7th Feb 2023

Sweden clips wings of EU foreign ministers

  • Bildt: "there is an expectation of me to be some sort of a chairman of a foreign ministers' trade union" (Photo: Gunnar Seijbold/Regeringskansliet)

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt on Thursday (10 December) dismissed criticism from some of his EU counterparts for implementing a Lisbon Treaty novelty that sees foreign ministers excluded from EU summits.

"Sometimes I have the impression that there is an expectation of me to be some sort of a chairman of a foreign ministers' trade union, which I obviously am not," Mr Bildt told MEPs in the foreign affairs committee during an overview of the Swedish EU presidency, which steps down at the end of the year.

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Some foreign ministers – more or less openly - criticised the speed with which the Swedish presidency acted to implement the new EU legal framework.

But Mr Bildt defended his actions: "The Lisbon Treaty is in place since 1 December and until 31 December I will be very fundamentalist in implementing it."

He explained that since the treaty came into force, relations between member states are no longer considered "foreign policy" but are now "domestic policy" and so EU leaders no longer need their top diplomats beside them.

Foreign ministers may now be invited if "foreign relations" with non-EU states are on the agenda. Environment ministers may join leaders if climate is an issue or trade chiefs when that area is being covered.

Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger in an interview with Der Standard on Wednesday said the Lisbon Treaty innovation is just a "testing baloon" which can still be scrapped if EU leaders want, however.

"There is a great number of voices in member states saying that this is the wrong approach," he said.

Mr Spindelegger argued that foreign ministers should accompany leaders on the same logic that sees national ambassadors accompany foreign ministers in their meetings:

"Decisions should not be taken solely by heads of state and government, they have to emerge from the countries, to be agreed upon internally, whatever position is taken in Brussels. We will see if the new system proves itself."

Sweden's decision to exclude foreign ministers from the summit could have been seen as clashing with Mr Bildt's decision to chair an EU foreign ministers' meeting earlier this week.

But Mr Bildt invoked the need for a "transitional period" while carrying out the function on Tuesday, with the EU's new high representative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, taking on the job from 1 January.

Ms Ashton participated in a "listening" capacity only, as ministers butted horns over sensitive topics such as Turkey accession talks and the Middle East peace process.

Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos could also quietly shunt Ms Ashton aside under the Spanish EU presidency in the first half of 2010, according to a policy paper drafted by the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think-tank.

"The foreign minister could also stand in for Catherine Ashton whenever her predictably-dense agenda prevents her from attending a Foreign Affairs Council session in Brussels or other official meetings, thus de facto acting as her deputy," the paper said.

Correction: EU leaders agreed in a political decision in 2008 that the rotating presidency would continue to chair the foreign ministers' meetings during the 'transitional period'.

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