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Stockholm takes up EU presidency in the shadow of Sweden’s shift to the right

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Sweden took over the EU’s rotating presidency for six months on 1 January 2023. The authorities have promised to uphold fundamental European values. But this may prove difficult with the far-right, anti-European, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats party a crucial part of the conservative government. 

The main question for Stockholm as it takes the reins of the 27-nation bloc will be how domestic politics play out on the European stage.

After eight years of centre-left rule, the government of conservative Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson relies on an unprecedented alliance with the far-right Sweden Democrats to ensure a majority in parliament.

While the nationalist party has dropped its earlier calls for Sweden to quit the EU, its hardline stance in key areas such as immigration looks set to cause friction at home and curb the room for manoeuvre.

Alongside the war in Ukraine and the protection of European business against US subsidies, Stockholm has said climate change and protecting EU “fundamental values” in the face of disputes with Hungary and Poland are priorities.

Helène Fritzon, a European Parliament member for the opposition Social Democrats, says there were “lots of pretty words” from the Swedish government over its European plans.

“But there is great concern when, in practice, it is the Sweden Democrats who have the whip hand,” Fritzon said.

Little potential for disruption

Other commentators see little potential for the far-right party to cause disruption during Stockholm’s time in the European spotlight.

The deal hatched to form the government last October means the Sweden Democrats formally have to be informed of any decisions taken in regards to the EU.

“But generally EU matters are excluded from this agreement,” Goran von Sydow, director of the Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies, told the news agency AFP.

For von Sydow, a bigger worry is how the neophyte administration copes with the burden of helping navigate the EU through such choppy geopolitical waters.

“The challenge would be the relatively inexperienced government,” he said.

A stand-offish EU member state   

Traditionally Sweden, which voted against joining the euro single currency, has had a slightly stand-offish relationship with Europe.

“They tend to keep a bit of a distance,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris.

He predicted that Stockholm would “fulfil its duties” during its six-month presidency, but “there won’t be too much zeal”.

The country that holds the EU presidency can help shape the agenda for the bloc, but is also expected to be a neutral deal broker helping to thrash out the complex compromises that keep Brussels ticking over.

While some EU members try to use their stint at the helm to shine a light on themselves, the Scandinavian nation has opted for a lower-key approach.

Trade war with the US?   

On issues of substance, Sweden is looking to relaunch negotiations for free trade agreements with a string of countries and regions.

This push could be overshadowed by a showdown with Washington over the impact of President Joe Biden’s mammoth Inflation Reduction Act.

Biden’s 400 billion-euro plan is set to provide subsidies for US green industries, state aid that has been criticised as protectionist by both France and Germany.

While negotiations are underway between Brussels and Washington in efforts to find a solution, calls for a tough line from some in the EU have stoked fears of a trans-Atlantic trade war.

Source: RFI News

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