One of the unique characteristics of the European Union is that every six months, the chair of the European Council changes — allowing a roll-call of the 27 EU nation states to, in theory at least, set the political agenda.
The European Council is, in effect, the collective political leadership of the 27 nations — attended by heads of the respective governments along with senior key members of the EU organisation.
It’s where much of the wheeling and dealing is done — the real decision-making process, separate from the European Commission, which is the cabinet-like structure based in Brussels that oversees the day-to-day running of the bloc, and the European Parliament that sits in Strasburg and creates and debates EU law.
For the record, the European Court of Justice, also based in Strasbourg, decides on issues pertaining to that EU law and how it affects each of the nation states.
Come Jan. 1, the Swedes take over the chair of the European Council. Normally, that would likely mean that there would be little chance of conflict from the generally Liberal-Democratic principles followed by Eurocrats and political operatives alike. Except that now, there is a “new normal” in Sweden.
On Sep. 11 last, Swedes went to the polls to elect a new national government. And while recent history has been that the Scandinavian nation of roughly 10.5 million returned governments with a heavy centre-left spine, or at least one with a social conscience, September’s general election resulted in a coalition of three right-wing parties — a minority government that relies on support from the far right.
Ulf Kristersson, the new Prime Minister and leader of the Moderate party, has been joined by the Christian Democrats and Liberals in a formal coalition. But the administration has to rely on the good will of the far-right Sweden Democrats — the biggest opposition party.
The deal signed between the four parties is called the “Tido Agreement” after the castle where the negotiations took place. Kristersson says the agreement is based on the parties seeing similar problems, and coming up with joint solutions for how to tackle them.
As with ring-wing parties and administrations across Europe, that means a decidedly anti-immigrant stance. Sure enough, the new government has put more of a focus on foreigners learning Swedish so they can get into the job market as well as cuts to international aid, lower fuel prices and protection against soaring energy costs.
Right-wing governments in Europe tend, too, to take an anti-Brussels stance, which is why the timing of Sweden taking the rotating chair of the European Council is intriguing, to say the least.
In mid-December, the Swedish government unveiled its priorities for the next six months, pledging to focus on security, resilience, prosperity, democratic values and the rule of law.
“Sweden is taking over the Presidency at a time when the European Union is facing unprecedented challenges. A greener, more secure and freer Europe is the foundation of our priorities,” Kristersson said.
But actions speak a lot louder than words — particularly an action like scrapping Sweden’s Ministry of the Environment — one of the first deeds carried out by Kristersson’s administration. And yes, it has left a lot of Swedes scratching their heads — particularly at a time when the Earth seems at a tipping point in the struggle to combat global warming.
Previously, the ministry was a high-profile stand-alone department with a minister in the cabinet. In the new right-wing government, it will operate as part of another ministry.
While Kristersson did appoint a Minister of Climate and Environment — 26-year-old Liberal MP Romina Pourmokhari — she will work under Christian Democrat leader Ebba leader Ebba Busch, who was also elevated to the Minister for Energy, Business and Industry.
As Per Bolund, the leader of the Swedish Greens noted, it’s the first time in 35 years that the Swedes will go without a dedicated ministry focused on the environment and green concerns. And yes, back then, Sweden was one of the first nations in the EU to have such a governmental department.
A historic decision
“It is impossible to describe more clearly how little this government values the environment and the climate,” Bolund noted, adding it was a historic decision with devastating consequences for environmental issues.
The downgrading of the fight against climate change by the incoming chair nation of the European Council certainly is at odds with wider EU thinking. Indeed, at COP27 at Sharm Al Sheikh in Egypt in November, the EU said it plans to update its climate-change goals and speed up action to slow global warming.
The EU, collectively the world’s third-largest economy of some 500 million people, is also the world’s third-biggest polluter.
EU nations have already agreed to implement a ban on selling all new fossil fuel cars by 2035 — a move that would net emissions across the EU by 57 per cent.
The EU has among the most ambitious climate change policies of major emitters, having committed to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions 55 per cent by 2030, from 1990 levels, and eliminate them by 2050.
That’s the plan.
But the plan needs to be kick-started at the European Council, with the 27 individual nations putting their stamp of approval on the direction of travel.
How hard will it be to agree on firm climate change action when the host nation for the next six months has decided that in Sweden at least, the environment should take a back street to energy, business and industry?