During its presidency of the EU, Sweden succeeded in putting competitiveness on the bloc’s agenda. As Spain now takes over the presidency, it is imperative that competitiveness remains central to policymaking, writes Anna Stellinger.
So, the Swedish presidency of the Council of the EU has ended. After six months, despite with a backdrop of war in Ukraine, a challenging geopolitical world situation and rampant inflation, the Swedish government can consider its presidency a success and relax.
There were no major internal political battles, nor any visible disagreements within the EU when Sweden chaired negotiations, and now the languages of the Union no longer echo in the meeting rooms of Arlanda Stad. It will be at least 13 and a half years until Sweden can hold the presidency again. An eternity.
“This is where Sweden made a real difference.”
In the final analysis, this was an EU success for Sweden that stands out and appears to be permanent. Or rather, a Swedish success that has the potential to be permanent and give European co-operation a real boost in the right direction. Sweden has placed the issue of a competitive Europe at the top of the EU’s agenda.
An achievement in itself, given that this incredibly important issue has been conspicuous by its absence for more than a decade. Yes, the Swedish presidency could have been more visible and EU issues could certainly have had a greater profile at home – a recurring criticism – but when the dust has settled, it is clear that Sweden’s work on competitiveness was a real achievement. This is where Sweden made a real difference.
So, what happens now that the Spanish hold the presidency? On the administrative level, following Sweden’s presidency, the EU has a framework for competitiveness that must continue to be filled with content that strengthens long-term productivity and prosperity. No messing about: stay focused, Sweden!
Spain’s work this half year will set the stage for Belgium’s presidency in the spring of 2024 before the more, to put it diplomatically, erratic Hungarian and Polish presidencies take over. Despite the fact that the Belgian presidency is expected to focus on a strong single market – which is music to Swedish ears – we must expect that it will be considerably affected by campaigning for the European Parliament elections.
“Spain is a big friend of free trade and is aiming, among other things, to conclude the EU’s trade agreement with the Mercosur countries.”
Furthermore, unfortunately, elections will also be held in Belgium during their presidency. A six-month term full of distractions, followed by Hungarian and Polish erraticism, is hardly an ideal platform on which to forge the future of the EU. This is why it is even more important that Spain now aims high and picks up where the Swedish presidency left off. Sweden’s success in bringing competitiveness up the EU agenda must not be put on hold.
In other words, we have a window of opportunity, which must not be wasted. The autumn during the Spanish presidency will of course be marked by the security situation and with a country like Spain at the helm, there will be a mixed portfolio of priorities. Some more relevant than others.
On the one hand, Spain is expected to emphasize trade issues, an area in which Spain and Sweden share a lot of common ground – Spain is a big friend of free trade and is aiming, among other things, to conclude the EU’s trade agreement with the Mercosur countries. On the other hand, Madrid is highly focused on the social pillar, where Sweden’s steadfast position is that the EU must respect the authority of member states to shape labour market and social policy.
“The Swedish victory is not a given.”
Another concern is Spain’s strong focus on ‘strategic autonomy’, a direction and buzzword that, irrespective of the addition of ‘open’ in all contexts and settings, rightly worries a country that believes in economic exchange and competitiveness. In other words: the Swedish victory is not a given.
The June 2024 elections to the European Parliament are fast approaching. This time next year we will have a new European Parliament and soon after a new EU Commission. When Spain begins work on the strategic agenda for the next EU Commission this autumn, Sweden has an excellent opportunity: to be involved in shaping understanding and priorities for the next five-year mandate period, during which competitiveness has to play a central role in policymaking.
The goal is as clear as it is critical. ¡Competitiveness, por favor!EUEU Presidency