A tale of two Nordic EU referendums: A lesson for Brexit?

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 22, 2016 2:05 AM

By Alistair Scrutton and Alister Doyle

STOCKHOLM/OSLO (Reuters) - With Britain's noisy campaign over "Brexit" polarizing voters, tight referendums in Norway and Sweden over EU membership two decades ago offer lessons how "no scare" campaigns that shun the establishment can swing voters at the last minute.

In the space of just two weeks in 1994, Sweden voted by 52.3 percent to join the EU bloc while Norway chose to stay out, with 52.2 percent voting "No". They were two of the closest run EU referendums in history, momentous decisions that split families, generations and political parties.

Both nations are relevant to the British campaign. Norway, is touted as a model by Brexit supporters, with close EU trade ties despite remaining outside. Sweden is seen as a successful arms-length approach to EU membership with its own currency.

Despite differences, the opposing victorious campaigns offered some similar strategies - playing down links with the establishment and politicians to focus on mobilizing civil society and positive messaging.

"We didn't do fear," said Janerik Larsson, involved in the Swedish Yes campaign as communications head of the Swedish Employers Confederation. Campaigners for Brexit accuse those wanting to stay of organizing a "Project Fear" that exaggerates the risks of leaving.

In Sweden, polls had shown a majority of voters were deeply suspicious of joining the bloc. It was only in the last week before the referendum that there was a swing to a "Yes".

Many campaigners attribute the last minute move by undecided voters to cool-headed calls for Swedes, especially the young, to embrace economic opportunities, in contrast to negative campaigns playing on fears of loss of sovereignty or jobs.

"The fear factor was used by those against the EU," said Ingvar Carlsson, Swedish prime minister in 1994. "It was seldom used by the other side."

There was evidence of a lower turnout by some "No" supporters - a problem that can plague those on the side of the status quo like the Remain campaign in Britain.

Admittedly the referendum took place in a different era. The Berlin Wall had fallen only five years before. There was no euro crisis, no single currency. Sweden had just emerged from a financial crisis in 1992 that nearly sunk its banks. Opposition to the EU came from a protectionist left rather than skeptical right. While refugees from the Balkans war had begun to arrive in Sweden, immigration was not central to the debate.

Still Swedish "Yes" campaigners faced a hard task in a country whose traditional neutrality had seen it avoid participating in two world wars.

The "Yes" campaign was rooted in the center right and business and it knew this was a liability. So its campaign focused on civic society - its final leaflet featured 25 Swedes, from trade unionists to artists, but avoided politicians.

"The lesson is that voter mobilization and tailored messages, like at the young, can get the final undecided voters on board," said Fredrik Erixon, director of the Brussels-based Ecipe think tank.

"Yes" Campaigners focused on the young - highlighting opportunities like access to European universities or working in a cafe in Paris.

"I cannot tell you the times that older people told me they were skeptical over the EU but their kids were telling them to vote Yes," said Larsson.

The pro-EU campaign played on the Swedish flag, in contrast to the center left that distrusted such symbols.

"I always felt if the No campaign had used the flag they would have won," said Lars Goran Johansson, who was president of Sweden's 1994 "Yes" campaign.


Neighboring Norway is the only country to have voted "No" to EU membership after negotiating membership terms - twice, in 1972 and 1994.

Many voters feared a loss of sovereignty to the EU after winning independence from Sweden only in 1905. Rich from North Sea oil, some voters saw little incentive to join a bloc where unemployment was higher and welfare less extensive.

But the vote was going to be close. Pro-EU campaigners had hoped for a domino effect - the referendum came after the Swedish as well as Austrian and Finnish votes to join the bloc. Most political parties, businesses and media favored membership.

But the "No" vote carved out an image, in many ways like the Swedish campaign for "Yes", of being about ordinary voters. It had a simple emotional message of a feel-good factor of sovereignty in contrast to a pro-EU side with a "Project Fear" approach - warning of job losses and slower growth outside the bloc.

"We had a simple argument that struck people’s hearts. We argued for self-determination," said Kathrine Kleveland, head of Norway's "No to the EU" organization, who visited London in January to share experiences with No campaigners in Britain.

The "No" side painted “Nei” on cows. A farmer once thrust a piglet into the arms of the EU Commission’s ambassador, and a photographer snapped him trying to hold a squirming pig: "Even the pig said ‘No’" was the newspaper headline.

"We had the people, the 'Yes' side had the power, the money and media," Kleveland said.

Jan Erik Grindheim, head of the European Movement, the main pro-EU campaigners, said the mistake was to be too closely associated with the establishment.

"You have to focus more on what's in it for me as a normal person," Grindheim added, a common comment from both campaigns.

"My concern is in the UK is that it is all about the establishment talking down to the people," said Johansson.

(editing by Janet McBride)