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EU: Sweden Sets Ambitious Enlargement Plans

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Sweden, which took over the EU's rotating six-month presidency 10 days ago, has promised a breakthrough in enlargement negotiations. Stockholm began its term in office with considerable enthusiasm. But progress could be tempered by the country's relative inexperience in leading Europe, and its decision to remain outside the union's common currency. RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas reports.

Brussels, 10 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's new Swedish presidency refers to its list of priorities as the "three E's:" enlargement, employment and environment.

Employment and environment represent traditional Swedish concerns that have been prominent throughout its recent, left-dominated political history. Enlargement is a more recent interest stemming from regional security considerations as well as a desire to end the division of Europe.

Enlargement also ranks officially as the most significant of the three E's.

In the last few years, Sweden -- together with the other Scandinavian countries and Great Britain -- has become one of the most prominent supporters of enlargement within the EU. The current Swedish presidency, running till the end of June, is a welcome break for candidates after the less-enlargement-oriented Portuguese and French presidencies last year.

Sweden has already brought fresh impetus to the process by becoming the first country at the EU's helm to broach the subject of entry dates. Starting from the Nice summit last December, Swedish leaders have consistently said leading candidates could have their entry dates fixed at the Gothenburg summit in June.

As Swedish Prime Minister Goeran Persson has made clear, this would require a radical breakthrough in enlargement talks. To achieve this, Sweden has decided to use its presidential prerogative to speed up what in Brussels-speak is termed "agenda management" -- dictating a faster pace to the EU's executive commission which is in charge of conducting entry talks.

Thus, instead of the usual 40 to 50 new common positions on different "chapters" of EU law which were presented to the 12 candidate countries last year, Sweden has asked the commission to draw up approximately 150.

This means in effect tripling the workload of the commission. Earlier this week Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said the commission has both the will and ability to rise to the challenge.

"What I can foresee is that we will certainly make remarkable progress in some of the more difficult areas, so I think, yes, it is possible to speed up [enlargement talks]. The [EU] commission appreciates very much the fact that for the Swedish presidency [enlargement] is a top priority, and we are absolutely prepared to cooperate with the Swedish presidency in that way."

At the same time, Swedish ambitions -- and especially the implication that the commission may have previously dragged its feet -- have bred certain resentment in the commission.

This was evident this week when the president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, was quoted by the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter as saying he doubts the "feasibility" of the Swedish plan to radically speed up enlargement talks. Prodi said he did not think it was possible to move much faster than the commission envisaged last November, when it said leading candidates could finish negotiations in mid-2002 at the earliest.

Persson has indicated he thinks it may be possible for the first new members to join in 2003. Allowing for the roughly 18-month ratification procedure of accession treaties, this would mean negotiations would have to be wrapped up by the end of this year.

Much of Sweden's success in hastening the enlargement process will depend on its ability to create consensus among EU members on the more difficult issues. Chapters involving possible EU subsidies or the movement of labor from new members to the rest of the EU are politically sensitive in a number of EU member countries, like Spain, Germany and Austria.

There are signs that some EU members have put pressure on Sweden not to promise candidates too much for fear of weakening the EU's negotiating position.

Prime Minister Persson acknowledged these concerns yesterday (Tuesday), reminding candidates that progress in enlargement talks was not simply a matter of speeding up the work of the commission.

"[The speeding up of the enlargement process] is a matter of practical resources, but also of the ability of the applicant countries to satisfy those demands we set [for] them in the enlargement process. This is important."

Sweden is faced with a number of obstacles in accomplishing its objectives. It is a relative newcomer to the EU, having joined only in 1995 -- and it's relatively small.

During a visit to Stockholm by the European Commission earlier this week, Persson acknowledged this, saying he was willing to accept guidance from Brussels.

"We are a small country. We have no experience leading the EU. We are relatively new members [of the union]. We have every reason to lean on the competence that is present in the commission, and this is what we plan to do."

Sweden's stewardship of the EU could also be undermined by what has been called "the missing fourth E," in reference to Sweden's decision two years ago to remain outside of the European single currency, the euro.

Another potential weakness in Sweden's position is its neutrality. Observers have already questioned whether Stockholm is ideally placed to oversee the process of reconciling the development of the EU's fledgling defense policy with the interests of NATO.

Failure by Sweden to stamp its authority on developments in either field could easily result in collateral damage to the leadership Sweden is able to show in the enlargement process.