INTERVIEW: What’s on the agenda for Sweden’s European Union presidency?

Will Sweden's Presidency of the European Council be a triumph, a diplomatic coup, a fiasco, or just a giant headache? The Local spoke to Louise Bengtsson at the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies to get the lowdown.

INTERVIEW: What's on the agenda for Sweden's European Union presidency?
President of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson at a press conference during the EU Commission's visit to Kiruna, northern Sweden. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Sweden has been at the helm of the rotating six-month EU presidency since January 1st, launching the process in style last week by taking much of the European Commission and as many as 70 Brussels-based journalists to Kiruna in Arctic Lapland for a press trip. 

But what does the EU presidency actually entail, what are the main items on the agenda, and how will Sweden know if it’s been a success?

Louise Bengtsson, from the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies (SIEPS), told The Local that she believes the rotating presidency actually means less than it did the two times Sweden has previously held it in 2001 and 2009. 

“What is quite interesting is that the role has actually decreased for the rotating presidency,” she said. “When Sweden was president in 2009, the Lisbon Treaty entered into force just one month before the end of the presidency, so Sweden played a role in that transition.”

Louise Bengtsson: SIEPS

The Lisbon Treaty turned the European Council into a formal EU institution, bringing it a permanent president (currently former Belgian PM Charles Michel). 

In addition, the EU also now has its own effective foreign minister, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

The current representative, former Spanish foreign minister Josep Borrell, chairs the EU’s foreign affairs council, and with the support of the European External Action Service [the EU’s diplomatic service], also chairs a lot of the working parties meetings at lower levels.

“That has also decreased the role of the presidency, especially in the field of Foreign Affairs,” Bengtsson explained.

Sweden is planning to hold 150 informal meetings on its territory over the presidency, including some at ministerial level, but it will not host any formal or informal meetings of heads of state, something Bengtsson noted showed “another difference” from the last time Sweden held the presidency, which is that it is now “more Brussels-based”. 

But this does not mean that Sweden’s diplomats can take it easy, as the country is taking over the presidency at a particularly busy time. 

“The agenda is packed!” Bengtsson exclaimed.

“One reason is the timing and the legislative cycle, so there will be elections to the European Parliament and a new Commission in 2024, which means that a lot of ‘files’, as they say in Brussels, are now up for their final negotiation, so there are over 300 issues and 2,000 meetings that Sweden will have to deal with.” 

To deal with this, Sweden has posted around 80 additional staff to its permanent representation in Brussels, bringing the total to approximately 200, and has also reinforced the Swedish ministries and agencies likely to need to play a role. 

On top of the many ‘files’ that still need to be completed, there is also the uncertainty over the situation in Ukraine, and the fact that the Commission itself keeps proposing new things which Sweden, as the holder of the rotating president, will have to deal with. 

“As we’ve seen in the communication around the priorities of the government, the focus on Ukraine and security is very strong. And that is not only a Swedish priority, of course, it’s a reality.”

One of the issues which had not been expected only a few months ago are the ramifications of the US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which promises massive subsidies to encourage US companies to carry out the green transition. 

“It’s a massive support package to facilitate the green transition, which, of course, is positive in a sense. But the problem for Europe is that it changes the playing field for European companies,” Bengtsson said. 

“So Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission’s President, has also proposed a European response package with four parts, and this will be a major focus also for the Swedish government as president.” 

Other key jobs on Sweden’s agenda are completing negotiations on the Fit for 55 package, which aims to reduce emissions in the EU by 55% by 2030, other parts of the European Green Deal which still need to be finalised, and reform of the European Migration and Asylum Pact.

Parts of the green deal negotiations could be more “sensitive”, Bengtsson said, because they involve forestry, where Sweden has its own interests, meaning they could be “a challenge”. 

Another issue is that with the European economy under pressure, and companies and citizens feeling the consequences, some governments might push to reduce the union’s green ambitions. 

“Some voices will always be calling for weakened proposals when it comes to some files, and we will see how that plays out. I think we should not forget the role that our example in Europe plays on the global level to keep up the ambitions in international negotiations.” 

When Sweden’s prime minister, Ulf Kristersson, met the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week he faced a lot of questions over what influence the far-right and generally eurosceptic Sweden Democrats would have over the presidency, given that Kristersson is completely dependent on them for his majority. 

Bengtsson expects that Sweden will continue to face these questions, given that its first presidency was under a Social Democrat government and its second under the more centrist and liberal Alliance, a coalition government comprising the Moderates, Liberals, Christian Democrats and Centre Party. 

“I suppose this is a problem also from a communications perspective, so they will face a lot of questions around this, and because it’s a new government it is also, I assume, working out exactly how the relations with Sweden Democrats will will work out in terms of EU policy.” 

Although the Tidö Agreement, the coalition agreement between the Sweden Democrats and the three coalition parties, does not specifically cover EU or Foreign Affairs, several parts of the agreement were likely to involve EU affairs. 

“We know that many of these proposals at an EU level are also being coordinated with the Sweden Democrats, so we’ll see how that plays out,” she said. 

So given that the European Council’s permanent president and secretariat now do a lot of the work, how is a successful presidency measured?

“I think this is a really interesting question, because there are many, many layers to it,” Bengtsson said.

“Of course, in Brussels, Sweden will be judged on whether it has moved the common agenda forward. This is the main task of the rotating presidency. And from that perspective, it’s a little bit like a glorified chairman position.’

“So we just need to focus on muddling through and building our network capital for the future as good diplomats, so that’s a very important aspect.”

She added that Sweden should probably avoid the temptation to win praise domestically by putting its own mark on the presidency, as the role is to be “an honest broker”. 

“That’s very much what is expected, so there’s not too much room for those kinds of initiatives, if they’re not framed in the European general interest.”

On the other hand, if something unexpected comes up and Sweden shows the flexibility to handle it, Sweden might win some additional kudos. 

“I’ve heard that presidencies are very intense and that once it’s over, everyone will be very tired, but hopefully we will also be quite inspired,” Bengtsson said. “We are hoping for better debate in Sweden about European affairs and we hope that the presidency can help cast light on what’s going on in Brussels.”

Interview by Paul O’Mahony and article by Richard Orange

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Why is Sweden’s parliamentary speaker election so important?

Sweden's parliamentary speaker is second only to the King in terms of formal rank. The prospect of a Sweden Democrat speaker taking over the role from popular Moderate Andreas Norlén has sparked debate. Here's why.

Why is Sweden's parliamentary speaker election so important?

On Monday, Sweden’s newly-elected parliament will elect a new speaker – talman in Swedish, but it’s still not clear who is likely to take over the post from Moderate Andreas Norlén, who has held the position since 2018.

How is a speaker candidate usually chosen?

There is no formal rule on how a speaker candidate is nominated, with the Social Democrats usually insisting the largest party supplies the speaker, and the Moderates arguing that the largest party in their bloc should provide the speaker.

Until now, that has meant that the Social Democrats believe the speaker should be a Social Democrat, and the Moderates believe the speaker should be a Moderate.

However, with the Sweden Democrats now the second-largest party in Sweden’s parliament, they have made claims on the speaker post, as they are now the largest party in their bloc, meaning under the Moderates’ rules, they should supply the speaker.

This has made the question of who should take over as the new speaker unusually charged.

Often – but not always, the speaker has been from the same party or bloc as the government. However, there are examples, such as in the case of Norlén, who has held the post despite there being a Social Democrat government for the last eight years, as there was a majority supporting him in parliament.

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson sits down for a talk with Andreas Norlén, speaker of the Swedish parliament. Photo: Anders Wiklund / TT

How is the speaker elected?

The first time parliament meets after an election, members of parliament (MPs) decide which MP will become the parliamentary speaker and which three MPs will become the deputy speakers. These four speakers are elected in separate ballots, first the speaker, then the first deputy speaker, the second deputy speaker and the third deputy speaker.

The candidates are nominated by parliamentary party groups, after which a secret ballot is held where each MP votes anonymously. To be successful, a speaker candidate must secure a majority of votes – 175.

If no candidate secures a majority, another vote is held, where a candidate must still gain 175 or more votes to win.

If no candidate is successful, a third vote is held, where the candidate with the most votes is elected – they do not need a majority.

If the third vote ends in a tie between two candidates, lots are drawn to determine which candidate is elected speaker.

A speaker is elected for an entire election period – they cannot be removed by parliament during this period, and the role can only change hands after a new parliamentary election, which usually means that a speaker sits for four years at a time.

What does the speaker do?

The speaker – aside from being the second-highest ranking official in the country after the King – holds a prestigious position.

They do not have political influence and, if elected, must resign from their role as a member of parliament. But they have an important role to play in building a government, nominating Sweden’s new prime minister after an election and dismissing the prime minister if they lose a no-confidence vote.

Although there are checks on these powers – a new prime minister must be approved by parliament before they take power – a speaker could, theoretically, nominate four prime ministerial candidates to parliament in succession, knowing that each would lose a parliamentary vote, and thereby trigger a general election.

The speaker, currently Andreas Norlén (left) regularly welcomes foreign dignitaries alongside Sweden’s King Carl Gustaf. Here seen with King Carl Gustaf (left) and Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö (centre).
Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

The speaker could also theoretically refuse to nominate a prime ministerial candidate despite them being the leader of the largest bloc, although this has never happened in practice.

It is also impossible for parliament to remove a speaker once they are elected, unless a new parliamentary election is held and an entire new parliament is elected, meaning that if a speaker were to misuse their powers, it would be difficult for parliament to replace them.

The speaker is the main representative of parliament, leading and planning parliamentary activities. The speaker is chairman of meetings in the parliamentary chamber and is an official representative for Sweden at home and abroad.

Why would it be controversial if the Sweden Democrats supplied the speaker?

Electing a Sweden Democrat speaker would be a win for the far-right party, as a confirmation that the party has finally been accepted into the corridors of power.

According to a source at newspaper Aftonbladet, the four parties backing Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson to become Sweden’s next prime minister have already agreed on stricter migration and crime policies, as well as who should be voted in as speaker of the country’s parliament when the role goes up for a vote on Monday. 

Multiple parties in the left-wing bloc have objected to a Sweden Democrat supplying the speaker, with outgoing Social Democrat Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson stating that her party is willing to collaborate with the Moderates and reelect Andreas Norlén as Sweden’s speaker instead in order to avoid a Sweden Democrat taking on the role.

Andersson said her party would be willing to “make an exception” to its principle. “We think there are arguments at this time, to have a speaker who can be appointed with very broad support in the parliament. What’s important is that it’s someone who can bring people together, either a Social Democrat or a Moderate”.

“I can state that Andreas Norlén enjoys great respect, both in the parliament, and among the Swedish people,” she said. “He has handled his duties creditably and during a turbulent time, and a problematic parliamentary situation.”

She said she was offering to discuss the issue with Kristersson to avoid the risk of a Sweden Democrat speaker, something she said would be “problematic”.

“This is a party whose whole rationale is to split rather than unite. This is also about the picture of Sweden overseas.”

Moderate Party leader Ulf Kristersson has not responded to Andersson’s comments.

Sweden Democrat former deputy speaker Björn Söder (left) and party leader Jimmie Åkesson (right). Photo: Jessica Gow//TT

There are also some MPs in the Liberal Party – who have agreed to support a Moderate-led government alongside the Sweden Democrats – who have stated they will not approve a government with Sweden Democrat ministers, and may also vote against letting them have the role of speaker.

Sweden Democrat Björn Söder, who held the role of deputy speaker between 2014-18, is a possible candidate for the far-right party. Söder is a controversial figure, having previously stated that Jewish people and Sami are “not Swedes”, leading to calls that he is not suitable for a role as a representative for all of Sweden.

Söder has also previously likened homosexuality to pedophilia and bestiality, stating in an article on the Sweden Democrats’ official online news site that “these sexual aversions are not normal and will never be normal”.

A public petition against electing Björn Söder as parliament’s new speaker had over 65,000 signatures as of September 23rd.