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EUROPEAN UNION

Sweden plans for move to heart of Europe

With just a couple of months remaining until Sweden assumes the reins of the EU presidency, The Local's Thanh Dinh speaks to Minister for EU Affairs Cecilia Malmström about the challenges ahead.

Sweden plans for move to heart of Europe

Separated from mainland Europe by a body of water and far from the EU’s bustling Brussels headquarters, Sweden’s geographical distance from the heart of the action has long been complemented by a similar psychological divide. Yet, from July 1st, Sweden takes over the rotating EU presidency and plans are underway to lead the country to the core of Europe.

This marks a decisive shift in Sweden’s traditional policy towards the EU, from a country sceptical towards Europe to one seeking a more central role and openly embracing it. The move is not limited to the confines of Parliament; Cecilia Malmström, Minister of EU Affairs, sees public support for the EU among the Swedish people and hopes that the presidency will bolster it.

“We see the presidency as a unique opportunity to increase interest in the EU in Sweden and show how EU issues affect people’s day-to-day lives”, Malmström tells The Local. In order to achieve this aim, a special secretariat employing 20 people has been established to coordinate communication in the run up to and during the presidency itself.

Preparing for the EU presidency is a huge undertaking. Preparations began in earnest in autumn 2006 when the current government took office, and Malmström reveals that “most people at the government offices are involved in one way or another in the presidency [preparations]”.

Over 3,000 meetings are scheduled for the six-month presidency, the vast majority of which are being held in Brussels or Luxembourg but some 100 meetings will also take place in Sweden. A secretariat of 55 personnel alone is charged with overseeing the practical implementations of the meetings on national soil. They have an exhaustive list of logistical preparations that ranges from the critical issue of security arrangement to organising interpretation and translation services for the visiting dignitaries of the 27 member states to the finer details of the meals that will be served.

“We are very well prepared”, says Anders Tagesson of Sweden’s security police, Säpo, on the subject of security provisions for the meetings in Sweden.

“We are working together with the national criminal police, the government and the local police to ensure that the meetings are conducted safely, both for the officials and the public alike”.

On July 1st, the preparations will make way for the real work of presiding over the EU. Sweden has a clear set of priorities and at the top of the list are climate change, economic growth and immigration.

“A lot of Swedes feel strongly about the climate issue and Sweden is in many aspects a role model for other countries. Not least, we’ve shown that by applying forward-looking climate policies we can have both economic growth and reduced emissions. During our presidency, our goal is for the EU to successfully bring about a global agreement when the United Nations holds its climate conference in Copenhagen in December 2009”, explains Malmström.

Sweden will act “forcefully” towards helping Europe recover from the economic crisis and to “restore confidence in the financial system”. Malmström asserts, “the EU as a whole must hasten economic recovery, create jobs and promote welfare in member states”.

The agendas are ambitious, but even before the start of the presidency, it is clear that Sweden will likely face challenges in achieving its priorities. Sweden’s presidency will have to cope with severe operational challenges because it coincides with the installment of a new EU Parliament and Commission, and both institutions will require time to normalise their operations, “making things more difficult than they usually are”.

Then there are concerns about the achievements of the present Czech EU presidency and its effects on Sweden’s presidency. Sweden is a member of a trio presidency with France and the Czech Republic, together the trio have agreed on an 18-month programme of shared objectives with France leading the way in July 2008, followed by the Czech Republic and concluding with Sweden.

The problem is that the incumbent Czech president, Mr. Vaclav Klaus, is a staunch eurosceptic and holds contrary views about climate change, which are completely at odds with the trio presidency. Although Klaus holds a non-executive office and has little influence over the proceedings of the Czech EU presidency, the fact that his country is presiding over the EU afford him more media coverage than warranted and brings public attention to his personal viewpoint, potentially undermining the collective stance of the trio presidency.

Malmström does not see reasons for concern. “With the recent fall of the Czech government the domestic situation for the Czechs is far from stable. But I am confident that the Czech Republic will continue conducting the Council Presidency as effectively as it has done until now,” says Malmström.

“When Sweden takes over on the 1st of July, we will continue working together with the Czech Republic on important issues such as the climate issue, the financial crisis, employment and the international relations of the EU”.

Malmström’s positivism is clear and she is confident that the Swedish presidency will be a success. “We will do our very best to conduct an effective, open and result-oriented presidency in the interests of the whole of Europe”, she says.

Hardly the words of a shy wallflower; this is fighting talk from a country with unmistakable ambitions. The Swedish EU presidency may very well witness a new, more active Sweden on the EU stage.

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BUSINESS

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU’s minimum wage plan?

EU labour ministers meet in Brussels on Monday to discuss the European Commission's planned minimum wage directive. Why is the proposal causing such unease in Sweden?

Explained: Why is Sweden so worried about the EU's minimum wage plan?
Customers visit a branch of McDonalds in Stockholm. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

What’s happening on Monday? 

EU ministers responsible for employment and social affairs, including Sweden’s Eva Nordmark, will meet in Brussels for a two day meeting at which they hope to adopt a European Council position on a directive imposing “adequate minimum wages” on all EU countries. Once the Council, which represents member states, has agreed a common position, it will begin negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

What’s Sweden’s position on the minimum wage directive? 

Sweden has been, along with Denmark, one of the most vocal opponents of the directive, arguing that it threatens the country’s collective bargaining model, in which unions and employers set wages without government interference. 

But on Friday, the government dropped its opposition, together with country’s umbrella union, the Swedish Trade Union Confederation, arguing that a compromise proposal put forward by the European Commission would protect Sweden’s wage autonomy. 

A majority of the members of the Swedish parliament’s employment committee are backing the government’s new stance, but three opposition parties, the Moderates, the Christian Democrats, and the Sweden Democrats, are opposed to the change in position. 

“I am extremely happy that there is broad support and majority backing for us to continue with the negotiations, to stand up for what we have come to so far, and do everything we can to protect the Swedish wage-setting model,” Sweden’s employment minister Eva Nordmark (S) said after a meeting with the employment committee on Friday. 

READ ALSO: Why Sweden doesn’t have a minimum wage and how to ensure you’re fairly paid

Why did Sweden make its dramatic last-minute u-turn? 

Sweden’s government judges that, after the compromise, the directive will no longer mean that Sweden is forced to bring in a statutory minimum wage. 

“I consider, together with experts in the civil service and experts in the unions and employer organisations, that there is no requirement for Sweden to bring in a statutory minimum wage,” Nordmark told TT. 

She added that agreeing to sign up to the directive would give Sweden the ability to take a deeper part in the negotiations giving it the power to make sure that important exceptions are made for Sweden. 

Denmark, however, is still resolved to say ‘no’ to the directive. 

Surely a minimum wage is a good thing? Isn’t Sweden supposed to be a high-wage economy? 

Sweden is certainly a high-wage economy, but that is largely thanks to its model of collective bargaining, under which wages are generally set by negotiations between employees and employers for each sector. 

If the directive sets a precedent allowing governments, either at a national or EU level, to interfere in this process, or for those who disagree with the result of the collective bargaining agreement to appeal to government entities, it could undermine the Swedish system. 

Who is still worried? 

More or less everyone. While the Swedish Trade Union Confederation is supporting the government’s decision, its vice chair Therese Guovelin, described the European Commission’s compromise proposal as simply “the least bad compromise proposal” the union had seen.

She has previously described the European Parliament’s position that the directive should apply to the entire European Union as “a catastrophe”.

“That would mean that a disgruntled employee who is not part of the union, could take their case to court, and would then end up at the EU Court, and it would then be them who would decide on what should be a reasonable salary,” she explained. “In Sweden, it’s the parties [unions and employers’ organisations] that decide on that.”

Tobias Billström, group leader for the Moderate Party, said he was concerned at the role of the European Court in the directive. 

“There are big risks with this,” he told TT. “The EU court might decide to interpret this directive as applying across the board, and then we might end up with what we wanted to avoid. The Moderates have as a result been against this development, and it’s important that Sweden gets to decide itself on the Swedish labour market.”

What might happen now? 

The European Parliament might try to remove the wording and the exemptions which Sweden hopes will allow its employers and unions to retain control of wage-setting. 

Mattias Dahl, chief executive of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, which represents employers’ groups, said that the government needed to stand its ground in the upcoming negotiations, reiterating that he would have preferred that the European Commission had not sought to give itself such a role in the Labour Market.  

Nordmark said that Sweden did not intend to back down to the parliament. 

“These are important red lines for us. If there are demands from the European Parliament that push in a different direction, we can lean on the Swedish opinion and what we stand for,” she said. 

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