Are Europe’s governments just blowing hot air when it comes to climate change? On Tuesday it was the turn of Belgium and the Netherlands to be told by Brussels that their proposed greenhouse gas emissions were too high.
Slovakia, meanwhile, is mulling over whether to take legal action after a similar order.
Last week the European Commission called for ambitious targets to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 but national governments seem reluctant to agree, undermining efforts to persuade George W Bush and others to join in a global scheme.
So far, the Commission has found 11 of the 12 plans for 2008-12 capped emissions at too high a level.
Visiting Berlin last week, the front page headline in Bild Zeitung transported me back to Britain 15 or even 20 years ago. "Crazy salaries," shouted the story from the newsstands, complaining about how Brussels officials earn so much more than their Berlin counterparts and listing their allegedly lavish perks.
It could have been The Sun, during the good old days. The fact is that the British tabloid has concluded that Europe is boring and frankly a lot less threatening that it used to be. The paper hardly ever puts the issue on the front page. So what’s up with the Germans?
The fact is that British euroscepticsm, while undoubtedly rooted in the country’s geography and history, was fanned by a feeling that the British system was under threat. During the 1980s and 1990s there was a sense in the right-leaning media that Brussels was trying to kill the Thatcherite revolution with ideas of "social Europe" and suffocating red tape.
On the face of it, the European Commission had some shocking news for shareholders of Eon and RWE in Germany, OMV in Austria and similar listed energy groups across the region. The Brussels regulator on Wednesday vowed to break up all energy suppliers that are also active in managing networks such as grids and pipelines. It argued that the combination of the two businesses stifled competition.
Given the Commission’s sweeping powers to initiate legislation, scrutinise mergers and pursue antitrust infringements, such a step is certainly not beyond Brussels’ reach. That would mean forcing some of Europe’s biggest groups not only to sell off priceless assets but also to face much sharper competition from smaller rivals.
And yet, this shocking news somehow failed to strike fear in the hearts of investors. RWE’s shares actually gained slightly, while Eon and OMV posted only minuscule falls that mirrored the broader market. What’s up? Don’t traders read the newspaper?
On a lightning visit to Berlin last year, I discovered that Germany is groaning with plans for its six month long presidency of the EU. One theme struck me in particular: Angela Merkel’s improbable ambition to bring hope to the Middle East. You might not believe it, but this is an issue where the German chancellor really thinks she can make a difference.
Like many other European states, Germany feels strongly that the US ought to do more with its international partners to broker a deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
That’s why Merkel told the FT she wanted to revive the Quartet, the body made up of the US, the EU, Russia and the United Nations that is supposed to work for Middle East peace.
Joseph Daul is an unlikely revolutionary. The Strasbourg farmer who was elected narrowly on Tuesday night as the head of the centre-right European People’s party looks like a throwback to the early founders of Europe among past holders of the post.
Judging from the rogues gallery on the EPP’s website the last innovation by its leadership was Egon Klepsch’s radical decision in 1977 to dispense with the obligatory pocket handkerchief.
Yet Daul, 59, called himself one of the ‘68 generation and his measured response to the yawning split revealed by the election suggests he could chart a delicate path forward.
It’s almost mid-January in Brussels and there has not been a single frost in the city. People are shedding their winter coats, trees are sprouting leaves; a rose made an appearance in my garden last week. It doesn’t take a climatalogical genius to realise something is going on, and at long last Europe’s policymakers seem to be taking it seriously.
As recently as last May, José Manuel Barroso did not even mention climate change as one of his top priorities; now it is the cornerstone of almost everything the European Commission does, and is at the heart of Wednesday’s announcement of a new EU energy policy.
Democracy is slowly coming to the European parliament. It’s hard to tell whether that, or the formation of a far-right group, is more shocking for the mainstream MEPs who provide most of the voting fodder.
One can deride the 20 or so MEPs from six countries who are set to form a new caucus on Wednesday that would give them speaking rights in parliament. A motley crew, ranging from holocaust deniers to gypsy-baiters, most people wouldn’t want to sit next to them on a bus never mind in a parliament. But they don’t particularly like each other any more than most like them.
It’s the EU’s expansion to Romania and Bulgaria on January 1st that has made the far-right nightmare, long talked-about in Strasbourg, close to coming true. Veterans like Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front now have allies in the requisite five European countries to form a group. Bulgaria’s anti-Roma Ataka party and the nationalist Great Romania party of Corneliu Vadim Tudor are set to join what could be known, evocatively, as "Europe of the Fatherlands" or "Identity, Sovereignty, Tradition".
But they would not even be talking to each other if it were not for the consensus-cloying way the parliament works.
Just before Christmas, I went on a daytrip to Iraq. I was part of the press pack following Tony Blair around and, although the other journalists and I gave pretty short shrift to the prime minister’s whole Middle East trip, it was, in many ways, an illuminating experience.
For example, there was the sight of Blair’s top advisers donning helmets and body armour to visit a country that was supposedly liberated three and a half years ago. And there was the prime minister himself, seemingly tired and stressed on what could turn out to be his last official trip to Iraq, evidently relieved when his Hercules aircraft left Baghdad and Basra behind it and headed for Tel Aviv.
The trip also raised an intriguing possibility for the future of British and European foreign policy.
When the European Commission starts talking about a plan to "connect the EU with its citizens" you know that something supremely ridiculous is about to happen. Poster competitions are one popular device, but the Commission on one occasion even tried wowing Europeans by sending a copy of the draft EU constitution into space.
This month Brussels will unleash its latest drive to befriend the alienated citizen – and for once it has actually come up with an idea that is simple, innovative and that promises to do some lasting good.
Remember the Azores "war summit" of 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war? Since that meeting on the windswept Atlantic islands the curse of Iraq has struck down most of its participants: George Bush and Tony Blair are heading out of office haunted by the unfolding disaster on the Euphrates, while Jose Maria Aznar is already gone.
But what about the fourth participant, the host Jose Manuel Barroso, the hitherto little-known Portuguese prime minister, lurking almost unnoticed on the edge of camera shot? He’s still going strong, and now as European Commission president he wants a favour returned by his old buddy, President Bush.