|Staffan Herrström, Sweden's ambassador to Poland|
Courtesy of the Swedish Embassy in Poland
Ewa Boniecka: The [November] EU summit which was meant to decide the next EU budget ended in failure. How do you asses this development from a Swedish point of view?
Staffan Herrström: Honestly speaking, I am not sure that it was a failure, although it would obviously have been much better if a compromise had been reached. We have had several very difficult negotiations in the EU in the last decades – not only about the budget, but also on other issues, and in all cases the EU has eventually managed to achieve successful outcomes. So I don't think it is necessary to see that [November] summit as very dramatic.
I definitely believe that it is important to reach an agreement, which means that the EU budget for 2014-2020 should be kept within reasonable limits and be focused not least on growth and innovation. Only growth-oriented dynamic measures will be able to move the EU economy forward in this time of crisis.
The Swedish economy is one of the strongest in the EU. You have had positive GDP growth and are not suffering from a crisis. Yet Sweden, along with Britain and other net-payers, formed a coalition that pushed for cuts in the EU budget. What happened to solidarity with poorer EU members and member states affected by the crisis?
There are various groups holding different positions on different issues with regards to the budget. Sweden strongly believes that one of the major purposes of the EU budget is to provide solidarity to poorer, less fortunate member states. For example, there are strong arguments in favor of a cohesion policy directed towards less developed regions, including regions in Poland.
But we must remember that a large part of the EU budget – almost 40 percent – is still used for the Common Agriculture Policy and Sweden does not believe that this is the best way to spend our taxpayers' money. And it is definitely not the best way to speed up growth in Europe. There are arguments backing change in the agricultural policy, that it needs to be reformed and the costs reduced. Talking about cuts, we have to remember that the first proposal of the EU Commission meant a real increase in expenditures in the next budget period by 7 per cent. That number was reduced in the following proposals, but it is still quite a lot in a situation where most of members need to implement difficult decisions to limit their budgets at home.
Will Sweden stay in a coalition with other EU net payers in the budget debate at the next summit?
We were cooperating with that group of countries and I believe that this cooperation will continue. As net-payers we are engaged in this process, because of the responsibility of our governments to look after our own taxpayer's money – to make sure the money is spent wisely and on growth-enhancing measures.
Sweden is not in the euro zone. What do you think of the further integration of the euro zone, the banking union and the idea of establishing a separate budget for euro zone members?
All those issues are now being debated. It is important for Sweden, as it is for Poland, that decisions about the euro zone, which do affect all of us through, for example, the single market, are not made without other non-euro EU members.
Sweden and Poland initiated the Eastern Partnership program, which now seems to be lacking EU interest. What do you make of that?
The European Union would definitely like the Eastern Partnership to move forward with all the partner countries. In several ways it still is. It is making progress in Moldova and Georgia, for example – significant progress in fact. Ukraine has also continued to declare its ambition to integrate with Europe even if there are obvious obstacles there, relating to core EU values, which are crucial elements in the Eastern Partnership. Definitely it is in the interest of Europe to continue its mission of spreading democratic values and to integrate the Eastern European countries, which want to join EU, as well as the Western Balkan states, into the European economy.
What is Sweden's attitude towards possible changes in EU's political architecture, such as deeper integration, which is rejected by some members?
Sweden is in favor of further integration in the EU. However, it is important not to rush ahead as there are still important measures which have not yet been implemented. Over the past years, many decisions have been made in order to improve the economic governance of the union. Those measures need to be implemented first. I am mainly referring to the Six Pack, the Fiscal Compact and the Two-pack. We should make sure that those decisions are implemented, rather than making some long list of new measures which need to be introduced. The fundamental framework is partly already there, and the important continuous development of the single market is also ongoing and should be sped up. Also, it is important that great attention be given to the democratic legitimacy of the EU. At all times citizens need to be on board when leaders move towards deeper integration. Poland, as one member state, has suggested some innovative ideas on how to deal with this question.
But regarding further enlargement of the European Union, the original enthusiasm seems to have waned ...
The fact is that Croatia will become an EU member this year. Recently, Serbia gained the status of official EU candidate, so enlargement is still taking place. Historically, enlargement of the EU has been a great success. It is a core idea of the European Union to spread peace and democracy in Europe. I have been to the Balkans and I have seen what the prospect of EU integration has meant for those countries. Without it, we would not be witnessing the democratic changes that are currently going on there today.
Relations between Sweden and Poland are traditionally good and our countries never look back to our wars in the 18th century. How are our ties developing now?
Swedish-Polish relations are developing very dynamically in all fields. I would like to point to the state visit of our King Carl XVI Gustaf to Poland in May 2011, which was a manifestation of our close friendship. During that visit a declaration on mutual cooperation was signed, and cooperation has really sped up. There are daily contacts between Poles and Swedes working on the Eastern Partnership and the Baltic Sea Strategy. We cooperate on security and defense policy. There are a number of Swedish people of Polish origin who are doing very well in all areas of life in Sweden, which also strengthens our social ties. Currently, 1,000 young Swedish people are studying mainly at medical universities in Poland, and over 300 Poles are studying in Sweden through the Erasmus program.
What about trade?
Our trade is developing very positively and its value has doubled since 2004. In 2011, it exceeded E7 billion and the balance is almost 50-50 in import and export on both sides. In the same year – 2011 - Sweden was number five among foreign investors in Poland. Even with the slower economic development in the EU, there is huge potential for increasing trade between Sweden and Poland. There are opportunities in the clean tech sector, particularly when it comes to energy and other environmental issues. Better waste utilization, and especially, waste-to-energy solutions have enormous potential in Poland. There are substantial monetary gains to be made for Poland in this sphere, according to some estimates even z³.4 billion.
Sweden is a model for Poland in developing our family oriented policies and we envy Sweden for its excellent health and child-care systems, as well as the promotion of women in the workforce. What is the basis for success of your system?
The welfare system can function well only when there are strong incentives for women and men to be active on the labor market and thus provide the tax base for welfare which is needed to fund public services. Additionally, any system needs to be incrementally and continuously improved in order to face new challenges. If a system is misused and it has negative effects on public finances, the government should do something about that, as we did during our financial crisis in the 1990s. The high level of female employment is a key asset for the economy and is clearly facilitated by the access to high quality and affordable child care, as well as the sharing of parental responsibilities between women and men, not least through shared parental leave, that is, increased paternity leave. Gender equality is smart economics. One of our Ministries recently conducted a study which shows that EU GDP could increase by as much as 27 percent if women played a more active role in the labor market in the entire EU.
Yet now one of the main problems in the EU is high unemployment. Both men and women cannot find work in many member countries. Young people are bitterly disillusioned about the political and economic establishments in the European Union, what is your view?
It is not surprising that people get disappointed in these difficult times, but the majority of people value the freedoms of the EU more than they despise the drawbacks – for example the freedom of movement across the EU and the possibility of finding jobs in countries other than their own, which may not be struggling as much with unemployment. The European Union, which was rightly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, is needed for all of us, richer and poorer members, and we should seize the moment to consolidate our efforts to make it a better functioning union of states – in the spirit of solidarity and common responsibility for democracy, peace and security on our continent.
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