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Swedes Seek Answers Before Opting for EC

With a referendum on EC membership expected in 1994, Sweden is weighing the costs and benefits of giving up their `splendid isolation'

FOR Peter Ferneman, the question of whether or not Sweden should join the European Community comes down to a choice between the Swedish snuff he hates to give up and becoming a more active member of the outside world.

"The kind of snuff we have here in Sweden is illegal in the EC, and a lot of people are already saying they don't want bureaucrats in Brussels telling us what we Swedes can and can't do," says the news photographer from Mariestad, a town about 190 miles southwest of Stockholm. "But if we didn't join, we'd be standing outside the world and we can't do that," he adds. "The problems we are facing are the same all over Europe, so we have to face them together."

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At the same time as Austria, Finland, and Norway, Sweden is negotiating for membership in the EC - a process expected to take until the end of the year. But with Stockholm committed to a referendum on membership by 1994, Swedes like Mr. Ferneman are already weighing the costs and benefits of giving up what has been called Sweden's "splendid isolation" to join the powerful European bloc to the south. Crucial factors

Although a vote is more than a year away, officials and analysts here say a number of factors already stand out as crucial in determining Sweden's decision:

* Sweden and Europe's economic picture at the time of the referendum;

* The size of "wealthy" Sweden's net financial contribution to EC coffers;

* The results of negotiations on several sensitive issues of popular interest, including support for agriculture - particularly short-season Nordic agriculture - and the Swedish government's monopoly on liquor sales;

* Public perception of how membership would affect Sweden's generous social benefits;

* And the outcome of Denmark's May 18 referendum on the EC's Maastricht Treaty on monetary and political union.

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"Of course our neighbors' actions have an influence on us, especially when it's a neighbor as close in culture and outlook as Denmark," says Ulf Dinkelspiel, Sweden's minister of EC affairs and foreign trade. "That doesn't mean Sweden would do as they do, but a `yes' vote [in Denmark] would certainly help."

The EC Commission says the four countries now negotiating for membership must do so on the basis of full acceptance of Maastricht - a difficult position to uphold when Denmark is voting on a version of the treaty tailored to Danish concerns after Denmark's original "no" vote last June. But Mr. Dinkelspiel, who is also Sweden's chief membership negotiator, says Maastricht is "not a big problem" for Sweden, since it puts off decisions on most major steps concerning monetary union and a common defense.

"We recognize that over time the EC intends to develop a common defense," he says. And although traditionally neutral Sweden refuses to participate in military alliances, "we will not stand in the way of such a development" by Europe. "Time will tell where we end up, but you will see us very active in the debate on European security."

Of more importance, says Dinkelspiel, will be the size of Sweden's financial contribution to the EC - especially as Sweden battles a recession and a huge budget deficit. Fearing the public impact a large contribution would have, Sweden is asking that its payment be phased in.

The image of Sweden contributing heavily to the EC to pay for distant countries' inefficiencies and corruption is strong here. "People are sensitive to the idea that their money might go to pay for housing in southern Italy or roads in Spain that somehow never get built," one official says.

Dinkelspiel says that in the growing number of talks he gives on membership, he stresses the argument that the major issues facing Europe - security, economic growth, the environment, immigration, and Central and Eastern Europe - will be most effectively addressed by "joint international action - and for Sweden, that means the EC."

But other voices caution that Sweden must also consider the price it would pay in lost independence. Income gaps

"An internationalization of our economy is going to increase the disparities between low and high incomes anyway, but do we want to accelerate the process by joining the EC, where the income gaps are greater?" asks Agneta Stark, an economist and membership "skeptic." "Those are the kinds of questions we need to be answering."

Women's place in the economy, family issues such as parental leave, and Sweden's highly developed worker's benefits, all face some impact from EC membership, Ms. Stark says. "With economic and monetary union, there would be little room to go your own way, so it's important to look at where the others are going," she says. "Their emphasis is clearly on [monetary] stability over employment."

Swedish opinion polls show widespread skepticism about membership.

Dinkelspiel has said women and rural inhabitants will decide Sweden's outcome. Stark agrees - and says it will be sensible arguments rather than threats of "a `no' leaving Sweden behind" that will convince women voters.

Recalling how women were the force behind Sweden's decision at the height of the cold war to stop developing nuclear weapons, she says, "Women were dismissed then as being unrealistic and unmodern, and now quite a few are saying, `We are prepared to be unrealistic and unmodern again if we don't get the answers we want.' "

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