If Brexit, then Swexit?

Bernard Porter and Kajsa Ohrlander

Sweden’s relationship with the EU is almost as problematic as Britain’s. It only joined in 1995 – 25 years after the UK – and on the basis of a pretty narrow popular vote. At the same time, Norway voted to stay out. Like the UK, Sweden has spurned the euro. The bigger political parties are all pro-Europe. Sweden used to have a party like Ukip, known as Junilistan (‘June List’), which won 15 per cent of the vote in the 2004 European elections, but has withered away since. A recent opinion poll put its support at 0.3 per cent. There’s also a Folkrörelse (‘People’s Movement’) opposed to EU membership on mainly socialist grounds. The Vänsterpartiet (‘Left Party’, ex-communist) is anti-Europe. The right-wing Sverigedemokraten’s policy is to renegotiate the terms of Sweden’s membership, rather than to leave. The Greens are swithering.

Broader public support for continued membership has been waning – down to 44 per cent in a recent poll (but with a large number of ‘don’t knows’), mainly because of the rest of Europe’s reluctance to share Sweden’s refugee burden. The Swedes have had other issues with the European bureaucracy over the years. It stopped them exporting snus, for example: the little sachets of snuff you insert between your teeth and gums; and has its greedy eyes on Sweden’s Systembolaget, the government liquor-store monopoly.

You’d expect the Swedes to have some sympathy, then, with Britain’s predicament. And also a material interest in it, if – as recent polls are predicting – Brexit might push the sceptics into an absolute majority, and lead to Sweden’s following Britain out into the cold. (It’s already being called ‘Swexit’.) That could scupper the whole project. Is it really on the cards? It must raise the stakes.

The coverage of the build-up to the British referendum in the quality Swedish press and on TV has been extensive. There’s more reporting than comment. There’s plenty about the British situation they could mock if they wanted to: stereotypical old buffers like Nigel Farage and many Conservative backbenchers; Britain’s post-imperial delusions. There’s been some comment to the effect that the debate hasn’t shown the British ‘at their best’. (Prime Minister’s Question Time does a lot of harm to Westminster’s reputation abroad.) But on the whole the Swedish press has resisted the temptation to make too much fun of us, and has covered the debate pretty fairly and responsibly.

But there’s also puzzlement here. Why do the Brexiters want to leave? Or the Remainers want to stay? Swedes can see good reasons on both sides of the argument when it comes to whether or not they should stay in the EU. But no one seems certain which are the important ones for the British. Democracy? Trade? Bureaucracy? Immigrants? Xenophobia? Solidarity v. individualism? Pro or anti-Cameron? And what would the Brexiters, in particular, do with their newly won economic freedom if they got it? What exactly would a post-Brexit Europe look like? Let alone one without Sweden, if Swexit followed on.

In itself, however, that could be said to be a pretty fair reflection of the British situation. We’re asking the same questions. So the Swedish media have got it just about right.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Jan-Werner Müller: The problems of the Eurozone · 27 August 2015

Wolfgang Streeck: Merkel changes her mind again · 31 March 2016

Susan Watkins: The European Impasse · 29 August 2013

James Meek: In Farageland · 9 October 2014


  • 26 April 2016 at 6:08am
    pgillott says:
    So far economic wellbeing, in particular as affected by trade, seems to have figured large, with sovereignty and bureaucracy also important points for the Leavers. Presumably important reasons for “the British” will vary from person to person, but a YouGov poll found that an added supposition that they would be better off to the tune of £100 a year on remaining shifted a 40% to 39% lead for the Remainers in their survey, to one of 45% to 36%.

    My knowledge of how the debate is going in the media is patchy in the extreme, but a Remain supporter commenting in the Guardian, Hugo Dixon, argued that the “in” argument is relying too much on creating fear about the economy: it should focus more on other EU’s strengths; and also on the destabilising effects (which you point towards) of our leaving on the rest of the EU. And the leavers do indeed seem to be saying nothing very specific about what they’d do next. Hopefully the debate will move on in the next two months. With David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn both in the Remain camp, there’s unlikely to be a single reason for wanting to stay.

  • 29 April 2016 at 5:22am
    seanmcg says:
    When we last voted in a referendum on Europe in 1975 it was about whether we wanted to remain in the European Economic Community, the EEC, or Common Market, which we had joined two years earlier. It was not about being part of a European Union then. That is something it has become since particularly with the Maastricht & Lisbon treaties of the 90s & noughties.
    The leaders of the Brexit campaign are a pretty embarrassing bunch, Farage, Johnson et al with some honourable exceptions like Gisela Stewart & Frank Field. But then the Remain camp leaders are not much better Cameron & Osborne issuing exaggerated warnings of plague & pestilence if we dare to vote to leave the EU.
    The EU, together with the IMF, has screwed the economies of Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece for years to come. The Euro currency has proved to be a disaster especially for those weaker Southern European economies. Thank God we remained outside of that mess and kept are own currency as did the Swedes.
    Also it is NATO which has kept Europe secure over the past 70 years not the EU.
    The migration crisis has shown up the complete disunity of the EU, Germany under Merkel, behaving in a way which most other European countries have not followed.
    I am for voting out I think. I don't want ever closer European Union.