STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- At the end of a long and emotional campaign, Sweden yesterday voted solidly to abandon its Arctic isolation and join the European Union.
Sweden's approval follows similar yes votes in Austria and Finland this year and is expected to give a boost to a referendum at the end of the month in neighboring Norway, where opposition has been strong.
The addition of all four countries would make the EU the world's largest and richest free-trade bloc, surpassing North America, and could help speed the integration of the Eastern and Central European countries hoping to join.
The vote -- billed as the most important decision this century for Sweden's 8.7 million citizens -- was 52 percent to 47 percent, with nearly 1 percent of the ballots left blank. The strong approval came as a surprise, with polls right up to voting day showing an even split and a fifth of voters still undecided.
"This is a happy day," Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson said at a news conference after the vote. "I believe we can be good for Europe. We will be an active partner. This brings us new possibilities."
Sweden, a fiercely independent country connected to continental Europe primarily by ferries, was divided over whether joining forces with its neighbors would mean more or less employment, democracy and social welfare.
The issues of the campaign dug deep into the psyche of Swedes, who feared entering the EU would compromise the country's commitment to political neutrality, human equality and environmental protection.
For 150 years, Swedes have pursued a policy of neutrality that kept them out of two world wars and made them a buffer between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Soviet bloc nations. They created a capitalist country with a generous welfare state that made them a third alternative to communism and U.S.-style free-marketeering.