Sweden's EU presidency a boost for the Baltics

  • 2001-01-18
  • Aleksei Gunter
TALLINN - As Sweden takes on the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union, Estonian officials are hailing the country's "three E's" agenda. The three basic points of Sweden's presidency are enlargement, employment and environment.

Elisabet Borsiin Bonnier, the Swedish ambassador to Estonia, presented an overview of the presidency program at a press conference on Jan. 11 and said that Sweden's priority number one is enlargement.

"Many of you have known me as 'Madam Sweden,' but now you can call me 'Madam Europe,'" the ambassador announced to reporters. "On enlargement we have a good legacy from France, the previous presidential country," she said.

"This is the first time Sweden has taken over the presidency, and we have great respect for the work we have to do. Our program is very ambitious, but it is realistic," said Bonnier.

"The member countries have great expectations from a Swedish presidency," she added. "But we also expect you, the candidate countries, to progress."

Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves said he looks forward to the next six months. "As we have noticed before, Sweden has always been a firm backer of the enlargement process," Ilves said.

The program of the Swedish presidency states that the EU's Northern Dimension plan provides an important platform for developing the Union's commitment to the Baltic Sea region.

"It is also essential to develop regional cooperation, for example, through the Council of the Baltic Sea region, the Barents Euro-Arctic Council and the Arctic Council," the program explains. "The presidency plans to give special attention to the Union's relationship with Kaliningrad."

A Northern Dimension business forum to be held in Tallinn on April 4 is also a part of the Swedish agenda.

Regarding the second E, employment, Ilves said that Sweden has almost reached U.S. employment levels thanks to focusing on educational and hi-tech issues.

"And we can solve our employment problems using the Scandinavian experience," said Ilves. "If we want to be a Nordic country - and I want Estonia to be one - we have to adopt much of the Nordic experience."

Ilves thinks that Estonia would benefit from Sweden's decision to put environmental issues, which are crucial in the northeastern region of Estonia, on (to) the top-priorities list.

Then Ilves made use of local folklore to illustrate the positive sides of the Swedish presidency. "There is an Estonian saying, "the good old Swedish times," it regards the life under Swedish King Karl XXII in the 17th century. Paraphrasing the saying, now we are witnessing the coming of 'the good new Swedish times.'"

In order to bring together public opinion and the EU talks team, and to promote EU ideas, the Estonian government has created a consultative council. Established in 1999, it unites 29 representatives of non-governmental and business organizations, including scientists, cultural workers and public figures.

Its chairman, Toomas Luman, has described the council as an institution unique in the candidate countries.

According to Ilves, "One of the reasons we created the council was the fact that people are poorly informed about the EU. It's an active attempt to find a consensus in EU matters."

Some new plans took shape at a recent council session. Luman said that the body proposed to order for a survey to try to find out what kind of EU information ordinary people are eager to get hold of.

Commenting on the necessity for EU accession, Luman said Estonia simply has no alternative to the EU.

"Estonia cannot repeat the Swiss phenomenon and cannot be fully independent in the economic sense," Luman said.

Ilves added that some people have just not realized there is no alternative. "If Latvia and Lithuania join the Union and Estonia does not, only one direction for partnership would be left," said Ilves, implying Russia.