Swedish EU leadership or why beggars can’t be choosers

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Sweden stands out in the latest ECFR scorecard as an active leader in formulating and advocating a common European foreign and security policy. With an honorable 4th place after the big three (Germany, UK, France), Sweden appears to punch above its weight. As a Swede, that should make me cherish the fine return of my tax-investment. And especially at the ECFR event in Stockholm the mood was cheerful and celebratory. Still, I cannot help but wonder if the Swedish leadership score is purely good news and whether it really reveals something about our foreign policy strategy.

Foreign policy is mostly 'talking' - and 'talking' is supposed to be cheap. Leadership, however, is supposed to be quite expensive. Research on EU negotiations shows that leadership is often tied to investments in time, effort, resources and knowledge. For a large EU member state, leadership is more or less an automatic effect of the vast resources it can draw on. For a small country like Sweden, leadership must instead be secured by a substantial amount of energy invested in the project. The problem – from the perspective of a taxpayer backing this investment – is that the same EU machinery that we are investing heavily in, is in a pretty dismal state which was another important finding of the ECFR scorecard.

So why would Sweden invest a considerable amount of energy in order to attain a leadership position in European foreign policy? The obvious answer is that the EU deals with issues of great importance to Sweden. Another – just as obvious – answer is that beggars can’t be choosers: the EU is really the only foreign policy arena we have access to. We are not in NATO, not in the G20 and not on the UN Security Council. Having this in mind, Sweden’s high score on leadership could be seen as a questionable investment explained largely by the lack of alternatives.

Finally – and accepting that being a leader is still better than being a follower or a 'slacker' – I’m quite sure that some slacking wouldn’t hurt in the case of Sweden. The ECFR scorecard also includes a top list for slackers (countries that fail to support European policies or even try to block the development of these policies). Apparently, Sweden is only a slacker on one single issue. While European unity is certainly an end in itself, there must be issues that are more highly valued for us than the concept of unity. That, at least, is the case for other “leaders” as they also find themselves on the list over top “slackers”. Either Sweden’s foreign policy preferences are perfectly mirroring the aggregate preference of the European collective or we are paying quite a high price for unity.

However, Swedes are likely to be pleased by the way their country is portrayed in the ECFR scorecard. But there are reasons to discuss the underlying strategy of Swedish engagement in EU policy making. Leadership is not free and our scores – for good and for worse – should be seen in the larger context of Swedish foreign policy ambitions and alternatives.

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