Sweden assumes the EU's six-month rotating presidency from the Czech Republic on 1 July as Europe battles its most severe economic recession in decades and faces an uncertain institutional future. If the Lisbon Treaty enters into force before the end of the year, this could be history's last fully-fledged EU presidency.

Overview

From 1 July to 31 December 2009, Sweden will hold the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, chairing EU summits (the European Council of EU heads of state and government) and meetings of the bloc's Council of Ministers. 

Under the motto 'Taking on the challenges', Sweden is taking the EU's helm in difficult times, with uncertainty hanging over the Union's new institutional setting as Europe battles its worst economic recession since the 1930s. 

Swedish officials have singled out preparing for the Copenhagen climate change summit, which is expected to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol next December, as its main objective (see EurActiv LinksDossier on 'Climate change: The road to Copenhagen'). 

Other difficult tasks also lie ahead, like responding to the global economic crisis, pushing forward the final stages of the Lisbon Treaty's ratification, and presiding over consultations to appoint the next Commission president, the first ever permanent president of the European Council and the first EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. The latter two positions are foreseen under the Lisbon Treaty (see EurActiv LinksDossier on 'Choosing Mr. Europe'). 

Issues

The Swedish government has defined the aims of its EU presidency as follows: 

  • Conducting an effective, open and results-oriented presidency in the interests of the whole of Europe;
  • Advancing the EU's common issues and Sweden's priority issues, and; 
  • Strengthening Sweden's role in the EU, serving in the EU's interest and strengthening the EU's role as a global actor. 

Continuity and lessons learned 

The Swedish government appears to have drawn a line between its ambitions and the need to have realistic expectations of what the country holding the presidency can achieve in its six months. 

Indeed, the Swedish Presidency will inherit a large portion of its agenda, since many of the matters to be dealt with by the EU in the second half of 2009 have already been opened prior to the country's term at the EU's helm. The Czech EU Presidency in particular had difficulty pushing through its agenda, as the country's government collapsed halfway through its term and was replaced by a caretaker cabinet after early elections (see EurActiv Links Dossier on the Czech EU Presidency). 

Since 1 July 2008, Sweden has been working in a 'trio' with France and the Czech Republic (EurActiv 20/11/08). The three countries produced their own 18-month work programme for the period 1 July 2008 to 31 December 2009, covering the issues that they expected to arise during that period. 

Sweden was able to learn from its predecessors that EU presidents often have to face unforeseen crises. In the opening weeks of its presidency in the second half of 2008, France had to deal with unexpected developments such as the brief war between Russia and Georgia and the global financial crisis. 

Learning from these experiences, Sweden recognises that the country holding the EU presidency must be prepared to deal with unexpected events and as a result has limited opportunities to pursue its own agenda. 

Institutional troubleshooting 

Sweden's permanent representative to the EU, Christian Danielsson, said Stockholm would make sure, as soon as the Lisbon Treaty had been ratified, that every step was taken to ensure that the treaty worked well "from day one". In his words, this would include institutional changes in the Council, and "reflection" on the EU's future diplomatic corps, budget procedures and the new decision-making process in the area of justice and home affairs. 

However, Sweden appears to be at odds with France and Germany over the first issue under discussion: the nomination of José Manuel Barroso for a second term as Commission president. Stockholm is insisting on Barroso's immediate appointment by the European Council, while Paris and Berlin, which are also backing Barroso, would like to engage in consultations with the newly-elected European Parliament until a deal is reached (EurActiv 12/06/09). Sweden argues that in a time of crisis, the Union needs a Commission president who is fully in power. 

Ageing populations and the economy 

Sweden's ageing population traditionally enjoys a high level of social security. In an apparent urge to address this problem, the Swedish Presidency wants to bring the issue forward and put it into the broader context of the economic downturn hitting the continent. 

Sweden will also draw attention to the heavy public deficit that many member states are running in their efforts to fend off the recession. Returning public finances to sustainable levels will therefore be a focus point. Sweden is not a member of the euro zone, but its own budget deficit is smaller than that of most eurozone countries. 

In order to restore stability, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt wants to initiate a constructive discussion on national fiscal policies. "We need to agree on a common exit strategy to return to the rules of the Growth and Stability Pact," he said, stressing that the downturn had put significant pressure on national budgets. 

The International Monetary Fund recently concluded that Sweden had been hit hard by the economic slowdown, with a 6% drop in GDP foreseen. But the IMF nevertheless believes that Sweden's monetary authorities have handled the country's current economic challenges with aplomb. For a small, open economy like Sweden, the pace of its economic recovery is largely dependent on developments in the rest of the world, experts say. 

Speaking in Brussels recently (EurActiv 10/06/09), Reinfeldt said that to aid the return to functioning financial markets and to restore confidence, the Swedish Presidency would first focus on delivering a better financial supervisory system in line with the European Commission's proposals, based on the de Larosière report. 

Stockholm expects the Commission to come up with concrete legal proposals on how to develop the ideas of the de Larosière report. 

Revamping the Lisbon agenda 

Swedish Permanent Representative to the EU Christian Danielsson said the presidency would reflect on the EU's Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Jobs, with a focus on addressing (un)employment issues. The intention is to pave the way for an agreement on the revised agenda under the Spanish EU Presidency, in March or June 2010. 

Stockholm takes the view that in the current situation, pressing problems of unemployment must be addressed not only at national level, but also by using the EU's revised Lisbon Strategy. 

Climate change and CO2 tax 

Sweden is strongly committed to taking bold decisions to address the climate change challenge, and points out that despite all the rhetoric, the world is yet to see any reduction in CO2 emissions. As EU presidency holder, Sweden wants to ensure that Europe acts more forcefully in the present critical phase of multilateral negotiations, which are expected to culminate in December with an agreement on combating climate change at the UN summit in Copenhagen. 

The challenge here, as Stockholm sees it, is making sure that other developed countries - and especially the US - do something similar to the EU effort. The other challenge is to provide support for developing countries already affected by climate change, while encouraging them to take a development path which takes into consideration the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Stockholm is aware that the battle has to be fought on two fronts: ensuring internal coordination within the EU alongside securing external coordination with international partners including the US, China, India and Russia. Discussions will be held at various levels - bilaterally and in the framework of the G8 and the UN. 

Moreover, in Sweden's eyes, the EU's emissions trading scheme, which covers only 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, is not enough to address climate change rapidly and effectively. "We need a CO2 tax," Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt said recently (EurActiv 10/06/09), announcing his intention to relate the positive experience of Sweden. 

In addition to Sweden, other EU countries levying taxes on carbon emissions include Finland, Denmark and Slovenia (EurActiv12/05/09), while France recently signalled its desire to introduce one by 2011 (EurActiv 12/06/09). 

Since the early 1990s, there have been several attempts to introduce a unitary carbon tax for all EU member states. But an EU carbon tax has never materialised, as countries such as the UK and France have been unwilling to render national compentences on taxation to the EU. 

Justice, freedom and security

Noting that the ambitious Hague Programme from the Dutch EU Presidency in 2004 is coming to an end, Sweden is aiming to launch the next five-year policy agenda, addressing issues such as common asylum policy, cooperation in civil and criminal law, and pushing for a common migration policy. 

Sweden hopes that the EU summit in December will adopt its proposed 'Stockholm Programme' and spell out clearly the EU's stance in areas such as asylum and migration, fighting crime at the national level and counterterrorism cooperation. Sweden has declared that the programme will put more emphasis on citizens' rights. 

Baltic Sea ambitions 

Focusing on the environment and competitiveness, Sweden aims to deepen cooperation in the Baltic Sea region, following in the footsteps of the French Presidency in the Mediterranean and the Czech Presidency for the Eastern Partnership. 

Stockolm stresses that its regional approach is "micro-regional" compared to the other recent initiatives, and that it will include EU members only, not countries at the Union's periphery. The aim is to use existing EU polices in the most efficient manner, ensuring that the region in no way isolates itself from the Union. It is also pragmatic, as the Baltic Sea is one of Europe's most polluted. Moreover, Sweden is eager to 'sell' the experience to other regions, and is aware of a similar initiative for the Danube area. 

The European Commission tabled its proposal in June, and EU leaders are expected to adopt formally the strategy and a related action plan at their October summit (EurActiv 11/06/09). 

Enlargement and neighbours

Sweden hopes that the EU will decide in the autumn to lift visa requirements for countries which have met the conditions (Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, according to reports). 

As regards the EU’s Eastern Partnership, launched on 7 May in Prague, Stockholm is preparing its 'implementation phase', which will establish the various structures envisaged by the plans. 

Transatlantic relations 

Sweden is preparing for a further effort to renew EU-US relations in a number of concrete areas, as closer cooperation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, developing relations in the field of justice, freedom and security, and in development policy, where Stockholm boasts substantial experience. 

Positions

UEAPME, the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, released a memorandum on the Swedish Presidency based on four main pillars: 

  • Help SMEs to survive the credit crunch and provide support for an economic recovery;
  • Support SMEs in their efforts to maintain as many people as possible in work;
  • Provide SMEs with space to breathe and promote entrepreneurship, and; 
  • Protect SMEs against unnecessary burdens. 

"The second round effects of the current downturn are only beginning to appear and unemployment will be close to double digits in the next months. The Swedish Presidency will play a key role in leading Europe during these turbulent times," said UEAPME President Georg Toifl. "Restoring confidence, tackling unemployment and supporting SMEs must clearly be prioritised against this background," he stressed.

Amnesty International is calling on the upcoming Swedish EU Presidency to boost efforts on human rights and take on the challenge of tackling torture worldwide.

"Sweden made a considerable impact on the EU's broader human rights agenda during its last presidency in 2001. Amnesty International has high hopes this time round for a marked improvement on human rights and on the issue of torture in particular," said Lise Bergh,  secretary-general of Amnesty International Sweden.

"The EU's leadership on the prevention of torture in its external relations has been compromised by the failure of EU member states to demonstrate outright commitment to the ban on torture in their counter terrorism measures," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's EU office. "EU member states including Sweden, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK have used so-called diplomatic assurances, a practice that is in flagrant contradiction of EU efforts to fight torture," he added. 

Sweden should ensure that the EU offers protection and a fair chance to asylum seekers when it takes over the bloc's rotating presidency, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said in its recommendations for the presidency.

People fleeing war or persecution are treated differently across the 27-member bloc, and some states including Italy have turned back African migrants without even considering their claims, according to the UN refugee agency.

It called on Sweden, the main European destination for Iraqi refugees, to push for equitable treatment in the bloc's asylum policies that are due to be set in December for 2010-2014.

"Recent events, including Italy's push-backs of boat people and elections in which anti-immigrant parties scored big gains in a number of EU countries, give rise to concern about Europe's commitment to ensure access to protection," UNHCR spokesman William Spindler said.

Going-Electric, the European Association for Battery Electric Vehicles, wishes that Sweden will enhance the interest for electric vehicles across the EU. “It is a good opportunity to show one more time how Sweden is in advance in terms of environmental commitment and how it can accompany the EU towards a promising deal in Copenhagen,” says the association on blogactiv. Going-Electric recommends to the Swedish presidency to make is commuting only by electric vehicles within Brussels.

"After the less-than-stellar performance of the Czech chairmanship of the EU, the Swedes will want to show that small countries can run effective presidencies," the Centre for european reform said in a briefing note. "Internal political stability and a skilled diplomatic corps should help."

"Stockholm’s presidency priorities include an effective EU response to the economic crisis, climate change, enlargement and progress in justice and home affairs. However, Europeans will judge the success of the Swedish presidency largely by factors over which Sweden has little influence, such as the fate of the Lisbon treaty, improvements in the European economy and the success of the Copenhagen summit on climate change," the CER said.

"In these difficult times for Europe, the EPP expects the Swedish Presidency, which will be a solid Presidency, to work in close cooperation with the European Parliament and with the President of the European Commission," said Joseph Daul, president of the EPP group in the Parliament. "I would also like Mr Reinfeldt to commit to pushing through the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of the year. I am confident that he will achieve this," he added.

Timeline

  • 8-10 July: G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy. 
  • 27 Sept.: Federal elections in Germany. 
  • Sept./Oct. 2009: Second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. 
  • Oct.: Appointment of the new European Commission. 
  • 29-30 Oct.: European summit, Brussels. 
  • 1 Nov.: First day in office of the new European Commission. 
  • 9 Nov,: 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. 
  • 10-11 Dec.: European summit, Brussels. 
  • 7-18 Dec. 2009: Copenhagen climate conference (COP 15). Projected completion of UN climate negotiations on post-2012 framework.