Brexit – A View From Sweden

Per Gahrton was a Green MEP for Sweden from 1995 to 2004. Here he reflects on the progressive Scandinavian arguments surrounding the Brexit referendum, and suggests the whole debacle might be more useful than it first appears…

The debate around a possible Brexit might, after the fact, prove to be beneficial for European co-Green parties, Green Futureoperation – on the condition that the initiative is defeated by the UK voters and the UK remains as a fully-fledged EU member state. The EU needs a sharp, short shock in order to reconsider its means and ends, that much is clear. But to dissolve the EU – which could happen in the near future if Britain did leave – would be too risky and in the worst case scenario would be a step into an abyss of new and revived conflicts that could throw us all into an unpleasant future. It is one thing not to create or join a union, quite another to dissolve one.

The Swedish Greens – with me as a leading front figure – fought against Swedish Membership of the EU until the referendum in 1994, then called for a unilateral Swedish exit until 2008. While today the Greens fully accept Sweden as an EU member, we still believe that too much of the EU’s energy has been expended on theoretical debates about transforming itself into a fully-fledged United States of Europe, and that too little has been done to strengthen the EU as a major and co-ordinated actor concerned with imminent transboundary problems, such as the environment, climate change and lately, refugees.

The EU’s handling (or lack thereof) of the recent refugee crisis caused major disappointment amongst all Swedes – not least the Greens – because it was here that environmentalist, progressive values dominated Sweden’s official policy until late 2015. But Europe’s failure to rise to the challenge was a crushing set-back thanks to an almost complete lack of support from other EU countries (except Germany and, to some extent, Austria). As a result the Swedish Red-Green government had to retreat and introduce draconic barriers, even though it is well known that if the whole of the EU had carried its responsibility in unity then it could have easily ‘swallowed’ 4 million refugees per year.

From this perspective, the threat of Brexit as perceived by many Swedish Green Party members as a reminder that the EU is vulnerable if it cannot concentrate on immediate, transboundary issues and abandon internal squabbling about a ‘federal’ or ‘confederal’ structure for the future. Only very few Swedish Greens want Brexit to occur; and think that the Brits are pushing for adequate amendments to EU policies. However, there is a hope among us and others in Sweden that the referendum will help get the EU back on a much needed pragmatic track, re-forging the EU into the strong instrument for resolving universal, real problems that it should be.

After Brexit – a Nordic Union?

If Britain leaves the EU, the repercussions would be immense, especially in Scandinavia. The three Scandinavian EU members (Denmark, Sweden and Finland) would probably never have joined if the UK had not been a member. If Britain abandons the EU, the basic discussions about the future of EU relations with Scandinavia will undoubtedly restart, and this will happen during a period when the EU is probably more unpopular than it’s been for a while. Already the Nordic Area (Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and the autonomous Greenland, Faroe Islands and Åland) has popped up again in the debate as a logical area for closer co-operation; even maybe a fully-fledged ‘United States of the North’. The three Nordic EU-states might be tempted by the Norwegian and Icelandic EEA relations to the EU, which also allows for much closer internal Nordic co-operation. It’s important to remember that only one Nordic state, Finland, has introduced the Euro, while the two other Nordic EU-states, Denmark (2000) and Sweden (2003), after referenda where the governments pushed for the Euro, chose to retain their national currencies through large, popular majorities. This suggests that Brexit would have far-reaching repercussions in the North and also all over the EU. A core EU around the original six could try to create greater cohesion – but not even that is certain – strong anti-EU populist parties are gaining influence and support in  France and Germany.

Although most Swedish Greens still consider the EU to be too centralised and un-democratic, they are also aware of the considerable risks of dissolving a union. From an ecological point of view a step back to traditional nation states is a set-back for Green visions of one common world with one common ecological system.

The Brexit referendum must be considered an act of democracy. The EU has long suffered from an infamous ‘democratic deficit’, therefore any actions which allow the people to get more involved must be supported. A ‘No’ to Brexit must be used as a starting point to strengthen democracy in the EU – and to increase the relevance of the EU to the everyday problems of its inhabitants, including refugees. Because of the additional exemptions the Brits have been granted, a ‘No’ to Brexit must be interpreted as a demand for a general and thorough analysis of EU rules and policies in order to move competence for a lot of issues down to a relevant level closer to the people – nation, region, local community – whatever is most relevant.

Of course, there are also areas where the EU should have more decision-making abilities. Many Greens in the more liberal countries, such as Sweden, have argued against increasing EU control on environmental, asylum and refugee policies, maintaining that this would result in a less progressive policy than their national one.  However, the experience of 2015 has proven that an open-minded refugee policy cannot survive in isolation; that only a common EU policy, open towards asylum-seekers and refugees, has a chance of surviving practical difficulties and populist counter-movements. In short: a British ‘No’ to Brexit must trigger a major makeover of the whole of the EU, to make the organisation capable of handling the urgent transboundary issues of our time – a task at which the EU has so deplorably failed at for quite some time.


Per Gahrton, former Green MEP, and author of Green Parties, Green Future (Pluto, 2015)


Green Parties, Green Future: From Local Groups to the International Stage is available to buy from Pluto Press here.




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