BRUSSELS -- The two-day EU summit beginning in Brussels tonight marks an end of the era with the Lisbon Treaty now finally in effect. But the bloc's leaders can hardly afford to rest on their laurels.
Much work still remains to ensure a smooth reconfiguration of the EU's decision-making procedures, as mandated by Lisbon. Climate change and the continued effects of the global economic crisis also demand acute attention.
The summit will be the last time an EU member state, in this case Sweden, has undisputed control of the entire EU agenda. In future, the rotating presidency -- which does not entirely disappear -- will hand over responsibility for chairing the summits to the new president. Meetings of foreign ministers will be passed to the new EU high representative for foreign affairs.
Most observers in Brussels agree that Sweden can look back on a job well done. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt emerged the clear winner among other EU leaders in a popularity poll taken by the French daily "La Tribune" among Brussels-based correspondents.
Antonio Missirolli, director of studies at the Brussels-based European Policy Center, told RFE/RL that Sweden has performed its duties as the last full-fledged holder of the EU Presidency in exemplary fashion.
"I think that overall the Swedes have proved their professionalism, their concern for transparency, accountability, and fairness in dealing with EU affairs," Missirolli says.'Very Sensitive' Period
Missirolli underlines that the Swedish Presidency took place during a "very sensitive" period for the EU, including the early autumn run-up to Ireland's second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Sweden's "soft touch" was largely responsible for the success of the referendum, Missirolli said. Sweden also oversaw efforts that overcame the Czech Republic's 11th-hour objections to the document.
On other issues, Sweden's performance was more varied.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski holds the EU's Lisbon Treaty in Warsaw on October 10.
The EU's responses to the global financial crisis were largely determined by earlier summits and G20 meetings, so that Sweden's right-wing market-liberal government had little to contribute. The upcoming EU summit will tentatively examine "exit strategies," although officials admit real recovery is unlikely to start before 2011.
Climate change was Sweden's top presidency priority from the start. But some of Stockholm's limelight has recently been stolen by Denmark, which has assumed the lead role in conducting international talks and is currently hosting a major climate change summit in Copenhagen. The EU's bid for climate leadership has also been thwarted by its own inability to agree on how to split the bill for getting developing nations to reduce their emissions.
This week, on the eve of the summit, Poland threw another spanner in the works, ruling out a tougher, self-imposed EU pledge to reduce its own emissions. Poland represents a sizeable group of EU nations, mostly hailing from the East, which argue their relatively poorer circumstances must be taken into account when the bloc divides up climate change costs internally.
Sweden has also been unable to secure agreement on the size of the EU's "fast-start" contribution to developing nations between 2010-2012, which officials say could range between 2 billion and 15 billion euros a year. But even the top range of that spread has been rejected by some developing countries as amounting to merely a "bribe."
Missirolli also observers that Sweden acted less than firmly during the selection of the first EU president and foreign minister.
"When it comes to the appointments -- the [EU's] top jobs -- there the evaluation [of Sweden's Presidency] is a bit more nuanced," he says, "because there was certainly a moment in early November when the process gave the impression of getting out of hand."Clipping Their Wings
However, if the nomination process was protracted and tortuous, the integration of new President Herman van Rompuy and Foreign Minister Catherine Ashton promises to be no easier.
A draft of the summit conclusions, seen by RFE/RL, says the leaders "express the hope [the appointments] will allow the union to fully concentrate on addressing the challenges ahead."
But getting the system to work increasingly appears as one of the preeminent challenges facing the EU. Diplomats already say France, Britain, and a number of Eastern European member states are already seeking to clip Van Rompuy's and Ashton's wings by trying to starve them of funds and influence. Their logic appears to follow what critics have long said was the point of appointing two little-known figures to man the EU helm -- to ensure that member states have full control over all important EU decisions on the world scene.
Madrid will be next to take over the EU's rotating and theoretically weakened presidency on January 1, 2010. EU diplomats say there are indications Spain will try to sideline both Van Rompuy and Ashton as the bloc heads into a six-month period containing a record 10 summits with non-EU countries.
The summit today and on December 11 will also discuss Sweden's new "Stockholm Program," which is designed to balance the access to the bloc of non-EU nationals with the protection of the protection and rights of the denizens of the EU.
Short declarations will also be adopted on enlargement, the Eastern Partnership, and Iran.