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6 October 2017

A new chapter in the Nordics’ EU story

by Mark Brolin

If you’re not used to the exceptional Nordic climate of opinion it can appear as if just about everyone in the Nordics is perfectly happy with the EU arrangement. That would be a grave mistake. The currently hypersensitive Nordic EU debate reflects much suppressed irritation as well as fear of letting the cat out of the bag.

When asking around about Brexit in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki – the capitals of the three Nordic EU member states – the typical opinion will not differ much from the typical opinion in London. In all these EU strongholds, Brexit is generally regarded as a disaster. Why? The main reason is that people with career or money links to the EU bureaucracy are particularly numerous in the EU member state capitals (politicians, civil servants, lobbyists, academics, lawyers, consultants). Also at play in the Nordics are conformity pressures which are much stronger than in the UK.

In every Nordic country the leading employers’ federation (the CBI equivalent) dominates right-wing thinking to a degree that can only be compared to how the leading trade union federation (the TUC equivalent) dominates left-wing thinking. The leading employers’ federation is the main backer – directly or indirectly – of the largest right-wing party and the dominant right-wing think-tanks. The leading trade union federation is the main backer – directly or indirectly – of the Nordic Social Democrat parties and the dominant left-wing think tanks. Unless faithful to received wisdom within one of these spheres of influence it will always be an uphill battle to win financial and moral support.

The Nordic conformity pressures also relate to the fact that professional and social circles, in small(ish) societies, are always heavily intertwined. Meaning that those pushing uncomfortable views (and truths) might lose not only career opportunities but also friends. This explains why virtue signalling (a manifestation of correctness) can be described, across the Nordics, as a national sport. All this helps to explain how the top people in the two major spheres of influence define the scope of public debate.

When the two spheres are at odds there is usually a political battle after which both sides arrive at an understanding. Their massive joint influence ensures that everyone else jumps on the bandwagon. This is not necessarily a bad thing if there is a robust debate beforehand. To no small degree the dualistic interaction just described explains the traditionally high level of political stability, efficiency and pragmatism in the Nordic region.

There is, however, reason to worry when the top people in the two power spheres are in sync from the start. Why? Because that means there is a real risk of big player stitch-up: enter the EU. Due to its structural big player advantages the EU has developed into a paradise for big money lobbyists; small market participants simply do not have the means to pay for the lobbyists, PR people and travel required to systematically influence the EU machinery. Add to that the EU’s lack of transparency and the big players are well positioned to influence laws and regulations to their own advantage, leaving entrepreneurs and unorganised employees in even greater difficulty to upset industry status quo. This leads to industry sclerosis and long-term decline.

For decades the dominant Nordic employers’ federations and the dominant trade union federations have offered the EU project almost unequivocal backing. However, this backing does have a flipside. As the EU’s ambitions have grown so has the gap between the romantic official narrative and realities on the ground. Entrepreneurs, consumers and voters are now increasingly understanding – or at least suspecting – that they are being played.

It should come as no great surprise that the eurosceptic Nordic parties are gaining ground. In Sweden, the next Nordic country in which a general election will be held (September 2018), it has already taken an unprecedented – and highly controversial – deal between the traditional left- and right-wing parties to keep the Sweden Democrats out of power. Since 2014 the Sweden Democrats, who advocate a Swexit referendum, are the third biggest party in parliament, holding 13 percent of seats. Currently the party is polling second (20 percent) behind only the Social Democrats, meaning that one of the previously most stable political landscapes in the world is now in flux.

Despite everything, the Swedish establishment is still holding firm; all the traditional parties remain very much in favour of the EU, and no major media outlet has adopted a eurosceptic position. So there is certainly an information problem; for decades Swedes have heard almost exclusively about the (supposed) benefits of the EU. According to a Pew Research poll last spring the number of Swedish voters wanting to leave the EU appears to have gone down since before the Brexit referendum. Possibly only 22 percent supports a fully-fledged Swexit.

Yet there is good reason to argue something substantial is brewing. According to the same Pew poll a majority of Swedes already supports holding a Swexit referendum. Events in the UK have made it clear that referendums might not follow an establishment script, especially now when establishment mistrust is probably deeper than at any point since the democratic breakthrough.

The general tone in Sweden changed decidedly after the 2015 immigration debacle when Sweden followed Angela Merkel’s open-door policy. For a few months, as many as 10,000 immigrants arrived weekly. Then the radical policy had to be reversed. Not only that, but for the first time since the 1950s (when the Nordic Passport Union was established) Sweden introduced border controls with Denmark, Norway and Finland. This caused a huge credibility dent; half the population declared that the EU was going in the wrong direction. Since then a parallel media has emerged in which the movers and shakers in Swedish politics are continuously lambasted for avoiding hot subjects. More than most other Europeans, Swedish people also find the EU less attractive without the UK. In addition, even if there is no majority to leave the EU there is, due to many undecideds, also no majority to stay (SOM survey, p 66).

So Sweden is currently in limbo. The EU issue is of such overarching importance that the stalemate can probably only be broken when a critical mass of people considered ‘normal’ step forward and admit to euroscepticism. With the ‘oddball’ stamp removed the traditional parties would have to allow a more truthful EU debate, or face being permanently side-lined. The cat would be out of the bag and things might then move with a speed that could surprise many, as clearly illustrated by the UK case study.

For centuries you have arguably been a major winner in the lottery of life if you have been born in the Nordics. There is also good reason to argue that the traditional down-to-earth disregard for radical armchair idealism has been a key contributing factor. The pretence that it is not radical to transfer power to unelected federalist diehards in foreign lands (the EU commission) deviates sharply from the traditional Nordic way. It is arguably not a question of if but when a new EU chapter will also be written in the Nordic countries.

The urge and need to continue trading internationally is, and will no doubt remain, just as great in the Nordics as it is in the UK. Moreover, without a supranational overcoat that invites market manipulation, the incentives of the big players – British and Nordic – will be much more aligned with what is best for society.

Mark Brolin

Mark Brolin is an Anglo-Swedish political analyst and author of A State of Independence: Why the EU is the Problem not the Solution (Endeavour Press)

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