View from Stockholm: Brexit and the future of Europe

Sweden has much to lose from a hard divorce.

The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union is a particular blow for Sweden. The UK has been Sweden’s big European go-to ally on a host of issues ranging from Russia policy to free trade to climate change to defending the interests of member states outside the eurozone. In short, an EU without the UK is a less attractive place for Sweden.

As elsewhere in Europe, there is considerable irritation in Stockholm over the Brexiteers’ less than honest campaign and lack of a plan to exit the union. After the referendum, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven called for calm and said that the UK needed a few months before triggering article 50 – but not much longer as this would cause uncertainty and instability.

So far, Löfven has taken a fairly clear line on the upcoming Brexit negotiations. He has warned the UK that if it were to undercut the EU by significantly lowering corporation tax, exit negotiations would become much more complicated. The government has also said that access to the UK’s labour market is a prerequisite for the UK’s access to the single market. In an opinion piece, the Swedish Prime Minister and the Europe Minister wrote that the UK could not cherry-pick and “enjoy free mobility for services but not people.”

But Sweden has much to lose from a hard divorce. The UK is Sweden’s fourth largest export market and more than 1,000 Swedish companies are present in the country. There are also some 100,000 Swedes living in the UK.

Brexit will undoubtedly be discussed at the informal summit in Bratislava. But Stockholm does not want the summit to be about how to handle Brexit. It’s optically important for the EU27 to come together to show that the Union works and can deliver on its core mission, regardless of Brexit. Stockholm does not see this summit as a summit for decisions or grand new initiatives that require changing the treaties. It’s rather the start of a process of political reflection on the future of the European Union. 

The UK is Sweden’s fourth largest export market and more than 1,000 Swedish companies are present in the country.

Stockholm considers the summit an opportunity to signal that the EU is able to deal with real challenges in Europe. The EU has to become more relevant and demonstrate that it can deal with the concerns of ordinary citizens. Here national leaders have a particular responsibility in explaining to their citizens what the EU is doing for them rather than treating the EU as a scapegoat. The government’s decision to create a ministerial post for EU affairs is part of this effort.

Broadly, the Swedish government has three EU priorities.

Firstly, the EU should focus on job creation in Europe, especially among young people. Deepening the common digital market is an important part of this. But the EU also needs to prioritise social issues and become a “social Europe for jobs and growth”. Sweden will organise a social summit in 2017 in order to put this on the EU agenda.

Secondly, Sweden will continue to prioritise strong climate, energy, and environmental policies in the EU. Part of this includes pushing for ratification by all member states of the Paris agreement.

Thirdly, Sweden wants to see all member states take greater and shared responsibility for refugees coming to the EU. This means a fairer distribution of refugees among member states, a common asylum system, and more support for neighbouring countries.

There is unease in Stockholm over the German-French initiative to move ahead with a European defence union. It would complicate the government’s staunch line on Sweden’s non-membership in military alliances. Nor is the proposal seen as being in tune with the eurosceptic mood in Europe. What is required is to make existing structures work, not to create new ones.

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


ECFR Alumni · Director of the Wider Europe Programme

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