Tuesday

5th Mar 2024

Institutional problems loom large for Swedish presidency

Sweden takes over at the helm of the EU on Wednesday (1 July) for a six-month presidency that will for the most part be held hostage by the bloc's complicated institutional problems as well as being overshadowed by the global economic crisis.

Diplomats in Brussels are looking forward to having the bloc under Stockholm's political guidance following a turbulent first half of the year under the domestically strife-ridden Czechs, but the goodwill is unlikely to make Sweden's job much easier.

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  • Stockholm: Sweden takes over at the time for the five-year changing of the guard in Brussels (Photo: panoramas)

Brussels will be in firm wait-and-see mode as it looks ahead to the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, a new set of institutional rules that streamlines the workings of the EU institutions, removes the veto from most policy areas and gives greater say to the European parliament on law-making.

Ireland is due to vote on it for a second time in early October. Opinion polls suggest it will be a Yes this time round. But until the day the Irish vote, it will remain unclear whether the EU will be plunged into political chaos by a No vote or taken over by a frenzy of horse-trading as a Yes vote opens up new posts created by the treaty.

Either scenario will require great diplomacy by the Swedes to keep member states focussed on dealing with the issues of the day – such as climate change and trying to counter the global recession.

In addition to waiting for the Irish result, the difficulty of Sweden's to-do list will be compounded by the fact that it is taking over at the time for the five-year changing of the guard in Brussels.

This means that the European Commission, as initiator of EU laws and important partner for any presidency country, is on its way out while the fresh power currents in the European Parliament, knowledge of which is essential for any presidency – will take time to become apparent.

This will affect the big legislative dossiers still waiting in pipelines that Sweden is hoping to clear under its presidency – including new rules on the creation of a European supervisory body for banks.

Uncertainty is also clouding the nomination of Jose Manuel Barroso for a second term in office as European Commission president. It will only become clear on 9 July whether his nomination will even be put to vote in the parliament in mid-July, with parts of the EU assembly manoeuvring to get the vote postponed until autumn.

An autumn vote could result in another candidate entering the race as well as mean that Mr Barroso will continue to be in electioneering mode rather than concentrating on the job at hand. Sweden, negotiating with parliament on the issue, has already said that it is strongly opposed to any delay.

These institutional and procedural issues threaten to overwhelm any real focus by Sweden on the two major tasks of its presidency – ensuring a coherent response to the current economic crisis, including keeping member states from veering into protectionism, as well as trying to persuade them to dip their hands far enough into their pockets to get ensure a meaningful international climate change deal at the Copenhagen tasks in December.

In addition to known problems on the to-do list, most presidencies find themselves dealing with unplanned additions to the list, such as the Russian-Georgian war last autumn or the energy crisis at the beginning of the year.

However, Swedish diplomats have a reputation for being skilled consensus makers and being a smaller member state, it is not viewed as bringing much political baggage to the negotiating table.

And the country is entering the presidency with a keen sense of what is before it. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt remarked in Brussels a few weeks before beginning the job:

"I recently read that we are about to face a water crisis too and I thought, why not - let's add that one to the list as well."

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