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Sweden preparing for 'difficult' EU presidency

Publication date: 17 March 2009

Sweden has set itself ambitious goals for its six-month stint at the EU helm but the upcoming European elections and uncertainty about when the next EU commission will be appointed will make its presidency "quite difficult", the country's minister for European affairs has said.

Sweden is to take over the EU chair from the Czech Republic on 1 July until the end of the year. The period coincides with the end of the mandate of the current European Commission, due in October, and follows the European Parliament elections in June.

"Two key players and very important partners of the presidency – the parliament and the commission – will not be fully operational until quite some time into the autumn, which of course complicates matters," Swedish EU minister Cecilia Malmstrom said at a debate organised by Brussels-based think-tank The Centre on Monday (16 March).

To the institutional limbo, she said, should be added the economic crisis and the planned second referendum in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty, set for October.

"It is objectively [going to be] a quite difficult presidency," Ms Malmstrom said.

But she urged the appointment of the new commission president not to be delayed.

"We hope we can reach an agreement with the other member states to appoint a new president of the commission already in June after the European election… so that at least we have a president," she said.

"That president can then work with the outgoing commission while consulting with the different capitals in order to try to form a commission," she added.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy had earlier this month said that a new commission chief should not be appointed before Ireland re-votes on the Lisbon treaty.

The main issue for the commission raised by the Irish referendum is its size. If the Irish reject the Lisbon Treaty, then the number of commissioners has to be reduced to less than the number of member states – the number is not specified in the current Nice Treaty. If the Lisbon Treaty is accepted the number of commissioners remains the same.

Strong emphasis on climate

Despite the challenges ahead, Sweden says it is preparing an ambitious agenda for its six months at the head of the 27-nation bloc.

A strong emphasis will be put on climate and on preparing a coordinated EU position for the Copenhagen United Nations conference on climate change taking place in December.

"The most important objective is to do whatever we can… to make sure that Europe speaks with one voice in Copenhagen and that we can maybe if possible have a new global agreement" to replace the current Kyoto protocol, which is due to expire in two years.

"If the EU sticks together – and I think we will – there is a chance that we can reach an agreement. If we don't, there is no chance at all," said Ms Malmstrom.

Another "urgent challenge" for the EU's environment goals is see how the climate package the bloc's leaders agreed last December is to be financed.

"The short-time challenge is the financing, I would say, but then also to make concrete what we decided in December… It will be extremely difficult, but we are responsible to the whole world, this is our generation's biggest challenge," Ms Malmstrom stressed.

Improving the EU's commitment to the Baltic Sea will also be among the Swedish presidency's priorities.

The so-called Baltic Sea Strategy is about seeing "how we can use the EU as a tool to overcome the enormous, huge environmental problems of the Baltic Sea, but also use the fact that it's quite a dynamic area," Ms Malmstrom said.

Enlargement…to the North?

Stockholm is also hoping to achieve results on EU enlargement, notably by bringing Croatia's EU talks to an end and by opening "a chapter or two" of Turkey's EU accession package.

But besides the traditional focus on the western Balkan countries and Turkey, Sweden would also gladly welcome a possible EU application by Iceland, Ms Malmstrom said.

"Maybe as a Swede I think it would be very nice to receive an application from Iceland. But that is of course up to them," she noted.

Iceland's financial meltdown caused by the global economic crisis has raised debate in the country about the merits of EU membership, with the issue expected to play an important part in the campaign ahead of next month's early elections.

Source: EUobserver

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