New Internationalist

Worth fighting for

Issue 394

Since Sweden joined the European Union in 1995, battle has raged. Peter Gustavsson traces the faultlines of conflict.

It was a nervous crowd that gathered on that September night in 2003 in Stockholm to watch a referendum special on big screens in a bar. But eventually the tension gave way to emotional celebration. As the results poured in from district after district, television graphics made it obvious – the No campaign had won a stunning victory. It was not the predicted knife-edge result – it was a landslide as 3.3 million voted ‘no’ to the euro while 2.5 million voted ‘yes’. The grassroots-based ‘no’ campaign defeated a united establishment’s furious and dirty campaign for a ‘yes’ vote.

The leader of the Conservative Party’s campaign for the euro, Gunilla Carlsson, had been quite up-front about his desire that ‘the euro would lead to more conservative politics in Sweden’. The right-wing parties and the vast majority of big business backed the euro, many openly espousing it as means to attack social democracy by the back door. Swedish employers invested more than $102 million campaigning to join the euro in the 2003 referendum. Their aim – a government forced to deregulate the labour market and cut the taxes that underpin the Swedish welfare system.

Voters took this seriously – the Swedish vote against the euro was a Left vote. Core Social Democrat areas in working-class neighbourhoods had very strong ‘no’ votes, 69 per cent of trade unionists and 62 per cent of women voted no. The few areas with a majority ‘yes’ vote were some of the affluent parts of Sweden – conservative strongholds at elections.

Little wonder many on the Left in Sweden are critical of the current direction of the EU. In Sweden, as well as in other Scandinavian countries, the labour movement has been able to forge a strong welfare state. Sweden has had Social Democratic governments for 65 of the last 74 years and between 80 and 85 per cent of workers are trade union members. This political dominance has resulted in a social model based on collective bargaining, universal welfare and high levels of employment.

Sweden has earned a reputation for combining a strong economy with high social standards, leading to an increased equality between classes. Sweden is also proud to be the most gender-equal society in the world – but has a long way to go for complete equality.

The adoption of EU policies has meant that important victories for the labour movement were rolled back. The Swedish social model stands in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of a single market that puts competition before everything.
* The European Monetary Union convergence criteria have also led to a convergence with monetarist economic policies that use unemployment as a measure to beat down inflation.
* Conforming to the EU common foreign policy has made Sweden adopt a more passive role in international politics. For example, Sweden is currently forced to collaborate with the EU policy to isolate the democratically elected Palestinian Government.
* EU competition policy has been a motor for deregulation and privatization in areas such as electricity, telecommunications and infrastructure.

Sceptical Swedes

All this hasn’t gone down very well with Swedes. Sweden is one of the most EU-critical countries. One 2006 poll placed Swedish voters as the most sceptical country about the controversial European Constitution proposals. The European Union has a lot of changing to do to win back the hearts and minds of Swedes.

Swedish trade unions have worried about two developments in the EU that threaten the very basis of the Swedish model. The first, the Directive on Services, was – in its original form – a crude attempt to undermine those countries in Europe that have progressive health and safety legislation, and strong collective bargaining rights for workers. The European Parliament has recently backed down in the face of public protests and settled for a watered down Directive that is less destructive, but as it will be tested in court it is impossible yet to be certain of its full effect.

The second issue is the case of a Latvian company which won a contract to build a local school in Vaxholm, a picturesque town to the northeast of Stockholm, in 2004. The company brought in Latvian workers on poverty wages, outside the terms of collective agreements won for all other building workers by trade union struggle. The builders union, Byggnads, launched industrial action, including blockades and secondary picketing, in support of the workers and to protect other builders from pay cuts. Through this united action, and with the tacit support of the Government, the Swedish labour movement won the battle. But now the unions have been brought to the EU’s Court of Justice (EJC), the legality of their act to be decided not by Swedish voters, but by unaccountable EU judges.

The internal market Commissioner Charlie McCreevy has pledged to argue strongly that the unions broke the law by blocking the freedom of movement for businesses and the company is owed compensation. Even if this case is won by the trade unions it says a lot about the kind of Europe that the EU’s leaders want when they take the side of social-dumpers, wage-cutters and union-busters rather than of working people and ordinary voters.

The Vaxholm conflict is an historic court case for Swedish unions and it prompted Erland Olausson, the deputy chair of LO, the Swedish TUC, to say that if the ECJ decides against the trade unions ’the conditions for the Swedish EU membership would disappear’, and that Swedish unions should ‘reconsider their support for the EU’ if they lose the case. ‘We can’t be in the EU if it means the Swedish model falls apart.’

Despite these attacks, there is still more of the Swedish social model that we have saved than has been lost. Despite the grip that Corporate Europe has on the EU institutions, Sweden and its Social Democratic model is still alive and kicking. As time goes by and the Swedish economy manages to perform much better than the Eurozone – without neoliberal ‘reforms’ – more and more people all around Europe start looking north for inspiration. But why has the model survived?

First and foremost, Sweden has not yet had a right-wing government since it joined the EU. The Social Democratic Government has formed alliances with other governments to take the most far-reaching neoliberal proposals off the negotiating table.

Despite harsh criticism from trade unions and grassroots party members, much EU policy has already been implemented, but not nearly as much as the right-wing opposition has called for.

Despite these attacks, there is more of the Swedish social model that we have saved...

In the 1990s, Sweden behaved as expected of a good new member of the EU and partly privatized state enterprises such as telecom, rail and postal services. Early in the 21st century, under pressure from trade unions and grassroots activists, privatization slowed down and a serious debate on re-regulation ensued.

Swedish anxiety over handing powers to the EU comes from the knowledge that you cannot build a socially progressive society if decisions are taken out of the hands of the people and put in the hands of the unaccountable. It is no coincidence that the establishment of an unaccountable, unelected bureaucratic élite in Brussels corresponds with a drift to the Right in European politics. Strong democracy seems to be the first principle for building and protecting a social model that works.

A typical position on the Swedish Left is that the struggle for a social Europe can’t be about building the same model in each European nation. Such a project is just too big for European social movements to take on, plus it would put at risk social justice achievements already existing in many places. Such a social Europe should not be based on harmonization and ‘one size fits all’. Power should be where democracy is at its strongest.

As this article goes to press, we don’t know the outcome of the Swedish general election of 17 September. If the current red-green coalition wins a majority, the forces opposing the agenda proposed by Corporate Europe will continue to grow. On the other hand, if the current right-wing majorities in the EU are joined by a right-wing majority in the Swedish Parliament, plans to privatize and cut taxes will move ahead at speed. A right-wing government doesn’t need to wield the axe to achieve its goal of destroying the Swedish model: they could simply pass the axe over to the EU and let Brussels do the job for them.

In 2003, I joined hundreds and thousands of friends and comrades in celebrating our sensational victory in bars across Stockholm. But this was only the end of the beginning. The battle between the Swedish Model and Corporate Europe will continue to rage for years to come.

Peter Gustavsson is a Research Fellow at the London-based Centre for a Social Europe.

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