Sweden Applies for Membership in the European Community

With its application for membership in the European Community in the wake of German reunification, Sweden indicated that it had overcome the view that such membership would be incompatible with the nation’s traditional policy of neutrality.

Summary of Event

The road to Sweden’s application for membership in the European Community was a long one. Sweden formed its attitude toward Europe and the rest of the world immediately following World War II, under the leadership of Foreign Minister Östen Undén. Guarding his country’s traditional neutrality, which had served it well during two world wars, Undén set Sweden on a course of well-armed nonalignment between the two hostile superpowers, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Soviet bloc. He also advocated free trade, a policy in the best interest of Sweden’s export-oriented economy. Finally, while eager to see Sweden play an active role in the United Nations, Undén would not countenance any surrender of sovereignty to a supranational entity. The dominant view among the country’s political elite was one of Sweden in a Europe of sovereign states trading freely with one another. European Community;Swedish membership
Sweden, European Community membership
[kw]Sweden Applies for Membership in the European Community (July 1, 1991)
[kw]Membership in the European Community, Sweden Applies for (July 1, 1991)
[kw]European Community, Sweden Applies for Membership in the (July 1, 1991)
European Community;Swedish membership
Sweden, European Community membership
[g]Europe;July 1, 1991: Sweden Applies for Membership in the European Community[08130]
[g]Sweden;July 1, 1991: Sweden Applies for Membership in the European Community[08130]
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Undén, Östen
Palme, Olof
Carlsson, Ingvar
Bildt, Carl

At odds with this Swedish view of Europe was the gathering of nations that eventually became the European Community (later the European Union). From its inception in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community, the institution was supranational in certain key economic and political matters. These issues were defined fundamentally in the Treaty of Rome of 1957, Rome, Treaty of (1957) which joined France, the German Federal Republic, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in the European Economic Community (EEC). It called for the elimination of barriers to trade within the community and a common tariff policy toward the outside.

In 1960, several European nations outside the EEC that shared Sweden’s point of view on free trade and national sovereignty formed the European Free Trade Area European Free Trade Area (EFTA). They included, in addition to Sweden, the United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, and Portugal, and later Iceland and Finland. In contrast to the EEC, EFTA always had a loose, temporary character.

Throughout the 1960’s, a minority in Sweden argued for Swedish membership in the EEC because the country traded much more within the EEC than within EFTA. The prevailing point of view, put forward by the governing Social Democratic Party and shared by the agrarian Center Party, was that Swedish neutrality ruled out the nation’s joining the EEC, which appeared to overlap NATO too much. Moreover, Sweden appeared economically strong enough to need nothing more than friendly trade agreements with the EEC. It was also widely felt that membership in the EEC would threaten Swedish “identity.” The EEC seemed too Catholic, too capitalist, and too conservative.

The question of Sweden’s membership grew more urgent in the early 1970’s, as EFTA virtually disintegrated. In 1973, after two earlier failed attempts, the United Kingdom entered the European Community (EC), as the organization had been known since 1970, together with Denmark and the Irish Republic. Sweden’s Social Democratic prime minister, Olof Palme, inclined toward a Swedish application for full membership but bowed to opposition from within his party. In 1972, Palme’s government negotiated a free trade agreement between Sweden and the EC that covered mainly industrial products.

During the 1970’s, as Sweden’s trade with the EC grew ever more significant, the country also was reminded that its policy of armed neutrality had certain limitations. Military expenses had to be cut during the recession that weakened Sweden’s economy in the mid-1970’s. At the same time, Leonid Brezhnev’s Brezhnev, Leonid regime in the Soviet Union heated up the Cold War. Cold War It became clear that Swedish national security increasingly depended on indirect support from NATO.

With the death of Brezhnev in 1982 and the thaw in the Cold War that followed, the basic assumptions of Sweden’s foreign policy changed. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and initiated reforms in 1987, such as glasnost and perestroika, that promised the end of dictatorship in that nation. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War ended, and Sweden could rethink the Undén doctrine of neutrality. Simultaneously, the EC became a more attractive option for Sweden. By the mid-1980’s, it had expanded to include Greece, Spain, and Portugal. Austria, a nonaligned country like Sweden, applied for membership in the EC in 1989.

In 1984, virtual free trade in industrial products having been achieved, the EC and EFTA reached an agreement in Luxembourg to expand cooperation in a common European Economic Area European Economic Area (EEA). In 1987, realizing that Europe was being restructured in accord with EC plans and that Swedish industry was being tempted to move to EC countries, the Swedish government declared its wish to join the EC single market. In 1990, as EEA negotiations began in Brussels, Sweden announced its goal of securing EC membership.

During that year, the question of membership became a major domestic issue, pressed by Carl Bildt on behalf of an alliance of Conservatives and Liberals. Influenced by a strong showing of popular support for membership—about 60 percent for, 20 percent against, and 20 percent undecided—the Social Democratic government led by Ingvar Carlsson laid the matter before the Riksdag, the Swedish parliament. On December 2, 1990, the Riksdag voted overwhelmingly to apply under the condition of preserving Sweden’s neutrality. Opposition came only from members of the Communist and Environment parties.

In the following months, the Riksdag’s foreign affairs committee examined specific conditions for the application. Of particular concern was whether the EC might eventually impose a compulsory defense obligation on its members and, if so, whether Sweden could comply. The committee took the view that in the short run, such an obstacle was unlikely, and if such an obligation arose, Sweden’s membership in the EC would allow Sweden to be involved in shaping future policy. On July 1, 1991, Prime Minister Carlsson submitted Sweden’s application, without qualifications, to the EC in Brussels.


Swift changes in world affairs had swept Sweden’s leaders into the application too quickly for the Swedish public to examine what membership might mean to the country’s special interests, and a genuine national consensus in favor of membership had not yet formed. Popular support for membership peaked at 60 percent in October, 1991, shortly after the general election that brought Bildt to power at the head of a coalition of middle-class parties. Thereafter, opponents of EC membership exploited fears of its possible negative impact. The Bildt government’s austerity program, linked in the public’s mind with the need to adapt Sweden to the structures of the EC, drew popular resentment to the application. The EC became identified with Sweden’s problems rather than with its opportunities. EC membership also appeared to jeopardize Swedish identity, raising fears that foreigners would overrun the country and faceless bureaucrats in Brussels would govern it.

During December, 1991, at Maastricht in the Netherlands, the EC’s members agreed to prepare themselves by 1999 for a common monetary system and other far-reaching measures of unification. In November of 1993, the European Community became known as the European Union. Negotiations with Sweden had begun in February, 1993; in March of the following year, an agreement was reached. Much of the work on this agreement had already been done when the EEA treaty was signed in 1992. Sweden’s membership was approved, pending results of a national referendum. Prime Minister Bildt signed the accession treaty for Sweden at a European Union summit meeting held in the summer of 1994.

In the debate leading up to the referendum, Swedish public opinion remained evenly divided. Finally, it shifted in favor of the treaty, influenced by what seemed favorable to Sweden’s long-term interest and appeared inevitable. On November 13, 1994, 52.3 percent voted in favor of membership in the European Union, 46.8 percent voted against, and 0.9 percent turned in blank ballots. The turnout was high: 83.3 percent of eligible voters. The Riksdag ratified the results on December 15, 1994, and Sweden became a full European Union member on January 1, 1995. European Community;Swedish membership
Sweden, European Community membership

Further Reading

  • Gstöhl, Sieglinde. Reluctant Europeans: Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland in the Process of Integration. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2002. Examines why the three nations discussed chose for so long to remain outside the European Community and explains their eventual integration.
  • Hill, Richard, and David Haworth. The New Comers: Austria, Finland, and Sweden. Brussels, Belgium: Europublications, 1995. Popular survey offers useful insights into the national characteristics that impeded the entry of Sweden as well as Finland and Austria into the European Union.
  • Huldt, Bo. “Sweden and European Community-Building, 1945-92.” In Neutral States and the European Community, edited by Sheila Harden. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Offers well-balanced, detailed historical analysis and discusses the forces pulling Sweden away from its traditional stance of neutrality toward full membership in the European Union.
  • Milward, Alan S., ed. The Frontier of National Sovereignty: History and Theory, 1945-1992. New York: Routledge, 1993. Collection of essays by Milward and four other expert contributors argues that interrelated economic, social, and political changes in the postwar period motivated Sweden and other Western European states to integrate.
  • Pedersen, Thomas. European Union and the EFTA Countries: Enlargement and Integration. London: Pinter, 1994. Discussion of the integration of the European Union includes succinct analysis of Sweden’s reasons for abandoning EFTA.
  • Scott, Franklin D. Sweden: The Nation’s History. 2d ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988. Standard English-language survey of Swedish history offers a sound understanding of the growth of a national identity in Sweden marked by democratic social cohesion at home and neutrality in foreign affairs.

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