Early setback for Sweden's grand presidential ambitions


EUROPEAN DIARY:The delayed re-election of José Manuel Barroso could hamper attempts to tackle climate change and unemployment

SWEDEN TOOK over the reins of the EU presidency last Wednesday promising not to focus on the type of institutional navel-gazing that distracts Europe from tackling real issues that affect people such as the economic crisis and climate change.

“Now is not the time to look inwards and look at institutional questions. Now is the time to show leadership,” said Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who told journalists that voters seldom ask him about how the EU takes decisions.

Fine words indeed.

But by Friday any hopes that the Swedish presidency could focus all its energy on tackling unemployment or reducing greenhouse gas emissions had been dashed when the European Parliament postponed a vote to confirm José Manuel Barroso for a second five-year term as European Commission president.

Barroso and Reinfeldt, who are both members of the European People’s Party (EPP), pushed hard for a vote to take place at the parliament’s first plenary session in mid July. But even though all 27 EU leaders endorsed Barroso at the EU summit in June the Socialist, Green and Liberal groups in parliament opposed the request.

The groups said they want to extract concessions from Barroso over the commission’s programme for the next five years. But it is also clear they want to demonstrate the growing power of MEPs and the parliament and continue a small but vocal campaign against Barroso’s candidacy for commission president into the autumn.

“We have to show all respect due to this independent institution. We shouldn’t lay the basis for open dispute or argument between the institutions,” said Reinfeldt, who finally admitted defeat late on Friday after his officials consulted senior MEPs.

The climbdown by Reinfeldt so early in his presidency represents a setback for Swedish ambitions. In briefings prior to Friday’s decision Reinfeldt told journalists the presidency needed a strong commission to help it deliver on the myriad of different problems it faces. Senior Swedish diplomats even questioned whether it would be possible to clinch a deal on providing finance for developing countries to tackle climate change in October without Barroso firmly in place.

Reinfeldt clearly wanted to help out an EPP colleague but he also wanted to strengthen his presidency by getting Barroso in place. Small member states tend to rely on the EU executive to help them organise their EU presidencies and broker the compromises required to get deals between 27 member states with different interests.

Barroso now runs the risk of being a “lame duck” until mid-September, which will provide the next opportunity for MEPs to confirm him as president. MEPs may even try and delay the vote until after the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in early October, which if approved would create two new EU jobs: president of the European Council and an high representative for foreign affairs who sits on the commission.

Such a move would prove perilous for Barroso as rival candidates for the commission post could emerge when EU leaders meet in an October summit to begin horsetrading over the two other European posts on offer. All three jobs must be appointed respecting a political (EPP, Socialist and Liberal) and geographic balance, which is a tricky formula to implement when the jobs are generally given to head of states.

But Barroso’s confirmation is not the only institutional problem facing the Swedes. The possibility of a No vote in the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in Ireland fills Swedish politicians with dread. “How do you think it will go,” asked Sweden’s European affairs minister Cecilia Malmström nervously last week when The Irish Timesmet her in Stockholm at the launch of the Swedish presidency.

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt admitted there was little Sweden could do except wait for Irish voters to decide. “There is no plan B,” he said before issuing a warning that without Lisbon the size of the commission would have to be reduced.

A Yes vote in Ireland should persuade Polish president Lech Kaczynski to sign the treaty to complete ratification in Poland. It would also put huge pressure on Czech president Vaclav Klaus to finally sign the treaty enabling the reforms to EU decision-making, which have taken eight years to negotiate, to finally enter into force across the EU.

A No vote would plunge the EU into a crisis and force the Swedes into damage limitation mode. Without Lisbon the Swedes would have to try and broker a compromise on how to reduce the size of the commission.

One idea floated in Brussels is for the country where the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs comes from to lose their commissioner. Another idea is for the commission to be reduced by a third to 18 members to increase efficiency. Both proposals have their proponents and opponents. But after talking to senior Swedish diplomats, it is clear that it is something they are praying they will never have to discuss.