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Analysis: Big challenges for Swedish EU presidency

Analysis: Big challenges for Swedish EU presidency

Sweden takes over the EU presidency this week at a time when a historic climate change deal, an ambitious EU treaty, and fighting economic meltdown loom large on Europe's agenda.
In leading the way forward on such weighty matters, symbolism can count for a lot _ and the Swedes may very well draw on the Czech Republic's just completed turn at the helm for lessons on what to avoid:
Refrain from diatribes comparing the EU to the Soviet Union, don't pick a fight with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and don't depict Bulgaria as a toilet in the name of art.
At the very least, try to keep your government in office through the six-month stretch.
The Czech presidency won't go down in EU history as a smooth ride, and European hopes are high that order will be restored as Sweden _ a country with a reputation as being as safe and stable as a Volvo station wagon _ begins steering the 27-nation bloc starting this month.
Though Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt is not likely to have to deal with the domestic political crises that marred the Czech presidency _ the government collapsed in March _ he is facing a host of difficult challenges.
The biggest hurdle to clear is a second vote in Ireland on the EU's reform treaty. Another Irish no to the Lisbon Treaty would be devastating for the bloc.
The Swedes also face the challenge of guiding the union out of recession while seeking joint approaches to deal with growing unemployment.
By December, Reinfeldt must forge a common EU position ahead of climate talks in Copenhagen, where world leaders will negotiate a new treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which limits greenhouse emissions by developed nations.
All this will have to be accomplished with the backdrop of a newly elected European Parliament and uncertainty about the future of the EU executive, the European Commission, whose makeup hinges on the success of the Lisbon charter.
"For a small country that's a tall order," says Mark Rhinard, a senior researcher on European politics at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
The rotating presidency gives a country the power to set the agenda of the EU, an economic superpower seeking a bigger political role on the world stage.
The host nation chairs meetings of EU ministers _ from transport and health to energy and agriculture _ and speaks for the bloc in contacts with the rest of the world.
The success of any country holding the presidency hinges on its ability to negotiate between competing interests of the 27 EU members and preserve a semblance of European unity.
"Sweden is not the sharpest most institutionally adept player in Brussels," Rhinard says. "Trying to manage all those positions that Lisbon brings in is going to be a big test of Swedish political skills."
The environmentally conscious Swedes have strong credibility to lead the bloc on climate change. A champion of alternative energy, Sweden is one of the few Western countries meeting is CO2 emissions targets under Kyoto.
But they will not have the same clout on financial policy, because Sweden remains outside the euro-zone. The neutral Swedes could also have a hard time standing up to bigger members like Britain, France and Germany, on security matters, such as determining the EU's response to the postelection violence in Iran.
Sarkozy, who traded barbs with former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, may be less confrontational toward the Swedes, but he doesn't see eye to eye with Reinfeldt on the key issue of EU expansion. Reinfeldt is open to Turkish EU membership _ Sarkozy is not.
To be sure, the polite Swedes won't badmouth the EU like Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who called the union an undemocratic and elitist project comparable to Soviet-era dictatorships that forbade free thought.
A Czech art installation had already caused a stir at the EU headquarters by depicting Bulgaria as a squat toilet, leading to official protests by the fellow EU member. The Czechs were forced to apologize and covered up the offending image.
Even if the orderly Swedes avoid such embarrassments, they must get ready for the worst: That world events may spoil their carefully crafted agenda and leaves them juggling crises they didn't prepare for.
"During the Czech presidency no one was expecting the gas crisis between Ukraine and Russia," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told Swedish Radio. "During the French presidency no one was expecting the war between Russia and Georgia."
It may be with a sigh of relief that Sweden hands over the EU reins to Spain on Jan. 1.
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Karl Ritter is Stockholm bureau chief for The Associated Press.