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View from Europe #1 

Solidarity from Sweden

Kalle Holmqvist

11 October 2019

Sweden only narrowly voted to join the EU in 1994. The result has been a surge in right-wing populism. The arguments against the EU remain as valid as ever.

In 1994, Sweden held a referendum on whether to join the European Union. One of the slogans of the No movement was: “Ja till världen” (Yes to the world). I was 16 years old and wore a badge that said: “Tredje världen JA, därför NEJ till EU” (Third world YES, therefore NO to the EU – to be honest it doesn’t sound very catchy in Swedish either.)


Public opinion was at first positive. A poll from the Swedish Employers Association in 1990 showed that 67 per cent wanted Sweden to apply for membership of the EU. Only 15 per cent said no. 


But with more debate, opposition grew, especially among young people. We took it very seriously and tried to learned more. For those who studied the EU and actually read the treaties (which very few EU supporters did), it soon became clear that: first of all, the European Union was anti-democratic, one of its core values was to move decision-making from elected assemblies to bureaucrats; second, the EU imposed neoliberal policies and privatizations on their member states, which threatened Scandinavian welfare and labour rights; third, and maybe most important, the EU was a superpower project, aiming to be a “United States of Europe” that could compete with other superpowers and oppress poorer countries. We didn’t want to join that.


We fought hard, but we lost. A majority of women, workers and young people voted No. The Yes campaign, with almost unlimited resources and support from media and big business, obtained 52 per cent in the referendum. 


Since then, two things have happened that the UK might experience too: first, there is now very little discussion of what the EU is and what the EU does; and secondly, right-wing populists have grown in strength and they have tried (and partly succeeded) in kidnapping the struggle against the EU. This is to be regretted, but if right-wing populism tries to steal our causes, that’s just another reason not to abandon what’s ours. Donald Trump has been a critic of free trade agreements like TTIP. It would be madness if the left came to the conclusion that this means it has to stop resisting TTIP.


The media – both in Sweden and the UK – has described Brexit as a result of xenophobia, despite the fact that several left-leaning, trade unions advocated Leave in the referendum. Opponents of the EU are expected to take responsibility for everything UKIP does, but very seldom are Remainers asked to take blame for every force that supports the EU. For instance, the authoritarian EU member state Hungary supported the Remain campaign with full-page ads in British newspapers on 20 June 2016, signed by prime minister Viktor Orbán, stating: “Hungary is proud to stand with the UK as a member of the European Union.” Democrats and internationalists should not be proud to stand with Mr Orbán or the European Union.


The EU also uses a nationalist idea of “Europe”, with its own flag and national anthem. That should frighten everyone who is aware of Europe’s dark history. Viktor Orbán’s euronationalism and Emmanuel Macron’s euronationalism may look slightly different, but none of them belong in the twenty-first century. 


The EU is anti-democratic, militaristic and neocolonial. British voters did the right thing in 2016 – the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. With or without a deal, customs union or not, the important thing is to Leave. Basically, it is a matter of solidarity. Believe it or not – the world does not end south of Malta and west of Cork. It is very hard to be an internationalist and at the same time support European militarism, neocolonialism and imperialism. The European left has to make a choice.


I am terribly sorry if I offend those who defend the EU and at the same time consider themselves progressives. But do you know anything about what the EU does? To the farmers in Africa, to the people of Greece, to non-European refugees? Do you know what the EU’s allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia do? If not – it is time to find out. And it is also time to leave the EU.

About the author

Kalle Holmqvist is a member of Folkrörelsen Nej till EU (People’s Movement No to the EU), a non-party aligned, anti-racist organization founded 1991.

This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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