro can be explained by a fear of what the impending expansion of the EU will bring in terms of increased immigration to Sweden. Sweden is the European country that, for the last 30 years, has absorbed the largest amount of immigrants, often refugees from countries outside of Europe. One in every seven Swedes was born in another country. And between one third and one fourth of all children born in Sweden have at least one immigrant parent.

This influx has not been without problems. The Swedish welfare system ­from womb to tomb ­ is heavily burdened by the difficulties of certain immigrant groups in entering the labor market. This trend is likely to accelerate with the enlargement of the European Union. As per EU regulations, anyone working ten hours a week has the right to full welfare benefits. This means that a citizen of another EU country who works part-time in Sweden can send home the equivalent of 5,000 USD per year to his or her four children, has the right to collect full unemployment and pension benefits, etc.

This prospect has caused most of the original EU member states to introduce various types of regulations to restrict the free movement of labor across borders. Discussions of similar measures are taking place in Sweden and may also have influenced the euro referendum.

Nevertheless, it is my belief that the rejection of the euro should be considered a mere bump in the road. And the road still continues in the same direction. Sweden adheres to the EU’s common monetary policy in all aspects except for the actual adoption of the currency. Sweden is and will remain bound to the budgetary and financial restrictions of the Maastricht agreement.

It’s interesting to note, as an aside, that the United States currently does not meet the criteria for EU membership. The reason for this is not just that the EU does not allow the death penalty, but also because the U.S.budget deficit does not meet the rules of convergence required by the EU.

Sweden has now been a member of the European Union for nine years. We have seen how, in one area after another, both laws and patterns of behavior have become more integrated. The addition of ten new member states, with a fundamentally positive approach to the EU, will lead to an accelerated integration process in Sweden as well.

So, to conclude: the enlargement of the EU in May of 2004 will put added strain on the existing member states, both politically and financially.Without a doubt, the European project will enter a phase of increased complexity. However, despite the challenges ahead, and despite our ”mixed feelings”, Sweden is and must remain a part of Europe and a key player in the European Union. Sweden with or without the euro currency ­ is ready to assume shared responsibility for the future of a brighter, more complex, and hopefully more economically powerful European Union.