The March economic summit is upon us, and as every year my in-tray is being flooded with reports examining the EU’s progress towards meeting the dreaded Lisbon Agenda targets.
The Lisbon Agenda – for those who believe that life is too short – was an ambitious package of reforms and targets agreed by EU leaders in the Portuguese capital seven years ago. In what was perhaps the most strikingly overblown claim in recent EU history, the heads of government said at the time that the Agenda would transform the Union into the "most competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010".
Well, it clearly is not going to do that – and the European Commission acknowledged as much when it quietly dropped the target date a couple of years ago.
As commutes go, it’s not exactly bad. My tram ride to central Brussels takes me past Cartier, Longchamp and other designer stores that line Avenue Louise, one of the city’s longest and poshest thoroughfares.
The swanky shops and chic art nouveau apartment buildings dotting the avenue and surrounding suburbs are just one sign of the entrenched wealth in parts of Brussels.
Figures published this week show the city has the third highest GDP per inhabitant in the European Union. Boosted in part by the presence of the EU institutions, and service and manufacturing sectors, it trails only second-placed Luxembourg and central London.
Brussels has once again been wrongfooted by allegations of a conflict of interest. As we reported on Monday, an industry lobbyist who advises Andris Piebalgs, the energy commissioner, has had his contract terminated.
Rolf Linkohr, a former MEP, had already been working for two years before Siim Kallas, Brussels’ Mr Clean-up, sent him a letter asking to clarify whether he had a conflict of interest to declare. Mr Linkohr says he was dismissed before the letter was sent.
Whatever the case, it certainly appears to have been a case of making policy on the hoof.
Politicians all over Europe are once again turning their attention to the menacing world of high-end financial investment – and they don’t like what they are seeing one bit.
Franz Muentefering, the German vice-chancellor, last week repeated his notorious comparison between hedge fund investors and "locusts". Across the border in France, Nicholas Sarkozy launched another attack on hedge funds, urging a new European tax on "speculative" money flows. Add to that the growing chorus of critics within national parliaments, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that hedge funds and other active investors are facing a head-on assault.
Few people feel much much sympathy for the managers of hedge funds and private equity groups. They are spectacularly well-rewarded for their labours, and – compared to politicians or managers of listed companies – they face little public scrutiny or the risk of humiliation in the mass media.
When I started work in Brussels in 2004, fellow journalists warned of the frustrations of covering EU justice ministers’ meetings. They were spot on, because the gatherings often promise much and deliver little. The EU has grandiose plans for an "area of freedom, security and justice." But sensitive initiatives to co-ordinate police and anti-terror work (e.g. cross-border sharing of criminal records) have either taken years to agree or foundered, amid concerns over eroding national powers. Now I wonder whether we are about to see a turning point in EU police co-operation.
On Thursday in Brussels, ministers discuss plans for "hot pursuit" across most of the EU’s internal borders.
So, instead of screeching to a halt at the border, an Austrian police car could chase suspects into Italy. The move would also allow national police direct access to other member states’ fingerprint, DNA and vehicle registration databases.
If the plan wins political backing (it’s a big "if" with some countries hoping for certain exemptions) it would mark a large advance in cross-border co-operation. Some people see "hot pursuit" and database access as the missing link after member states thrashed out hard-fought deals to share evidence and allow swift extradition of suspects.
But what about civil liberties?
Even in this age of putting a price on hot air, words come cheaper than carbon emissions. So not a few MEPs are unimpressed by a resolution on climate change to be approved on Wednesday.
This resolution calling for political leadership comes while the full parliament sits in Strasbourg, having been followed there by a convoy of lorries carrying documents and other essentials from Brussels and Luxembourg, its other seats.
As previewed on Tuesday, the European parliament passed its resolution on climate change on Wednesday, calling for a unilateral 30 per cent cut in carbon emissions below 1990 levels by the EU by 2020, higher than the 20 per cent sought by the European Commission: The sponsor of the resolution, Karl-Heinz Florenz, is certainly doing his bit. For a year he has been energy self-sufficient:
"It is an individual responsibility: Everybody has a roof over their head and this roof could have solar panels on." He has solar panels and a wood-fired boiler fuelled by deadwood from the wood on his farm. "I use no oil," he says proudly: Read more
There was a time when the spring European Council was dedicated to questions of economic reform – the annual paying of homage to the Lisbon agenda, and its vainglorious targets for making the EU the top performing economic bloc in the world.
Not any more. This year’s summit on March 8-9 will see Europe’s leaders focussing instead on energy policy and – most important of all – climate change. I doubt if their discussions on the Lisbon agenda will last more than ten minutes, if that.
I just wonder whether we are in a classic "top of the cycle" moment, when Europe lulls itself into the dangerous view that the reforms are paying off because the economy is working well.
It was a hot day in August 2004, and I was sitting around a table munching seafood with a few journalists and the man who had just been appointed the next president of the European Commission. The meeting took place in a stuffy room on the first floor of an Italian restaurant, and was billed as Jose Manuel Barroso’s first meeting with the Brussels press.I remember that he barely touched his lightly-grilled squid, fish and prawns. Instead, he talked and talked – with confidence, drive and considerable eloquence – about his priorities as the new head of the EU executive. Again and again, Barroso insisted he would put economic reforms at the heart of his tenure, slash red tape and stimulate competition. He stressed the importance of the Lisbon Agenda – the ambitious reform package designed to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world by the end of the decade.
In one sentence: his would be a pro-business Commission.
Weird to see Gerhard Schroeder in Brussels in his job as a businessman/lobbyist for the Russian/German gas industry, especially when you’re more accustomed to watching him throwing his weight around here as Germany’s chancellor.
On Wednesday he was in town representing Nord Stream, the Baltic Sea pipeline project which will run between Russia and Germany, cunningly bypassing Poland. The infrastructure is a joint venture led by Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled gas giant, with two German companies.
As one scornful EU official said: "How nice of him to come to Brussels. Isn’t he an employee of Mr Putin these days?"
Europe’s vets are more worried than they admit publicly about the outbreak of bird flu in the UK. Until now, there has been a familiar pattern. Wild migratory birds start dropping out of the sky, having brought the virus from Asia, and then their domestic farm cousins start keeling over too.
However, despite extensive searches around the Bernard Matthews turkey farm on the east coast of England, no infected wild birds have been found. There are some sea gulls, which can carry the disease without succumbing to it. Nor are there infections on nearby farms. Of course this could happen any time.
But it’s a long way from Hungary, where the same virus has been found among geese, and Hungary is a long way from the sea. Is there another explanation?
The next summit of European Union leaders is still a month away, but Brussels diplomats are already busy drafting the conclusions of the March Council. Somewhat surprisingly, these over-long and bland documents end up being hotly-contested by ministers and heads of government during the actual meetings. Even more astonishing is the spectacle of spin-doctors earnestly briefing journalists about their government’s triumph in getting a certain word or phrase included in the final text.
In theory, Council conclusions should be significant. They represent, after all, what the 27 heads of government can agree on during one of their four annual get-togethers. But as David Harrison points out in a thoughtful article on the Council’s workings for the Centre for European Reform, the regime is ripe for reform.
Great to have some feedback on my recent comment about Britain’s attitude towards Europe post-Blair. But some people in Brussels would chuckle at the idea I’m some kind of self-loathing federalist Brit – a species which admittedly can be found in this habitat.
My point is not that Britain should sign up to a federalist agenda (indeed there aren’t many countries left that are still pushing it, apart from Belgium), but rather that there exists a great opportunity for Gordon Brown or David Cameron to shape the EU in a way that helps the UK.
As a French MEP told me the other day: "The Brits are winning in Europe. So what is their problem?" Indeed one of the reasons cited by French politicians for the No vote to the constitution is that it was too Anglo-Saxon.
You might not have noticed, but 2007 is the European Year of Equal Opportunities for All. For the launch, there was a big equality bash in Berlin on Tuesday and Wednesday that brought together an exciting line-up of EU ministers, equality bodies, trade unions, employers and non-governmental organisations. "Participation," the Commission revealed snootily on its website, "is by invitation only."
Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of equal opportunities myself, especially when they are intended to apply "for all". But as I scrolled through the Commission’s fantastically elaborate website, I must confess that my heart sank. What, I wondered, was the point?