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EU: Sweden Seeks To Leave Special Stamp On Presidency

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Sweden's presidency of the European Union reaches the halfway mark tomorrow (31 March). Before taking up the six-month office in January, Stockholm set out it its priorities, with cool Nordic clarity, as the "Three E's" -- environment, employment, and enlargement of the Union to the East. The Swedes have also put special emphasis on a policy initiative called the Northern Dimension, which includes developing closer relations with Russia. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports on the Swedish presidency to date.

Prague, 30 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Swedes are not known for displaying their emotions. Doubtless molded by the climate they inhabit, they are inclined to be cool, taking life at a measured pace. And so it has been so far with the Swedish presidency of the European Union.

The first big event of the presidency, the Stockholm summit last weekend (23-24 March) was unspectacular but well organized. It helped steady the Union after the previous summit in Nice in December, a highly divisive meeting.

At the Stockholm summit, Sweden's preoccupation with the environment paid dividends. The EU leaders approved in principal a $90 million package from the European Investment Bank, or EIB, for environmental projects in northwest Russia.

Two of the projects expected to gain EIB funding are improved water treatment plants in the Russian cities of Saint Petersburg and Kaliningrad.

EIB spokesman Max Messner praised the way Sweden has given impetus to such Northern Dimension projects, saying "they have put it on the agenda and I think they fought for it." Messner explained to RFE/RL:

"They had to convince the other partners in the EU because we as the EIB -- the bank of the European Union, our shareholders are the 15 member states -- [can] only operate outside the European Union if we have unanimous approval from our owners."

This will mark the first time the EIB has invested in Russia, although it has spent more than $12 billion since 1990 in projects in the 10 Eastern nations that are candidate members of the EU, including the Baltic republics.

Swedish Foreign Ministry official Ulf Savbaeck points to the importance of improving the environment around the Baltic Sea, which he predicts will become "practically an inland sea of the European Union" when enlargement is completed. Germany, Poland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, along with Russia, all share the sea's shore. Savbaeck, who is an expert in the still-evolving Northern Dimension policy, told RFE/RL:

"It is a new situation for the European Union to encompass these [northern] areas and there are special problems to deal with -- the climate conditions, the sparsely populated areas and the environmental problems. So there is a range of challenges for the Union that we need to highlight." Savbaeck says the presidency's focus on the north will continue in the remaining three months of Sweden's tenure, with a conference set for early April in Luxembourg to set out guidelines for a Northern Dimension action plan.

Looking beyond environment, Stockholm is also focusing on the "E" standing for enlargement of the Union. A meeting is planned next month between Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson and the leaders of the three Baltic states to discuss their progress toward accession.

Estonian media commentator Tarmo Gammert says that the Swedish presidency is important for the Baltic republics. He told our correspondent:

"Enlargement is a top priority for Sweden, much more so than in the case of some other countries which have been holding the rotating presidency so far. And in this enlargement campaign which Sweden is strongly advocating, it is especially keen to make the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania new members of the European Union."

Gammert says Sweden's interest lies in increasing stability in its own region, and that this goal is also in the interest of the Baltic republics. In addition, he says, for the Baltic states the Swedish presidency has the advantage of geographical proximity and familiarity, which lends an easy rapport to dealings among political leaders. By comparison, Gammert says, an EU presidency involving, say, a Mediterranean country seems very distant from the Baltic states and their concerns.

But does this preoccupation with the Baltic region mean that Sweden is neglecting its broader role as EU current president? The 15-member Union, after all, encompasses less-developed member countries like Greece, Spain, and Portugal, which also want their share of attention. Foreign Ministry official Savbaeck rejects that idea strongly. He says:

"Quite the opposite, I would say that this cooperation we would like to promote up here, the cross-border cooperation, could be an example for how to deal with cross-border cooperation for the different corners of the European Union." Savbaeck sees this Baltic way of jointly handling problems as possibly producing a model for how to "cooperate regionally and across borders."

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