Monthly Archives: October 2007

Congratulations to Nicolas Sarkozy! Although nothing’s official yet, it looks pretty certain that the French president’s fellow European leaders have signed up for his pet project of a "wise men’s committee" to make proposals about what the European Union should look like, and what it should be doing, 20 to 30 years from now. Formal approval for the project is expected at an EU summit in December.

It would be easy to deride the committee, assuming it gets the green light, as yet another case of a dozen European paperclips in search of a document. But the mood in Brussels is rather upbeat at the moment, following the deal on the EU’s institutional reform treaty in Lisbon. So let’s ask ourselves the most fascinating question of all. Who will serve on Sarkozy’s committee?

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Can the common agricultural policy survive a dose of sunshine? Farm ministers on Monday agreed to publish for the first time details of the recipients of the 54 billion euro common agricultural policy. From 2008 anybody should be able to find out how much the farmer next door is getting from the taxpayer, which could undermine support for the 50-year-old policy.

The problem is that much of the cash goes not to John Barleycorn scraping a living from a few fields in Scotland, but to AN Agribusiness, hovering up subsidies as quickly and efficiently as a combine harvester. Names such as Nestle and Tate and Lyle are prominent.

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As someone with twin brothers of my own, not to mention a few memories of Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the organised crime twins who once terrorised London’s East End, I had mixed feelings about Poland’s Kaczynski twins, Lech and Jaroslaw, right from the start.

But now that Jaroslaw has suffered a crushing defeat in last Sunday’s Polish general election and must give up the premiership, a job he held for just 15 months, only the most heartless of bloggers would crow at his misfortune. Read more

The case of the disappearing MEP may be the most baffling of all the mysteries contained in the new EU reform treaty. Others include the decision by 27 presumably busy leaders to fly to Lisbon to sign the wretched thing a day before they all meet in Brussels. Presumably this cost in time, taxpayer’s money and carbon emissions is the price to pay to thank the Portuguese for putting the “Lisbon treaty” to rest.

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They say English is the European Union’s lingua franca these days, and for better or worse it probably is. But a knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese turns out to be very handy as well.

At the EU’s Lisbon summit on approving the long-awaited institutional reform treaty, Luís Amado, Portugal’s foreign minister, emerged late in the evening to update the press on the progress that EU leaders were making. Read more

For those who admire the European Union’s matchless ability to inject an element of farce into the highest political dramas, the dispute over how to spell "euro" in Bulgarian is a collector’s item. Here we are on the eve of the EU’s vital October 18-19 summit in Lisbon, summoned to put an end to years of agonising over the EU’s internal institutional arrangements, and the question bothering everyone is whether to let the Bulgarians spell euro "evro".

It reminds me of the monumental fuss that broke out in 19th century Austria-Hungary over whether the Habsburg Empire’s central institutions should be called "kaiserlich-königlich" (k-k, imperial-royal) or "kaiserlich und königlich" (k und k, imperial and royal). We all know how that ended – a world war and a 1,700-page novel by Robert Musil. Read more

One of the big upcoming stories in EU-land is the planned expansion of the union’s passport-free zone by the year-end.

It’s a tough task for the nine (almost all ex-Communist) countries to meet the criteria to join the Schengen area. (There are no internal frontier controls between member states that sign up to Schengen). In Wednesday’s paper, we wrote about the progress of the countries vying to join. The confidential report that we saw shows that a lot of work is still needed – especially on improving visa issuance. But some countries, notably Poland, have made great strides.

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Jose Barroso file picture

Like many children of the 1960s, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, the European Commission president, was a youthful communist. Now firmly on the centre-right, he explains his Maoism as a natural reaction to the autocratic regime running Portugal at the time. The young Barroso was a radical student leader during the Carnation Revolution of 1975 and some footage of those turbulent times has surfaced on YouTube recapturing those heady days. It’s certainly a far cry from pushing paper at the Berlaymont and may not be a time Barroso wants to remember. However, though the clip has disappeared from YouTube, he won’t be able to forget it. A Portuguese MEP has emailed it to the entire staff of the European parliament.

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Diplomats are brought up on charm and courtesy like babies on milk. So it’s always a pleasure to listen to one whose formative years must have involved a certain familiarity with chilli and Tabasco. Meet Vladimir Chizhov, Russia’s energetic and forceful ambassador to the European Union.

At a conference this week of the Friends of Europe think-tank, one speaker after another voiced concern about Russia’s resurgence as a world power under Vladimir Putin. The EU needed to strengthen its institutions so that Europe could speak with one voice in foreign policy, not least to Russia, they said.

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An intriguing twist in a tale that is fast turning into one of the best dramas in the Brussels law-making machine.

It’s all to do with whether some of the biggest telecoms companies in the EU – such as Deutsche Telekom – could be forced to change the way they work, as part of efforts to bolster broadband development.

On Wednesday, the EU’s national telecoms watchdogs unanimously backed a plan that would give them the right to break up large operators if other regulatory tools had failed.

So, regulators like the idea of having more power. Big deal?

Actually, it is…

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Remember the battle of the square root, Poland’s chaotic manoeuvre at June’s summit in Brussels to win more voting rights? Warsaw wanted votes weighted according to the square root of population and at least fought back the advance of reform for a few years.

Now brace yourself for the citizens’ war, this time led by Italy. The early skirmishes are being fought in the European parliament but the front could yet move to Lisbon, complicating EU leaders’ hopes of finally laying the reform treaty to rest.

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One industry doing well out of Belgium’s political crisis is flagmaking. The red, yellow and black tricolour is sprouting from homes across Brussels as people express their support for the continuance of the multilingual state.

The movement has even crept into Dutch-speaking Flanders, where around 40 per cent of people want independence. A tipping point has been reached in my street on the edge of Brussels. On Sunday afternoon one of the 40 houses was flying the flag. By nighttime there were 11. Read more

Nicolas Sarkozy’s  proposal for a "wise men’s committee " to meditate on the European Union’s long-term future, and to report back in the first half of 2009, is ruffling all sorts of feathers around the EU. As Margot Wallström, the European Commission vice-president responsible for communication strategy, put it the other day: "Wise men? What about the wise women? And since this group is expected to work out solutions for the future of Europe, should we not involve young people?"

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