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New EU President Sweden To Lead Fight Against Climate Change

All eyes are on Sweden as it takes over the EU's six-month presidency.
All eyes are on Sweden as it takes over the EU's six-month presidency.
STOCKHOLM -- Shifts in priorities are a recurrent feature in the way the EU's system of rotating presidencies functions. But Sweden, a country of under 10 million people, has a history of pursuing sweeping agendas despite its small size.

On the eve of the handover of the rotating EU Presidency from the Czech Republic overnight, Sweden signaled its intention to make fighting climate change the headline effort of its six-month term.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt also told journalists in the Swedish capital that the global economic downturn will also be high on the agenda of the EU's policy-making, along with keeping a close eye on potentially volatile situations in Iran, Georgia, and Ukraine.

Following Through

Reinfeldt said Stockholm's top priority for the next six months will be to curb carbon dioxide emissions, held to be responsible for rising global temperatures.

He said the EU will seek to rally the rest of the world to take action before it's too late.

The bloc's members have already committed themselves to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 -- or 30 percent if there's a global accord.

The EU will seek just such an accord from a meeting of world leaders in Copenhagen in December.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt
Reinfeldt underscored that signatories of the 1999 Kyoto accord account for just 30 percent of all global greenhouse emissions. He noted that if the world's developed economies stopped their carbon-dioxide emissions altogether, the amounts of CO2 released by developing countries would be sufficient to allow global warming to continue unabated.

The EU's main immediate challenge is to marshal the cooperation of the United States and China. Locked in an increasingly close economic relationship, those two countries will soon be collectively responsible for half of the world's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Targeting Fossil Fuels

Sweden, with its track record of achieving a 50 percent increase in GDP since 1990 while managing a 10 percent decrease in CO2 emissions, feels it is in a strong position to make the EU's case to the world. But Reinfelft acknowledged it won't be easy.

Asked by RFE/RL about Sweden's environmental ambitions in the EU's eastern neighborhood and Russia, Reinfeldt conceded significant differences in priorities and perceptions.

"Every time we talk with Eastern Europeans [about climate change], they want to talk energy security -- by that they very often mean the security of the transport of fossil fuels, whether it be oil or gas," Reinfeldt said. "Of course, that could be interesting, because it could increase [energy] efficiency, but it's not really the answer to the global threat."

The answer, Reinfeldt argued, lies in a reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

But moving away from fossil fuels entails heavy economic costs. The EU's own poorer eastern member states are already struggling to meet the commitments assumed by the bloc and want what they regard as a "fairer" distribution of the associated financial burden.

That could jeopardize the emergence of a united and common EU position at the Copenhagen summit in December.

A 'Question Of Balance'

The global economic downturn will remain an important item on the EU's agenda under the Swedish presidency.

Reinfeldt said the EU must start looking for "exit strategies" for countries like Latvia, Hungary, and Romania, all of which are heavily dependent on international financial lifelines.

Stockholm would like to avoid extensive stimulus packages of the type advocated and launched by Britain and France, two of the EU's largest economies.

Swedish officials also want the EU to agree on a new five-year plan on measures to manage immigration and cut crime.

"It's a question of balance," Reinfeldt said, alluding to fears in some EU countries, not least in relatively immigration-friendly Sweden itself, that the situation could lead to a crackdown on asylum seekers.

International 'Values'

Taking his cue from the preceding Czech and French presidencies, Reinfeldt said the EU must expect the unexpected on the international scene.

He highlighted the situation in Iran as a growing concern, as well as the continuing tensions between Russia and Ukraine potentially affecting the provision of natural gas to the EU.

Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, brushed aside suggestions that Sweden's strong advocacy of the EU's Eastern Partnership and his own outspokenly critical views of Russian actions in Georgia last August could compromise the country's ability to mediate in a possible repeat of the crisis in Georgia.

Bildt described Brussels' "main role" in such a situation as "to stand for certain values, interests, and principles -- and that's important."

"Territorial integrity happens to be important not only to the European Union, but to the[entire] international community," Bildt said, citing the Georgian example. "So that's the role that we have as the European Union -- to defend our interests, safeguard our values, and stand for certain principles -- overall. And then within that framework, of course, you can mediate."

"My long experience tells me you are more effective in achieving solutions when you start from a position that is well-known," the veteran diplomat said.

...And Internal Division

Sweden will also have a mountain to climb to kick-start the EU's stalled enlargement process, over which Bildt noted continued division among members.

Meanwhile, bilateral tensions with EU member states have put the brakes on all ongoing accession talks. Croatia's negotiations are being blocked by Slovenia over a border dispute, Cyprus blocks Turkey's progress, and Greece is holding out the threat of a veto on Macedonia, objecting to the country's name.

Iceland could overtake all three if it decided to submit an early application to join the bloc.

Reinfeldt acknowledged the possibility that Reykjavik could do so during the course of the Swedish presidency.

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