Monthly Archives: February 2009

According to a combination of 19 national opinion polls, the winner of the June 2009 European Parliament elections will be the centre-right European People’s Party, which is projected to pick up 265 of the 736 available seats. The Socialists are predicted to win 195 seats and the liberals 95, with the rest divided among the far left, Greens and rightwing nationalists.

The centre-right is therefore on track to remain the parliament’s largest force, an outcome that would boost José Manuel Barroso’s chances of reappointment as European Commission president. Read more

It was the late, great Frank Zappa who said you’re not a real country unless you have a beer and an airline.

Well, Lithuania certainly has the first – a rich, golden brew known as Svyturys. But since January 23, when the main national carrier, flyLAL, declared bankruptcy, it hasn’t had the second. The result, as I discovered last week, is that it is harder to travel to Lithuania than any of the European Union’s other 26 member-states. Read more

A few new rules for financial market supervision, a potentially bigger role for the European Central Bank, but no single European regulator. That, in a nutshell, is the message of today’s long-awaited report on how the European Union should reform the regulation of its financial sector.

The report was prepared by a committee of experts led by Jacques de Larosière, the former French central bank governor and International Monetary Fund managing director. It’s likely to set the framework for Europe’s stance at the April 2 G20 talks in London on reshaping the world financial system. Read more

Perhaps I’m getting Marxist in my old age, but would it be wrong to suggest that economics is driving most things political in Belarus these days? That’s to say, does the world economic crisis explain the very modest gestures in the direction of political liberalisation that have recently been taken in what is emphatically Europe’s most tightly controlled state?

At the start of this year, with its economy tottering, Belarus devalued its currency by 20 per cent and negotiated a $2.5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund. Belarus has also secured a pledge of $2bn in credits from Russia, the giant neighbour from which it receives almost all its energy supplies at subsidised prices. Belarus has large debt repayments looming. The fact is, Belarus is in deep economic trouble and won’t get out of it without help from the IMF, the European Union and – let this not be forgotten in Western countries – Russia. Read more

Every year, back in communist times, British university students learning Russian used to get the chance to spend three months in the Soviet Union. If you were sent to Moscow or Leningrad (now St Petersburg), you’d hit the jackpot: wild times and minimal amounts of study were guaranteed. Kiev was held to be pretty good, too. But nobody, nobody at all, wanted to go to Minsk. It was as if a Russian learning English had hoped to go to London and found himself instead in Stoke-on-Trent.

Minsk, capital of what used to be called Soviet Byelorussia, and from 1991 the capital of independent Belarus, has changed quite a bit since then. But not in all respects. When I was there on a short trip last week, I found it hard to take my eyes off the huge Soviet-era sign in the middle of town that declares Minsk a “hero city” for its part in the victory over Nazi Germany. Belarus must be one of the few places on earth where the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution is still officially celebrated – not to mention “Tankmen’s Day”, another public holiday with Soviet military origins. Read more

Members of the European Parliament have devised a scale for classifying documents, from “EU restricted” to “EU top secret”, for documents whose unauthorised disclosure could harm the interests of the European Union or its member states. Documents on legislative procedures won’t be classified.

Here’s the latest news from a Milan courtroom … Read more

Apart from all their summits on the recession and financial crisis, European Union leaders are planning to get together in Prague on May 7 to launch something called the “Eastern Partnership”. This is an initiative designed to draw six post-Soviet states – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – closer to the EU, without holding out an explicit promise of membership at some future date.

Let’s hope that fate treats the Eastern Partnership more kindly than it has done the EU’s Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), a similar initiative for the bloc’s southern neighbours. This project, the brainchild of French President NIcolas Sarkozy, was launched in Paris to great fanfare in July. Then it nose-dived in January when the Gaza war broke out. Read more

Last week I met Ivan Simonovic, justice minister of Croatia, whose bid to join the European Union in 2011 or 2012 depends to a great extent on how well the EU authorities judge the nation’s struggle against organised crime and corruption is going.  Simonovic, an energetic reformer of Croatia’s judicial system, told me that Croatia now had “a stronger system of prevention and suppression of organised crime than in many European Union countries”.

He didn’t mention any countries by name, but it may have been no coincidence that on the same day the European Commission published its latest reports on Bulgaria and Romania, easily the two most corruption-ridden EU member-states. The report on Bulgaria struck me as surprisingly mild, permitting Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev to describe it as “a clear, encouraging signal that we are on the right track”. Still, the report’s final sentence pulled no punches: “No major court decisions on high-profile cases of organised crime have been taken in recent months.” Read more

The European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee lent support to the Greek Cypriot government of Cyprus this week by passing a resolution (65 for, four against and one abstention) that calls on Turkey to withdraw its military forces from the divided island in order to promote a negotiated settlement. 

According to Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, the selfish economic nationalism of certain eurozone countries “has deformed the joint project of the euro more than any other imaginable event”. Is Europe’s monetary union at risk as a result of narrow-minded, reckless or incompetent government responses to the financial crisis?

Undeniably, the recent sharp widening in spreads between Germany’s bond yields and those of countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal points to unprecedented strains in the 16-nation eurozone. Moreover, the gap in business competitiveness between Germany and many of its partners is a serious long-term concern. Read more

The bad feeling between France and the Czech Republic is finally out there for everyone to see. For anyone who likes their European Union united, it is not a pretty sight.

Suspicion was in the air even before the Czechs took over the EU’s rotating presidency from France on January 1. The French doubted that the Czechs would be up to the job. The Czechs sensed that President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to stay in the spotlight even after the end of France’s six-month EU presidency. “Old Europe” was in the red corner, “new Europe” was in the blue, and Round One was about to start. Read more

The European Commission’s spring 2009 Eurobarometer poll on public attitudes towards the European Union should be the most interesting in a long while. No such survey has been conducted with Europe’s financial system in such precarious condition and its economic outlook so grim. Large drops in output are forecast everywhere: a 4.9 per cent contraction of the economy this year in Lithuania, 4 per cent in Ireland, 2.3 per cent in Germany, 2 per cent in Italy.  To some extent, this will surely be reflected in a blacker public mood across the EU.

Yet in their most recent survey, carried out in autumn 2008,  the Commission’s pollsters cautioned that “the division of countries by positive and negative trends does not necessarily reflect the economic outlook in these countries, although some countries show a correlation”. People can have good feelings about the EU, so the argument goes, even if their economies are in recession and they’re losing their jobs. Read more

Welcome to a new feature of the blog. Once a week I will pick something that has caught my eye at the European Parliament and highlight it in the blog. Not long from now, I will switch to the forthcoming European Parliament election campaign. But for the moment, here we go:

This week it’s the parliament’s vote urging European Union governments to accept inmates from the Guantánamo prison camp if the US so asks them. The resolution was passed by an overwhelming 542 to 55 majority, with 51 abstentions. Read more

Ever since it looked probable that Barack Obama would win last year’s US presidential election, European governments have fretted about how they would react if, upon taking office, he asked them for a bigger military contribution to the US-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The war isn’t going down well with European public opinion, especially in Germany and Italy. On the other hand, you can hardly say No to the man you were desperate to see replace George W. Bush in the Oval Office.

Perhaps the Europeans have been asking themselves the wrong question. The evidence is growing that Obama will fundamentally rethink US policies and recognise that there are more desirable – and achievable – goals in Afghanistan than a traditional military victory. The appointments of Richard Holbrooke as the special US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of Karl Eikenberry as the next US ambassador to Kabul, are part of this picture. Read more

The Vatican is scurrying to make peace with the world’s Jewish communities after Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to rehabilitate Richard Williamson, a British-born bishop who has denied the full extent of the Holocaust. But what else is there to know about Williamson? Quite a bit, it turns out.

The ultra-conservative Williamson, 68, was thrown out of the Roman Catholic Church in 1988, not for Holocaust denial but for being ordained without the Vatican’s permission. Last month, the pope lifted the excommunication in a manner that made him look more interested in healing the Church’s schism than in considering the impact of Williamson’s reinstatement on Jews and others. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the influential liberal prelate responsible for the Church’s religious relations with Jews, acknowledges that the Vatican mishandled the affair. Read more

Almost 20 years after the end of the Cold War, it is sobering to see how military and security policy decisions taken in Washington and Moscow can still shape the fate of Europe. Take the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, which sets out to reform the EU’s institutional arrangements.

The treaty, rejected by Irish voters last June but still viewed in official EU circles as an absolute necessity, is perhaps the last foreign policy issue on the mind of either Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin. But the US president and Russian prime minister are making overtures to each other on Europe-based missile and anti-missile shield systems that may damage the treaty’s prospects of ever coming into effect. Most EU leaders would see that as a great loss: they fear Europe won’t be able to project its influence effectively on the world stage unless the Lisbon reforms are in force. Read more