Migrants headed to France from Italy walk along a mountain road leading to the French-Italian border
An EU deal to manage asylum seekers around the bloc is not going to happen in the next six months, says Sweden © Daniel Cole/AP

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For you today: I sat down with Sweden’s ambassador to the EU as Stockholm takes control of Brussels’s power levers; and European capitals are meandering towards a deal on screening Chinese visitors for Covid.

Have a great day.

Sweden takes control

No migration pact, increased support for Ukraine and a healthy shot of free market realism to temper the gusto of those seeking to flood Europe with state aid: that’s what to expect from the Swedish presidency of the EU, according to the man tasked with herding the cats.

Context: Stockholm has taken charge of the EU council’s myriad decision-making bodies for six months with the continent mired in crises — from Russia’s war and its impact on energy and food markets to how to respond to US green energy subsidies and rising levels of migration.

Complicating Sweden’s presidency is its domestic situation. The far-right, Eurosceptic Sweden Democrats (SD) prop up the minority government. But Lars Danielsson, the country’s ambassador to the EU, says that won’t derail — or determine — its leadership of the bloc.

“There are probably taboo topics for Sweden Democrats. But I take my instructions from the government,” he said.

“I don’t think people [in Brussels] are very worried,” he said. “Look, come to us after a month or two and see what we’re doing . . . Look at the results. And then I’m very happy to discuss.”

Despite SD opposition to the EU’s proposed new migration pact to manage asylum seekers — on the table for more than two years — the presidency will push ahead with the legislative work to put it in place but will not get it over the line.

“We will definitely advance the work . . . with full force. [But] you will not see a completed migration pact during the Swedish presidency,” Danielsson said, adding that won’t happen until spring 2024 at the earliest.

Danielsson said Stockholm would also use a visit by commission president Ursula von der Leyen to frozen northern Sweden next week to propose measures to improve the EU’s economic competitiveness. That’s aimed at countering her call for a torrent of state aid to combat US green energy subsidies.

“She has a role as a policymaker. But, of course, her ultimate boss is, if I may say so, the member states,” he said of von der Leyen’s proposal. “And she needs to sort of align herself with what is the majority of the day.”

Otherwise, Ukraine will remain top of the agenda. Danielsson said more humanitarian and military support for Kyiv and the rolling-over of an EU programme to support Ukrainian refugees should all be agreed without dissent. Debate will instead focus on new sanctions packages already in the works, potential spending of confiscated Russian cash, and how to hold Moscow accountable for alleged war crimes.

“We are now dealing with much shorter notice when it comes to policy because we’re doing such a lot of crisis management these days,” he added. “Swedes are known to love preparations . . . But I think we have to test our ability to improvise.”  

Chart du jour: Inflation easing

German inflation slowed to a lower than expected 9.6 per cent in the year to December, falling into single digits for the first time since the summer to provide some relief for the European Central Bank in its battle to control price rises.

Back to the pandemic future

When it comes to a clash between science and politics in Brussels, always place your money on politics, writes Andy Bounds.

The European Commission promised before a meeting on Tuesday to discuss new Covid measures for Chinese visitors to “follow a science-based approach” and pointed to the low risk of new variants arriving on a plane from Beijing. That suggested it was not endorsing the testing programmes instituted by France, Spain and Italy in response to skyrocketing infections in China.

But, according to people briefed on the meeting, behind closed doors health commissioner Stella Kyriakides proposed the idea of pre-departure Covid tests for Chinese travellers across the EU. A final deal on this is likely at a follow-up meeting today. The vast majority of member state officials are on board, people briefed on the talks said.

One diplomat said that the commission’s hand was forced because, during a Covid crisis, “politics is paramount”. Countries ravaged by the virus in 2020 do not want to repeat the experience. “The question is: can we trust the Chinese data?” they added.

Another diplomat said the bloc could also bring back passenger locator forms, with travellers saying where they are staying so they can be tracked if an outbreak is traced to their aircraft: “Countries will also bring in stricter measures. Some will test on arrival too.” 

What to watch today

  1. Officials gather for a meeting of the EU’s integrated political crisis response (IPCR) mechanism to hammer out a unified position on arrivals from China, where coronavirus infections are soaring.

  2. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock is in Lisbon to visit her Portuguese counterpart João Gomes Cravinho. A joint press conference is promised.

Now read these

  • Forecasting 2023: Reckon you know more than the FT’s experts when it comes to predicting this year’s events? Read their prognoses on the biggest questions for the next 12 months and submit your own.

  • ‘No exceptions’: EU commissioner for values Věra Jourová tells the FT that she’ll use the Qatar corruption scandal in the European parliament to overhaul ethics standards across all Brussels institutions.

  • Cannon fodder: How the death of scores of Russian conscripts forced to fight in Ukraine has rekindled debate in Moscow on the way it is waging war.

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