Monthly Archives: January 2009

In his recent inaugural address in Washington, President Barack Obama said “the time has come to set aside childish things”. Evidently the leaders of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia weren’t listening.

They have just done an unbelievably childish thing and named their section of a major north-south trans-European highway – known in Eurospeak as “Corridor 10″ – after Alexander the Great. In 2007, they renamed Skopje airport after him. Read more

I was talking this week with Graham Watson, leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament, about the forthcoming elections to the legislature, and I was struck by two points he made.

“The European Parliament is now the most powerful institution in the European Union, but hasn’t recognised it,” he said. And later on: ”The big question about the elections is, is the turnout going to slip further? I think not, and it may even start climbing again.” Read more

This morning I found myself on a public platform in a Brussels hotel for my first ever European bloggers’ conference. As a representative of an “establishment” news organisation, I was half-expecting to be roasted alive. But in the end both Mark Mardell of the BBC, my friend and fellow-guest, and I got through it safely enough.

The most perceptive contribution, I thought, came from a Romanian blogger who made the point that the global blogosphere remains to a large extent divided by language. For example, you can blog all you like in Romanian, but most of the world won’t have a clue what you’re saying. Read more

Excuse the pun, but the Arctic is a hot topic in Brussels these days. So hot that I and many others struggled through wintry rain and darkness this morning to hear Elisabeth Walaas, Norway’s state secretary for foreign affairs, give a talk on the challenges facing the High North.

By now, the facts are well-known. The Arctic region is thought to contain huge energy resources, perhaps as much as 20 per cent of the world’s undiscovered, technically recoverable reserves. In an age of dwindling fossil fuel supplies, the temptation to exploit these resources is irresistible. Read more

José Manuel Barroso’s campaign for a second term as European Commission president is coming along nicely. Last week he secured a public endorsement for the first time from Gordon Brown, the UK premier.

Of course, it’s hardly a campaign in the normal democratic sense. European voters aren’t directly involved. The vast majority probably has no idea what’s going on. The selection of the Commission president, one of Europe’s most powerful jobs, rests with the 27 leaders of the European Union’s member-states. Read more

For millions around the world, Barack Obama’s inauguration as US president on Tuesday is surely going to be one of those moments that stays in the memory forever. But if you were to compile a list of the Top Ten American Moments of your life – limited strictly to events that you can remember – where would it rank?

Here, in chronological order, are my Top Ten (I include popular culture as well as politics, and I exclude everything unless I have a personal memory of it): Read more

Am I imagining it, or are we seeing more and more public hoaxes? During last year’s US election campaign, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was fooled by a French-Canadian talk show host into thinking she was having a conversation with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Let’s go hunting some time, she suggested brightly.

During the 2007 French presidential campaign, Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal fell for a similar trick and told an interviewer masquerading as the premier of Quebec that most French people would support independence for Corsica. Royal lost the election. Read more

Credit ratings agencies are in the doghouse in Brussels, both for their supposed role in making the financial market crisis worse than it need have been, and for their alleged failure thereafter to put their houses quickly enough in order.

But that isn’t deterring the agencies from taking a hard look at the way Europe’s recession is straining the public finances of certain governments in and out of the euro area. Read more

Negotiating with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and former president, is hard enough even when Europe’s relations with the Kremlin are going well – which they haven’t been for some while. For an insight into Putin’s brutal, hard as nails character, have a look at the official Russian government transcript of a conversation he had with some Moscow-based western reporters last week.

The discussion, which centres on the shut-off of Russian gas deliveries to the European Union via Ukraine, turns at one point to the possible deployment of EU monitors along the pipeline route through Ukrainian territory. “We hope that the issue will be resolved expeditiously. We don’t want a group of men and women to come to Kiev and just sit in a hotel and sip horilka [Ukrainian vodka],” Putin says. Read more

It’s been a turbulent start to the Czech Republic’s European Union presidency – and nowhere more so than in foreign policy and energy policy, both of which are intimately linked to the EU’s relations with Russia. Some European pundits are worried that the Czechs – with their Soviet bloc past, present-day anti-communism, strong emphasis on human rights, and plans to host part of a US anti-missile shield on Czech soil – are simply the wrong people to represent the EU in its dealings with Russia over the next six months.

So what does Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg think of that argument? “It comes from the erroneous perception that the Czech Republic has special prejudices or even hatreds towards Russia,” he told me and some other Brussels-based reporters in Prague this week. Read more

On Wednesday evening in Prague arrived the moment pro-European Union Czechs had been dreading. On the very day that the Czech Republic and the European Commission held a formal ceremony to inaugurate the six-month Czech presidency of the EU, out came Vaclav Klaus to spoil the party.

The setting was Prague Castle, the seat of office of the Czech head of state, and Klaus and Commission president José  Manuel Barroso had agreed to spend 20 minutes with the press after their talks. Read more

If you were to give Nicolas Sarkozy the benefit of the doubt, you would say that one reason for his current diplomatic foray into the Middle East is his deeply held belief that the European Union needs strong, energetic, high-profile leadership to make its influence count in the world.

If you were to take a more sceptical view, you would say that Sarkozy enjoyed running France’s six-month EU presidency so much that, when it came to an end on December 31, he simply couldn’t bring himself to move out of the spotlight. Read more