The next EU Presidency might have some surprises in store.
Iceland could become a success story, although Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt is careful not to talk too much about it before the Parliament in Reykjavík has made its mind up.
If things go as planned, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt will receive the Icelandic application for EU membership in just a few days. At their meeting 27-28 July, EU Foreign Ministers can ask the Commission to prepare its opinion, the avis, on Iceland. Since Iceland has already adopted most of the EU acquis through the EEA agreement, the avis can be finalized quickly, making it possible to adopt conclusions at the European Council in December and to open formal accession negotiations with Iceland early next year.
Asked about Iceland at a press briefing in Brussels last Monday, Carl Bildt was cautious about what to expect of the Swedish Presidency. However, this timetable is being pushed hard behind the scenes by the Swedish government.
There are people saying that it might be too ambitious, and that Member States such as France might not be prepared to let Iceland move forward so quickly. Others claim that negotiations on fishing quotas might turn out to be more complicated today with depleted fish stocks than was the case when provisions in this area was agreed with Norway in the early 1990s.
There is also the fear in some quarters that quick progress for Iceland could delay Croatia´s accession. As time goes by and the border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia blocks negotiations, it seems more and more likely that Iceland and Croatia will accede together.
To complicate things further, Ireland has not voted on the Lisbon treaty yet. And it is still unclear how member states will ratify the “guarantees” given to Ireland at the latest European Council. Attaching the Irish protocol to the next accession treaty is a high-risk project.
Finally, the question of compensation to British and Dutch customers after the collapse of the Icelandic Landsbanki could still cause trouble.
Still, don´t underestimate the skill of experienced Swedish diplomats such as Frank Belfrage and Christian Danielsson. My bet is on a happy Icelandic Prime Minister visiting the European Council in December. And on Fredrik Reinfeldt claiming that progress for a Nordic neighbour’s way to the EU was one of the significant results of the Presidency, at the same time giving new impetus to the enlargement process as a whole.
One should also not exclude more progress on the Western Balkans than seems possible right now. Last Monday, Carl Bildt skillfully turned up the pressure on Slovenia and Croatia to resolve their border conflict.
If this holds true, progress on enlargement could partly compensate for problems in other areas (although the issue of Turkey remains very, very complicated).
“It will be a difficult Presidency”, said Cecilia Malmström, Minister for European Affairs, when presenting the Swedish work programme in Brussels last Monday. Sweden takes the helm at a time of uncertainty over the Lisbon Treaty, and with changes in both the Commission and the European Parliament.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his government ministers have devoted much time to preparations, although there could have been more initiatives earlier on to influence the EU agenda for the coming six months. The administration is as well prepared as one can reasonably expect. Years of planning and experienced civil servants from the first Swedish Presidency, in 2001, promise a better outcome than during the Czech Presidency. However, it is somewhat worrying that there are two conflicting centres of power in the Prime Minister´s office Rosenbad, one headed by Reinfeldt´s Moderate Party, the other by Cecilia Malmström´s Liberal People´s Party.
According to Reinfeldt, the two main issues for the Presidency are the economic crisis and negotiations on climate change.
Sweden is not part of the euro group and might have some difficulty handling the wider issues of economic governance, although negotiations on the supervision of financial markets will surely make progress.
As regards climate change, agreement on binding emission targets for 2020 is growing more and more difficult.
The government is also emphasizing other issues. The Baltic Sea Strategy is an interesting initiative, but so far does not contain much new substance or additional resources. The Eastern Partnership has just been launched, and work will be done mainly on practical level. Important, but not that glorious. On Justice and Home Affairs, agreement on the “Stockholm programme” is a major task – but apart from the venue of the informal ministerial in July, what is the Swedish contribution to the programme?
Then there is of course the unexpected. Iran, North Korea, Israel-Palestine, Georgia (with the Russian Kavkaz-2009 military exercise starting tomorrow), and so on. In Carl Bildt, Sweden has an experienced Foreign Minister, but it will be a challenge to avoid solo play by countries such as France or Italy.
I will come back to each of the main issues during the coming weeks. Hopefully, a weekly analysis of the Swedish Presidency will be available each Sunday on this website. If you would like to have the text by e-mail each week, just contact me at email@example.com.