Prime Minister of Sweden Göran Persson made the long journey from the crisp climes and pure air of the north to Strasbourg to address the European Parliament on Wednesday for the first time in his capacity as president in office of the Council of Ministers, a rite of passage the Swedish ambassador likened in jest to losing one's virginity.
After the disappointment of Nice, where petty national interests and horse-trading carried the day, a fresh Nordic breeze seems the best antidote to the stale and staid atmosphere in the Council (which would certainly be preferable to the stomach-churning stench of that most Swedish of delicacies, surströmming, or fermented Baltic herring). As relative newcomers, having joined the EU in the last round of enlargement, the Swedes are testing their skills at painstaking compromise and negotiation, though the thoroughness of their preparatory work has already been lauded, exposing the tenacious stereotypes about the Germans for the tired assumptions they are.
The three "E"s
Persson's task was to present his government's working programme for the next six months, with attention focused on the main priorities which have come to be known rather glibly as "the three 'E's": enlargement, employment and environment (though ironically it does not have quite the same ring to it in the Swedish original: utvigning, sysselsättning och miljö).
In a packed plenary chamber, the Prime Minister regaled his audience with lacklustre, careworn rhetoric, pushing all the right buttons but saying nothing remarkable. For example:
In the last decade alone, Europe has changed as never before. The Cold War has given way to co-operation; technological development has exploded; and our economies have closely intertwined in a global market.
It is no longer sufficient to point to totalitarian regimes on the other side of the Iron Curtain as the threat to democracy and peace. The danger to democracies today comes instead from within the mature democracies themselves. We witness it in the loss of trust in elected representatives and the low turnout at elections, in gains by populist parties and in the radicalisation of extreme right-wing movements.
We can resolve few of our major challenges in Europe all by ourselves. We are too dependent on one another for that. The need for co-operation has never been greater. At the same time, I would venture to say that the prospects for co-operation have never been more promising.
No less than a political breakthrough
On enlargement he did not commit to a specific date, contenting himself with emulating the vague but positive rumblings of his predecessors, although a faint echo of Sweden's confident pledge to break the deadlock in negotiations and accelerate accession could be detected:
No issue is as decisive for the European Union's future and the development of Europe as the welcoming of new members to the Union.
Our chance to consolidate the foundations of peace and freedom, democracy and prosperity in Europe are at stake. We are in the process of concluding the historical development, which will end the division of Europe into East and West. It is with humility, pride and firm determination that the Swedish government will endeavour to contribute to this work.
The intergovernmental conference to prepare the Union's institutions for smooth operation in an enlarged Union was successfully concluded under the French presidency. An economic framework had already been laid down in Berlin in the spring of 1999. In Nice, it was made clear that the next intergovernmental conference should not constitute any impediment or create new conditions for enlargement. Much work remains to be done, but it is possible that new member states may be admitted after the end of 2002.
During the first half of 2001, the enlargement process will enter into a phase of concrete negotiations in many areas. Sweden's aim is to try to pave the way for a political breakthrough in the negotiations. The principle of differentiation will represent the cornerstone of this work. Each candidate country will be assessed on the basis of its own merits and will be given the possibility of catching up.
The candidate countries have made major progress. However, for a breakthrough to be achieved the candidate countries must vigorously conduct further reforms in order to meet the membership requirements, and the member states must contribute constructively to progress in the negotiations. The Commission must also facilitate this process.
Together we must all strive towards ensuring that enlargement takes place with the full backing of the citizens of the Union.
The Swedish presidency will exploit the possibilities for moving ahead faster with the best-prepared candidate countries. In June 2001, the European Council in Gothenburg will evaluate progress and provide the necessary guidelines for its successful conclusion.
The Swedish recipe
Persson characterised employment as a panacea for all social and political ills, mentioning full employment as the Swedish presidency's strategic goal (although he may be presumed to be blissfully unaware of the connotations this awakens in the mind of a Hungarian such as myself). In a clear affirmation of the no-nonsense Protestant ethic, he drew attention to the importance of work as the source of an individual's freedom, independence and self-respect.
The self-assured optimism he evinced on the issue of the EU's ability to realise its ambition of being a Union of employment and attaining the aims set out at the Lisbon summit was expressed in the muted tones typical of the level-headed pragmatism his compatriots pride themselves on.
Unable to resist the temptation to remind his audience of the merits of the world-renowned Swedish welfare system, he scotched the favourite argument of the doom-mongers by reaffirming his country's model as the best guarantee of competitiveness globally rather than a recipe for encouraging companies to relocate elsewhere. Investments in new technology would be the key to future prosperity.
As far as the environment was concerned, he called for a longer-term approach aimed at conserving the world's resources, which would have the added benefit of opening up new economic opportunities rather than leading to greater austerity. Efforts would concentrate primarily on drafting a strategy for sustainable development with environmental considerations permeating all areas of policy to an even greater extent than has been the case thus far. Chemicals and the climate were singled out as urgent issues.
Stressing the dynamic nature of the EU, Persson voiced his belief that the Treaty of Nice could be signed within a month or so. He has paid heed to the calls voiced at Nice for his presidency to hold an open debate on the EU's future with all interested parties in the run-up to the 2004 intergovernmental conference, placing particular emphasis on methods of establishing and supervising a more precise distribution of powers between the member states and the Union, the status of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, finding ways of simplifying the treaties without their contents being changed as a result and the role of national parliaments. Under his direction, the presidency seeks to stimulate debate in the candidate countries as well as the existing member states.
Those damn digits and dates
His maiden speech before the Parliament was given a warm reception, although the thorns in the EU bed of roses were not overlooked, due courtesy aside. The first justified criticism came from Hans Gert Poettering, head of the European People's Party—European Democrats Group:
We have heard that there was a wish in the Council of Ministers to give Poland fewer votes than Spain. This was subsequently corrected since it was apparently just a typing error. There is another typing error, however: the Czech Republic and Hungary, which have populations the same size of those of Belgium and Portugal, are only to have 20 members of the European Parliament [MEPs] apiece instead of the 22 of the latter. We should also give the Czech Republic and Hungary 22 MEPs so that enlargement is not launched on the basis of an act of discrimination against these two countries! You could correct this before the signing [of the Treaty of Nice], because if it is only a technical error, no new political decisions are required.
Jens Peter Bonde [Europe of Diversities and Democracies] branded the discrepancy in the number of seats in the European Parliament for the Czech Republic and Hungary as a "provocation" and pressed for swifter progress:
We call upon Sweden to introduce greater flexibility into the enlargement negotiations so that the majority of the countries concerned can be involved in co-operation and take part in the next elections to the European Parliament in 2004. The Treaty of Nice has been dubbed as an enlargement treaty, yet the weighting of votes and the number of seats in Parliament feature in a non-binding declaration, whilst the binding protocol on enlargement of the Treaty of Amsterdam is supposed to disappear.
We urge the Swedish presidency to ensure that an improved Treaty of Nice enters into force at the same time as new countries are admitted into the EU, otherwise we will end up saying yes to an enlargement treaty without any enlargement taking place.
Sweden's excellent credentials on the environmental and transparency fronts were praised by many and hopes expressed that Sweden would make full use of the unique opportunity at its fingertips to give both the Parliament and the public greater access to Council of Minister's documents and meetings, dispelling the mystique surrounding its activities as well as many of the misconceptions concerning the roles of the various institutions and breaking definitively with the culture of secrecy, which has thus far prevailed.
In his response, Persson again refused to be drawn on the issue of a specific date for admission of the first new members [raised by Cecilia Malmström of the Liberal group], taking refuge in the evasive pragmatism of every other president in office before him:
I want one [a date for entry of the first new member state], we want one, but we are not going to put down that marker. We are not going to hold that debate until we know that the substantive negotiations, which must be held, are also going to be a success. I believe we would be giving the wrong signal if we were to indicate a specific juncture by which the first of the countries now negotiating with us should become members of the Union.
The reason why it would be giving the wrong signal is that we want to see whether the difficult negotiations lying ahead of us will actually result in a breakthrough. Such a breakthrough might very well take place under the Swedish presidency, which would mean that we might very well find ourselves in a position to indicate a date in Gothenburg [at the Council]. I hope this will prove to be the case. It is what I want, but I cannot be certain it will happen.
An eloquent appeal
Although far from earth-shattering, Persson's inaugural
His country is justifiably proud of its tradition of respect and tolerance, its championing of human rights. Yet, it paradoxically remains a narrow-minded and parochial society, introverted and uncritically—even smugly—convinced that its institutions and solutions are the best whilst at the same time discouraging its members from conspicuous displays of excellence, punishing merit with ridicule and exclusion.
The Swedes refer to mainland Europe as "the continent" in a manner similar to the British, looking down their noses at the petty strife and weaknesses of their more influential, yet lesser, neighbours. The next six months will demonstrate whether that most archetypical of Swedish sayings, Lagom är bäst (moderation in everything) will be the hallmark of the country's EU presidency.
Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 20 January 2001
- Read Gusztáv Kosztolányi's ebook on the great Hungarian oil scandals
- Archive of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's articles in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Hungary through CER
- Return to CER front page
Göran Persson's speech and the
verbatim report of proceedings of
the European Parliament.