European Identity from a Swedish perspective


Support for EU-membership in Sweden is high. In a survey by the Eurobarometer in 2019, as much as 79 per cent of the respondents believed that EU-membership was a good thing. Compared to many other EU countries, that is a very high number[1] . However, do Swedes feel European at heart? From my personal experience as a Swede the answer to that question is no. Of course, some Swedes might, but in general they seem to feel in some way disconnected from Europe. In this text I will try to understand what lies behind this feeling of disconnection. Identity is not an easy subject to write about since it can be quite subjective. What does feeling European at heart even mean and who has the right to define it? Aren’t there many different European identities? After all, that is what in varietate concordia implies. Although there are many different cultures in Europe there are some things that unite us all and can be seen as the components of a “true” European identity. Politically, these would be a respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Culturally, these would refer to Europe’s common cultural heritage, which is largely rooted in, for example, Greco-Roman antiquity, the Renaissance and the French Revolution[2]. Anyhow, something worth remembering is that feeling Swedish, Italian, Dutch or anything else, doesn’t mean that one cannot feel European. These different layers of identity could be compared to a Russian Matryoshka doll, in the sense that an individual’s sense of identity can be understood as being composed of multiple different layers. When talking with other young Europeans, I notice that there are some cultural differences, but many of them are very small. Examples include different methods of greeting people and different meal times and customs. When it comes to values, such as rule of law or democracy, we all seem to agree. Of course, this is purely anecdotal but it does suggest that the answer to why Swedes usually don’t feel European at heart probably doesn’t lie in cultural differences like these. However, when speaking about our so-called common cultural heritage I often feel a bit distanced from it. Again, that is just anecdotal but the fact is that Sweden and the Nordics in general, have lagged behind the rest of Europe when it comes to continent-wide historical and philosophical movements, such as the Renaissance. Due in part to geographical distance and technological, certain ideas arrived later. This was a very long time ago and can certainly not explain everything but it could at least partly explain why Swedes might have difficulties with relating to Europe’s common cultural heritage at times. In addition to the cultural heritage, a contributing factor to the feeling of disconnectedness could be the lack of shared history. Unlike many other European countries that now play a vital role within the EU, such as Germany, France and Belgium, Sweden didn’t participate in either of the world wars and were thus not affected by them in the same way. Although each of those countries have their very own history as well, they can connect in that regard. In contrast, we Swedes often take pride in the fact that we were neutral (opinions whether Sweden really was neutral differ) and stood outside of both world wars, which is something we cannot share, not even with our neighbouring countries that were all occupied at some point during World War II. In general, neutrality is seen as a great thing and it seems like Sweden wants to keep it that way. We want to be on our own and it’s important to many of us, which becomes more evident when looking at Swedish EU-politics. This sentiment of wanting to remain aloof is impossible to miss when looking at how Swedish politics deals with the EU, and it’s also here the perceived difference seems to lie. In her book about Swedish EU-politics, Ylva Nilsson[3] states that the Swedish parliament almost always says no to proposals from the EU almost by default because it’s “too expensive” or “too complicated” when the EU does it, regardless of which parties are in charge. Sweden can do this better on its own, they say. One could say that Sweden acts a bit like a stubborn three year old in EU-politics. Some things that the Swedish parliament said no to, seemingly because it was a proposal from the EU, include initiating a limit for the amount of dioxin in fish, a European civil rescue service and a regulated right to strike[4]. One can of course disagree with these proposals because of ideological reasons but the Swedish politicians, regardless of party, seem to believe that Sweden is better off by itself, a rather strange position since most of them are in favour of an EU-membership. Another explanation that has been brought up as to why Swedes don’t feel European at heart is the fact that it joined the EU as late as 1995. However, it is worth noting that the UK joined in 1973 and has an even more complex relationship with the EU. In addition, Finland, a country that is quite similar to Sweden in many ways, joined at the same time as Sweden adopted the Euro and is in general a lot more positive towards incentives from the EU[5] . This further suggests that “the problem” that Swedes, or at least Swedish politicians, have with the EU is mainly political and not cultural in practice. Could it be so that Finland, since they’ve fought against the USSR, can relate to the rest of Europe in that regard and thus takes advantage of the EU in another way? After all, the EU is a peace project. In conclusion, Swedes don’t seem to feel European at heart. But why? As shown, it’s quite complicated. However, it seems like the main reason as to why is the lack of shared history, especially when it comes to war. History shapes identity and identity shapes politics. Although, it’s worth remembering that Swedes are Europeans and there’s certainly no doubt about that when looking at the support for EU-membership or the respect for democracy and the rule of law. Swedes might feel European in a broad sense,  but it heart it seems that national identity trumps a European identity. It is difficult to predict how Sweden’s relationship with the EU will look like in the future but it will hopefully be a bit warmer. One can only hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will lead to closer cooperation, since this is a battle all of Europe (and the world) is fighting, although that seems unlikely in these times of vaccine nationalism. The EU needs Sweden and Sweden needs the EU. Lastly, I think that cultural exchange between European countries, by travel or the internet for instance, could lead to more Europeans, not least Swedes, feeling European at heart.   [1] Schulmeister, Philipp et al. Closer to the Citizens, Closer to the Ballot. Brussels: Public Opinion Monitoring Unit, 2019. [2] Berting, Jan. Europe: A Heritage, a Challenge, a Promise. Delft: Eburon Academic Publishers, 2006. [3] Ylva Nilsson. Så förs svensk EU-politik: Med ett tvärsäkert kanske. Mörtfors: Ylva Nilsson Skriverier, 2018, 6-9 [4] Nilsson. Så förs svensk EU-politik: Med ett tvärsäkert kanske, 7 [5] Tapio Raunio and Teija Tiilikainen. Finland in the European Union. Taylor & Francis Group, 2003.  

About the Author:  Lovis Lindquist (SE) has been an active member of the Liberal Youth of Sweden (LUF) since 2018, where she also writes for their magazine. She is currently doing the Bachelor’s Programme in Peace and Development studies at Uppsala University. Her main interests are issues that relate to foreign affairs in some way, everything from energy security to trade agreements.

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April 15 2021

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