Two decades ago, Britain was seeking membership in the European Community while demanding changes in its terms. Sweden's late Prime Minister Olof Palme told a reporter for this newspaper that Sweden, in contrast, could accept all the terms of the EC's Treaty of Rome, but not the preamble. Neutrality forbade it. And that neutrality, the cornerstone of Sweden's national policy, was a balancing act. Sweden was acutely interested in what it was balancing between.
Sweden's decision to apply for membership in the European Community is a testimonial that the balance of Europe is gone, leaving Sweden little to be neutral about. It is a further testimonial that the EC will emerge in greater unity next year as the world's third economic superpower, alongside Japan and the United States (or the East Asian Rim and North America). Even prosperous small European states had better get aboard because their old position is gone.
Meanwhile, the European Community has bit off more than it can chew, with its dominant member, Germany, hocking all to absorb its eastern portion, and with Portugal and Greece struggling to find the prosperity that Spain achieved. And the EC has to make the vaunted 1992 changes work.
So while the Community welcomes the Swedish application, that's all it will do for years, just welcome it. Sweden, in any case, must change its constitution and undergo an election that will probably replace Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson's Social Democratic government before negotiations take place. The opposition parties supported the EC application.
As Sweden goes, so goes . . . who? The initiative has profound impact on the other Nordic states outside the EC. These are Finland, a neutral in special relationship with the Soviet Union, and Norway, a NATO member blessed with oil. And arguably Iceland, a small and special case.
Also affected are the other European Free Trade Association (EFTA) members, Switzerland and Austria. The latter has already applied to the EC, as have Turkey and Malta, and doesn't worry about its neutrality. Eastern European states, particularly Hungary and Czechoslovakia, press their noses to the window. Half of Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia) wants in and the other half (Serbia, etc.) would rather starve.
Sweden's notion of retaining neutrality in the EC may conflict with France's ideas of collective European defense. One EC member, Ireland, clings as tenaciously as Sweden to its own neutrality, as historically defining its independence of Britain. But what all the concerns add up to are that the European Community must plan its growth in a coherent manner. That's an issue bigger than Sweden, whose application brings it all to a head.