To mark Europe Day on 9 May, Minister for EU Affairs Ann Linde took part in two panel discussions organised by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions. The themes were ‘Where would Europe be without the EU?’ and ‘The future of European cooperation – what will it look like?’.
The debate started with the main question of the first panel discussion, ‘Where would Europe be without the EU?’, to which Ann Linde responded that without the EU, Europe would be much less secure.
“Europe has suffered many crises and serious problems. But being part of the EU forces us Member States to work together and compromise. We sometimes have difficulty agreeing on various matters and explaining this to our citizens. But there is a lot we do agree on, and the EU makes many important decisions. We must not forget that the majority of EU citizens have never experienced war in Europe, as their parents and grandparents did,” said Ms Linde.
Cecilia Wikström, Swedish MEP, and Katarina Areskoug Mascarenhas, head of the Representation of the European Commission in Sweden, also participated in the discussion. Ms Wikström concurred with Ms Linde’s description and stated that the EU has secured peace; without the EU, Europe would have been a much bloodier and poorer continent.
Ms Areskoug Mascarenhas was even convinced that if the EU had not existed, European countries would have been forced to invent it. “We would have had 28 times 28 bilateral agreements, which would have been hard for countries to manage. We would have been forced to create joint agreements,” she said.
Ms Areskoug Mascarenhas mentioned the eastern enlargement of the EU as an example of a time when the EU was important. She stated that nationalist forces, for example in Poland, are leading human rights work in the wrong direction. But, she emphasised, if they had not been Member States, they could not have debated with and criticised Poland in the same way. At the same time, it is important to maintain balance and try to maintain a dialogue with Poland, instead of shutting it out.
Moderator Göran von Sydow addressed the challenges facing the EU in the near future. Ms Linde then raised the issue of the financial crisis that began in 2008. “Many European countries have not yet recovered from it; rather they are experiencing high levels of unemployment. It is therefore increasingly important to invest in initiatives to combat youth unemployment. Unemployment increases disparities – in countries and regions, and between the employed and unemployed – and this creates a breeding ground for right-wing nationalist groups,” said Ms Linde.
Ms Wikström agreed: “People are not interested in free trade and mobility if they cannot see improvements in their everyday lives. People must be able to see that EU cooperation improves their lives.”
The second panel discussion was held by Ms Linde, Lena Micko, President of the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, Carola Lemne, Director-General of the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise, and Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson, President of the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. The discussion rapidly moved on to the challenges facing the EU.
Speaking from the business sector’s perspective, Ms Lemne stated that many of the Confederation’s members are seeing a trend towards micro-management at EU level, which means more administration and red tape. “We will be faced with a major challenge if the EU is not successful in resolving this. Businesses generally view this as a considerable threat,” she emphasised.
Mr Thorwaldsson viewed the challenges from a trade union perspective and believed that – apart from the Nordic countries – EU competitiveness is too low in relation to the rest of the world. ‘High growth leads to many jobs’ is an important message that should be bywords in European cooperation. He stated that transitioning industry has been difficult for many countries in Europe.
“Another problem is social dumping, which the EU has yet to resolve. There are many foreign workers in Sweden who are employed by foreign companies and do not have decent conditions. This puts mobility at stake,” said Mr Thorwaldsson.
Ms Linde expressed concern over the future for Swedish citizens living in the UK, and the social protection they will have after Brexit. At the same time, she stressed that it is important that Brexit is a fair divorce, since Sweden has major economic interests in the UK. “We must have a constructive approach,” she said.
She also mentioned that security cooperation must improve. “We must have joint rescue operations for people fleeing across the sea. To combat terrorism, the effectiveness of intelligence and information cooperation must improve. At present, terrorists move quickly between countries, making swift action necessary. This demands a high level of European cooperation; it is difficult for countries to manage this on their own,” Ms Linde said.
Ms Linde concluded by speaking about Europe’s external security and the importance of strengthening border controls. “Refugees must have a decent reception, but those without grounds for asylum or the right to come here should be refused entry,” she said.