Wednesday

17th Jul 2019

Swedish EU presidency marked by 'Nordic efficiency'

  • Filling the EU's new top jobs was a bit like solving a Rubik's cube, Swedish PM Fredrik Reinfeldt said (Photo: Gunnar Seijbold/Swedish government)

Cool-tempered and efficient, Swedish officials in the past six months managed to steer the EU out of the institutional crisis surrounding the Lisbon Treaty and to mitigate infighting between member states on the bloc's top jobs, climate change and financial supervision.

Having kicked off on 1 July, the Swedish chairmanship of the EU came at a time of institutional limbo which hijacked politicians' and media attention from the issues of climate change and the economic crisis, which formed Sweden's original priorities.

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"The Swedish EU presidency was effective in securing the Lisbon Treaty to come into force on 1 December and in managing the transition from the old treaty," EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said earlier this month in Strasbourg.

After a second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in September approving the document, "the unexpected happened" when Czech President Vaclav Klaus tabled fresh demands in order to complete the ratification of the document in all 27 member states, said Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in the EU parliament in December.

"We managed to do this without new demands coming from other states," he recalled, admitting he was "relieved" when the treaty finally entered into force on 1 December.

The re-appointment of Jose Manuel Barroso at the helm of the EU commission was no less challenging, with national governments preferring to delay a formal appointment over the summer in order to secure better portfolios for their commission nominees in the next cabinet.

"It was a period of institutional change and we welcomed the eventual re-appointment of Mr Barroso, as a stable counterpart for the Swedish EU presidency," Mr Reinfeldt said.

Once the Czech signature had been secured, the Swedish premier's mediating skills were tested in getting an agreement on the bloc's newly created top jobs – that of a standing president of the European Council and of a high representative for foreign policy, which will also be a vice-president of the commission.

During a period of over two weeks in which Mr Reinfeldt phoned all the 26 other EU leaders several times, agreement seemed impossible. At one point, EU affairs minister Cecilia Malmstrom admitted the situation was "a mess," mentioning the possibility of extending a one-day special summit on the issue for several days.

"Maybe he could have moved faster on the appointments, convene a summit faster. It became a media issue when it shouldn't have, just because it took so long to get to an agreement," an EU official told this website.

Mr Reinfeldt deflected such criticism when addressing the EU plenary in December. "It takes time to co-ordinate 27 member states, otherwise the EU is managed by just a few. We have taken that time," he said.

Back in November, Mr Reinfeldt did not shy away from publicly warning against a Franco-German deal on who would get the top jobs. "It is not just about two telling us what to do and then thinking we have the answer," he said at the time.

The deal came about on 19 November, with Belgian premier Herman Van Rompuy on 1 January set to become the first 'permanent' chairman of EU leaders' meetings for two years and a half. Surprise candidate Catherine Ashton from Great Britain became the new foreign policy supremo.

Meanwhile, the Swedes were pressing EU leaders to come up with a common position and precise figures to be tabled at a UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, which, in the end, failed to secure any binding emission targets. An EU offer, deemed disappointing by poor countries and green groups, was finally put on the table just before the two-week event in the Danish capital.

On financial supervision - a hot topic as the EU emerged from its worst recession since the 1930s - the deal achieved under the Swedish EU presidency was criticised by Mr Barroso as being "diluted too much" from the initial proposals tabled by the commission.

Three new supervisory bodies were created, but a complex appeals procedure effectively gives member states a veto on their decisions under certain circumstances. The European Parliament has also indicated it is unhappy with the agreement.

The parliament was also outraged by a deal struck by the Swedish presidency with the US on transfer of banking data for counter-terrorist measures. The provisional deal, approved by EU justice ministers on 30 November, came just one day before the Lisbon Treaty allowed the legislature to have a bigger say on the matter.

Washington was pressing to have the deal in the bag before the end of the year, otherwise a legal limbo could have emerged, since a large database on financial transactions was soon to be relocated from the US to Europe, leaving US investigators with no access to this information. The deal is valid for nine months, with the parliament then being fully involved in the drafting of a comprehensive agreement in this area.

Nordic discipline

Coming after a chaotic six months of the EU's stewardship by the Czech presidency, which is chiefly remembered for the collapse of the Czech government and a series of gaffes, the Swedes brought a different tone to Brussels.

"We've tried to instill some Nordic discipline as to openness and transparency in the works of the EU council," foreign minister Carl Bildt said in December during his wrap-up of the Swedish presidency in front of the parliament's foreign affairs committee. "I don't consider it an unmitigated success, there is still something like a 'Brussels disease' which hopefully will be cured by the Lisbon Treaty," he added.

Traditionally pro-transparency, the Swedes opened up to the public a few parts of the various meetings of EU ministers, in a move linked to provisions in the Lisbon Treaty.

The presidency website, blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts of Swedish officials proved valuable sources of information for Brussels journalists. Frequently asked questions, such as the menu of the leaders' dinner at summits, were promptly answered and even led to special features and webcasts on the presidency website.

The idea of one British journalist to make a Rubik's cube with all the potential candidates for the top jobs was picked up not only by Mr Reinfeldt, who held up the cube in front of photographers at the 19 November summit, but also by the Swedish press team who interviewed Erno Rubik, the Hungarian inventor of the toy.

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