High expectations of Sweden at EU helm

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As Sweden prepares to assume the EU’s rotating presidency on 1 July, business, civil society and human rights groups alike are lobbying Stockholm to find a way out of the financial, economic and climate crises by promoting structural reform and ambitious policies.

Businesses across the EU continue to face a difficult environment, with the latest OECD figures released earlier this week making for sober reading. “Recovery is likely to be weak and fragile, and the economic and social damage caused by the crisis will be long-lasting,” predicted the OECD report. 

Recovery plans do not target the right recipients 

“The Swedish Presidency will play a key role in leading Europe during these turbulent times,” says Georg Toifl, president of UEAPME, a small enterprise lobby group. He said that the “second round effects of the current downturn are only beginning to appear and unemployment will be close to double digits in the coming months”. 

Toifl said small entrepreneurs were “not impressed” with the focus of government recovery plans so far. “Large banks, unionised enterprises and companies that are deemed too big to fail” are receiving a disproportionate amount of recovery funds, while little attention is being paid to SMEs, he feels. 

Toifl urged the Swedish Presidency to “break this vicious circle” by addressing the concerns of small enterprises by simplifying regulation, and helping to “retrain and re-skill” the workforce. 

Establishing a transatlantic free trade area is one area on which the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise feels the Swedish Presidency must advance. The initiative is one of a list of six ideas drawn up by the Swedish business lobby, which also calls for agricultural funds to be “redistributed” to research and development. 

“The object of our six priority areas is to bolster European competitiveness,” said Jonas Berggren of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise. Berggren added that although they were optimistic of what can be achieved during the presidency, efforts on competitiveness must be long-term, as “the issues will remain even after Sweden’s presidency,” said the Swede. 

Growth in unemployment rates has been disconcertingly high, said Roshan Di Puppo, director of Social Platform, adding that he expected the Swedish Presidency to tackle the issue head on. The Czech Presidency only focused on “short-term measures to keep people in their jobs,” argued Di Puppo. She hopes that Sweden will take a “broader approach” by tackling social issues too. 

Di Puppo points to examples in France and the United Kingdom, where social budgets have given priority to supporting the newly unemployed, resulting in cuts to social spending, immigrant integration and other spending on the long-term socially excluded. 

“What is positive about the Swedish Presidency is that they are going to put an emphasis on inclusion in the labour market,” said the NGO director. 

Di Puppo also hopes the Swedes will begin the debate on the post-Lisbon strategy agenda and table ideas for the European Year Against Poverty, “so that we can actually achieve something during the Year”. She hopes that the post-Lisbon debate will not be conducted “behind closed doors”, and that the new agenda will focus on “people and the climate” rather just competitiveness. 

Turning domestic action into global leadership on climate change 

One of the Sweden’s top priorities is to tackle climate change and rally support for a new global climate change agreement in Copenhagen later this year. 

The Swedish prime minister stressed in his Riksdag speech that there is “no time to lose”. Reinfeldt strongly disagrees with those who say that climate change issues must be put on hold during the economic crisis, and argues that the two goals are compatible. “Countries not only can but also must be both climate-smart and resource-efficient,” he said. 

Campaigners believe that the real test for the Swedish EU Presidency will be whether it translates its good domestic record on both environment and development into real leadership of the EU. 

According to Savio Carvalho, a climate change expert at Oxfam International, “there is still a lot left for the EU to do before the Copenhagen climate summit in December”. 

Oxfam believes Reinfeldt should set a more urgent tone, possibly by “convening an extraordinary meeting of EU heads of state before the crucial high-level UN climate summit in New York in September,” said Tim Gore, Oxfam EU’s climate change expert. 

Waiting until just six weeks before Copenhagen to come up with a proposal on climate change finance would be “suicidal”, Gore argued. 

Writing to the Swedish government on behalf of a group of environmental NGOs, Matthias Duwe, director of the Climate Action Network Europe, warned that “no substantive progress” on preparations for Copenhagen had been made in recent months. He called on Sweden to “urgently provide an EU roadmap” for success in Copenhagen, noting that “decisions on key issues like the EU’s public climate financing offer cannot be further delayed”. 

Burden-sharing on asylum seekers 

Sweden hopes to “develop and strengthen EU cooperation in EU justice and home affairs,” indicated the Swedish premier. He spoke of his hope that EU countries would sign up to a “multi-annual cooperation programme in this area, the Stockholm Programme,” which Reinfeldt hopes will provide a vision for a “safer more open Europe where rights of individuals are safeguarded” (EURACTIV 11/06/09).

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), recent events, including Italy’s return of refugees arriving on boats 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 ensuring access to protection. 

Different approaches in EU member states have resulted in asylum seekers being treated differently. Decade-long efforts to harmonise EU asylum rules have yielded “mixed” results, the UNHCR said. It called on Sweden to push for equitable treatment in the bloc’s asylum policies, which are due to be set in December for 2010-2014. 

Immigration policies in Italy continue to attract criticism, with the UNHCR again calling on Italy “to properly process” asylum applicants, and “not just sent back”. Nevertheless, the UN agency agreed that more should be done by northern countries to share the burden. 

The proposed initiative has sparked optimism among NGOs that the Swedes will provide leadership on human rights issues: an area where Europe’s commitment has been questioned by some high-profile NGOs. 

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

“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. Amnesty International says it is now looking to Sweden for renewed leadership and decisive action. 

In a speech to the Riksdag on Tuesday (23 June), Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden's prime minister, set out his government's priorities for their EU presidency. He told the Swedish parliament that dealing with the economic crisis and climate change were two priorities that would "dominate" the presidency. 

Other key building blocks of the presidency include: finding finance for small enterprises, an exit strategy from growing budget deficits, developing a successor to the Lisbon strategy, and more active labour market policies. 

Reinfeldt said that circumstances of the Swedish presidency are special. "There are many challenges, and they are far from simple," acknowledged the premier. 

Taking stock of the successful Swedish presidency of 2001, environmental, social and human rights NGOs are raising hopes and expectations. 

  • 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. 

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