How Sweden's EU presidency will bring a new focus on security

Nordic country will steer the bloc's agenda while seeking to join Nato

Swedish military vehicles during Nato and allied drills in the Arctic Circle. Reuters
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Sweden will bring its new hard-nosed security stance to the helm of European politics next month when it assumes the EU’s rotating presidency.

Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said security from criminal gangs at home and Russian aggression abroad was the “great issue of freedom of our time”.

His government will steer the EU agenda for six months while also trying to get Sweden's Nato membership application over the line.

Sweden turned a page on more than 200 years of non-alignment by seeking shelter in Nato after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr Kristersson, in office since October, has appointed Sweden's first national security adviser and switched its “feminist foreign policy” to a focus on hard threats.

The threat was underscored when explosions on the Nord Stream pipelines caused a leak in Swedish waters, in an apparent act of sabotage.

Setting out priorities for Sweden’s six-month presidency, Mr Kristersson said the EU would have to adapt to become more resilient.

He said Sweden would drive EU efforts to become more strategically potent and tackle organised crime.

“Alongside Nato, the EU must take greater overall responsibility for European security,” Mr Kristersson said.

“The union that has become synonymous with peace, freedom and trade is now living alongside the kind of war that once created the very need for the EU.”

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson at an EU summit in Brussels. Reuters

Sweden and Finland’s Nato applications are being held up by Turkey in a stand-off over terrorism and weapons exports.

Hungary has also yet to ratify their applications, although it says it supports them.

John Chipman, director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, believes the end of Sweden and Finland’s neutrality has given European security a new “Nordic centrality”.

“An important impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine was that the geopolitical centre of gravity in Europe moved to the east and the north,” he wrote in the IISS’s annual strategic survey.

“In an enlarged Nato, and with Russia having attacked Ukraine, it is the countries of the north and east which rightly have a key ‘swing vote’ on how Nato analyses risks to European security.”

Sweden’s shift in priorities has left some people alarmed about it losing its reputation as a progressive, peace-loving nation.

As well as abandoning an explicitly feminist foreign policy, Mr Kristersson has tacked to the right on immigration, climate change and foreign aid.

But he told MPs that Sweden would try to strengthen EU climate action with progress on electrification, clean energy and battery storage.

He said the EU should diversify its foreign trade to avoid falling into the same trap it did with its reliance on Russian energy imports.

Ulf Kristersson, left, is waiting for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to clear the way for Sweden to join Nato. AFP

One ambition is to develop a European semiconductor industry to ease reliance on Chinese parts.

Another Swedish priority is defending the rule of law, setting up a potential clash with Hungary over its alleged erosion of democratic standards.

The focus on crime comes with Sweden plagued by a wave of gangland shootings that overshadowed the recent election campaign.

“When I see the blue-and-yellow EU flag standing as a symbol of freedom next to the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag, I am convinced that a blue-and-yellow Swedish presidency is taking on an important task of maintaining these values in Europe,” Mr Kristersson said.

“Together we can overcome the crises and build a better Europe. But only if we do it together — and only if we in Sweden do our part.”

The EU presidency chairs ministerial meetings where compromises are negotiated between the bloc’s 27 countries.

The French and Czech presidencies in 2022 steered through a barrage of sanctions on Russia, including flight bans, trade embargoes and hundreds of individual asset freezes.

But long-running EU spats over energy, climate and asylum policy have yet to be fully resolved.

Another outstanding dispute is the expansion of the visa-free Schengen zone to include Bulgaria and Romania, which was vetoed by Austria and the Netherlands.

Sweden will hold the presidency from January to June. Spain will take its turn in the second half of 2023.

Updated: December 23, 2022, 6:00 PM