Commentary on the Swedish ‘no’ to the Euro

26 September 2003

Commentary on the Swedish ‘no’ to the Euro

The Swedish "no" to the replacement of the Kronor by the Euro was hardly unexpected. Euro-scepticism in the Scandinavian countries is widespread, partly because many Nordic people connect the undermining of the social and democratic achievements of the post-war welfare state with the rise of the European superstate, a superstate based on the slogan "more market, less government". Despite the urgent appeal by political and economic leaders, strongly supported by most of the Swedish media and expensive advertising campaigns, a majority of the population was prepared to vote to block the adoption of the euro. "The yes side had the leaders, the media and the money: we had the arguments," was how Gudrun Schymann of the Vänster (Left) Party summed up the events in her country.

Tiny Kox reports

The Swedes were not alone in saying "no". The Danes had also voted against the euro and the hegemony of the bankers of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Preservation of monetary and economic sovereignty was, in the past, sufficient reason for the Nordic lands to reject EU membership in its entirety. The British people also see no advantage to joining the eurobloc, even if Premier Blair wants to do just that. After the Swedish "no" the chances of a speedy British "yes" are minimal. Blair, still plagued by the problems brought about by his line on the Iraqi War - a course which the British people found hard to understand - will think twice before he calls a referendum on the euro. Such a referendum might well prove to be his Waterloo.

The euroscepticism of British and Scandinavian people is neither strange nor difficult to understand. The people of the Netherlands would also, given the chance, have voted against the euro, as can be seen from a poll, commissioned in 2001 by the Socialist Party but conducted by the independent agency NIPO. Most Dutch people (58%) said then that they thought that the introduction of the euro had in general been disadvantageous for the population as a whole. Women (62%) were more sceptical than men (54%). In comparison to a 1998 poll it appeared that the number of people who would vote against the euro had risen by the eve of its introduction by 4% (to 47%), while the number of supporters had stayed out at 40%. The euro was most popular with D66’s voters (a centre party rather like the British Lib Dems, but very small - Ed), and had least support amongst SP voters and Christian Democrats. The higher the income, the less likely its earner was to be against. In the lowest income category, fully 80% were opposed. This is a pleasing parallel with the result in Sweden, where 70% of working people voted "no", while the yes votes came above all from Stockholm and Malmö, areas where average incomes are higher than in the rest of the country.

The SP, which as far back as the Treaty of Maastricht has opposed the way in which European monetary unification was being conducted, demanded in 2001 a referendum, a demand which was supported by 60,000 signatures. That demand was rejected without discussion by the government, while other parties showed little or no interest. Our "no" thus remained virtual and innocuous. The elections of 2002 and 2003 were dominated by entirely different matters. The Netherlands has therefore never spoken out on the issue of what direction European cooperation ought to be taking.

Nevertheless, the virtual Dutch "no" of 2001 could become a "real no" in 2004, if the population is given the chance to pronounce judgement, via a referendum, on the question of the desirability of a European constitution, a question so far confined to the deliberations of an unelected college of national and Euro-parliamentarians under the leadership of ex-French President Giscard d’Estaing. In 2001, as it turned out, there was considerable resistance amongst the Dutch people to any further advance of the European Union at the cost of national sovereignty. On the question as to whether more powers should be transferred to the EU, only 18% said yes, with 82% saying no.

There is little reason to assume that this euroscepticism will have ebbed by next June, when, simultaneously with the European elections, a referendum should be held. The proposed Constitution restricts the powers of the Netherlands still more than did earlier Treaties, including Maastricht. It would institutionalise the market economy and competition as the basis of the Union, despite growing criticism of the Americanisation of our economy during the last ten years at the cost of the postwar welfare state. More market, less government is the credo of this new Constitution, which goes much further in stipulating what economic system we should live under than does our own.

It has recently become clear that the arrival of the euro does not lead to a strengthening of social and democratic rights. The massive cuts announced by the Dutch government, a coalition of Christian Democrats and hard right Liberals, was justified by finance minister Zalm on the basis of the rules of the European stability pact - rules which big countries such as France and Germany have refused to follow in recent years, making it plain that they also had no intention of doing so in the near future. This double standard, added to a feeling that the euro has, in any case, raised the cost of living, has ensured that euroscepticism continues and will remain strong.

It is to be hoped that political parties which have now stated their support for a referendum in 2004 are not going to go back on this as a result of this euroscepticism, but will rather attempt to understand the reasons behind it. In the recent past we have seen well enough that refusing to discuss questions of great and immediate importance is not something that the people appreciate.

European cooperation is imperative. We must not imagine that the Netherlands is an island. We are bound hand and foot to the rest of the continent and there is nothing wrong with that. Dutch people who criticise this European Union are not extreme nationalists but citizens who believe that democratic and social rights are worth defending. They are citizens who would be happy to see "alle Menschen Brüder werden" but are not of the belief that this brotherhood of mankind will be brought about by intense competition and a mentality of every man for himself. It is narrow-minded to think that there is only one way in which increasing cooperation in Europe can take shape. Europe could be something else, something better, than the construction that now, unfortunately with the support of the majority of Dutch politicians, is being built. An ambitious renovation of the European home is a worthy goal. The basis of such a renovation should not be "more market, less government" but "a regulated market and better government", and its eventual quality should not be measured in terms of economic growth and profit levels but of the conditions under which wealth is produced and how it is then divided up. If we should succeed in sketching out the contours of such a Europe and persuade the people of our good intentions, then a "yes" to this social and democratic Europe would become a serious option for far more people - in the Netherlands and in Sweden.

Senator Tiny Kox is the leader of the Socialist party group in the Eerste Kamer, the Upper House of the Dutch Parliament.

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