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.”
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