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Czechs pass the keg to Swedes

Sweden acknowledges that its six months at the EU's helm could be "difficult."

So the bureaucracy is sighing with relief at the beginning of the Swedish presidency, led by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. The 43-year-old economist-turned-politician will provide the EU with a comfortably buttoned-up presence and his serious visage could help him line up colleagues behind common policies.

The Swedes say climate change and the economic crisis are their top priorities, and the two problems are certainly not mutually exclusive. The Swedish government, already one of the leaders in pushing for aggressive environmental-protection measures, must persuade even the most cash-strapped member states to spend money protecting the climate On top of that, at the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit, the EU wants wealthier nations to agree to help defray the costs of climate protection in the developing world.

On the economic crisis, Reinfeldt and Finance Minister Anders Borg have already warned that member states should not borrow more money to put into their stimulus programs. Reinfeldt suggested further deficit increases could create new problems for the European economy. “It's exit strategies we will ask for," he said.

The Swedes also want an early confirmation of Jose Manuel Barroso for a second term as Commission President. Barroso, whose term officially ends in October, has no competition for the job at this point. It’s the position of Sweden and many other governments that it’s a waste of time to wait until Ireland takes a hoped-for second vote on the Lisbon Reform Treaty and gives a hoped-for “yes.” Opponents — many of them members of the European Parliament whose approval is required — say the vote on Barroso should wait until the outcome of the Irish referendum.

“We are aware this is going to be a difficult presidency,” said Sweden’s EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstrom while outlining Swedish plans for the press. “The incoming parliament is now being formed, we have the outgoing and later incoming commission, uncertainty around the institutional framework with the possible new referendum in Ireland and we have the economic crisis and a lot of other very difficult issues.”

What Malmstrom is listing as challenges, Natalia Alonso, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s EU office, is calling “opportunities.” In the days before Sweden took over, Amnesty delivered to its embassy 28 pages of recommendations for how the presidency could be used to improve adherence to human rights. Alonso said the institutional limbo as well as the arrival of a new commission and parliament put Sweden in a position of influence. “We believe that the Swedish presidency can have a strong role in putting political vision and the rhetoric of the EU into action,” Alonso said.

And there might just be the possibility of some political fireworks, even with the cool Swedes. Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Nicolas Sarkozy are on opposite sides of the debate over enlargement, particularly regarding Turkey.

More on the European Union presidency:

Backgrounder: The EU presidency

Czech government "fired," EU presidency complicated

EU presidency left red-faced over artwork

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name.