Monthly Archives: September 2007

A friend of mine who works for the European Commission’s internal market directorate  moaned the other day that it was “turning into the OECD”. In other words, it had stopped bludgeoning the barriers to trade in the EU market with a battering ram of regulations and was instead consulting, advising and recommending change . But the OECD, a dry economic think tank , seems to be turning into the European Commission, judging by the latest furore surrounding it.

In early September its round table on sustainable development met to discuss a report entitled “Biofuels – is the cure worse than the disease”. The academic paper fuelled a controversy that has burned for several weeks.

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Just setting up in sunny Amsterdam, where I’ll work for a couple of weeks. In Brussels last week, the talk was all about whether Belgium would split, creating an independent Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north, and a French-speaking nation in southern Wallonia. Why? Because three months after the general election, the political parties have failed to agree on a new, national government, and even an intervention by the King has failed – so far. So amid all the doom and gloom, it’s worth nothing that there’s visible support for the supposedly unloved Belgian state.

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Like a patient undergoing aversion therapy, the European Union is painfully learning to kick the referendum habit. The Dutch government decided last Friday it would ratify the EU’s Reform Treaty without a referendum. The British and Danes intend to follow suit. Less well-known, at least outside France, is that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government in Paris is thinking of joining the club – albeit from a different angle. They want to change a clause added to the French constitution in 2005 that requires a referendum to approve the entry of all would-be new EU member-states after Croatia, which is expected to join a few years from now.

The principle behind aversion therapy is pretty simple and not very nice. To suppress an undesirable habit, you make the patient associate it with unpleasant side effects. So, if you are the EU and you have a habit of holding referendums, you make sure the referendums go the wrong way.And that they certainly have, on several occasions between 1992 and 2005. Aaarghh! Can you feel the benefits already?

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Anyone wanting to learn what Brussels means by better regulation should look at its developing policy on nutrition and obesity.

Rather than hand down directives, the Commission’s health directorate (Sanco) in 2005 corralled food companies, lobbyists, scientists and campaigners into a discussion group and encouraged industry to make voluntary commitments to improve products, reduce advertising to children and so on.

Robert Madelin, the oracle of Sanco and architect of the approach, has just spoken again. Rare among Commission director-generals, Mr Madelin, schooled in the UK and France, is comfortable talking to the media and happy to be seen working with businesses.

When his political boss, Markos Kyprianou, invited companies to present their commitments on cutting fat and salt in products in the Commission’s press room, the journalist’s lobby group wrote to complain about misuse of “neutral” ground.

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What more is there to say about the Court of First Instance’s landmark, historic, unprecedented etc etc ruling in the Microsoft case? Quite a lot, I fear. But given the avalanche of commentary and analysis that Monday’s judgement has already attracted, I will restrict myself to just one issue.

How will – or how should – Microsoft react to its thumping defeat at the hands of the EU’s second-highest court?

The group itself will certainly take some days or weeks to study the ruling before drawing any firm conclusions, but I would not be surprised if Microsoft comes up with a rather more radical response than we are used from the slow-moving software behemoth. After Monday’s devastating defeat, "business as usual" is simply not an option.

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Central bankers never criticise each other in public. It’s an iron rule of global finance. And so it proved last weekend when EU finance ministers and central bankers gathered in the sunny Portuguese city of Porto.

Jean-Claude Trichet, the European Central Bank president, was offered the chance at a news conference to have a dig at Mervyn King, his Bank of England counterpart. The UK central bank had just agreed to provide emergency funds to Northern Rock, the beleaguered bank and mortgage lender. Only a few days earlier, King had made a hard-hitting speech that ruled out special assistance to institutions and investors that might be nursing losses because of risky activities.

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It’s three months today since Belgium held a general election, and still there’s no new government. 

To recap: after the poll, Yves Leterme, a Flemish Christian Democrat, was poised to be the next premier.

But talks on forming a coalition of French, and Dutch, speaking-parties are deadlocked. The weird thing is how easily you can forget this.

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This report on the EU’s broadband market just landed in my inbox.

It’s by Ecta, a lobby group representing new telecoms companies that take on big, former state-run “incumbent” operators.

The study shows that EU broadband subscriptions have risen and are drawing level with the US and Japan. That said, the proportion of people signing up varies widely across member states and competition is weak in some countries.

One key point in the paper: in Britain, where regulators took radical action to split BT, the big telecoms group, the market is doing well and competition has increased.

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