Sweden goes it alone: The EU’s coronavirus exception

Covid-19 serves as a magnifying glass for even the smallest differences between countries – in governance, society, and attitudes.  

In Berlin, we are supposed to stay at home but some (physical) exercise is still allowed. So, I spent some time the other day walking around and gazing at the closed shops and the deserted playground in my neighbourhood – and my mind naturally wandered to Sweden, where I lived for many years. The country seems like paradise relative to grim, locked-down Germany: open cafés, happy children playing with their fathers, and groups of people working on the waterfront. As of now, Sweden remains open for business, with only some restrictions in place: work at home if possible; no unnecessary trips; no gatherings of more than 50 people; restaurants, bars, and cafés should space out customers; and the major ski resorts have decided to close for the season.

I’m jealous, of course. Why isn’t Sweden closing its schools and borders like other European countries? A German TV journalist gained some twitter fame for posing this very question at every press conference given by the Folkhälsomyndigheten, the Swedish Public Health Authority. Both Germany and Sweden tend to love rules and to follow them. But, in its coronavirus response, Sweden has imposed very few rules and mostly appealed to people’s common sense. In Germany, by contrast, the government quickly made a long list of regulations and published a catalogue of fines for any breaches of them.

Sweden’s European partners have heaped criticism on its approach: risky, experimental, cynical, naive, slow, and crazy are some adjectives they’ve hurled at their normally compliant neighbour. A Danish journalist, looking at the Swedish approach, said “it’s like watching a horror movie”. A Norwegian virologist noted that Sweden should now be handled as a non-Nordic state, referring to Nordic cooperation agreements. More temperate Finland just sent a friendly “good luck”.

Regardless, the Swedish government has held fast to its approach, intoning repeatedly that it is acting according to scientific advice and data – not, it implies, according to the political considerations that are motivating some of Sweden’s neighbours.

Sweden has imposed very few rules and mostly appealed to people’s common sense

Culture matters in how a country reacts to crisis such as the coronavirus. Jokes abound on the internet about how naturally social distancing comes to Swedes. Arguably, Sweden’s population has spent years training for just this scenario. Indeed, if you wait at a bus stop or in a queue in Sweden, you will hardly feel the presence of another human behind you. One often meets in smaller, more intimate groups instead of big family gatherings. Working from home has long been an integral part of Swedish life. And Swedes have never really enjoyed physical contact in the manner of southern Europeans. In my many meetings (both professional and personal) in Sweden, I was usually greeted by strangers or colleagues with a smile or shy wave from the other side of the table rather than a formal handshake. Welcome kissing was completely out of the question. Sweden is, if not coronavirus-proof, certainly naturally coronavirus-resistant.

Whatever the reason for Sweden’s exceptionalism, it is striking that other Nordic countries have had such a different response to the crisis. In most circumstances, the Nordics take a common approach and, to the outside world, often seem indistinguishable from one another. So, if not even such close partners can agree on a joint response to covid-19, how will the diverse, 27-member European Union ever manage to do so?

Covid-19 serves as a magnifying glass for even the smallest differences between countries – in governance, society, and attitudes. And the coronavirus could slowly burn a hole in the close Nordic Council if Sweden’s “experiment” fails domestically or undermines the containment efforts of neighbouring countries. “Naive” or “lacking solidarity” might then be the nicest accusations the country receives from its otherwise calm and polite partners.

The Swedish exception also tells us something about the limits of European governance. In Europe, a health crisis is, from a governance standpoint, almost exclusively a national crisis. The EU has very few capabilities and authorities with which to respond to the epidemic. In a culturally diverse EU – indeed, even within the more homogenous Nordic region – one should not be surprised that there are quite significant differences in response across countries.

But a virus doesn’t respect borders and the EU doesn’t really have borders anyway. A pandemic requires effective cooperation with one’s neighbours. Amid such a profound crisis, the demand for European solidarity is greater than ever. Yet, if even solidly pro-EU Sweden has become a problem, it is clear that merely relying on feelings of European solidarity is a recipe for division. Like the financial crisis, the coronavirus crisis has revealed that the EU has no governance mechanism to guarantee such solidarity among its culturally diverse members. Having endured multiple crises, the EU will not survive for much longer unless it creates a mechanism that encourages its diverse member states to respond to such emergencies together.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Communications Officer

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