The Baltic Sea strategy needs more teeth

20/09/2009

 

If anyone of the delegates to the Baltic Sea meeting this week lost concentration for a second, the mosaic in the Golden Hall might have caught the attention. One of the pictures in this part of Stockholm City Hall recalls Swedish king Karl XII and his war with Russia. The king is standing on the bodies of seven dead people. Orthodox churches are burning behind him.

The Baltic Sea area has not always been as peaceful as today. And relations with Russia are still a key issue, hopefully in a more constructive way than during the reign of Karl XII.

At the meeting, governments discussed the Baltic Sea strategy, one of the key initiatives during the Swedish Presidency. Few ministers were present, with key countries such as Germany and Poland represented by State Secretaries.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt described the importance of the strategy in his initial address. But how concrete will the result be? There are already talking shows enough about regional co-operation.

The Commission proposal is surprisingly vague in areas such as the environment. Key areas such as the financial crisis or the euro entry of the Baltic countries are not covered. Co-operation on the internal market is one of the few issues where there seems to be significant movement forward. Yes, there has also been recent progress on linking electricity grids and limiting phosphates in detergents, but not because of the strategy.

EU governments have strong feelings against additional resources or new institutions. The role of the Commission in the follow-up is still unclear. As Rikard Bengtsson notes in a SIEPS-study, the original European Parliament resolution is stronger.

Rikard Bengtsson also emphasizes the lack of an external dimension, including Russia. I understand this to be one of the most sensitive issues in the Council negotiations. Germany is one of the countries concerned not to alienate Moscow.

After three meeting with the Friends of Presidency group, the strategy will be in COREPER next week. The Presidency plans for conclusions at the Foreign Ministers´ meeting 26 October without debate, and then endorsement by the European Council.

In parallel, Russia is playing its game over the summit with the EU, due to take place in Sweden this autumn. Fredrik Reinfeldt confirmed that there was still no response from Moscow when I asked him Friday morning. He talked about other ways to connect the Baltic Sea Strategy to Russia, mentioning the Council of Baltic Sea States. To me, the Northern Dimension seems a more logical way. But there is also a need for the higher political dialogue at a Summit (which of course also must deal with a number of other issues).

Two possible reasons have been mentioned for Russia withholding its response on the summit. One is the format. The Kremlin might want Dmitrij Medvedev to meet more EU Heads of government than the usual troika. The other reasons mentioned is the negative feelings Carl Bildt has evoked in the Kremlin after his strong (and correct) criticism of Russia´s war in Georgia.

Whatever the reason, the Baltic Sea area is of strategic importance both to the EU and to Russia. This calls for a stronger EU strategy and for a constructive EU-Russia Summit.

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`November, my goodness´, said Solana

06/09/2009

 

Carl Bildt can be satisfied with the informal Foreign Ministers´ meeting in Stockholm.

Almost everything went according to plan. Javier Solana´s praise for the Swedish Presidency at the concluding press conference was not only flattery. Discussions were more focused than usual and the practical arrangements worked well.

Will this Swedish effectiveness be enough to keep the EU together on controversial issues such as Iran? That remains to be seen.

Carl Bildt and Javier Solana         Photo: Gunnar Seijbold/Government offices

Carl Bildt and Javier Solana Photo: Gunnar Seijbold/Government offices

At the meeting, a common position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was facilitated by Javier Solana´s input. Ministers had different public messages on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, with Bernard Kouchner being particularly critical to the Nato bombing. But when it came to the EU´s post-election strategy, Carl Bildt´s report from his recent visit to Afghanistan and an ambitious issues paper led to fruitful discussions.

Possible sanctions against Iran are a more difficult co-ordination task for the Swedish Presidency. The negotiations on the nuclear issue are carried out by the “big three” on behalf of the EU. However, the economic sanctions mentioned by Angela Merkel recently are not something the Swedes want to be dictated by France, Germany and the UK.

During the Iran discussion on Friday, it was clear that the EU is getting closer to reinforced sanctions and that the statement by Merkel was no coincidence. Still, there are differing views on the effectiveness of economic sanctions and on the precedent EU sanctions without approval by the UN Security Council might set.

Leaving substance aside, maybe this Gymnich meeting will be remembered as the last one where the rotating Presidency led the deliberations. That will be decided by the Irish on 2 October.

If Irland votes yes, the Swedish Presidency will immediately start negotiations in Brussels on the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty (with a small reservation for what happens in the Czech Republic and in Poland).

`November, my goodness´ said Javier Solana when asked by the press about events later this autumn. His mandate ends in the middle of October, so it´s understable that November is low on his EU agenda.

The European Council should appoint a new High Representative on 29 October, according to Swedish plans.

At the European summit, there should also be a framework decision on the tasks for the High Representative and the External Action Service (EAS). Although no one in Stockholm states it openly, most likely there is already a draft decision stored in the computers, to be distributed immediately when the first negotiation meeting is called.

Five areas are of particular importance: the scope of the High Representative´s mandate, the budget, the legal base, how appointments in the EAS should be decided, and a number of issues related to EU delegations around the world.

The Commission takes a strong line on some of these issues, but the framework decision will be by the 27 governments, and full agreement with the Commission is not considered necessary.

So, which role remains for Carl Bildt when the new High Representative is appointed? That will be an interesting question, if Ireland votes yes.

Unless Bildt himself gets the new job.


Iran looms over Gymnich meeting

03/09/2009

 

What line should the EU take on economic sanctions towards Iran?

This is one of the crucial questions at the informal meeting with EU Foreign Ministers, starting tomorrow.

Angela Merkel´s statement last week on Iran has been interpreted as a shift towards a tougher German position (excellently described by Judy Dempsey in today´s IHT).

Merkel mentioned sanctions “in the energy, financial and other important sectors” if Iran does not change its nuclear policy. It is not clear whether this view is shared by the entire government, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt                                                                    (Photo:Pawel Flato/Government Offices

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (Photo:Pawel Flato/Government Offices

So far, the issue of economic sanctions has been controversial within the EU. Sweden is one of the countries with reservations about their effectiveness, and the consequences should the EU take such a decision without agreement in the UN Security Council. Carl Bildt has earlier spoken out against sanctions, warning that “to isolate Iran even more is to lock them in among the dark forces”.

Most likely the E3 (France, Germany, and the UK) will tomorrow inform other EU governments about consultations with the US, Russia and China yesterday. Maybe the big three will seek support for stricter economic sanctions as the next step.

Since the Italian Presidency in 2003, the E3 (and to some extent, Javier Solana), has had a mandate to conduct negotiations on the nuclear issue with Iran on the EU´s behalf. No EU Presidency from other member states has played a significant role in these negotiations.

Economic sanctions are something else, however. The Swedish EU Presidency will be keen not to be sidestepped in such discussions. This is perhaps the most sensitive issue at the Gymnich meeting.

My qualified guess is that the Swedish government will play down the Iran issue when talking to the media during the informal Stockholm meeting, maybe stating that it is not yet mature. A conclusive discussion on sanctions will be relevant only later this autumn, the message might be, after consultations in connection with the UN General Assembly on Iran´s response.

Instead, the media spin on Gymnich will probably be based on Carl Bildt´s recent visit to Afghanistan and Javier Solana´s report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Important issues.

Still, Sweden´s ability to keep the EU together on the issue of sanctions towards Iran will be a decisive test for Carl Bildt.


Stockholm, early December

03/12/2008

strommen-016

 

I have lived in Stockholm for 45 years, but I can still be overwhelmed by the city´s beauty. Today, taking a walk in central Stockholm, I just had to stop on the bridge across Strömmen, the historical reason why Sweden´s capital is situated where it is, at the waterway between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea.

My mobile could of course not capture the full beauty of an afternoon in Stockholm early December, just after sunset. Anyway, I just had to post a picture here.