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EUROPEAN UNION

Sweden takes EU presidency after shift to the right

Sweden takes over the EU's rotating presidency from January 1 vowing to maintain unity on Ukraine and uphold free trade in the face of calls for a tougher response to US green subsidies.

Sweden takes EU presidency after shift to the right
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson speaks in a press conference discussing Sweden's presidency of the Council of the European Union. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

But the main questions for Stockholm as it takes the reigns of the 27-nation bloc at this tumultuous time could be how new dynamics in its own domestic politics play out on the European stage.

After eight years of centre-left rule, the government of conservative Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson formed in October relies on an unprecedented alliance with the far-right Sweden Democrats for a majority in parliament.

While the nationalist party has dropped its earlier calls for Sweden to quit the EU, its hardline stance in key areas such as immigration looks set to cause friction at home and curb the room for manoeuvre.

Helene Fritzon, a European Parliament member for the opposition Social Democrats, said there were “lots of pretty words” from the Swedish government over its plans.

Alongside Russia’s aggression and trade, Stockholm has outlined climate change and protecting EU “fundamental values” in the face of disputes with Hungary and Poland as priorities.

“But there is great concern when, in practice, it is the Sweden Democrats who have the whip hand,” Fritzon said.

Others, however, are less worried about the potential for the far-right party to play spoilers during Stockholm’s time in the European spotlight.

The deal hatched to form the government means the Sweden Democrats formally have to be informed of any decisions taken in regards to the EU.

“But generally EU matters are excluded from this agreement,” Göran von Sydow, director of the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, told AFP.

For von Sydow a bigger worry is how the neophyte administration copes with the burden of helping navigate the EU through such choppy geopolitical waters.

“The challenge would be the relatively inexperienced government,” he said. “So many of the ministers and their closest political aides have very little experience of at all being at EU meetings.”

Stand-offish Swedes

Traditionally Sweden, which voted against joining the euro single currency, has had a slightly stand-offish relationship with Europe.

“They tend to keep a bit of a distance,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris. 

He predicted that Stockholm would “fulfil its duties” during its six-month presidency, but “there won’t be too much zeal”.

The country that holds the EU presidency can help shape the agenda for the bloc, but is also expected to be a neutral deal broker helping to thrash out the complex compromises that keep Brussels ticking over.

While some EU members try to use their stint at the helm to shine a light on themselves, the Scandinavian nation has opted for a lower-key approach.

Unlike grand summits in Prague Castle and Versailles that marked the preceding Czech and French presidencies, there is no major gathering planned in Sweden.

EU ministerial meetings in the country will take place in a modest conference centre near Stockholm airport. On issues of substance, Sweden is looking to relaunch negotiations for free trade agreements with a string of countries and regions.

But this push could be overshadowed by a potential showdown with Washington over the impact of President Joe Biden’s mammoth Inflation Reduction Act.

The $430-billion (400 billion-euro) plan is set to come into force, with a raft of subsidies for green industries that have been decried as protectionist in European powerhouses France and Germany.

While negotiations are underway between Brussels and Washington for a solution, calls for a tough line from some in the EU have stoked fears of a trade war.

“The Swedish presidency will no doubt be at odds with the Franco-German steps that are being taken” in response to the US plan, said Maillard.

“Stockholm will have to manage the tensions between the 27 EU member states on the degree of their response and how aggressive they are.”

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BREXIT

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.

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