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NATO: Sweden Reaffirms Neutrality -- For Now

Copenhagen, 11 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In the midst of a national foreign-relations debate, Sweden's minority Social Democratic government has restated the nation's long-standing policy of being what is described as "alliance-free in peace-time, neutral in war."

But the government's reaffirmation over the weekend of Sweden's neutrality is unlikely to stem the ongoing debate over such issues as possible future participation in NATO and the Western European Union (WEU).

The Government announced its support for neutrality just before the Riksdasg's (Parliament's) Defense Committee was about to release a report on Sweden's new security doctrine. In the final stages of preparing the report, the committee looked at a proposal to increase Sweden's involvement in international military and security affairs. But it, too, concluded that, in the committee's words, "the time has not come for such an U-turn." By announcing its decision to continue neutrality, the government of Prime Minister Goeran Persson simply anticipated the full parliament's decision.

Swedish politicians are as deeply divided on the issue of neutrality as they are on whether the country should be playing a more active role in the European Union. Sweden joined the EU in 1995 and is due to assume its rotating presidency next year (2000). Sweden is one of four EU members that did not join in the launch of European Monetary Union (EMU) on January 1.

In 1992, the conservative government of Carl Bildt managed to give a broader interpretation to the concept of neutrality. That allowed Sweden to joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program. But the current mood in Sweden appears to be different.

Right-wing political parties insist that Sweden should become a full member of NATO. They point to the general reduction in tensions in Europe following the end of the Cold War. But parties of the Center and left either disagree or are divided.

The ruling centrist Social Democrats are split on the issue. They are unlikely to take a united stand before they meet for an extraordinary party congress that will decide whether or not to support joining EMU. The congress is scheduled to take place in early 2000, but the NATO question will probably take even longer to be formally discussed.

In addition, many Social Democrats say that Sweden has enough problems simply maintaining even current funding for the military. Defense budget reductions are expected in the future.

The country's Left groups --the Left and Environment parties-- strongly oppose ending Sweden's traditional neutrality. They say this would sooner or later lead to NATO membership, something which they strongly oppose.