Sweden Ambassador to Bulgaria Paul Beijer: EU Presidency Is No Beauty Contest
Interview with Sweden's Ambassador in Sofia, His Excellency Paul Beijer.
Ambassador Beijer has a degree in economics from the Stockholm School of Economics. He is a Member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. In 1989-92, he was one of Sweden's negotiators in the GATT Uruguay Round. In 1992-98, he worked in various capacities in the export control sector, i.a. as Senior Policy Advisor at the then newly created National Inspectorate for Strategic Products. In 1998-2001, he was Director of Strategic Export Controls in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and as such represented Sweden in the different non-proliferation regimes and in other international export control fora. He was Sweden's lead negotiator in the six-nation LOI effort to develop a mechanism for common export control assessments among leading EU Defense Industry nations (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK), and has chaired the Export Control Policy group within the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) mechanism. In 2001-2005, he served in Pyongyang as Swedish Ambassador to the DPRK. In 2005-2008, he held the position of Ambassador at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Special Advisor to the Swedish Government on Korean Peninsula Issues.
Sweden presently chairs the rotating EU Presidency (July-December 2009).
How would you assess the work of the Swedish EU Presidency three months after it took office, with three more months left to go? Is there any sphere where the Swedish Presidency has had to work harder because of what its predecessor did or failed to do?
An autumn presidency is special in that it is only five months long, because August is the annual holiday month. So we have less time to complete our agenda. Work has gone well during the first half of our presidency. There has been no unforeseen major international crisis, which means that we have been able to focus on the planned work.
Because of the summer break, the second half of the presidency will be particularly intense. The climate negotiations - internationally and within the EU - are a major challenge at the moment because EU positions have to be finalized by the October European Council.
The second half of your question I find a bit curious. The major determinant of how well a presidency does is how other Member States approach an issue. Some areas move more quickly than others. The slower issues are handed over to the next presidency for them to continue with.
Rarely, if ever, is there a lack of effort or ingenuity on the part of the presidency itself. Each presidency really works very hard. I could point to a number of issues where we are extremely pleased with the results of the previous presidency, and others where there is more to be done, but the EU presidency should not be seen as a beauty contest.
What is the No. 1 priority of the Swedish EU Presidency, the thing that it absolutely needs to get done by the end of December 2009? What are the possible obstacles for it?
It is difficult to single out one issue. The most important thing, really, is to achieve progress across the entire range of issues on which the EU collaborates. To give you some idea of the scale of this task, we are chairing more than 3 300 meetings during this six-month period. Everything from summits with heads of important partner governments, to working-group meetings between officials preparing different issues for joint decision-making.
If I were to pick out a few areas for special mention, there is firstly the climate issue which is about preparing for the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December. We see that event as extremely important for the prospects of doing something about climate change while there is still time to avoid the really serious negative effects, such as the disappearance of entire island nations.
The EU needs to be a proactive and constructive participant in those negotiations if they are to succeed. But in order to play that role, we need to agree amongst ourselves on difficult issues such as what targets the EU should be prepared to accept, how reduction targets should be shared out between Member States, and how to arrange for the financial contributions needed by developing countries to do their part - because even if all industrial countries were to cut their emissions of climate gases to zero, that would not slow down climate change sufficiently. There are many other issues in the climate change context, but these are two of the most important ones.
Essentially, we see between EU Member States the same differences of conditions and of approach as in the larger international context, so reaching agreement amongst ourselves represents a significant challenge for us collectively. I am optimistic. We are not starting from scratch. A great deal of important work on the climate agenda has already been accomplished during the preceding presidencies.
Secondly, the ongoing economic crisis needs watching, in case further measures are needed. Here, it would be useful if we could finalize new measures to monitor the international financial system so that we in future can avoid the buildup of risk and imbalances that characterized the first phase of the current crisis.
Upon assuming the Presidency in July, you said the EU is going to continue to monitor Bulgaria's post-accession progress. What are the major expectations of the EU and the Swedish Presidency of the Bulgarian government of the GERB party? Of all the measures that Borisov's cabinet has taken so far - do you see anything particularly positive or negative regarding solving Bulgaria's issues that have led to criticism by the EU?
When Bulgaria became a full member of the EU there were a number of areas where the reforms necessary to fulfill the criteria for membership were not yet complete. These were itemized, and the so-called CVM mechanism was set in place to follow up on progress. In terms of the benchmarks set up in 2007 there still remains a fair amount of work to be done, so the monitoring continues.
Our expectation on the current government is naturally that it continues to work in this area, and produces concrete results. It is important to underline that, ultimately, these reforms are not so much for the EU's sake as for Bulgaria's own sake. Without them, it will be difficult for Bulgaria to move ahead and achieve the economic growth and development that the country undoubtedly has the potential for. If key institutions perform badly, everything is held back.
I have spoken to a number of Bulgarian economic analysts who say that corruption, organized crime and weak judicial institutions actually pose a bigger threat to Bulgaria's economic development than the current recession.
We see a great deal of promise in the measures taken by the new government in its first months. The Commission, in its monitoring reports, has always stressed the need for strong political commitment as a necessary prerequisite for success in the reform process. The reforms require changes that are not easy to make, because ultimately, they are not only about new laws or organigrams, but about influencing how individuals behave.
In my view, the new government has, in fact, demonstrated a strong political will to succeed in these key areas, both in word and deed. This high priority is not something that can be taken for granted, because the government also needs to expend a great deal of effort on countering the effects of the economic crisis that has hit Bulgaria as hard as other EU Member States.
The new Bulgarian Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, has an interesting background and style of conduct. Do you have any impressions about how EU politicians and diplomats view him? In your view, how does he look in the eyes of the Western European citizens?
I would turn that question around and ask if you have the impression that all the other EU heads of Government are stamped in one and the same mold? My own impression is that you will find people with very different backgrounds and styles within this group. From my own modest experience I would argue that diversity is an asset when it comes to problem-solving in any group, and I'm certain Mr. Borissov will make his contribution to the whole.
Bulgaria is aspiring as hard as it can to join the Eurozone, i.e. adopt the euro. At the same time, Sweden has a de-facto opt-out, and is out of the ERM II. In your view, how do these two positions compare, i.e. why is it better for Sweden to be out of the Eurozone, and for Bulgaria - to seek to adopt the euro?
We are both small countries participating in a globalized economy and both our currencies are vulnerable to international speculation, which represents a serious risk to economic stability. Belonging to the Euro-zone eliminates that risk, but instead you lose the possibility of conducting an independent monetary policy.
The value of being in full control of monetary policy is, in my personal opinion, limited anyway if you are a small country and have to defend your own currency. Bulgaria, for example, uses a currency board arrangement.
Another argument I have heard is that being a member of the Euro Zone you are subject to a one-size-fits-all monetary policy which may not suit the particular circumstances of an individual member at any given time. That is true, but on the other hand you have the benefits of a stable currency and there is the possibility of effective support from the collective. In sum, it is always a matter of weighing pros and cons.
In 2003, the Swedish Government made the assessment that it would be in our interest to join the Euro Zone. A consultative referendum was held and the result was a "no" from the population as a whole. We are politically bound to respect that result and the current Swedish government has said that the issue is not ripe for re-consideration during its current period in office.
The interesting thing, I believe, is that both our governments reached the same conclusion in weighing the advantages and disadvantages, but in practice Sweden ended up in a different position. I think the general feeling is that so far we have not done so badly, but I would be surprised if the issue of Swedish Euro Zone membership is not raised again sometime in the future.
Swedish companies and banks have invested massively in the Baltic states over the recent years. Why has Bulgaria, another ex-Eastern Bloc state, failed to attract more Swedish investments? What do companies from a country like Sweden look for in Bulgaria, in your observations?
I suspect that the simple answer to the first question is that the Baltic States are geographically and historically closer to Sweden than Bulgaria is. In that sense, it is no surprise that Bulgaria has so far attracted less Swedish investments than the Baltic states, and I underline so far.
The fact of the matter is that most large Swedish companies are already present in Bulgaria in one form or another. Bulgaria's EU Membership simplifies cross-border investments and provides a more predictable environment. To my mind it is only a matter of time before investments pick up.
There is of course the other side of the coin. The economic recession has slowed down the rate of foreign investments in general and I expect it will be a while before the pace picks up again.
And, because of corruption and institutional weaknesses, the predictability of the investment environment in Bulgaria is not yet as good as it could be. But it is worth making the point that quite a number of decisions to invest in Bulgaria have already been taken by Swedish companies. In general, companies consider a broad range of factors before taking an investment decision, and different companies value these factors differently, depending on their line of business.
In the long term, Bulgaria has a number of important advantages such as an educated labor force and a comparatively low cost level, as well as geographical proximity to interesting emerging markets. However, these are advantages that other countries in the region also possess.
In competing with them it is particularly important for Bulgaria to improve the strength of its legal system. I am an optimist. I believe it is only a matter of time before you see more Swedish investments in Bulgaria, and more Bulgarian investments in Sweden !
Fighting climate change is a major priority for the Swedish Presidency. What potential do you see in the development of green technologies in Bulgaria, and especially for attracting Swedish investors in this field?
I see great potential for green technology in Bulgaria. You have good natural conditions for wind power, wave power, solar power, and geothermal power. That being said, it is also important to avoid a situation where every country re-invents the wheel.
So I suspect that the reality of the situation is that Bulgaria will import green technology from elsewhere (such as Sweden!), but that the demand generated by climate change measures will also open up the possibility for successful development work here in Bulgaria in some niche technologies, perhaps in partnership with established green technology firms from other EU Members States (Sweden, again!) with exports to other countries as a secondary benefit.
An area that I think is of particular interest for Bulgaria at this stage is to invest in clean technologies to generate energy through burning waste, thereby contributing to solving two problems at once - lessening the waste disposal problem and improving energy self-sufficiency, because waste is, if nothing else, a domestic source for energy raw material that you can always count on!
A lot of Bulgarians seem to want direct interference of EU institutions as they believe the Bulgarian institutions are incompetent and corrupt. Do you believe the EU should evolve towards greater supranationalism, i.e. a kind of a superstate?
I don't think even an EU developing towards a superstate can provide a solution to the challenge of weak Bulgarian institutions. Look at established federal states such as the US or Germany. There are still great variations between the different sub-regions within these states. My personal view is that there is no quick fix from the outside for this problem. Bulgaria has to accomplish these changes by its own efforts. No one else can do it for you.
Given the recent tension between Russia and the West over the conflict in Georgia, and the Ukrainian gas crisis, among others, how badly would you say the EU needs a well-oiled common foreign policy and an integrated defense policy? Where do Sweden and the Swedish Presidency stand on these issues? In your view, what are the major obstacles to the crafting of common EU foreign and defense policies?
The EU taken as a whole is today the largest in the world in terms of GDP, the third largest in terms of population, and the seventh largest in terms of geographical size. We owe it not only to ourselves but to the rest of the world to be an effective and responsible actor on the international scene. Sweden is a strong supporter of this idea, and despite not formally belonging to NATO we contribute actively also to European conflict prevention activities and the buildup of a solid capacity to undertake such tasks.
Together with a strong and active presence in the UN and other multilateral cooperation bodies this is one of the primary contributions the EU can make to lessen the destabilizing trends we see in many sub-regions of the world.
We do particularly emphasize that there needs to be a strong civilian component in conflict prevention. Wars can be won by military means, but winning peace requires more. On the question of obstacles : many Member States have particular interests or positions based on historical factors (Sweden, for instance, has its long tradition of neutrality). But progress towards a true common foreign and security policy is nevertheless steady. The Lisbon Treaty, the fate of which will soon be decided, represents a significant step ahead in this respect as it brings with it new common institutions in this area.
Upon assuming the Presidency, Sweden's Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, said the Balkan states had to resolve their bilateral issues on their own, which sounded like a lack of commitment to solving the Balkan problems. What has led the Swedish Presidency to adopt this approach?
Certainly not a lack of commitment! Mr. Bildt's comment was not quite so broad as to encompass all countries and all problems in the Balkan region. It was more targeted to a couple of specific issues where our efforts as presidency were not producing the results we would have liked to see. Personally, I view his comment as a reminder to the countries involved of their own responsibility to contribute to solutions. Since then, we have seen very encouraging progress on one of the issues Mr. Bildt was referring to.
The Nordic region and the Balkans are two very distinct regions of Europe. The former is well-integrated with Western values and economy, whereas the latter is still known as the powder keg of Europe. What do the Balkans lack compared to Scandinavia? How can the Balkan states learn to be more like the Nordic states?
As a Swede, I see things in Bulgaria that I wish we had more of ! I suppose it is a natural tendency to value what one doesn't have, and take one's own advantages for granted. It may be a trite thing to say, but I genuinely believe we can all learn from each other. On its own, a country can take its own national strengths a bit too far.
But in the give-and-take of frequent exchanges at all levels between in particular EU Member States, there exists a corrective force that will help, say, an overly organized Nordic country and an overly spontaneous Balkan country to maintain a better balance.
It is important, though, not to mechanically apply the solutions of another countries on your own. Each nation has a unique historical and cultural setting that gives it a unique set of advantages and disadvantages. The example of others can inspire us to modify our own setting a bit, but it is not possible to become a different country altogether. You have to work with what you have.
You have served as the Special Advisor to the Swedish Government on Korean Peninsula Issues and as Swedish Ambassador to the DPRK in Pyongyang. What do you think is the best course of action for the international community, and the EU in particular, in the recent crises with the North Korean weapon tests?
The DPRK has chosen a path of economic, political and cultural isolation for a very long time. This makes it less susceptible than most countries to the measures in our "toolbox" for international relations. I therefore don't believe there is a "quick fix" to the North Korean nuclear issue.
To leave the DPRK in continued isolation, would, in my personal opinion, not lead to constructive results. Patient diplomacy, dialogue and exchanges holds out the best hope for greater stability and perhaps a resolution to the nuclear issue in the longer run. That being said, I realize that in this age of short political time horizons this is not an easy course for the international community to stick to for a protracted period of time. The Six-Party talks were, and are, a good way to impart an element of long-term stability to a negotiated resolution of the nuclear crisis. These talks should continue.
The EU is contributing very constructively to that process by supporting it, and at the same time not insisting on a seat at the negotiating table. A seven-party process would, for purely practical reasons, be more cumbersome and less likely to lead to a good result.
Like any other effort, the Six-Party process in the end requires North Korea to perceive that it is in its own interest to reach a result. So far, I'm sorry to say, that does not seem to be the case. But the DPRK's own situation is not static, and patience is therefore required on the part of the international community. We too must be able to play a waiting game.
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