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date: 23 March 2017

Sweden and the European Union

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Membership in the European Union (EU) entails adjustments or changes in national democracies. Sweden joined the EU in 1995, and EU membership has given rise to controversies in the public debate as well as in the academic community. Four main scholarly and related themes are addressed here.

First is the discursive construction of the question of democracy in relation to European integration. Seeking to legitimize membership in the public debate, the consequences in terms of sovereignty were summarized in the official Swedish discourse on EU membership as a loss in formal sovereignty but an increase in real sovereignty. The conclusions became known as the calculus of sovereignty. This conceptual innovation entailed a reinterpretation of popular sovereignty, as stipulated by the Swedish Constitution, as well as of democracy, implying that efficiency or problem-solving capacity was emphasized more than procedural democracy. Increased economic and political interdependence had created a situation where independent political decisions were seen as ineffective. This reasoning struck a chord among political elites.

Second is the controversy surrounding the question of influence and the extent to which Sweden is exerting influence in the EU. This issue came to the fore in connection with the euro referendum in 2003. While some argued that remaining outside the euro would come with a political price—marginalization—others emphasized the lack of evidence for such effects. This remains a moot point, not least as a result of the expansion and importance of the euro-zone.

Third is the question of whether or not there is political opposition, that is, conflict rather than consensus in EU affairs. Recent research claims that (allegedly almost non-existent) previous research had underestimated the degree of political opposition or conflict, notably in parliament. Moreover, results suggest that there is variation in EU opposition across time and policy areas. However, the key question here should be whether or not there is effective opposition, making a difference to policy outcomes. Several reforms have been initiated to strengthen the involvement of the parliament in EU policy-making, but none has really sought to challenge the balance between parliamentary scrutiny and executive discretion.

Fourth is the state and different interpretations of either decentering or centering effects. Whereas some claim that fragmentation or decentralization is the central feature of the Europeanization of the Swedish state, other researchers submit that the predominant tendency is centralization, rather as the demands of EU decision making—not least EU summitry—on national policy coordination have been a principal driving factor in this process.

These are main and recurrent themes in the debate over EU and EU membership in Sweden. We are dealing here with a series of analytical narratives and counter-narratives, as well as with important implications for the national democracy and for the distribution or redistribution of power among domestic political actors therein. In sum, therefore, any interpretation of modern-day politics must now take the significance of the EU, operating through Europeanizing impacts, into account.