The same weekend that the world had reason to celebrate the breakdown of the WTO ministerial meeting in Cancun we had a great victory in Sweden. Sunday the 14th of September 55.9 % of the Swedish population voted against Sweden joining the Economic and Monetary Union, EMU and having the euro as a currency.
So what was this referendum all about? It was about joining or not joining the monetary union, to have the same currency (the euro) as 12 of the member states of the European Union. Sweden became a member of the European Union after a referendum autumn 1994. A split country voted yes with a majority of a few percentage points. Since then, Sweden has been one of the most EU-sceptic countries.
That referendum was, as all elections are, a class election: the typical “no-voter” was a low-educated woman, employed in the public sector living outside the big city areas; the typical “yes-voter” was a high-educated man living in a city. Of course the referendum was not about having the euro as a currency or not.
What it was about was more difficult to figure out. You had two sides speaking about the importance of democracy, welfare, employment and economic increase. They promised that you would get that: one side if you voted in favour, the other if you voted against. The yes side claimed that the no side wanted Sweden to be isolated. The no side meant that they were asking us to vote for less democracy and less welfare.
Who are they? The political establishment in Sweden; the Social-democratic Government, the leadership of the Social-democratic party, the leadership of the federation of trade unions (yes, there is basically only one that belongs to the Social-democratic party), all the right-wing political parties, mainstream media (read all media) and the Swedish Federation of Enterprises. The last-mentioned spent around 500 million Swedish crowns (50 million dollars) on the referendum campaign. This is just an estimate, as their campaign budget is of course confidential. The biggest ‘No’ organisation had 6 million crowns (600 000 dollars) — imagine the difference.
The yes campaign did a lot of negative campaigning, negative in a double sense, both casting bad things on their enemies and at the same time doing things that was not appreciated by the Swedish electorate. One was to have a lot of employed campaigners in the street giving out fancy magazines and free coffee, free lunches, and free bananas but not saying very much. That is very rare in Sweden were an electoral campaign consist of people engaged in political parties that work for free convincing people with arguments and not with free lunches. Another side was to threaten the voters, saying that the enterprises would move out of the country,
Sweden would become politically isolated, and Swedes would become poor and cut-off. But the strongest characteristic of the yes-campaign became contempt for the voters. People who were planning to vote no were told by business managers, ministers, party leaders, political analysts and journalists that they were all extremists, right-wing or communists, that they were ignorant and hadn’t understood the issue, and that they were backward-looking and against development.
And in the end who were the “no-sayers”? Were they all backward-looking ignorant extremists? Well, it was a clear majority, 56 percent of an electoral turnout higher that 80 percent that voted no. The ones that voted no were in majority women, young people, working class, and people employed in the public sector. In some areas in the north of Sweden more than 80 percent voted against. Only very few, very rich areas in city regions had a yes majority. It was the people that won against the establishment. It was the women and young people that hit the middle-age-middle-class-men, the working class that beat the rich.
For me, and many other activists, it was the first time ever winning a political battle in such a concrete way. For that simple reason I was surprised that people I thought would be on the ‘No’ side were not: some activists, left-wing intellectuals, left-wing journalists – not many but enough to be a bit annoyed and worried over their reasons. Widespread reasons disclosed what I think is a distance from popular debate.
Some activists declared that they were not going to vote. They argued that they were not part of formulating the question and democracy was not good in Sweden either so it didn’t make any difference. Others were sceptical of voting and/ or participating in the campaign as they thought that the ‘No; was nationalistic and self-righteous. Another argument was that if we joined we could then develop a European and then a global democracy and that the European Union (EU) and the euro could be a counter-power to the US.
The ‘No’ side was dispersed and consisted of many organisations. Of course there was arguments that were right wing, but the majority were arguing in favour of a democratic welfare state. Some of us had a clear left wing discourse. Democracy was the core issue during the campaign and was also the main reason for people to vote no.
67% claimed in an opinion poll on election day that they were voting against for democratic reasons. The monetary union and the central bank are based on the belief that the economy should be separated from the people and that experts and not people should take economic decisions. To join the monetary union means joining a club, the European Central Bank, where the objective of the economic policy is written in the European Constitution.
The bank is totally delinked from political or democratic control. Everything is confidential. The rules for keeping the club together are neoliberal; war against inflation is the top priority, not full employment. Other rules in the constitution inevitably lead to less public spending, higher unemployment, less social security and trade union power, and cutbacks in the public sector.
A strong ‘Yes’ argument that was listened to was about the EU becoming a counter-power to the US. I can fully understand the spontaneous yes to something – whatever – that could be seen as a possible counter-power to the only superpower in the world. But if you think about it, the world does not need one more superpower but — urgently — one less.
And even if the EU would become a superpower I doubt it would become a counter, but rather an adding-power, a partner in crime. We’re facing an armed globalisation that uses military force with one hand and trade with the other. And the EU is very active in this war. The EU could already play a counter-weight role but has no interest in that. Member countries of the European Union and the EU as such, have gained massively on trade agreements, deregulations and privatisation of the third world.
So when people say that they will vote yes to the EMU so that the Euro and the EU can become a counter-power to the US, when the EU is part of the neoliberal structure, I just don’t get it. I can´t see that there is a way to more democracy though first diminishing democracy. Would the same people tell the Argentineans to join FTAA to enforce a counterweight to the EU? Or would they tell Canada to join the US – after all it´s just a small country beside a big country with a strong currency.
Their arguments lost. And the establishment lost, for the first time ever in Sweden, in an election they themselves called. That was noted in the attitude of bad losers. The Swedish prime minister looked like a child that has just had his favourite toy train crushed. The reaction began immediately:
Now Sweden would get less say in European affairs, lower economic growth and the Swedish crown would drop. And of course “ordinary people”, as some politicians call citizens, would suffer the most. At the same time the foreign office issued a press release saying that they deplored the outcome of the WTO meeting in Cancun, predominantly because it was a great loss for the poor of the world – poor poor of the world, poor people of Sweden.
That made me think of the similarities between my engagement in the movement for global justice and the Swedish no-campaign. Criticising globalisation means being called backward looking ignorant extremist all the time. There you have a global establishment promising “good things” if there is an acceptance for new deals, “bad things” if deals, treaties or structures are being criticised. If you want to be accepted you have to think like them and follow their shining path. If you deviate you will get punished. People often know that going along is much worse. Sometimes they win.
Further steps towards neoliberalism and de-democratisation broke down in Cancun and in Sweden. I strongly believe that was good. The tools to change society, democracy and power over redistribution have to be taken back, expropriated from the hands of those on power. Then we need to use them to democratise Sweden, the European Union and the globe.
That weekend was great: two victories in one day. Sure, we did not change the world, but we learnt again, this time by winning, that there is no reason to sell out more democracy. If the one we have is bad, let’s get a better one.
America Vera-Zavala was the coordinator of one of the campaign organisations on the no-side called “Immigrants against the EMU”