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Sweden takes EU helm
STOCKHOLM, Sweden -- After a turbulent 2000, Sweden aims to steer the European Union into calmer waters as it takes over the European Union presidency.
Emphasising practical co-operation rather than visionary change, Sweden has said it wants to address its top priorities of enlargement, employment and environment.
Sweden, which joined the EU in 1995, will be the first non-euro country to lead the 15-member bloc, from Monday, since the single currency's launch in January 1999.
It aims to facilitate entry into the EU of those nations who wish to join. It is interested, too, in fighting unemployment -- its own 5.5 percent jobless rate is not high -- and environmental issues, such as the damaging of soil by acid rain and pollution in both the Baltic and North Seas.
"Cooperation in Europe must be consolidated before we take any further giant leaps forward. We must let the people in Europe catch up," Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson told a recent conference on his country's presidency.
Ulf Bernitz, a Stockholm University professor in European integration law, put it more bluntly when he assessed the prospects for Sweden's first stewardship of the union: "Sweden will be trying to steer the ship into waters that are not so difficult to navigate, due to its focus on policy areas where the EU has little direct influence."
Belgium, which will swing the gavel in the second half of 2001, will chair the 12-nation Euro Group throughout the whole of calendar 2001 as Sweden is not part of the euro zone.
Portugal, which led the EU in the first half of 2000, had to spend much of its presidency grappling with a diplomatic boycott of Austria launched early in the year by leaders of the other 14 member states in protest at the inclusion in government of Joerg Haider's anti-immigrant Freedom Party.
Portugal's successor France presided over face-saving steps when the diplomatic freeze over Austria thawed in the autumn.
Paris then spent most of its energies laying the groundwork for a new EU treaty on institutional reform adopted after much haggling at a marathon summit in the Mediterannean city of Nice.
Following the Nice accord on how EU decision-making should function if up to a dozen new members join later this decade, Sweden said a political breakthrough in enlargement talks would be one chief measure of the success of its presidency.
Persson has studiously refrained however from defining exactly what a political breakthrough may entail.
Sweden talks in general terms about speeding up the enlargement process by opening, and hopefully closing, as many negotiation chapters as possible with member candidates.
The EU is holding accession talks with 12 applicant countries, mainly from Eastern Europe. But progress is likely to depend less on the EU president and more on how swiftly candidates can conform to the bloc's rules and standards.
Sweden's mid-term summit in Stockholm in March will stress employment and pension reform -- sensitive policy areas where EU leaders have agreed to swap ideas and discuss best practices while keeping hard decisions under national control.
In foreign policy, Sweden will represent the EU in contacts with the new U.S. administration of George W. Bush, who takes office on January 20. Persson has also vowed to cultivate EU-Russia relations.
Reuters contributed to this report.
'EU is ready for enlargement'
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