Sweden

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. 

I was fortunate enough to speak with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Tuesday about how the European Union is going about the task of choosing its first full-time president and its next foreign policy high representative.

The longer our conversation progressed, the more I realised how damaging to editorial standards, not to mention the people’s understanding of politics and government, are the competitive pressures on modern news organisations to be ahead of the rest of the pack.  For this particular EU story has, over the past few weeks, produced a cornucopia of nonsense as every broadcaster and newspaper has fallen over its rivals in a fruitless and fundamentally misguided attempt to show that it, and it alone, has got the lowdown. 

To follow up on Monday’s blog, in which I suggested it was extremely unlikely that Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini would achieve his ambition of becoming the European Union’s next foreign policy chief, the obvious question is – well, who will get the job?

Three names keep cropping up.  One is Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who has served as Nato’s secretary-general since 2004 and who is about to be replaced by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister.  The second is Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who is another ex-premier.  The third is Olli Rehn, a Finn who is the EU’s enlargement commissioner. 

It seems light years ago now, but I once had a delightful Swedish friend whose father, reflecting on his distinguished career in public service, told her that the proudest moment of his life was when Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right and there were no serious traffic accidents.

That was in 1967, and there’s no denying it – it’s damned impressive.  Imagine if they tried to introduce a change like that today in Britain, or in other countries that still drive on the left such as India, Japan, Pakistan or South Africa.  It would make the chaos on the opening day of Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5 look like a spot of trouble with the signalling on a model train set. 

Sweden’s European Union presidency hasn’t even started yet, but people in Brussels are already saying that the Swedish presidency website is the most impressive that any EU country has so far come up with.  Its homepage is clean, simple and intelligently presented, and the entire site is nice and easy to navigate.

I particularly like the section “The EU in our daily lives”, which is a slideshow of 15 photographs that attempt to explain how EU laws and activities shape so much of everyday European life.  It kicks off with a snapshot of a rather lugubrious-looking dog and the caption: “Dogs and cats travelling within the EU must have their own pet passports.” 

Is José Manuel Barroso’s reappointment as European Commission president in trouble?  Probably not.  But the jury is still out on whether he will secure formal approval from the European Parliament as early as mid-July.  If he does not, it will be difficult to dispel the clouds of doubt that will linger over his future for two months or more.

Such uncertainty is hardly what the European Union needs at a moment when its banking system faces hundreds of billions of euros in losses this year and next, and when Germany and France, the eurozone’s two biggest economies, appear utterly at odds over when and how to rebalance their public finances

Just as sunny weather has come to Brussels for the first time this year, so have the first signs that the European Union is weaning itself off its addiction to ever more frequent summits. True, today’s G20 event in London is the mother of all summits, and there are plenty of Europeans at it (too many, some non-Europeans might say).

But other planned summits are being downgraded or won’t be particularly grand occasions. Back in February Mirek Topolanek, the recently deposed Czech premier, announced he intended to hold two emergency anti-recession summits – one to uphold the EU’s free trade and single market principles against the threats of protectionism and economic nationalism, and the other on employment. The first meeting took place in Brussels on March 1 and didn’t get good reviews from summit critics in the European media. 

When she talks about her government’s forthcoming European Union presidency, Cecilia Malmström, Sweden’s European affairs minister, likes to quote the late John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Given the EU’s troubles with its frozen Lisbon reform treaty, it might have been equally apt to cite the lyrics in Lennon’s 1968 song, ‘Revolution’: “You say you’ll change the constitution/ Well, you know/ We all want to change your head.”