Monthly Archives: January 2007

Tony Blair is not the most loved politician in Europe: too pro-American, too liberal, too British and so on. But what many European politicians seem to have missed is that Blair is the most pro-European British prime minister since Edward Heath in the 1970s: things aren’t going to get any better.

Gordon Brown, Blair’s presumed successor, has a reputation around Europe for being uninterested in the EU and dismissive in his dealings with fellow ministers. But what would happen if Brown lost the next British election – probably in 2008 or 2009 – to the Conservatives?

A glimpse of Britain’s European future came on Wednesday in a wide-ranging speech by William Hague, the Conservative foreign policy spokesman. If you thought Tory thinking had moved on much since the days of Margaret Thatcher, this might make you think again.

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A rare sighting of Gordon Brown in Brussels on Tuesday, which dutifully followed his usual routine for Ecofin councils. Namely the British press in London is briefed in advance on the lecture he intends to deliver to fellow finance ministers – this time on the failings of the EU’s single market.

Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer then turns up at the meeting and delivers the message that other finance ministers have already read about in the morning papers. Then he flies home again. Job done.

“He’s right of course,” says one Ecofin participant. “His observations on the single market and what needs to be done are valid, but the way he does it is counter-productive. He comes across as arrogant, he doesn’t get involved in networking.” Read more

I’ll be in Madrid on Friday, listening to the representatives of 20 countries protesting their love for the European Union constitution (deceased), and insisting that as much of the hallowed treaty should be saved as possible.

That is their right and they have a point. After all, 18 out of 27 member states have ratified the constitution (that’s the equivalent of 270m people) and Portugal and Ireland will also be in Madrid as non-ratifying but honorary "friends of the constitution".

But they should prepare to be disappointed. The fact is that if anything is going to be saved it will have to be modest, unthreatening and boiled down to its barest essentials. This is how you do it:

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European Commission officials essentially fall into one of two categories. On the one side there are the ordinary functionaries who spend years drawing up legislative proposals, writing up impact assessments or monitoring developments in the Italian olive oil market. Perfectly important business, mind you, but in the main their jobs rarely send the pulse racing.

The second (and far more dashing) type of official is the one you find at the directorate general for competition, or DG Comp in short. As Europe’s top competition enforcement officials, they do all kinds of exciting stuff. They get to raid the headquarters of big companies, impose huge fines on businesses that break the rules, and every so often they can tell Microsoft how to run its business.

But over the past year or so, I have detected a subtle change inside DG Comp. It seems that the hard-bitten trust-busters have gone, well, a little academic.

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There is a new odd couple at the centre of the EU – Gabriel and Glos. You often have to pinch yourself to recall that Sigmar Gabriel and Michael Glos are members of the same government – Germany.

Gabriel is the up-and-coming environment minister from the centre-left Social Democratic party. Glos is the Christian Social – for which read Christian Democrat – economics minister from Bavaria,  a conservative heartland and one of the richest areas of Europe. He wants it to stay that way. So he has no time for eco-warriors wanting to dent its way of life. The two are strange bedfellows in a grand coalition government and Tuesday once again proved why.

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Has the president of the European Central Bank finally given ground in the long-running "battle of the Jean-Claudes"? After months of refusing to discuss holding more meetings with Jean-Claude Juncker, the political head of the eurozone, ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet, now seems ready to talk.

Mr Trichet famously refused to reply to a letter from Mr Juncker last year, after the Luxembourg prime minister suggested they should have regular informal chats – possibly over breakfast. The ECB president reckoned his public acceptance of this invitation to coffee and croissants could be seen as giving in to political pressure.

But earlier this month the two did get together for an informal 45-minute chinwag in Frankfurt, along with Joaquin Almunia, the EU monetary affairs commissioner. More such encounters could follow. So has Mr Trichet sold part of the bank’s independence, as some of the sobre suited boys at Germany’s Bundesbank seem to believe?

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Blogs are supposed to be engaging, whimsical, opinionated and should at least try to provide an entertaining angle on the great matters of the day. I am not sure, therefore, that it is a great idea to devote an entire posting to the bleak, bone-dry world of accounting and auditing, but I’ll give it a try all the same.

The bean-counters have, after all, attracted quite a lot of attention inside the European Commission recently. This has a lot to do with the somewhat surprising notion that accountants and auditors are a bit like those mountain gorillas in central Africa that have been dropping dead at an alarming rate in recent years. In other words, there are plenty of people who believe the profession is an endangered species that requires urgent protection.

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It may seem like clever domestic politics, but Ségolène Royal’s plan to re-run France’s referendum on the EU constitution looks like a disaster waiting to happen: both for France and Europe.

Ms Royal will win plaudits for her commitment to giving the French people their democratic voice, should she win the French presidential elections this spring. Nicolas Sarkozy, her rival, has already committed himself to trying to negotiate a "mini" version of the constitution and to ram it through the national assembly. Read more

Ralph Atkins in Frankfurt

Nordics are setting the pace in central bank transparency. That is clear from the announcement this week by Sweden’s Riksbank

that it will follow Norway’s example in publishing forecasts of its own interest rates.

Don’t yawn: this is state-of-the-art stuff in academic economics circles. Monetary policy these days is largely about influencing the economy through expectations.

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The last time Serbian and European leaders really got together, they seethed at each other. So why is the EU dusting off its plans to cuddle up to Belgrade? And why do I think it is a good idea?

I remember that last meeting in October, when, bunkered down in a conference centre in Luxembourg, Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s prime minister, proclaimed his country’s heartfelt desire to hang on to the province of Kosovo – whatever the wishes of the EU or US.

Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement Commissioner, said Serbia had done nowhere near enough to track down Gen Ratko Mladic, the man blamed for Europe’s worst massacre since the second world war – the killing of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.

The air was thick with recrimination. Rehn made clear that unless Serbia did much more on handing over Mladic, there was no chance that talks would resume on deepening Belgrade’s ties with Brussels,  negotiations supposed to open the way for Serbia to join the EU.

Now, however, Rehn is giving off much more positive signals, making clear that, if Serbia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday go well, the talks could pick up where they left off and make up for lost time.

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