Monthly Archives: March 2009

They say newspapers are the first draft of history. Here I’m on a mission to prove that blogs are the second draft.

The piece of history I have in mind is the European Union summit of March 19-20, when the bloc’s 27 leaders issued a statement pledging €75bn in new EU contributions to the International Monetary Fund to help fight the global economic crisis. This commitment was duly reported in the Financial Times and other newspapers and was the “first version of history”. Read more

When she talks about her government’s forthcoming European Union presidency, Cecilia Malmström, Sweden’s European affairs minister, likes to quote the late John Lennon: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Given the EU’s troubles with its frozen Lisbon reform treaty, it might have been equally apt to cite the lyrics in Lennon’s 1968 song, ‘Revolution’: “You say you’ll change the constitution/ Well, you know/ We all want to change your head.” Read more

The European Parliament, looking to strengthen institutional ties between the US and the European Union, called this week for the creation of a transatlantic political council to co-ordinate foreign and security policy.  The council would be chaired jointly by the US secretary of state and the EU’s high representative for foreign policy and would meet at least every three months. 

The parliament also called for the establishment of a transatlantic assembly, linking the EU legislature with the US Congress, which would meet twice a year. It said the EU and US should aim for a unified transatlantic market by 2015. Read more

When he’s not busy lashing out at American economic policies, the free-falling Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek can always give free rein to the other side of his personality – mordant central European humour. Here’s an example from a press conference last week at a European Union summit in Brussels.

A reporter asked Topolanek, whose government collapsed on Monday and whose country’s EU presidency is turning into a long bad dream, why the six summit participants represented at the press conference were all men, with not a woman in sight. ‘Why, were you expecting Martians?’ the prime minister replied. Read more

The knives were well and truly out for Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek at the European Parliament this morning. Topolanek, blaming the fall of his government on Tuesday on his domestic Social Democrat opponents, blithely assured legislators in Strasbourg that there would be no impact on the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Union.

Not surprisingly, this prompted a stern lecture from Martin Schulz, the German head of the parliament’s socialist group. “You are a fighter, but so far you haven’t understood what the task of the EU presidency is,” Schulz told the hapless Czech premier. Read more

It’s one of the most eagerly awaited events of the European Union’s 2009 political calendar. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is giving a speech on Tuesday to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and everyone who’s anyone in Europe wants to be there to hear it.

One reason is that people remember the last time a UK premier addressed the EU legislature. It was Tony Blair in June 2005, and those who were present recall it as one of the finest speeches of his entire political life. Looking at Blair’s speech almost four years later, how well does it hold up? Read more

The European Parliament this week launched its promotion campaign for next June’s elections to the legislature. Among the publicity material are postcards asking questions such as “How should we help balance family and career?”, “How much labelling do we need?” and “What should cars run on?”

Like the animals that boarded Noah’s Ark, Europe’s leaders are entering their summit conference centre in Brussels today with the world’s economic floodwaters rising around them. According to the Book of Genesis, Noah was almost 600 years old when the rains started. That surely makes him the Old Testament forerunner of Jean-Claude Juncker, Europe’s longest-serving leader. The gaunt-looking Juncker has been prime minister of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg since 1995 and its finance minister since 1989.

As the leaders climb on board for their two-day European Union summit, it is eerie to hear them, one by one, saying exactly the same thing.  “We don’t need to do a new fiscal stimulus… Any room near the lifeboats over there?”  “We don’t need another fiscal stimulus… I’ll just squeeze in here by the bilge water.”  “Another fiscal stimulus? We don’t need one… Pass me a life jacket, would you?” Read more

Short of giving him a pair of horns and a forked tail, it’s hard to see how you could make the people who run institutional Europe dislike Declan Ganley more than they do now. Ganley is the British-born, multimillionaire Irish businessman who spoiled the European Union’s party last June by spearheading a successful campaign to persuade Irish voters to reject the EU’s Lisbon treaty. The Irish vote threw the EU into a state of organisational confusion from which it has not recovered to this day.

Now Libertas, Ganley’s political movement, is putting up local candidates across the EU for next June’s European Parliament elections. Ganley himself will stand for the constituency of Ireland North West. It is clear that Libertas will run a highly populist campaign – in one recent statement, it attacked a European Parliament decision to “go ahead with building a €9m gym and pool in Brussels which only MEPs and parliament staff can access… The move to go ahead with it while families across the EU are facing financial hardship shows a complete lack of respect for the people of Europe.” Read more

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis is a strong believer in the benign powers of European Union diplomacy – and in the seductive qualities of sunny Greek islands. This explains why, as the current chairperson of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), she is proposing that all 56 OSCE countries send their foreign ministers to a Greek island in July for some serious but informal talks on European security.

“We’d have more than 24 hours of really open talks, without any restrictions,” she told me enthusiastically this morning in Brussels. Read more

Once upon a time a certain corner of Europe was known as Yugoslavia. Then it became former Yugoslavia or, for pointy-heads, the Yugoslav successor states. Now, with Slovenia in the European Union, Brussels has packaged what’s left of the old Yugoslavia with Albania and relabelled it “the western Balkans” – but the problems remain as intractably Yugoslav as ever.

Take Bosnia-Herzegovina, where EU foreign ministers today named Valentin Inzko, a high-ranking Austrian diplomat, as the bloc’s new Special Representative. Inzko will wear two hats – he was named the world’s High Representative for Bosnia last week. But it will be something of a miracle if he makes any progress towards bringing the Bosnian state off the international life support machine on which it has depended since the end of the 1992-95 civil war. Read more

The European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee adopted a report this week that would limit the role of the future European Union president, a job that will be created next year if the EU’s LIsbon treaty comes into effect.

The committee says the president should “represent” the EU’s heads of state and government in foreign policy matters, but not “assume the power to conduct political negotiations in the name of the Union”. Read more

Among the various headaches keeping European Union leaders awake at night is the prospect of a thumping Conservative victory in the UK’s next general election, which must be held by June 2010. The fear is that the new Tory government would be so anti-EU that it would make the 1979-1997 governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major look like Jacques Delors’s European Commission in its heyday.

The nightmare inched one step closer on Wednesday when the Conservatives confirmed their intention of leaving the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament’s main centre-right political group. This is a club with members from all over the 27-nation bloc. It is the largest group in the parliament, with about 37 per cent of the seats, and it will probably retain that position after June’s European Parliament elections. Read more

At long last, the message is getting across that, as far as the financial crisis is concerned, it makes no sense to view the ex-communist countries of central and eastern Europe as one homogenous bloc. European Union policymakers, both in Brussels and at national level, have been trying to make this point for some months. Only now, perhaps, is it really sinking home.

For example, a report by Moody’s credit ratings agency on Tuesday drew a clear distinction between various countries in the region. Some, such as Hungary, rashly allowed a huge expansion in credit in recent years, much in the form of foreign currency-denominated mortgage loans. Others, such as the Czech Republic, did not. The first group is more vulnerable, even if much will ultimately depend on the willingness of western European banks to continue supplying funds to the regional banks they own. Read more

Anyone remember the Lisbon Strategy? This was a grand European Union programme, adopted almost exactly nine years ago, to turn the EU into “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy” in the world by 2010. It set a number of specific targets, such as average annual economic growth of 3 per cent and an overall employment participation rate of 70 per cent.

Given the crisis the world economy now faces, it would be cruel and gratuitous to mock the EU’s lofty ambitions of March 2000. Suffice it to say that a new report prepared by Allianz, the German insurer, and the Lisbon Council, a Brussels-based think-tank, says that Europe’s recession “is so severe that none of the countries surveyed can presently come up to the Lisbon goals”. Read more

So, that’s it, folks, Hillary Clinton has wrapped up her first visit to Brussels as US Secretary of State, and now she’s off to Geneva for a session of talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

What struck me most about Clinton’s visit to Europe was, first, how eager the Europeans were to stress that Europe and the US are singing from the same songsheet on a whole range of issues, now that Barack Obama is in the White House; and, secondly, how Clinton did nothing to pour cold water on that notion. Read more

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just finished a question-and-answer session with a group of so-called “young Europeans” at the European Parliament in Brussels. Even though her performance lasted less than an hour, by the end she had them eating out of her hand and she received a standing ovation. 

The best moment came when she caught sight of a semi-shaven man sporting an “I love Hillary” T-shirt. She said she simply had to take a question from him because of what he was wearing. The guy turned out to be an English-speaking gay rights activist from Moldova, and he wanted to know what the Obama administration would do for the world’s gays and lesbians. Putting on her best stateswoman-like face, Clinton replied: “Human rights is and always will be one of the pillars of our foreign policy. In particular, persecution and discrimination against gays and lesbians is something we take very seriously.” Lots of applause followed. Read more

Reporters are a fairly cynical lot – even we “interested pencils”. But when Hillary Clinton finished her first press conference in Europe as US Secretary of State a little while ago, I heard laughter and a short ripple of applause from the audience.

She got the laughs at the end of a lengthy and serious explanation of why anti-missile defence systems would be important for the US and its allies in the 21st century (rogue regimes and networks of terrorists will be tomorrow’s problem, not traditional nation-states). Noticing that her audience had gone quiet in apparent contemplation of the missile warfare awaiting us, she said brightly: ”And on that happy note…!”  The mood lifted and the press conference ended. Read more

The corridors of Nato are starting to echo with praise for US secretary of state Hillary Clinton as she wraps up her first official talks at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. “She’s started well, eh?” Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, said just now.

Kouchner said Clinton’s trip to the Middle East, just before she arrived in Brussels, had gone done well with other Nato ministers because “she talked with everyone… At Jerusalem and Ramallah she displayed a determination to show that she wasn’t the same as the previous [Republican] administration.” Read more

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s secretary-general, has just told a news conference that the alliance’s foreign ministers have agreed to resume high-level ministerial contacts with Russia. He made no mention of Lithuania’s objections, and no reporter managed to raise the matter in a question. 
But there was perhaps just a hint that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her colleagues paid some attention to what the Lithuanians were saying. Because what the foreign ministers have agreed is that high-level contacts with Russia should restart “as soon as possible” after a Nato summit in early April in Strasbourg and Kehl, Germany.
That indeterminate timeframe could be interpreted as a concession to Lithuania’s demand that Nato leaders should discuss the issue at greater length before resuming the contacts with Russia.
Maybe we’ll know more when Clinton holds her own news conference in a couple of hours.
In the meantime, everyone is beavering away here in the press area at Nato headquarters under a big red sign that says: “No classified discussion in this area.” And when I say everyone, I don’t just mean “interested pencils”.