Belgians are about to find out whether it’s easier to write a haiku than form a government.
King Albert II has asked Herman Van Rompuy, the 61-year-old head of Belgium’s lower house of parliament, to put together a government following the collapse of Yves Leterme’s coalition a mere nine months after it took office.
Turkey should almost be pleased. On Friday the European Union agreed to open two new “chapters”, or policy areas, in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations – on the free movement of capital and on information society and the media. The Czech Republic, which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency from France on January 1, hopes to open two more chapters during its six-month spell in charge.
So out of the 35 chapters that need to be completed before a country can join the EU, Turkey now has 10 open and could have 12 open by June 30. Whoopee! At this rate, all 35 will be open by some time in 2015. Except, of course, that certain western European governments have no intention of letting Turkey into the EU at all. Moreover, eight of Turkey’s negotiating chapters were frozen two years ago because the EU disapproves of Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to trade with Cyprus. All in all, far from moving steadily forwards, Turkey’s accession talks are going nowhere fast.
The European Union’s much-touted €200bn fiscal stimulus package is looking more and more like one of those trick cigars I remember from years ago. A trick cigar looks like a cigar. It even feels like a cigar. But when you try to smoke it, nothing happens.
In the case of the EU’s fiscal stimulus – an initiative designed to pull Europe out of its deep recession, and approved by EU leaders at last week’s summit in Brussels – one gets the distinct feeling that someone somewhere is trying to pull wool over the general public’s eyes. The €200bn is there on paper, but there is not much evidence of it in the real world.
So, there is to be another Irish referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty – probably in September or October 2009. When the news emerged at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, I didn’t hear anyone cheering.
This wasn’t only because no one can confidently predict that the Irish will vote Yes next time. Another reason is that the delicate, behind-the-scenes negotiations that have gone on to permit the second referendum are not, in fact, finished.
More than six weeks ago, I drew attention to the way that the global financial crisis was testing the eurozone’s stability by widening the yield spreads between German and other government bonds. This topic won’t exactly dominate the two-day European Union summit that starts in Brussels on Thursday, but you know what? Perhaps some leader or other - Angela Merkel, for example - should mention it.
Because the fact is that the problem is more serious today than it was in late October. Back then, the spread between German and Italian 10-year bonds was 95.6 basis points, compared with 72.3 a week earlier, 69.6 a month earlier and 25.8 a year earlier. Today the spread is 129.9 basis points, compared with 122.8 a week earlier, 91.9 a month earlier and 26.9 a year earlier.
One of the pleasures of the Czech Republic’s forthcoming presidency of the European Union will be to watch in action a thoughtful, humorous, bow-tied 71-year-old who rejoices in the name of Karl Johannes Nepomuk Josef Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena, prince of Schwarzenberg. Karel Schwarzenberg, as he is better known, has served as the Czech foreign minister for the past two years, and I caught up with him over breakfast.
An old friend of Vaclav Havel, the philosopher-playwright who became the Czech head of state after the anti-communist Velvet Revolution of 1989, Schwarzenberg will have the task of keeping the Czech ship on a steady course at a time when quite a few other EU countries are worried about how Prague will handle its six months in the hot seat. Schwarzenberg is diplomatic elegance personified but, as with Havel, that doesn’t mean he’s afraid to speak his mind.
No one can complain that France, as it completes its six-month spell in charge of the European Union, isn’t extracting every last drop of blood, sweat and tears from the officials and diplomats based in Brussels and EU national capitals.
A recent meeting on climate change and energy policy, attended by deputy ambassadors from the EU’s 27 member-states, started at 10:00 on a Friday morning - usually the quietest day of the EU’s working week, when it is not unknown for some staff to slip away for an early weekend. At French insistence, this meeting did not end until a bone-creaking, ghost-eyed 6:00 on Saturday morning.
To get a sense of how the financial turmoil and economic recession are reshaping European politics, take a look at the socialists’ manifesto for next June’s European Parliament elections. “This crisis marks the end of a conservative era of badly regulated markets. Conservatives believe in a market society and letting the rich get richer, to the detriment of everyone else. We believe in a social market economy…”
When they plotted their strategy, socialist leaders across Europe clearly decided that their best line of rhetorical attack would be to paint their opponents as reckless advocates of unrestrained free market economics. “The conservatives often talk about economic and social crises as if they are unavoidable, a law of nature… Conservatives have pursued a policy of blind faith in the market – serving the interests of the few rather than the general public…”
What fun it is to predict the future! You can paint the most outrageous scenarios, and no one can prove you’re wrong because they haven’t happened yet.
This thought crossed my mind when I was reading Global Trends 2025, the report published last month by the US intelligence community. Here is the bit where they talk about the risk of a global pandemic: “Tens to hundreds of millions of Americans within the US homeland would become ill and deaths would mount into the tens of millions. Outside the US, critical infrastructure degradation and economic loss on a global scale would result, as approximately a third of the worldwide population became ill and hundreds of millions died.”