Monday, September 7, 2009

Interview: Lars Vargo, Ambassador of Sweden to Korea

On 1st July 2009, Sweden took over the Presidency of the EU. This means that for six months, Sweden is leading the EU's work and is responsible for moving important EU issues forward.
The Presidency of the European Council rotates between the Member States on a half-yearly basis. The country presiding over the Council functions as the driving force in the EU's legislative and political decision-making process.
This time around, it is a unique opportunity for Sweden to lead and influence work on important EU issues. At the same time, the country holding the Presidency must be flexible and prepared to deal with unexpected issues.
With the EU-Korea FTA agreement having been announced during the Swedish Presidency, I caught up with Lars Vargo, Ambassador of Sweden to Korea to for his views on the important tasks ahead.
First and foremost, he noted that there are many challenges during Sweden's presidency. The economic downturn still lingers with a high rate of unemployment. Moreover, in reaction to the threat of climate change, the world is expecting to gather in Copenhagen in December to discuss the post-Kyoto Protocol scenario.
“The financial and economic crisis has hit Europe and the rest of the world hard. At the same time, it is the Presidency’s task to represent the EU in the fight against global climate change,” he noted.
In addition, discord on the EU structure among the 27 member states makes the future a little unclear. A referendum will take place in Ireland in October, which many hope will lead to ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, an agreement on a new working system within the EU.
The Treaty is an international agreement signed in Lisbon on 13 December 2007 that would change the workings of the EU. It has not yet been ratified by all EU member states.
Prominent changes include more qualified majority voting in the EU Council, increased involvement of the European Parliament in the legislative process through extended co-decision with the EU Council, eliminating the pillar system, preventing the provision in the Treaty of Nice reducing the number of commissioners, and the creation of a President of the European Council with a term of two and half years and a High Representative for Foreign Affairs to present a united position on EU policies. If ratified, the Treaty of Lisbon would also make the Union's human rights charter, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, legally binding.
The stated aim of the treaty is "to complete the process started by the Treaty of Amsterdam and by the Treaty of Nice with a view to enhancing the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the Union and to improving the coherence of its action."
Negotiations to modify EU institutions began in 2001, resulting first in the European Constitution, which failed in 2005 due to rejection by French and Dutch voters. The Constitution's replacement, the Lisbon Treaty, was originally intended to have been ratified by all member states by the end of 2008, so it could come into force before the 2009 European elections. However, the rejection of the Treaty on 12th June 2008 by Irish voters means that the treaty cannot currently come into force.
The Swedish Presidency will therefore be closing monitoring the situation.
The most important thing is to ensure that we will be able to gather the EU together to respond to the challenges that people care about and where strong European cooperation can make a difference.
“Together we must deal with the financial crisis and tackle the rising unemployment that is currently affecting the whole of Europe. We must also bring together the whole world to tackle climate change. These two priorities will dominate the Presidency,” he stressed.
But there are also other challenges facing Europe that the Swedish Presidency will be taking on. One is the development and strengthening of EU cooperation on justice and home affairs in the Stockholm Programme. Another task is to adopt an EU strategy for the Baltic Sea region, in order to deal with environmental problems and increase the region's competitiveness, along with continuing the work to develop the European Neighborhood Policy and EU enlargement.
EU expansion is also on the agenda, as Croatia and Turkey have shown interest in joining. Ambassador Vargo said they are welcome as long as they meet the standards of the EU as a prerequisite.
In addition, Iceland applied to join the European Union on 16th July 2009. The application was accepted by the European Council on 27th July and referred to the Commission to analyze Iceland's preparedness for negotiations. Iceland's government has a target date of 2012 for joining the bloc, which will be subject to a referendum in Iceland.
As part of the European Economic Area, Iceland is already a member of the EU's single market. It is also a member of the Schengen Area which removes border controls between member states.
To become a member of the EU, a country must first apply, and then the country must be recognized as a candidate country. For that to happen the country must fulfill the first of the Copenhagen criteria: the candidate country must be a politically stable democracy that respects human rights. Then a negotiation will take place which will consider the country's fulfillment of economic criteria, the country's degree of adoption of EU legislation, and whether there shall be any exceptions.
Ambassador Vargo said that the negotiations on an accession treaty would take less than a year, because Iceland has already adopted two-thirds of EU legislation in relation to the EEA. In any case the Presidency will prioritize Iceland's EU accession process, he said.
The Swedish Presidency will also work to strengthen the EU’s role as a global actor with a clear agenda for peace, development, democracy and human rights.
“We hope that together we can advance the EU’s agenda in an open, efficient and results-oriented manner during the next couple of months,” he said.
As part of the projects that have been planned in Korea for the Swedish Presidency, he said that the Embassy is working to publish a collection of European short stories in Korean, sometime in September.
Speaking specifically about the EU-Korea FTA, Ambassador Vargo said that the agreement would send strong signals against the use of protectionism throughout Europe and the rest of the world. It will bring new opportunities to both the economies.
In this present time of economic downturn it is more important than ever to make real progress on important trade issues, he said.
Ambassador Vargo noted that since the deal has effectively been announced, only the legal process remains now. It is unlikely to be derailed by the separate national parliaments. Every member state has had an opportunity to raise all its concerns throughout the negotiation process, and the final announcement was made when no one had any more objections. Also, the EU’s Article 133 Committee, in charge of the bloc’s trade policies, has cleared it, he said. It is a very important step in our relationship and indicates the dawn of a new partnership,” he said.
Although there is always some adjustment cost, FTAs are ultimately beneficial to both sides and there is a strong economic rationale. If one looks at the trade figures before and after trade agreements are negotiated, one can find that there is generally a very substantial increase in trade that takes place. Korea and the EU share a very dynamic business relationship with large investments on both sides and large amounts of goods traded, he noted.
Referring to the significance of the FTA in the context of the WTO Doha Development Agenda, he said that multilateral processes are essential to the world trade system and are not contradictory with bilateral processes. Both can go forward at the same time. Even though the EU is conducting bilateral agreements with many countries, it is also very keen to conclude multilateral agreements.