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Squeezed between priorities: the Swedish EU Presidency coming up

Dec 05, 2022

In a period of converging crises, the newly established Swedish government has chosen to focus on just a few overriding priorities. From the perspective of the EU minister, it's all about competitiveness on the European level. From the perspective of international assistance, the critical issue is Ukraine. Behind this relatively clear-cut approach is, of course, hidden an enormous complexity.

Sweden is over the come in six months chairing several thousand meetings in the EU Council formations. At the same time, it is a presidency much more circumscribed in its competencies than last time in 2009, when the rotating presidency also managed the European Council on the level of heads of state and government.


The task is monumental and, at the same time, vitally important. NATO and the EU have one thing in common: a perceived weakness ahead of the now ongoing crises:


  • NATO was declared brain-dead by the French president just a few years ago with reference to Turkey’s 2019 incursion into Syria. But the Alliance is now revitalized in the struggle against Russian aggression.


  • The EU has for many years been ridiculed for being soft and somewhat irrelevant in protecting safety and security in Europe. After a slow start during the pandemic, the EU has, however, shown its advantages, not least when it comes to procuring vaccines also to its smaller member states. And during the Ukraine war, it has already delivered more than €3 billion worth of military assistance to the victim of aggression. The EU is implementing eight substantial packages of sanctions against Russia and Belarus. And perhaps even more importantly: it plays a key role in adapting the continent to the need to diversify dependence on Russian oil and gas.


The European Commission President, who is received with much greater respect in Washington than any of her predecessors, did from the start declare the need for a geopolitical Europe. This means, among other things, speaking the language of power. For Sweden, as a Presidency and as a member state, this also means having to be comfortable with the thought that governance on the European level requires more decisions with a qualified majority. The importance of the European Parliament as a supranational level of democracy is increasing.


A major problem is that the multilateral effectiveness of EU and NATO corresponds to a multilateral disarray on different levels from the United Nations to several sub-regional formats of cooperation with Russia. A key goal of NATO – of course in close cooperation with the EU - beyond deterrence and defence, is cooperative security to prevent further conflicts. This is easier said than done in fora and contexts where Russia, sometimes with more than passive help from some key players around the world, does its best to incapacitate rule of law on the international level.


The preferred solution to mainly cooperate with like-minded states is easy to promulgate but much more challenging to implement. Only a limited part of the international community fulfils modern standards regarding democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.


Promoting competitiveness while maintaining European integrity in terms of values is increasingly difficult when competing and cooperating with giants such as China and India at the same time as Europe needs to keep its own house in order. This requires strong leadership.


In all this, the private sector is likely to find itself in many difficult situations, making it ever more challenging to interpret what is a level playing field for business with countries under scrutiny for the lack of implementation of fundamental values and commitments. Should China be allowed to procure other critical infrastructure in Europe beyond part of the harbour in Hamburg?


These were just some of the dilemmas discussed during a valuable pre-presidency conference in Stockholm at the beginning of December 2022. There are no easy solutions – but an unprecedented need for geopolitical knowledge also on the level of those not in political power.

Lars-Erik Lundin