As dawn broke in Stockholm on June 24th, a former Swedish minister had already declared it a “morning of sorrow.” Following the British vote in favor of leaving the European Union, the Swedish EU Affairs minister predicted a “midsummer of wilting flowers” and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven soberly admitted that the result was a “wake-up call” for Europe. The shock and despair felt in Stockholm was shared throughout Europe, but the vote touched a particular nerve in Sweden, which now finds itself more isolated in the European Union as it discusses dramatic steps in response to Brexit.
European leaders are already misreading the lessons of Brexit. Rather than acknowledging the vote as a rebuke of the European Union’s political structure, politicians have portrayed the Union as a victim of rising populism. In response, many in Paris, Madrid, Rome, and Berlin are advocating for further integration to alleviate the economic and political grievances animating populist forces. The rise of populism, however, played only a minor role in Britain, and further integration could force countries like Sweden to consider leaving the Union as well. Brexit was successful because it capitalized on long-standing British discomfort with extensive political and financial integration, a stance Sweden has long shared. Further integration may save the project of transnationalism, but it would do so only at the expense of excluding members like Sweden and would doom the idea of European unity to a handful of core nations.
Brussels may take comfort in polls that showed 63% of Swedes supported EU membership in the days immediately following Brexit, but Sweden now faces a very different European Union without the United Kingdom. Sweden has lost its most important ally in the Council of the European Union, the main EU decision-making body. Since 2004, Sweden voted with the United Kingdom 89% of the time in the Council, more than any other member state. The United Kingdom and Sweden shared views on issues including free trade and business regulation, with the United Kingdom’s large population providing a critical counterweight to opposing members such as France and Italy under the Union’s qualified majority vote system.
British membership was also important to Sweden because both countries had an “outsider’s” institutional position within the European Union, especially in regards to the common Euro currency. Sweden will now be the largest non-Euro economy in the Union. While Eurocrats were largely forced to accept British non-participation in the Euro, given Britain’s economic and political might, what is the rationale now for Sweden not to participate? On security and defense issues, the United Kingdom’s firmly Atlanticist position provided Sweden insurance that the Union’s cooperation would be limited, an important consideration for the historically neutral country. This arrangement allowed Sweden to get the best of both worlds, supporting a Common Security and Defense Policy that gave them de-facto defense commitments and an informal relationship with NATO, while at the same time avoiding a binding alliance. Without British participation in EU security and defense policy, Sweden now faces a landscape dominated by the French, who have never been shy of their desire for a common European Union army.
The United Kingdom had long been the poster-child for “Europe à la Carte,” the idea that EU member states can and should be able to choose the policies and levels of integration that work best for their respective societies. This flexibility made membership possible for traditionally neutral countries such as Sweden, Ireland, Finland, and Austria. Brexit has withdrawn the most powerful voice for this view of Europe at a time when it is needed the most. Without British opposition, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and others may decide that more political and economic integration is the only solution to fight populism and that “flexible” membership must be abandoned to achieve this end.
Facing political isolation without the United Kingdom and feeling pressure to cede more sovereignty to Brussels, Swedish political elites may look to leave the Union. In the United Kingdom, it was ultimately an alliance between populist anger and conservative elite opposition to an “ever closer union” that won the referendum. This scenario could easily be repeated in Sweden, Denmark, and even the new Eastern European states. Perhaps more concerning, a gridlock between integrationist and anti-integration member states could cripple the already dysfunctional EU system, further deteriorating support for the Union throughout the continent.
The European project has long struggled with the dual missions of integrating states into a supranational federal entity and the uniting of the whole European continent. Expansion to the United Kingdom, the Nordic countries, and Eastern Europe signaled that the founding states favored a pan-European project over full integration. As the Union continues its decade-long malaise, however, that belief could be eroding, as core states see full integration as the only way to save the institutions they worked so hard to create. If leaders in the core states endorse this view, it puts politicians in Sweden and elsewhere in the unenviable position of choosing between the Union and their nation’s coveted sovereignty opt-outs. Brexit clearly shows the more likely outcome: Sweden’s “mourning of sorrow” could quickly morph into a heart-breaking divorce, while Brussels may achieve more union but become tragically less European.
About the Author: David Wemer received an MA in European Union Politics from the London School of Economics and is the Washington D.C. Program Coordinator for the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College. David is also a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.