Swedish Euro Referendum: Workers firmly reject bosses’ Europe

On 14 September, history was made in Sweden. Never in an election or a referendum in this country has the distrust against the establishment and big business been so clearly expressed as in the referendum over the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) and the euro. The No victory was bigger than anyone could have expected. The majority was almost 15%. The No vote got 56.1% against 41.8% for Yes.

“This is the most humiliating defeat ever for the economic and political establishment in Sweden,” said TV political analyst K G Bergström. The referendum was decided by class votes. It was workers, women and youth who overwhelmingly voted No. Over 65%, maybe 70%, of the members in the trade union federation, LO, voted No. Sixty six per cent of voters between the age of 18 and 21 voted No, and so did 58% of women. (Among men there was actually a majority for Yes). Over 81% of the electorate voted, which showed a determination on the part of ordinary people to make their voice heard.

The outcome of the referendum was a resounding vote of no confidence, with a strong left wing trademark. In the No campaign, there was no major chauvinist/racist party, like Front National in France or the Danish Peoples Party.

The message from ordinary people to the ruling class was clear-cut – we do not trust you any longer. The distrust is so deep that many commentators are making the same point as Helle Klein in Aftonbladet (Sweden’s biggest daily with a Yes supporting editor) : “The election result must be seen as a considerable revolt against the powers-that-be”.

The result will give a massive boost to the self-confidence of workers and youth and act as a real inspiration for their struggles. The decisive No victory will cut across the attitudes of wait-and-see and even resignation which followed the betrayal by the union leadership of the council workers’ strike in May. Both this strike and the anti-war movement played an important role in shaping the consciousness before the referendum.

The No vote won in almost the whole of Sweden. Only in parts of the Stockholm region and Skåne in the south, were there majorities for the Yes side. But even there, the Yes vote was weaker than in 1994 during the previous referendum on the EU. Within the Stockholm area itself, the No side won in the working class suburbs to the south and in several council areas like Södertälje and Haninge. In the west of Sweden, the Yes campaign only had a victory in one council area and the No vote even had a majority in Gothenburg.

The class nature of the vote is clear; it is a revolt particularly of the low paid. This passive act of voting can, because of the result, turn into active struggle against the current austerity packages, especially in the health service and education.

The outcome of the referendum is an important political and moral victory which will also have repercussions in other countries. In both the countries where a vote has been held on the euro, the result has been No: Denmark in the year 2000 and now Sweden. It is likely that the British Prime Minister Tony Blair will cancel the plans for a referendum during the life-time of the present parliament. Also the Danish government will most likely delay a new referendum. “The result is worse than expected”, said Romano Prodi, president of the EU Commission. The referendum has badly shaken an already shaky EMU project.

Only last year, those same parties in Sweden trying to get a Yes vote in the referendum gained over 80% of the votes for parliament. In this vote they got little more than 40%. For Prime Minister Göran Persson, “The result is a major slap in the face. He did not have the whole government behind him. He had only half of his party behind him. And he only had the support of 42% of the voters”, wrote Aftonbladet on Monday, under the headline “A people’s victory over the powers-that-be.” Included in the ‘powers-that-be’ are, of course, the heads of big business, who were forced to come into the public arena in an attempt to win a Yes vote. The old motto of the mighty capitalist Wallenberg family – “To act but no be seen” – was abandoned because the hired campaign workers and the employees of the Yes parties were not enough.

The men of power were forced to come out in public making totally clear that the EMU is their political instrument against the workers. For the capitalists, it was never only a question of the euro or the krona. They saw Economic and Monetary Union membership as a way of achieving a policy “which is less socialist”, in the words of the CEO of Scania, Leif Ã-stling. By “socialist policies” he meant “too high taxes and too big a public sector which is not competing on the market” (Svenska Dagbladet, 4 July this year).

After the referendum result big business has demanded “compensation”, meaning that they don’t want the government to change course but to continue to implement the “structural changes” of the EMU. Another demand is the resignation of the industry minister – Leif Pagrotsky. Like the majority of voters, Pagrotsky voted No, but will be kicked out because the ‘market’ so demands. A reshuffle of ministers quite soon will be part of the revenge of the losers and their hunt for scapegoats.

The big companies spent hundreds of millions of Swedish krona on the Yes campaign. Their cost per voter was actually higher than the money spent by George W Bush in the presidential campaign in the year 2000. The Yes campaign had money, dominated the media and, according to their campaign chief, Birgitta Ed, had “75% of the MPs, managers and other influential organisations”. And yet, the No vote was massive.

The distrust against the bourgeois establishment was decisive. A No vote was a way of expressing protest against top-down rule, against broken promises and growing social inequalities. Already before the vote last Sunday, the opinion polls showed a clear lead for No.

“Many of the voters who decide for No, want to signal their discontent with those upstairs,” wrote Dagens Nyheter a week before the referendum. At that time, many on the Yes side had de facto given up on the referendum. Economic prognoses from the major banks, Nordea and SEB, calculated there would be a No victory. The so-called market counted on a No. Then the tragic murder of Foreign Minister Anna Lindh made the outcome less certain. The Yes campaign did gain from the sympathy that followed the murder, but the change was far from enough to turn the result. The No victory would have been even bigger if not for the murder. The polls on election day showed 51% for No. With a total result of 56%, it means that the No side received a bigger majority among those who had voted before the murder. (In Swedish elections, it is possible to vote in post offices three weeks before the polling day and well over one million did so).

Claims from Persson and the Liberal leader Lejonborg at the beginning of last week that the Yes campaign was close to “something big” is either a lie or just wishful thinking. All opinion polls pointed to a No victory, up to the murder. The Danske Bank had 56% for No in their poll on the day of the murder.

The final result is an enormous political defeat, particularly for Persson, but also for other Yes parties, not least the Christian Democrats. Both those parties almost definitely had a majority of their voters supporting No. Because of the murder of Anna Lindh, the inevitable debate within the Social Democratic party will be slightly delayed. Leaders of other parties in the Yes camp, however, have already pointed at Persson as responsible for their defeat. They knew that they themselves could not convince workers, but put their hope in the Social Democrats (SDP). Historically, the SDP has won referendums before, both on nuclear power and on the EU in 1994. But they do not have that base among workers any longer.

At least 65% of Trade Union (LO) members voted No (according to a poll which actually underestimated the No result). The LO leadership says that they are not surprised by these figures yet they had ignored this opinion and had drawn up statements for the Yes campaign along with private and public employers. The official neutrality of LO was a smokescreen. If the trade unions were more democratic, than the LO leader, Wanja Lundby-Wedin, would now be well on her way to being replaced.

The opinion polls showed a No lead from the moment Persson announced the referendum in November. But still the Yes campaign thought they could win. The closer polling day came, the more they regretted that the referendum was taking place at all. The political editor of Dagens Nyheter, Niclas Ekdahl, now writes that this must be the last referendum.

When people do not vote as politicians want, then the issues are said to be too “complicated”. The timing was also wrong, because of the crisis in the Eurozone. But no-one can say if the economies of France or Germany will ever provide an argument for entry into the Eurozone.

The Yes campaign further claims that the result was rooted in some kind of Swedish tradition of feeling against Europe. But that does not explain why the youngest voters, and even more the school students, are overwhelmingly on the No side. The No vote is not a conservative “don’t change anything”. It is actually a cry for change whereas the Yes vote was in favour of ’more of the same’ neo-liberal policies which we already have.

The Social Democratic government will attempt to keep the present informal coalition with the Left Party and the Greens, not least in order not to be too connected to the capitalists and the Moderate (conservative) party and thereby lose support to the left. At the moment, the traditional capitalist parties are not interested in an alliance with Social Democracy. A deeper crisis, combined with the coming into office of a new leadership in the Moderate party, could however open the way for new alignments.

The Yes parties will, from now on, blame every cut and counter-reform on the result of the referendum. But it will not be easy, because of the crisis developing in the Eurozone, where austerity policies are really massive. How the Swedish economy will develop in the coming period will depend on the world economy, and not on the referendum result.

Overall, the result is a clear vote of no confidence against the whole of the EU and the EMU, which will have an effect throughout Europe. The victory for the opinion of workers should be used to renew the struggle against the cuts threatened right across Sweden. The coming struggles are part of the process towards forming a new mass workers’ party needed for the struggle for a socialist Sweden in a socialist Europe.

Article published in this week’s issue of Offensiv, the weekly paper of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI Sweden).

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September 2003