Exit Prague, enter Stockholm: The EU Presidency Is Too Big for Small Nations

By Ulrike Guérot

The Czech Republic proved that small EU states are not up to running the EU Council Presidency. Leadership on such a scale is simply beyond their means. Nevertheless, Sweden hopes to see the Lisbon Treaty ratified. Then it wants to lay the foundations for a real European foreign policy.

In times such as these, with no end to the financial crisis in sight, the rotation of the EU Presidency makes one thing patently clear: The European Union needs clearer structures, more integration, and better foreign representation. Moreover, the Czech tenure has revealed that smaller EU countries are not up to the daunting coordination and leadership tasks that a crisis of this magnitude requires.

The Swedish capital Stockholm.
DDP

The Swedish capital Stockholm.

It is of course unfortunate when a government collapses in the middle of a Council Presidency. But Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek's influence had long been waning; from the beginning he was ineffective at leading the European Union. It is also sheer bad luck to have a president like Vaclav Klaus who makes no secret of his fundamental distaste for the Maastricht Treaty and for European integration as such. Yet, in order to save face, the Czech Senate approved the Lisbon Treaty on May 6, 2009 --clearing one of the last hurdles to Lisbon's ratification.

But even if domestic conditions had been different: Would the Czech Republic have been able to conduct a convincing EU presidency? Would it have been able to deal firmly with the Russian-Ukrainian gas dispute? If the Irish had not rediscovered the value of the euro -- and thus their European convictions -- would the Czech Republic have been able to significantly influence and apply pressure to the Lisbon Treaty discourse in Ireland? Would it have been able to assume decisive European leadership during the financial crisis? The honest answer is probably no.

Small countries are hindered by the fact that the demands on the European Union, and thus on the Council Presidency, have increased. Beyond the ongoing technical agenda (energy policy, climate protection, growth, modernization of national European economies), an agenda that is constantly under revision and impossible to overlook in its abundance, every EU nation occupying the presidency assumes leadership on a global scale: This goes for the war in Georgia as well as for the financial crisis. Adequate human resources are no less important than acceptance and clout in the international arena. In these terms small EU countries simply have less to offer.

In the financial crisis as in the gas dispute, all eyes were focused once again on the heavyweights in the European Union, namely on Germany and France, without whom no significant European contribution would have been possible at the G-20 summit in April. The shortcomings of the European system, which fails to be results-oriented in critical situations, fortify the centripetal forces within Europe, contributing to the tendencies toward renationalization and disintegration that are now much more tangible due to the financial crisis.

Eastern Partnership

It would be wrong to blame these problems solely on the Czech Republic, which at least attempted to create some forward momentum. Most convincing was the establishment of the new Eastern Partnership of the European Union at the Prague Summit in May. The European Union has formed new, committed agreements with six countries, all of central importance for stability to Europe's east (and also for the fundamental self-interest of the European Union in terms of, for example, energy security). Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, and Belarus have now shifted a bit closer to the European Union.

This is even more important because NATO is no longer the anchor of stability it once was: Russia perceives NATO expansion into these countries as a provocation. The recognition that the European Union must respond was indeed a critical impulse originating from Prague. The gray zone between the European Union and Russia has created a power vacuum that must be filled by cooperation with Russia.

The Eastern Partnership of the European Union will hopefully give rise to constructive ideas on how geostrategy on the European continent can be reformulated, especially with regard to the difficult relationship between Russia and the European Union -- but not at the expense of neighboring states. It should not be forgotten that the financial crisis has hit the European Union's eastern neighbors such as Ukraine particularly hard (and through no fault of their own!). To withdraw EU solidarity with these countries at this juncture would send the wrong signal.

Sweden Next

As of July it is Sweden's obligation to carry on and deepen this momentum. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is striving to make Georgia, and perhaps Moldova as well, into "model nations" of successful EU engagement. Both countries have sunk into war and unrest in recent months and are practically demanding European intervention. Both lend themselves as test cases for how the European Union can gain even more political capital from its pre-existing agreements. This is about neither solidarity nor altruism but rather about the European Union converting the combination of financial engagement, peace missions, and policy development into transformative influence.

The same applies to Ukraine with its enormous geostrategic significance. Economic or political upheaval, or even just lasting instability, could cause a destabilizing domino effect that the European Union, and especially neighboring Poland, wishes to avoid. Forced democratization is not the means to the hearts and minds of people. Civil society in these countries is thirsting for democracy and stability and can very easily be won over by the European Union if it would employ practical, visible, and even symbolic measures (e.g. the new stadium in Kiev) from which Europe itself would benefit. Unfortunately, Ukraine, as well as Moldova and Georgia, still lies at the edge of European maps.

Beyond shaping and deepening the EU Eastern Partnership that must, under Sweden's presidency, be supplemented with persistent and concretely detailed measures that include infrastructure, road building, administrative support, youth exchange, and trade agreements, the Swedes had originally planned to initiate the European Union's "second expansion wave" with particular concern for the Balkans and Turkey, where negotiations have currently stalled. This is no simple task when Europe is engaged in a wave of national and protectionist retreat and in which the European locomotives, Germany and France, leave no doubt as to their current (and general) lack of desire for new discussions on expansion. The Swedes know that not much can happen on this issue before the German elections in September.

In order to keep their governments on a pro-European course, the Western Balkan countries urgently need new positive signs from the European Union such as the clear, prompt, and unbureaucratic agreement to visa-free travel regulations. Beyond the public sphere, Germany has recently mutated from an expansion waverer to an expansion obstructer.

Trans-Atlantic Agenda

The Swedes are aware that the operative term of their presidency is reduced by a few weeks around the end of the year as the new parliament and commission settles in, and a second Irish referendum has hopefully passed. Bildt has no illusions concerning Sweden's clout. He would like to expedite the trans-Atlantic agenda now that the United States has formulated its plans in such policy domains as Afghanistan and climate protection. But he knows that the trans-Atlantic agenda will not fully unfold until Spain's Council Presidency during the run-up to the EU-US summit in Madrid in June 2010. He would also like to position the European Union as a player in the Middle East conflict who could be employed as more than just a mediator and provider of money and ideas. He would like to lead the European Union as cohesively as possible and represent the European Union as an international role model at the Copenhagen climate conference at the end of the year. The chances are good that the Union can perform there persuasively. He must use the financial crisis to improve governing structures within the euro zone and to devise plans for European banking supervision and financial market regulation. But he would like one thing above all: for Sweden and other small, overburdened countries to be exempted from the Council Presidency in the future.

Should the Lisbon Treaty be ratified, Sweden will quickly set clear priorities for the formation of the European foreign service and, accordingly, for the formulation of the responsibilities of both the High Commission for Foreign and Security Policy as well as of the future European Presidency. Both entities should be given as much space and capacity as possible within the European system -- above all in consideration of the international image and resonance of the European Union. There is no greater service to the Union than to ensure that it comes through all current and future crises as unified and invigorated as possible.

Ulrike Guérot is head of the Berlin Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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