Monthly Archives: April 2007

Germany has urged the European Commission to relax its strict rules on state aid in cases where EU governments compete with non-EU countries for investment. Berlin wants to introduce a "matching" clause that would essentially nullify the Union’s ban on subsidies and allow governments to offer the same aid package as countries outside the union.

Germany’s proposal would mean that if, for example, a US federal state tried to attract investment from a South Korean chipmaker with the help of massive financial incentives, Germany or France could offer the same level of subsidies.

The plan will be discussed at an informal meeting of EU industry ministers starting today, and no doubt it will be wildly popular in other European capitals.

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The week’s parliamentary session in Strasbourg had the usual mix of the sublime, the ridiculous and a dash of unexpected drama. Above it all hung the usual question of what we were doing here by the sunsoaked Rhine. That was given added spice by the revelation by the Green party that the monthly commute to the French city gives off as much carbon as a small island state about to be drowned by global warming.

The drama came on Wednesday when Bronislaw Geremek, the Polish former dissident who has become the conscience of the parliament in the last few years. His refusal to sign a further declaration that he had not collaborated with Communist secret police draw a rare standing ovation. Party leaders rallied to his defence denouncing witch hunts and Stalinism. His 53 Polish colleagues, who have signed the declaratons, were noticeably quieter – except those from the ruling Law and Justice party who howled because the deputy speaker stopped them answering the charges. They – like Geremek – are desperate not to be seen as Euro-quislings. If he has his mandate revoked; the ex-foreign minister said, he could return to Poland and have direct contact with the people, continuing his fight at home. That day also saw a climactic vote to allow medicines derived from embryonic stem cell research on to the market, after a debate that pitched liberals against moral conservatives.

There also was interesting news for air travellers.

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Not only is the European parliament’s commute to Strasbourg burning 200m euros of taxpayers’ money a year. It is also burning at least 20,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, a report published by the Green party on Wednesday showed.

The 785 MEPs and their baggage train spend one week a month in the French city in a spirit of European solidarity. The first serious research into their carbon footprint is released to coincide with the setting up of a temporary committee on climate change.

Claude Turmes, a ponytailed Green from Luxembourg, said MEPs take chauffeur-driven limousines from office to restaurant and yet have called on Europe to cut emissions by 25 per cent between 1990 and 2020. “This is exactly what citizens detest in politicians: saying one thing and doing another.”

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In the big power centres of Europe, there was a sigh of relief on Sunday as Nicolas Sarkozy emerged unscathed from his "cowboy" photo-op in the Carmargue and with a healthy lead in the first round of the presidential elections.

Although Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Spain’s socialist prime minister, might hope Segolene Royal wins (to replace his old quasi-socialist chum Jacques Chirac) most of the rest of Europe’s big leaders would have voted for Sarko.

That includes Angela Merkel, German chancellor, Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and British "socialists" Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, neither of whom have even met their comrade Ms Royal.

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It has been more than two weeks since the European Commission issued formal antitrust charges against Apple and the four music majors over iTunes, but I’m still puzzled by some aspects of this affair.

As always, the Commission refused to provide details of the charges, which were communicated to the five groups in a confidential statement of objections.

Brussels merely said that the deals underpinning the sale of music through the iTunes platform appeared to amount to an "agreement to restrict competition". It added that its concerns related to the fact that users from one EU country are prevented from accessing the iTunes website in another EU country, and so can’t benefit from lower prices there.

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Once again the European Commission stands accused of doing something of which we are all guilty: not putting its money where its mouth is. It calls for Europe-wide smoking bans while subsidising tobacco farmers; it throws money at poor countries while reducing their chances to enrich themselves by blocking some of their products.

The latest alleged hypocrisy is giving billions in aid to recent joiners for projects that will contribute to big greenhouse gas emission rises.

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When it comes to dealing with the rise of China it seems Europeans are from Venus and Americans from Mars. The popular phrase of Robert Kagan, the US commentator, appears more apt than ever when talking of the rise of the potential Asian superpower.

The US has acted decisively twice in recent weeks to try to force open the doors to the workshop of the world – to a predictable howl of outrage from Beijing. For the time being, the European Union is prepared to watch from the sidelines – and perhaps even benefit as US-China relations degenerate.

Five years after it entered the World Trade Organisation, the US feels China has not lived up to its obligations. Piracy is still rampant and too many ailing state enterprises are being propped up with subsidies, Washington says.

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The eurosceptic UK Independence party once portrayed the European Union as an octopus. If true, it has very short tentacles. Last week the Commission’s competition directorate was shown the limits of its powers as companies and governments agreed to dismember Endesa, the Spanish power company. Brussels had taken Madrid to court for blocking Eon’s bid but the German utility decided a half a bid (sic) in the hand was worth one in the bush and agreed to slice it up with Enel, its Italian rival and Spain’s preferred partner. The Commission will continue with a case but any victory would be one of principle alone.

The Commission was reading the riot act to airlines and governments over their failure to enforce new rights for passengers.

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There is an interesting exhibition currently on show at the Brussels Bozar cultural centre that got me thinking about a rarely-explored aspect of the European Union. Entitled "A vision for Brussels" the show tries to analyse why the EU has generally produced such dismal buildings for its institutions – and examines ways of improving the Union’s poor architectural record.

As any visitor to Brussels’ European quarter can testify, there is little that is beautiful or inspiring about the headquarters of the European Commission, the European Council or the European Parliament. The first two are housed in vast, anonymous blocks of stone and glass, while the Parliament is housed in a megalomaniac, post-modernist nightmare that arrogantly dwarfs the tranquil surroundings of the Place Luxembourg.

Perhaps even worse than the individual buildings, the EU has so far paid little or no respect to the urban environment in which it has dropped its shoe boxes.

The architects behind the Brussels exhibition – who hail from the respected Rotterdam-based Berlage Institut – have one radical suggestion to improve this sorry state: for starters, they call for the demolition of the European Parliament.

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