It’s time to get off the EU’s presidency merry-go-round

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p6
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

Holding the EU presidency is a bit like hosting a major sportingevent - everyone wants the 15 minutes of fame it brings, but few countries get any credit for the years of preparation it involves and the millions of euro it costs.

Sweden, whose stint at the helm of the Union ends this weekend, is no exception to this rule.

You have to understand that for the Swedes, hosting the EU road show was arguably the biggest thing that had happened to the country since Ingemar Johansson became heavyweight champion of the world in 1959.

Like a boxer preparing for a fight, Sweden planned its six-month bout meticulously. Elaborate launches were conceived, snazzy websites designed and hundreds of meetings planned up and down the country on such riveting topics as 'Urban Social Transformations in the 21st century'.

Until the Stockholm summit in late March, everything seemed to be going swimmingly. There had been no threats to democracy posed by fascists and no troublesome regimes to slap down - with the exception of the United States.

Indeed, mid-way through the presidency, Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was moved to remark that: "To be given the epithet of dull is actually the best praise one can get."

But then suddenly, all hell broke loose when Sweden's papers declared war on their government. In a front-page editorial in English, the country's top-selling tabloid Expressen accused Prime Minister Göran Persson of being a "coward" and not lifting a finger to support the EU.

Then there was Göteborg. It would be unfair to blame the government for the chaos which turned the streets of Sweden's second largest city into a war zone. However, giving the police the right to use rubber bullets and water cannons might have been a good idea in retrospect. Local authorities might also want to think twice about offering free housing to anarchist hooligans in the future.

If it is any consolation to Persson, he is not the first leader to get slammed by the press during his country's six months in the hot seat. Messieurs Jospin and Chirac got pummelled by the media - and just about everyone else - for their shambolic handling of the Nice Treaty talks. And when Portugal held the presidency during the first half of last year, Premier Antonio Gutteres was so heavily criticised for being an absentee landlord that his own Interior Minister Jorge Coelho was forced to confess: "The prime minister will be back in July."

Clearly the best solution is to do away with rotating presidencies altogether. At present, they resemble little more than the regional promo pieces that fill the time between tunes in Eurovision song contest competitions. No wonder Commission chief Romano Prodi recently referred to the whole travelling circus as "institutional tourism".

Smaller countries argue that hosting the presidency allows them to play at being one of the big boys for half a year. But even this perverse privilege will become a rarity when all summits are held in Brussels and the Union expands to 27 states.

If all the applicant countries were to enter the EU tomorrow, Sweden would have to wait until 2016 until it next holds the presidency - which is presumably why frazzled Swedish diplomats have been working so hard for enlargement to take place as quickly as possible.

This weekend the baton passes to Belgium, which has been so eager to run its leg of the EU relay that it started sprinting when the Swedes were still in the starting blocks - much to the annoyance of Persson and Co.

When hundreds of masked hooligans descend on Laeken in December, they might not be so enthusiastic. But at least the genteel Brussels suburb will forever after be known for more than its colonial greenhouses and kitsch Japanese pagoda. By Gareth Harding

Feature looking back over the Swedish EU Presidency, January-June 2001.

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