The Washington Post Column

Stubborn Swedes and ‘United’ Europe

Imagine, if you can, an issue that united the entire American political and business elite. Or, to put it differently, imagine an issue on which there was virtual unanimity among the White House, Congress, The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, Microsoft, the New York Stock Exchange, the Ford Motor Co. and just about everyone who hosts a talk show. If you can imagine that, then you have a pretty good idea of the forces that are united, in Sweden, in favor of adopting the euro, the European single currency.

You can also then understand the spectacular nature of the Swedish vote against the euro in a referendum held last weekend. Even the bizarre murder of the Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh — she was stabbed to death a few days before the vote — failed to change the nation’s collective mind. Lindh had passionately supported the euro. Nevertheless, the final vote was decisive: Fifty-six percent of Swedes voted against joining and only 42 percent voted in favor.

Nor is this the first time this sort of thing has happened. There is a long tradition of peasant revolt in Europe, and it hasn’t yet been fully extinguished. More than a decade ago, when the Danes were asked to vote on the treaty that set up the single currency, they turned it down, to the enormous surprise of just about every Danish politician, newspaper editor and business leader. More recently, the Irish — out of the blue, apparently — turned down another European treaty. Even French votes on European issues are sometimes breathtakingly close, and if they can be close in France, they can be close anywhere.

Like its predecessors, the Swedish vote once again casts doubt on whether the European march to political integration is really as inexorable as some make it seem, and on whether a European constitution really stands a chance of acceptance. But it should have consequences in this country, too. At the very least, Swedish popular contrariness ought to make us more cautious about how we use the word “Europe.” I’m afraid it has become fashionable in this country to dismiss “Europeans” as incorrigible anti-Americans, or as die-hard social democrats, or as unflappable pacifists who will never sympathize with our point of view. It has become commonplace to assume that “Europe” is the same thing as the European Union: a dull, predictable, institutional sort of place, run by bureaucrats who lack the passion necessary to understand the war on terrorism, or free-market capitalism, or anything, really, that motivates us on this side of the Atlantic.

Yet Europe isn’t a place with a single point of view, even when its leaders in Paris, Berlin and Brussels pretend that it is. Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain at the moment are led by politicians who are not card-carrying social democrats at all — quite the other thing. Sweden, Britain and Ireland are full of people who are suspicious of the bureaucrats leading the European Union, at least some of the time. Sometimes the views of Europe’s political class, as expressed in the European media, are not identical to the views of the European general public, as expressed in referendums. Sometimes a wave of popular outrage in Europe produces unexpected protest votes, or oddball political leaders, or both.

There are gaps and chinks and differences of opinion, in other words, and it is in and among them that American diplomats should now be working. If we want moral and financial support from Europe for the transformation of Iraq, for example, we should argue our case — if it isn’t too late — not just in private meetings with foreign ministers but in public forums, where the voters can hear us. Colin Powell can win popular support in Europe without even trying. Donald Rumsfeld has to try, but when he does, he succeeds: Last spring, he won over a room full of German skeptics at a security conference in Munich. Even George Bush is capable of eliciting sympathy, as he did after 9/11, when he thanked America’s international supporters, in a much-quoted speech. Collectively, this administration should do it more often. If we needed another reminder, the Swedish vote again proves that Europe is less united, and far more unpredictable, than it sometimes appears to be.