“A pragmatic people in northern Europe has, once and for all, clearly said something about the current state of the EU-project. It was said loudly, so nobody could have missed it. Now it is time to learn from what was said. The choice is either to limit the gap between the political elite and the people, or to widen it”, writes Henrik Dahlsson, Secretary General for TEAM.
A nation that is normally quiet and eager to avoid conflict has made up its mind. The view was stated clearly and with great confidence. The Swedes voted “Nej” (No) to the euro on 14 September with a massive majority: 56 percent rejected euro entry, against 32 percent who voted in favour. The losing yes-side was shocked and did not say anything.
“Shame for the Swedes”, said Brussels and continued with its own affairs as if nothing had happened. Business as usual. But it would be a grave mistake for the EU - an organization which says it aspires to connect to the citizens - not to listen when its citizens speak.
What can we learn from the Swedish ‘no’ to the euro? The Swedes said ‘no’ to one of the EU’s most centralizing projects, the euro, just when the Union is about to take further huge centralizing leaps with the draft EU Constitution. This is the time for the state architects in Brussels to pause and ask themselves the question: what can we learn from the Swedish No to the euro?
According to the exit polls, the most important reason for the ‘no’ vote was concern over one central issue - democracy. The yes camp tried to sell the euro with economic arguments but the voters said no for political reasons. Even if economics tended to dominate the Swedish debate, it was clear for all that the euro is primarily a political project. It follows that we should analyse the political implications of the Swedish referendum result.
So, what lessons can be learned from the Swedish no vote? To my mind there are three main conclusions to be drawn, about the development of the EU and how the debate is conducted:
People cannot be fooled The Swedes understood that the euro is a political project. Therefore, straight talk is also needed about the EU Constitution. We need an honest and open debate about the EU Constitution, its content and possible effects. How shall this be done? Let the people decide in national referendum if they want the Constitution or not.
Limit the powers of Brussels The Swedes not only said ‘no’ to the euro, they said ‘no’ to increasing power in Brussels. The draft Constitution will change the EU fundamentally, transferring huge powers from national parliaments to EU-institutions and from small to large member states.
The centralization of powers cannot continue unquestioned when there is a growing public resentment against this development. Otherwise the EU will find itself in an even more profound legitimacy crisis.
The EU member states will continue to choose different ways in this new landscape. Some will choose “enhanced cooperation” as for example in security and defense, while others will not participate. An EU with 25 to 30 members needs to be more flexible and less centralized in order to work. This requires changes of current EU-structures.
To widen or to limit the democratic deficit? The Heads of State, negotiating the draft Constitution at the Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), have to make a choice. They can listen to the citizens’ views and give them a say on the Constitution, or they can ignore their views and continue to accept - willingly or unwillingly - the ongoing centralization of powers to Brussels. The choice is either to limit the gap between the political elite and the people, or to widen it.
The negotiators at the IGC have been given a hint of what would be a wise decision. A pragmatic people in northern Europe has, once and for all, clearly said something about the current state of the EU-project. It was said loudly, so nobody could have missed it. Now it is time to learn from what was said.
HENRIK DAHLSSON - a Swede, is Secretary General of The European Alliance of EU-critical Movements in Brussels. He was active in the No campaign in the Swedish euro referendum. He is a political scientist and journalist by profession, and has previously worked as an editorial writer in the Swedish press.
The article was previously published on EUobserver.com 27-10-2003.