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Swedes offer EU breath of fresh air
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Sweden has taken over the presidency of the European Union for the first time, offering Nordic pragmatism, a new deal for women and a breath of fresh Scandinavian air.
Sweden, which joined the EU in 1995, plans the most open presidency seen, with a well-developed Web site already setting out the agenda for most of the meetings during its six months of leadership.
The change follows six months of concentration on constitutional issues under the much-criticised French presidency.
Now the Swedes will seek to reassure the 10 smaller countries that Europe works for them too. They plan to get practical, concentrating on the "three E's" of enlargement, employment and the environment.
In practice, Prime Minister Goran Persson hopes to add a fourth "E" by persuading Europe to do more about equality for women.
He says: "Gender equality must inform all EU co-operation. Today, gender equality is a modern strategy for growth."
Perrson insists that political power too must be equally divided between the sexes.
One of the most important goals, he says, is that women should become economically independent.
The Swedes also hope to lead efforts to combat violence against women and to prevent trafficking in women and children.
But first they have some tidying up to do from the French presidency, which ended with all-night wrangling to produce the Treaty of Nice.
Although ostensibly that settled issues like the weighting of national votes, the extension of Qualified Majority Voting and the future membership of the European Commission, there has been confusion over precisely what was agreed.
The Swedes now have to set that out in precise legal language so that a treaty can be formally signed.
They also have to settle the precise legal status of the new Charter of Fundamental Rights agreed in Nice and to set off a Europe-wide debate on such issues as the role of national parliaments.
The biggest test for Persson and Sweden's Foreign Minister Anna Lindh may come over their determination to speed the pace of enlargement.
Aware that many of the eastern European and Baltic countries who want to join the EU are impatient for entry dates, Persson says he wants to "pave the way for a political breakthrough."
Lindh has set ambitious goals for speeding up negotiations, especially with the six applicant countries that began talks last year.
But already there have been warning noises from Guenter Verheugen, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, and from Gerhard Schroeder, the German Chancellor.
Global warming conflict
The German government and others are fearful that an early influx of eastern European workers would drive down wage levels and lead to political turmoil.
In December Schroeder told Persson there should be a seven-year delay before the introduction of free movement of labour. Persson did not agree.
On employment, the Swedes plan to check at their first EU summit, in Stockholm in March, on progress made since last year towards turning Europe into the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. There are 15 million people unemployed in Europe.
Sweden traditionally gives a high priority to environment issues. The Swedes want to revive the stalled talks between the EU and U.S. on climate change and global warming.
They will present to the other EU members a strategy for sustainable development and seek a new agreement on chemicals.
There are other hot political potatoes in the Swedish in-tray.
In defence it falls to Sweden, traditionally a neutral country, to sort out the squabbling over the precise relationship between the new EU Rapid Reaction Force and NATO, a row that has set alarm bells ringing in the U.S.
The Swedes will be in the chair when the new President George Bush attends his first EU-U.S. summit in June.
Then there is the next stage of the euro. Preparations have to be made for the introduction in January 2002 of euro coins and notes in the 12 countries already signed up to the European single currency.
But Sweden, along with Denmark and the UK, is one of the three EU countries not in the eurozone.
So it has arranged that Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders will chair finance meetings during its presidency. Belgium takes over the presidency for the second half of 2001.
For Sweden there is a busy six months ahead. But it is likely to be a year of contrasts.
The Swedes, though keen to prove themselves "good Europeans", are cool about further integration. The Belgians are among the keenest integrationists in the EU.
NATO hits impasse over EU force
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