Tuesday 15 December 2009

Swedish EU Council presidency: Effective and professional

The Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies (Sieps) has published its customary mid-term review of the presidency of the Council of the European Union. Normally, these reports are written by experts in the presidency country, but this time Sieps engaged a number of experienced European presidency watchers, offering the reader a variety of viewpoints from past and future presidency capitals.

Sweden entered its presidency of the EU Council at a peculiar juncture: The almost interminable treaty reform process was still unfinished, with the Lisbon Treaty in the doldrums; with an outgoing Commission and incoming European Parliament; with two summer months at the beginning of a six month stint.

Sieps has gathered Swedish media reports and reactions on its web page Sieps in media, but most of them reproduce the news item by the news agency TT, so there is little variation despite the impressive number of articles: Sveriges betyg: Effektivt men trist (Sweden’s report card: Effective but boring).

A pragmatic and consensual approach without an overdose of national interests (honest broker), hard work and diplomatic skills in securing the passage of the Lisbon Treaty generally received high marks. After France and the Czech Republic, Sweden was the first “normal” Council presidency in a while.

The lack of advance job descriptions for the new top jobs and the secretive negotiation process leading to the nomination of Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton got lukewarm appraisals. The December UN Climate Change Conference in was seen as crucial, but was still a future event at the time of writing.

The communication efforts of the Swedish presidency got dual marks. The innovative presidency web site got positive ratings, but there was a perceived lack of forceful direct messages by Sweden to the EU’s 500 million inhabitants.

Fredrik Langdal and Göran von Sydow (Eds.): The Swedish Presidency: European Perspectives
– SIEPS 2009:3op – (Occasional papers; December 2009; 74 pages).


The provisional remarks will mature into more permanent perceptions after the end of the Swedish presidency, with the final moments of COP15 just days ahead.

For most of the strategic issues, half a year is a very short time to achieve substantial results, although there are milestones along the way, such as the Stockholm programme in the area of freedom, security and justice.

I share the positive assessment of the authors of the report, but I would have headlined the half-term card less critically than Swedish media: Effective and professional.

Mats Engström offers a nuance in between in his informed blog post: The Swedish Presidency: Effective but not Exciting (14 December 2009). In some areas Engström would have hoped for a modern eco-car with more acceleration, instead of a Volvo diesel. Despite successes, opportunities were lost.

The presidency trios are a modest response to the need for coherent long term action, but it remains to be seen if Spain, Belgium and Hungary are going to form a cohesive trio, despite their common 18 month programme. The Lisbon Treaty introduced a more permanent chairmanship only for the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council, whereas the General Affairs Council and the other Council configurations will still be chaired by the rotating presidencies.

From a citizen’s point of view, the Council proceedings remain opaque, despite public deliberations, and the governance standards the European Council has set for itself as a formal institution are dismal, but the Sweden managed to instil a certain degree of openness in its handling of the presidency, and the web communication effort of the Swedish presidency was the best to date. Despite the limitations, it would be a positive surprise if the following trio succeeds better in this respect.

Ralf Grahn

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