Monthly Archives: June 2007

Brussels has never taken to Gordon Brown. The man who refused to let Britain join the euro is seen by some as a scowling eurosceptic, who only turned up at monthly Ecofin councils to lecture other finance ministers.

Most European capitals know little about the new prime minister: unlike Tony Blair he does not have a big network of foreign politicians he can call friends. But there is a willingness to give the new man the benefit of the doubt and see whether the move from Number 11 to 10 Downing St will change his style.

My guess is that he will, not least for domestic political reasons. By projecting himself as a hard-headed pro-European he hopes to present David Cameron’s Conservatives as a bunch of eurosceptic obsessives, happier in the company of climate change-denying Czechs than mainstream Christian Democrats.

Mr Cameron has already helped him with this strategy by pulling the Tories out of the moderate European People’s Party, alienating such allies as Germany’s Angela Merkel. The folly of this policy was highlighted in brutal style by Quentin Davies, the Tory MP who defected to Labour this week.

Another sign of possible things to come was the appointment on Thursday of David Miliband, a personable pro-European, as Britain’s new foreign secretary. Miliband founded the Centre for European Reform, a Blairite think tank, and has long espoused an active British engagement in the EU. Read more

There is something vicariously thrilling about finding out how much your neighbour’s house cost or how high the rent is. So imagine the thrill of an (admittedly long) report from the European Union’s financial watchdog on how the 27-member club could spend its annual €345m on offices in Euroland for its 36,000 staff.

The EU, which includes the Commission, the Parliament, the Council, representing member state governments, as well as the Court of Justice and various committees, occupied 2m sq metres of offices in Brussels, Luxembourg City and Strasbourg in 2005. Other agencies and offices elsewhere were outside the remit of the Court of Auditors’ June 26 survey.

It found that the EU had similar problems to the rest of us with Belgian landlords, often being overcharged, saddled with maintenance costs and locked into long leases. However, it also said a lot of the tens of millions of euros of losses could be avoided.

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The first 24 hours of the summit in Brussels to hammer out a replacement for the European constitution  has been a “phoney war”, to steal the wartime parlance that Poland’s government has adopted. Knowing that another night of skirmishing lay ahead leaders happily remained camped behind their red lines, brooking no suggestion of compromise.

This is often the way at the biannual events, if only to add a little drama in an attempt to get the public’s interest. It certainly worked for the British press, excited by Poland’s claims of compensation for its war dead.

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Expectations were not high yesterday at the Justus Lipsius building that Angela Merkel’s first press conference of this week’s tricky summit would bring much in the way of predicting the eventual outcome. If anything, these sunk further as the clock ticked and the event was delayed from 10.30pm to 11.00pm, finally kicking off at just short of midnight. Even then, however, Ms Merkel’s 15-minute performance, a charming-yet-brutal exercise in stonewalling, broke records in the utter absence of information it delivered about the state of the talks about reforming the EU’s institutions.

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The haggling that goes on before every European summit is legendary. I’m not referring to all the talk of red lines by posturing leaders but the procuring by those lower down the pecking order of a pass into the Justus Lipsius centre where it all takes place, with its free flow of drink, food and, most of all, gossip.

Members of the European parliament are particularly keen to see their status recognised with the prestigious pass to feed off the crumbs at the top table. Each political group gets just one ticket. So Andrew Duff, the British Liberal who lives and breathes the constitution from every pore, will be left with his nose pressed against the glass while Graham Watson, his esteemed leader, prowls the corridors of power.

There are ways and means of getting round it. The eurosceptic Independence and Democracy group has found places for its two co-leaders. Jens-Peter Bonde, the veteran Dane, sneaked in as a journalist. That allows Nigel Farage, the voice of British obstructionism, to do what he does best, knocking back the beers with hacks at the bar and providing soundbites about Tony Blair’s duplicity.

Nothing could more annoy the UK Conservatives, who are stuck on the outside. They also want a referendum on any treaty and would love to bend but as members of the European People’s party are represented by Joseph Daul, a French farmer who backs greater integration.

Aides to Timothy Kirkhope, the Tory European leader, were left yesterday afternoon desperately lobbying for a badge as vice-chairman of the constitutional affairs committee to avoid this debacle.

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Euroland is obsessed with voting formulae – ”square root”, ”double majority” and other such trip-off-the-tounge expressions – but let’s not forget the other side of tonight’s summit: the glamour content.

Hard to believe – gasp -  but Brussels’ tatty, low-key EU quarter lacks a certain glamour. The 27 commissioners might be the rock stars of the European Commission but they just can’t compete when the big names come to town.

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It is hardly a secret that the European Parliament’s formal powers fall short of those accorded to a "proper" national legislature. One of the more tiring consequences of this situation is the Parliament’s lingering inferiority complex, which expresses itself all too often in grandstanding, overblown rhetoric and a deep desire to be constantly consulted, informed and patted on the back by the Brussels big boys – the Commission and Council.

Given the unique nature of the Union’s constitutional set-up, the Parliament will almost certainly remain a somewhat stunted creature for a long time to come. Member states will never give up their de-facto veto over lawmaking and their exclusive rights in many other areas, not least foreign policy.

Yet all this has not stopped the Parliament from emerging as an increasingly powerful player in the past few years. The latest example of the chamber’s growing clout may well have surfaced this week, when the Parliament’s transport committee voted on an ambitious plan to fully liberalise the Union’s €90bn postal services market.

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Another update from the frontline of the vodka wars, and the battlefield in Strasbourg is strewn with empty shot glasses, rotten fruit and animal parts. Actually, they are pictures of animal parts, distributed by Polish vodka makers who fear that .

In fact, given that vodka made from offal probably would not sell well, it is unlikely that Tuesday’s vote of the European parliament would lead to such an end. Vodka made from anything other than grain and potatoes will have to say so on the label, though in rather small print on the back.

While this is only the first, rather than decisive second, reading of the directive governments have already reached agreement along the same lines and should rubber-stamp it at this stage.

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Bizarre details come to light today in an EU report on laws to fight corruption in the private sector.

It turns out that “many” EU members have yet to make it a criminal offence to give or receive a bribe through an intermediary.

So, in theory, the cash-stuffed brown envelope deal-making school is alive, well and legal – so long as the gift is given indirectly. But is this really what it seems?

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Just back from Luxembourg where I went to the EU interior ministers’ meeting.

On the train home I tried to spot the exact border between Belgium and Luxembourg. But it was only through car number plates and a change in mobile phone operator that I could first tell we’d entered another country.

People love to talk up Europe’s open internal frontiers and the right to slip across national borders. But recognising that criminals don’t respect frontiers, the EU is starting to hoard and share a massive amount of information on those inside. 

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When politicians talk of a “European spirit” they are not usually referring to vodka. Yet the potent, clear drink is at the heart of a dispute over European values – and money – that will be played out next week in the European parliament.

MEPs will vote on what ingredients can be used to make vodka – and the signs are that those from producing countries will be defeated.

Alex Stubb, a Finnish centre-right MEP, says that would break a promise made when his country and Sweden entered the EU that the national drink would receive similar protection to wine, whisky, rum and grappa, which all have a strict limit on ingredients.

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Spare a thought for poor Guenter Verheugen. The European Union’s industry commissioner has been out of the spotlight for months now, giving few press conferences and generally doing very little to create headlines, applause or criticism. Even his favourite policy issue – the unglamourous better regulation agenda – has been kept at a mercifully low profile recently.

The next thing you know, he’s being compared to Paul Wolfowitz.

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To paraphrase my colleague Gideon Rachman, gay rights and green values are the motherhood and apple pie of the European Union. Yet this, along with many other things, may be changing after the influx of eight former communist countries in 2004.

Poland has led the charge against these cosy "European values". Its current populist government has talked of bringing back the death penalty and launched an all-out assault on perceived communist collaborators. Other officials have the corrupting influence of western children’s TV in their sights.

Ewa Sowinska, a children’s rights watchdog, said last week she would have psychologists investigate whether Tinky Winky, the handbag-carrying Teletubby, was gay. “I noticed [he] has a lady’s purse but I didn’t realised he’s a boy…later I learned that this may have a homosexual undertone,” she told a news magazine.

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