A brief history of Sweden’s relationship with the European Union

A brief history of Sweden’s relationship with the European Union
Photo: Hans-Olof Utsi/imagebank.sweden.se
Inspired by Europe Day, which is celebrated annually on May 9th, SI News explores the 25-year-old relationship between Sweden and the European Union.

Each year, local EU offices around Europe celebrate Europe Day by opening their doors and inviting people of all ages to join activities and events. It's a day to mark the peace and unity that the EU strives for.

But what does Europe Day commemorate?

On May 9th, 1950, in Paris, French foreign minister Robert Schuman put forward in a speech the premise of a European political cooperation, now known as the ‘Schuman declaration’. The idea was to avoid another devastating conflict after World War II which left the countries of Europe in a state of emergency. Europe Day is an annual commemoration and recommitment to this declaration.

You might be surprised to learn that it would be another 41 years until Sweden made the decision to join the EU.

In July 1991, Swedish prime minister Ingvar Carlsson handed in an official request to become an EU member state. It took a few more years of negotiations but on November 13th 1994, a narrow majority — 52,3 percent of the Swedish population — voted in a referendum to join the European Union. On January 1st 1995, Sweden officially became a member of the EU, joined by Austria and Finland, who voted to join that very same year.

So, why did Sweden, a country popular in Europe for its flat-packed furniture and catchy pop songs, wait so long to become a part of the EU?

Sweden had for a long time stood outside the EU. The Swedish population was used to a high standard of welfare and was sceptical of the EU, which had lower standards in fields such as the labour market or environmental issues. However, certain factors and world events turned Sweden's cynical attitude towards the EU around.

After experiencing an economic boom in the 1980s, Sweden encountered an unprecedented financial crisis in 1991-1993 after the collapse of its housing bubble. Advocates of the EU believed that joining the EU was a way to recover from the crisis. Sweden already had an open economy and saw in this new partnership an opportunity to develop and trade with other countries — the EU having abolished trade barriers between members.

Furthermore, the situation had evolved dramatically following the end of the Cold War –  a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the Western Bloc after World War II. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the shift from communism to capitalism in central and eastern Europe, collectively transformed Sweden's attitude to the EU.

It recognised, too, that reaching the European market would allow Sweden to deepen its existing corporations and bring the Nordics on the whole closer to Europe.

However, Sweden has continued to march to the beat of its own drum since joining the EU. Following a referendum in 2003, the state decided not to adopt the euro as its official currency. For many Swedes who were of voting age at the time of the referendum, joining the euro was seen as a threat to the Swedish welfare state. 

The Swedish love affair with snus was originally another bone of contention between Sweden and the EU. The tobacco-based product is so popular with Swedes that the country ensured the production and selling of it was allowed to continue after Sweden joined the EU.

Sweden's settled into its position as an EU member and has become a role model for other European countries in areas including sustainability, gender equality and the fight against unemployment.

With the rise of right-wing populism across much of Europe, it's no surprise that even in Sweden there have been murmurs of a 'Swexit', but not to worry, according to a 2018 Eurobarometer poll on behalf of the European Parliament, a total of 77 percent of Swedish respondents believe EU membership is good for Sweden. No Swexit in sight then.

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