Monthly Archives: March 2007

Communication with its citizens is a key part of the European Commission’s attempt to renew the EU after a subdued 50th birthday.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president, wants to not only achieve a “Europe of results” but to tell people about them so they will value Brussels, if not love it.

An insight into just how hard this could be comes in a candid interview with Claus Haugaard Sorensen, who runs the EU’s communications directorate, in the latest issue of Communication Director, a European mag for the PR industry.

It is a job from hell, though if every fonctionnaire was a plain-speaking Dane, it would be lot easier.

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Is fraud endemic in the European institutions? You might think so, reading the coverage of the revelations that three Italians have been arrested in a multi-milllion euro case involving bribery and forgery involving public tenders for EU buildings overseas.

The allegations of fraud lasting more than 10 years are shocking, and have been presented in some media as the latest manifestation of a sickness at the heart of the European Union. While the particulars of the case are grim, I’m not sure the problem is as chronic as some believe.

Before I’m accused of being a Brussels apologist, could I plead that I was the journalist whose interview with Marta Andreasen, the sacked EU chief accountant, put her story on the front page of the FT and helped to establish her as a eurosceptic martyr? My colleague, Tobias Buck, broke the Eurostat fraud scandal.

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José Manuel Barroso raised a few titters in Berlin at the weekend with his assertion that "size matters" – a reference to the fact that the 480m people of the European Union made it a big player in the world.

I took away from the EU summit in Berlin a different impression: the little things matter. Strip away the speechifying and the Berlin declaration – a worthy enough attempt to mark the Union’s 50th birthday – and what will linger from the summit was the fact that 27 European leaders (and their spouses) actually seemed to have a good time.

That may sound trivial, but sometimes European Union leaders spend so much time slagging off Brussels or other national leaders that they forget that they are in this together, they have things in common, and they need to make it work.

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The European Commission enjoys many powers, though none is quite as jaw-droppingly awesome and downright glamorous as its ability to block big, international mergers and takeovers.

Indeed, the first (and perhaps only) time that mainstream America became aware of the Commission’s  existence was when the Brussels body blocked the tie-up of General Electric and Honeywell in 2001. The ruling sparked outrage on the other side of the Atlantic, and left many commentators spluttering how a little-known institution an ocean away was in a position to thwart the marriage of two US corporate icons.

Much has changed since then. There have been fewer deals, and certainly fewer deals that were driven by corporate egos and a mindless pursuit of size (which tend to create greater competition worries than smaller acquisitions). Scarred by a string of court rulings that overturned three merger prohibitions in 2002, the Commission also became much more careful about blocking deals. Both sides, in any case, became better at putting together remedies that allowed even problematic deals to go through in exchange for asset disposals or other concessions.

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Gordon Brown knows how to deliver a budget. His last financial statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday contained the usual bullish economic optimism (of course) and a surprise: a cut in the basic rate of income tax.

So much we know. For all the criticism of Mr Brown’s personal style, his macro-economic record in the UK is envied by many in Europe. But can Mr Brown, prime minister-in-waiting, translate his economic standing into real influence in Brussels?

There are signs that Mr Brown is starting to take Europe more seriously. His lieutenant, Treasury minister Ed Balls, has been a regular visitor to Brussels projecting a less abrasive face than that usually seen from the chancellor’s camp. Read more

Would the last commissioner to leave please turn out the lights? That’s a gross exaggeration of course, but nevertheless, news of two commissioners’ getting more involved in “the countries they know best”, as the euro-euphemism goes, gave a certain fin de regime feel on Monday halfway through the Commission’s five-year term.

Louis Michel, the development commissioner, is taking a month’s unpaid leave in May and June to stand for election in Belgium. Well, not quite: he is campaigning, running last on the list of his French-speaking Liberal party for the Senate, doubtless requiring a 50 per cent swing or something to be elected.

Margot Wallstrom, the communications commissioner, has agreed to run a strategy group for Sweden’s opposition party on Europe. It emerged yesterday that she had forgotten to tell her boss, Jose Manuel Barroso.

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The European Union is boldly going…nowhere. An ambitious project to set up a rival to the US military GPS satellite navigation system, cutely named Galileo, has so far stalled at the launch pad. The idea of the EU building physical infrastructure is new, the problems bedevilling are not: national rivalries, bureaucracy, and private companies wanting a public guarantee of making a mint.

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Few would claim that lawmaking is a simple business. And it certainly does not get any easier when a piece of legislation will cover the actions and intentions of some 500m people and myriad companies and institutions in 27 countries.

A particular threat caused by the European Union’s unique set-up is that its laws have unintended consequences. An attempt to tackle market barriers in some member states may end up causing new restrictions somewhere else. What works well in one country can lead to mayhem in another.

This dilemma was once again in evidence earleir this week, when the European Parliament gave its final approval to an important change to the EU’s banking laws.

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Poland could be about to make life much harder for Angela Merkel, German chancellor, as she tries to give the kiss of life to the EU’s comatose constitutional treaty. Warsaw is threatening to reopen one of the treaty’s most contentious issues: how much power each country should have in the Council of Ministers, the Union’s main legislative body.

"The proposed voting system in the EU constitution mostly hits Poland, according to mathematicians," said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s prime minister last week. I don’t know which mathematicians he’s been speaking to, but he’s plain wrong.

The real maths behind the argument are fascinating, because they underscore a traditional Polish suspicion of their western neighbours – a factor which could make a Poland-Germany summit this week on the Baltic coast especially tricky.

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If there’s one thing that Brussels can teach the world, it’s how to move VIPs around fast.

Most days you’ll hear sirens as elite police outriders clear the roads so that motorcades of black Mercedes and Audis can whisk visiting presidents and prime ministers to meetings.

The police teams are certainly effective at sweeping through the city’s clogged streets. One diplomat told me of a hair-raising seven-minute journey in a convoy from the airport to the EU district during rush hour. Ordinarily, that car ride would take 25 minutes in light traffic.

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It is amazing what a little light can do. Two lists of advisers were published by the European Commission this week. One was trotted out very happily by Jose Manuel Barroso, the president, the names of a new advisory group on energy and climate change. The other was quietly slipped out after months of pressure. It is that of the 53 special advisers to the 27 commissioners.

There are some interesting names on both. Barroso’s top team includes Peter Sutherland, ex-commissioner and chairman of BP, the energy company, and the ubiquitous Sir Nicholas Stern, whose report on the economics of climate change convinced many political skeptics.

It also boasts Nicolas Hulot, the TV presenter-turned-green-activist who has been courted by the two French presidential frontrunners, and other worthies.The two most colourful figures on the special adviser list , Rolf Linkohr and Dina Akkelidou, have already been asked to leave.

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David Cameron’s new Movement for European Reform is a strange thing. Launched by the British Conservative leader on Tuesday in Brussels, there were several things which struck me as slightly unusual about the inauguration of this new centre-right group.

The first was the fact that the Conservatives had gone to the trouble to bring along about 90 students from London schools to "see at first hand" Europe’s future being discussed: they also performed the useful role of filling empty seats at the back of the hall and looking youthful.

The second is the fact that the Movement for European Reform – which is intended to pave the way in 2009 to the creation of a new political group in the European parliament – does not actually really exist.

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Ask British expats about Brussels life and some will admit that they don’t feel as if they live in Belgium.

British newspapers are printed here and can be delivered to your door. English is the language of business, while private British and European schools are on hand to educate your kids.

Even BBC television is beamed across Belgium: those really in need of a reminder of home can watch images of London’s standstill traffic on the news and smirk as they hear about Tube delays on the Northern Line.

Then there’s the EU bubble life in Brussels. Frequently, journalists, eurocrats, lobbyists and lawyers socialise in national or pan-national circles without mixing with many Belgians. All in all, it’s easy for the 60,000 Brits here to overlook their host.

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