Monthly Archives: March 2008

Jacques Barrot must be a mean poker player. The European transport commissioner has often been dealt a weak hand in negotiations. Yet he has managed on many occasions to outwit, or outbluff, his opponents.To name just one, he has steered the Galileo satellite navigation system to the launch pad amid bickering among EU members over how to pay for it and who should build it. But now he faces his toughest test: convincing the US to yield control of its airlines to Europeans. Barrot had to drop this demand to get a transatlantic open skies deal that should boost traffic across the ocean and lower prices when it comes into force on March 30. The UK, which had previously blocked such a deal because it did not want to widen access to the lucrative Heathrow hub without US concessions, was forced into agreeing to the deal after the other EU governments backed it. But it added an important caveat. Unless the US lifted restrictions that limit foreign companies ownership of its airlines to 25 per cent in second stage negotiations the deal would be scrapped. While the US administration agrees with the change, Congress opposes it.

Talks on the second stage begin in May. Barrot says he will now employ his Gallic charm to sweet-talk the airline unions into accepting that European owners would not treat them worse than American ones. Read more

Tony Barber

Like the proverbial mad aunt, Turkey is a topic most European Union governments prefer these days to keep locked well out of sight. But if the EU isn’t careful, it will discover one day that the aunt, quite sanely, has decided she doesn’t want to be part of the family anyway.

I was reminded of this on Monday at a European Policy Centre think-tank discussion in Brussels. A questioner asked me and the other panellists if the EU’s newly proposed “Union for the Mediterranean” would harm Turkey’s EU membership bid. Read more

Tony Barber

As European Union summits go, the March 13-14 event in Brussels is turning out to be short, sedate and – dare one say it – soporific. It’s Friday morning now – day two – and the 27 national leaders won’t even be sticking around for a group lunch. People are wandering around the venue, the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels, with summit badges, mobile phones and that look on their faces which says: “If 99 per cent of life is just being there, at an EU summit it’s 100 per cent.”

Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s performance at a midnight press conference was as thin as a crêpe dentelle. He claimed his fellow EU leaders had welcomed his call for a Mediterranean Union “with great enthusiasm” at a dinner on Thursday evening. But I have run into delegates from at least four countries who say the idea was approved in an “oh, well, let him have his toy if he wants it” sort of way. Read more

An even more surreal session of the European parliament than usual in Strasbourg this week. The “highlight” was what is known in euroland as a “solemn ceremony” to mark 5o years since the assembly was born.  It seems an odd title for a celebration. At least there was a birthday cake – and plenty of fizz, of course.

Solemnity there was, with the Ode to Joy, the EU’s putative anthem played by the European Youth Orchestra, marked by many members getting to their feet. But jollity, too, with much backslapping and some wonderful music. See more here. Read more

Tony Barber

According to a joke doing the rounds in Brussels, two Eurocrats are discussing the EU’s Russia policy. “ I wonder what are things going to be like after President Putin,” says one. “Hard to say,” replies the other. “A lot will depend on the new prime minister.”The new prime minister will, of course, be none other than Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president for the past eight years.

To some, that suggests little immediate change in the truculent tone of Russia’s dealings with the EU over recent years. Putin himself told German chancellor Angela Merkel last Saturday that Dmitry Medvedev, his hand-picked successor, would defend Russia’s interests just as strongly as he has done. Read more

In many ways, continental Europe is increasingly an area without borders (viz the euro single currency, cheaper cross-border mobile phone calls, the enlarged passport-free travel zone).

But not everything works seamlessly. Read more

Some breaking news to add to my post of yesterday about MEPs’ allowances and excesses, sorry expenses. The wall of silence surrounding the confidential internal audit report into employment of assistants is breaking down. Paul van Buitenen, the whistleblower who brought down the Commission of Jacques Santer in 1999, is responsible. Now a Green MEP, he read the report and has just published a summary of it.

Having said that, Jens-Peter Bonde, a veteran eurosceptic from Denmark, is now claiming that there is a second, even more top-secret report. That one contains names and has not been read by any MEPs or sent over to Olaf, the anti-fraud agency, he says. Read more

Tony Barber

Remember the European Union’s “Lisbon Agenda“? Adopted by EU leaders almost exactly eight years ago, it was a programme that promised to turn the 27-nation bloc into “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world” by 2010. 

Such was the lack of progress towards this laudable goal that by November 2004 an expert group led by former Dutch premier Wim Kok concluded that the Lisbon Agenda risked becoming “a synonym for missed objectives and failed promises”.

Today, the picture looks a whole lot rosier – at least if you believe the latest analysis prepared for the Lisbon Council think-tank by Michael Heise, chief economist of the Allianz Dresdner group in Germany. ”Despite the decade-long defeatism of the cynics, Lisbon is working,” says his report. Read more

There seem to be as many opinions on what the European parliament should do about the fuss over abuse of the expenses regime as there are MEPs. That is part of the charm of the place. But if there is one thing all 785 should be able to agree on it is that the scandal is not going to die down. And with elections next year, that should give them an incentive to do something about it.

It began, you may recall, with Liberal MEP Chris Davies publicising some of the contents of an internal audit into the arrangements for paying staff. Members get around 16,000 euros a month for employing staff and there are only as many checks as they themselves institute. Read more