Do small European nations need to be members of the European Union (EU) to be able to influence the world? As a euroskeptic, this is one of the arguments that I encounter most frequently from EU proponents: That without the EU, Sweden would cease to have any influence internationally.

That’s not true. In fact, Sweden – and probably most small countries really – had a lot more international influence before we joined the EU.

Let’s have a look at how Sweden has changed the world, shall we? Yes, I understand that this is going to sound like patriotic boasting, and I really don’t mind that at all – I am proud of being Swedish and I love my country, despite all its flaws.

Sweden was the first country in the world to introduce paid parental leave – that’s right, not maternity leave, but parental leave, meaning it can be used by either parent. In fact, Swedish men take out more paternity leave than men of any other nationality in the world (around 3 months, leaving 15 months for the mother – yes, we have 18 months paid parental leave in Sweden). Sweden’s example inspired many other countries to follow suit, and today most countries in the developed world provides paid maternity – and sometimes also paternity – leave. The US is a notable exception.

Sweden was also the first country in the world to ban corporal punishment in the home, in 1979. Within just 20 years we’d been joined by another 7 countries, and today 37 countries forbid parents from using corporal punishment.

Also in the 1970’s the Swedish Prime minister at the time (Olof Palme) became internationally reknowned when he forcefully denounced the Vietnam war and declared his support for the FNL – to my knowledge the first and perhaps only leader of any democratic European country to do so. He compared the US military campaign to historical atrocities such as Treblinka and Katyn.

Before that, in the early 1950’s, Sweden took up the fight against the Apartheid system in South Africa (which was only a few years old at the time) – initially this fight was mainly done by volunteers, doing fundraising for the anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, but soon (1973) the Swedish government went on to officially endorse the ANC. Soon, other countries would follow, and the rest as they say is history.

And then of course there is our crown achievement – the Welfare state. We didn’t invent it by any means (the “credit” for that goes to Germany) – but we sure took it to a whole new level! And as before, we inspired other countries to follow us. The welfare state we created became known as the Swedish model (sometimes the “Scandinavian model” – though I’m not sure how much credit our fellow neighbors deserve), and leftists all over the world dream of being able to recreate it in their respective homecountries. As we all know, many of them have.

One final example: The Swedish banking rescue in the early 1990’s. The Swedish government created a “bad bank” that took over toxic assets from the private banks, thereby saving them from bankruptcy. During the recent financial crisis, countries such as Ireland, the UK, Germany, Spain and Portugal all used the Swedish bad bank model with varying degrees of success.

What do all these examples have in common?

Two things:

1) They all occurred before Sweden joined the European Union in 1995.

2) In every single case, Sweden’s influence was indirect – we didn’t force other countries to follow our lead, they just did it anyway voluntarily.

The reason, as you can see above, why Sweden has been more influential than many (most?) countries several times its size, is because we in Sweden have dared to do things that no-one has done before – like when we introduced paid paternal leave. We’ve always been happy to experiment and go where no-one has gone before, and by doing so we’ve led by example, rather than by force. The last part is important: Big nations like the US & Russia can force other countries to do as they say, but for a small nation like Sweden that’s never going to be an option. The only way we can influence the world is by coming up with new ideas, applying them in our country, show the world that they work and make them want to apply them in their own countries.

Now, a supporter of the European Union would probably retort that “OK, so Sweden’s had some influence in the world even before you became members of the EU, but that doesn’t mean you should leave – you can still lead by example, but now you can change the world through the EU as well”.

Not so fast.

The thing you have to remember about the EU is that it’s a supernational union. This means that EU law cannot be overruled by any single member country.

Now, this has an unintended side-effect: The countries’ ability to take their own initiatives is sharply reduced. Take agricultural policy for example: Nearly all agricultural policy is the responsibility of the EU. This means that if Sweden wants to pioneer a completely new agricultural initiative (a new type of subsidies for example), we can’t do that anymore as all those things are decided on an EU level. We can no longer lead the way like we used to, experiment with our own country and let the rest of the world follow our example.

And the more power the EU usurps, and the more areas the EU control, the fewer areas are left for countries like Sweden where we are free to innovate politically.

But, so what, can’t we just inspire other countries through the European Parliament?

Well, yes. But it’s not the same thing. It is true that the Swedish MEPs (all 20 of them!) can debate on the floor of the European Parliament and suggest new, innovative ideas, but why not just lead the way as a nation instead?

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