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The program of the new Swedish government for its EU presidency: forging unity on Ukraine, defense and trade

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The program of the new Swedish government for its EU presidency: forging unity on Ukraine, defense and trade

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Just weeks after the formation of a new center-right coalition government in October, Sweden will assume the presidency of the European Union (EU) in January. And Foreign Minister Tobias Billström believes that under the leadership of Sweden, the bloc “must be stronger”.

Billström explained on Wednesday at an Atlantic Council Front page event co-organized by the Council’s Europe Center and the Transatlantic Security Initiative, which the EU needs to strengthen on several fronts. First, as Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has shown, the EU must work with NATO to build a “robust” and “credible defense (deterrence)” against aggression on the continent. “The EU and NATO should strengthen each other, not compete with each other,” he argued.

Another task is to consolidate democratic values, which can be achieved by keeping the EU door open to Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkan countries, Billström explained.

And in response to the current climate and economic crises, Billström said Sweden would push the EU to combat climate change and improve its trade relationship with the United States, which he called “the most important trade relationship in the world “. Billström spoke of the EU-US Business and Technology Council, which met this week outside Washington, as an “opportunity to create a common transatlantic playing field” with rules and regulations. “We need to resolve our differences” on trade and technology, Billström said. “The big picture is too important to let trade disputes between friends get in the way of cooperation. »

Finally, Billström argued that the EU will have to “find new ways to deal with China”, which he said is a major “competitor” of the EU. During its EU presidency, Sweden aims to “strengthen the EU’s unity against China”, by improving the country’s preparedness to respond to China’s assertiveness – and any challenge to the world order that could arise from the “dangerous relations” between China and Russia. For example, “we are watching with very worried eyes the growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait,” Billström said.

Below are more highlights from the Atlantic Council discussion – which Billström said was the best place to present Sweden’s new foreign policy, as it is an “institution that truly embodies the “transatlantic spirit” – hosted by Foreign policyIt’s Amy Mackinnon.

A European agenda “centered” on Russian aggression in Ukraine

  • Sweden recently proposed a new military support package for Ukraine worth around 300 million dollars, which Billström says is “more than all the previous packages combined.” This package will provide Ukraine with “desperately needed air defenses and (intensified) humanitarian support”, he explained. Even with that, “we need to send more,” he added.
  • This also applies to the EU, because “more needs to be done and Europe as a whole needs to step up its efforts and contribute more,” Billström explained. “This would be one of our main priorities as we assume the presidency of the European Union. »
  • Supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend its sovereignty is “paying off handsomely” with the Ukrainian army’s recent victories, Billström argued. But Europe must “understand what this war is,” he warned: Russia’s challenge to the “status quo, driven by imperialist ambition.” The war in Ukraine, he added, “could be the first in a series of tests for the rules-based international order” that is essential for global “security and prosperity.”
  • Sweden, Billström explained, will respond by “achieving the NATO target of 2% (of its gross domestic product) devoted to defense spending by 2026 at the latest.” And during Sweden’s EU presidency, Stockholm will push EU countries that are also NATO members to keep their defense spending promises. “Defense will be expensive, yes. But the alternative will be even more costly.”

NATO remains “indispensable”

  • Sweden and Finland responded to the Russian war by joining NATO. twenty-eight out of thirty NATO members have now ratified the two countries’ membership in the Alliance. “NATO is more important than at any time since the Cold War,” Billström said.
  • Turkey has not yet ratified its membership due to disputes over the presence in Sweden of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an internationally designated terrorist organization that has fought the Turkish government. Last week, Sweden extradited a man, but Turkey wants more. “We are gradually respecting these commitments,” argued Billström. “This is done by extraditing people, ensuring that the PKK, a terrorist organization, cannot be active and work on our territory.”
  • On the other hand, Sweden wants Turkey to “put a strong emphasis on…cooperation of the authorities responsible for fighting crime”, because, according to Billström, some people commit crimes in Sweden and flee to Turkey ” to escape justice.
  • But, he noted, there are “good foundations” laid under a joint memorandum signed at the June NATO summit to ensure “a functional relationship” between Turkey, Finland and the Sweden. This foundation includes a permanent joint mechanism to oversee the implementation of the memorandum. “We expect ratification by Turkey,” Billström said.
  • Billström highlighted an increase in “Russian disinformation and campaigns directed against Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership.” However, he added, “there is no hope that this will succeed.” With growing public support for NATO membership, “Swedish citizens have realized that outside NATO we will face a much more difficult security situation in the Baltic region,” he said.

Neighborhoods near and far

  • Although Billström refused to provide any news of the investigation into blast along the Nord Steam 1 and 2 pipelines, he acknowledged that the events reinforced the need to revise his approach to supplying energy and other necessities given “the danger of our neighborhood.”
  • He added that efforts were underway to “cooperate with other countries” to “build resilience to situations” such as the current food and energy crises. The new Swedish government has created a new position of Minister of Civil Defense, with a view to resilience.
  • Billström explained that Sweden’s security policy will require “engagement with the immediate neighborhood.” Once Finland and Sweden are officially NATO allies, “all Nordic and Baltic countries will share the same security platform”, paving the way for a “comprehensive approach” to Europe’s defense North. Germany and Poland, which have coastlines on the Baltic Sea, will also be “very important” partners thanks to their vast defense capabilities, Billström added.
  • “But that doesn’t mean we don’t understand the need to look further afield,” Billström added, saying Sweden also has its eyes on its trade and security relationships in Asia, Africa and Latin America. “We need new coalitions of nations reaching beyond traditional allies to join those who share an interest in preserving (the) rules-based international system,” he said.

Katherine Walla is deputy editorial director at the Atlantic Council.

Watch the full event

Further reading

Image: Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billström during the joint press conference on 10.11.2022 at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. Photo via Federal Foreign Office Berlin/Reuters.

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