‘You couldn’t hope for a better presidency’

In a time of severe economic crisis, the European Union is fortunate to have Sweden taking up the presidential reins this summer, British Ambassador to Sweden Andrew Mitchell tells The Local's James Savage.

When Sweden takes up the presidency of the European Union in July, Stockholm will for six months become a major centre of world affairs. Swedish ministers will face the daunting task of forging a common European response to what may be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

This week, however, sees the Brits taking the lead in trying to find global solutions for the world’s problems, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown hosts the G20 summit of major world powers in London.

For Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s ambassador to Sweden, all this means that 2009 is proving to be a year of frenetic activity. He has spent the past few weeks furiously explaining to Swedes in newspaper articles and radio interviews why the G20 summit matters to them, even though they’re not represented.

The dapper 42-year-old from north-western England, a fan of colourful ties and matching pocket handkerchiefs, describes himself as a “classic extrovert.” He packs what little free time he has with squash, football (he plays for a Stockholm expat team), ice skating and skiing with his young family. He also plans to run this year’s Stockholm marathon.

“I derive stimulation from being continuously on the go,” he says.

Mitchell says few would envy the Swedes taking over the leadership of the EU at a time like this, but he is bullish about their prospects. They are “very outcome-oriented and well-organized.”

Mitchell said recently in a speech that Sweden is “central to the EU response” to the financial crisis. Why then is Sweden not being invited to the G20 just three months before taking over the reins?

“The logic of what you are saying is right – Sweden is central to the EU response and the EU is central to the global response. But the convention established in Washington [at the last G20 summit] is that the president of the EU will represent the EU.” In this case that means the Czechs.

Mitchell insists that Sweden is very much in the loop behind the scenes. In addition to regular meetings at the EU Council of Ministers in Brussels, senior British officials visited Stockholm in mid-March to discuss the G20 with Swedish ministers and civil servants:

“We attach huge importance to Sweden being informed and engaged with the process. We take our responsibilities as chair of the G20 seriously,” he stresses.

Even though Sweden is not involved, Mitchell says Swedes should be in no doubt that the summit is important for them:

“Everyone will be affected by the most profound economic downturn since the 1930s. We’ve seen global trade contract by thirty percent in a month. The impact around the world over the next twelve months will be enormous.”

Mitchell is now half way through his four year stint in Stockholm. He developed “a strong respect for the Swedes” long before his appointment. The Swedish officials he had encountered earlier in his career had always been “very outcome-oriented and very principled – with a strong commitment to human rights.”

Mitchell paints a picture of a very businesslike, friendly bilateral relationship. Indeed, Britain and Sweden have enjoyed constructive relations for centuries. In 1654 they put this down on paper in the Whitlock Treaty. This promised not only ‘perpetual peace’, but also free trade and mutual respect for each country’s laws. Barring a technical declaration of war in 1810 (Napoleon forced the Swedes’ hand), the two countries have been at peace ever since.

Matters of war and peace still feature in the relationship – both countries have troops deployed in Afghanistan. This year, though, other urgent issues will be competing for attention. Sweden’s EU presidency, as well as coming in the middle of a recession, coincides with the Copenhagen conference on climate change, meaning environmental issues will remain high up the agenda. Given the severity of the world’s economic problems, it is striking that Mitchell emphasises that securing a deal this year remains “by far the biggest task confronting the global leadership today.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Sweden will have to deal with some thorny administrative matters – the current European Commission’s term of office ends in October, a new European Parliament will be elected in June and a new Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty could come in the autumn.

The Swedish-British relationship is about more than the EU and formal diplomatic business. There is also a great deal of direct political exchange. British politicians, commentators and think-tanks frequently look to Sweden for inspiration. Last year, the Labour government looked closely at the Swedish policy of banning men from paying for sex; the Conservatives are converts to the Swedish idea of allowing private organizations to run ‘free schools’. In recent months British officials have been looking closely at how Sweden rescued its banking system in the early 1990s.

“We have had a lot of contact with the people who were involved in the 1992 crisis, many of whom are still working in the policy-making machinery,” he says. Bo Lundgren, deputy finance minister in the early nineties and now head of the Swedish National Debt Office, is among them.

Mitchell says the fact that politicians from the two countries talk so frequently is due partly to a shared world-view. He says that Brits and Swedes share certain political values with each other and a handful of other countries – Norway, Finland, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, and to some extent the United States. These countries all have liberal economic values, a commitment to a welfare state, a pragmatic approach to policy delivery and a tradition of social policy innovation, he argues.

“The UK and Sweden share a very strong commitment to free trade and human rights. The political stripe of the government here or in the UK doesn’t appear to make a material difference to the relationship.”

All this means that the Brits are pleased that Fredrik Reinfeldt will be in charge of leading the EU through the tricky terrain ahead, Mitchell says:

“You couldn’t hope for a better presidency for the second half of this year.”