Monthly Archives: March 2009

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inaugural working visit to Europe has run into its first setback. At Nato’s headquarters outside central Brussels, she and other alliance foreign ministers have been discussing how to start a new era in relations with Russia. Last night, according to US officials, it seemed a sure bet that everyone would agree to restore high-level ministerial contacts with Moscow – they were suspended after last August’s Russian-Georgian war.
But this afternoon it has become clear that Lithuania is raising objections. The Lithuanians want the issue to be debated at greater length at a summit of the 26 Nato countries’ leaders in Strasbourg and Kehl, Germany, on April 3-4. Other countries are impatient to get the process started sooner rather than later. 
The problem is that Nato works by consensus, rather than by majority voting. So at the moment the Lithuanians can block everything if they choose. Some will remember that they did something similar inside the European Union not long ago, resisting the appeals of other EU states to open talks on a long-term partnership agreement with Russia.
How this is sorted out will be the first serious test of Clinton’s diplomatic skills.

At her first round of talks with her fellow Nato foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just said that it’s “time to explore a fresh start” in relations with Russia. Virtually in the same breath, she has also rejected Russia’s claim to a special sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region, and said that the Western alliance shouldn’t close the door of membership to Georgia and Ukraine.

Is any of this different to what we heard during the final phase of the administration of President George W. Bush? In some respects, not much. The Bush administration also rejected the idea, put forward by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that Moscow is entitled to a “privileged sphere of influence” in the non-Russian states of the former Soviet Union. Read more

Now for the serious stuff.

One important topic of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s discussions with her fellow Nato foreign ministers today is the alliance’s campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a senior US official put it to us reporters last night, the ministers will talk about “what’s going well and what’s not going well”. Read more

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team have offered me the chance to be an “interested pencil”. Shamefully, I’ve declined.

“Interested pencil” is the hot term for a reporter who doesn’t hold cameras or take pictures, but confines him/herself to the mean art of writing news stories – or blogs. If a news event is nothing but a photo opportunity – as it was this morning, when Clinton arrived at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels for a meeting with Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the alliance’s secretary-general – then there isn’t much point in the reporter who writes showing up. Still, he or she can, if he or she really wants - hence the adjective “interested”. Read more

So this is it! The adventure begins. Hillary Clinton has just arrived in Brussels on her first trip to Europe as US Secretary of State, and as of a few minutes ago I’ve become officially “embedded” as a blogger with the State Department press corps that’s travelling with her. I’m pretty self-conscious about this. These guys have just flown in with Clinton from Ramallah after several days’ hard going in Egypt, Israel and the West Bank. I, by contrast, have simply hopped on the Brussels Metro, strolled off after three stops and made my way to …

Whoops, I almost broke the rules. You see, for perfectly understandable security reasons, I’m not allowed to say where I am. I am, for practical purposes, nowhere. Nor can I identify the person who is at present briefing us on tomorrow’s agenda, except to refer to this person as a “senior US official”. This official is, for practical purposes, nobody. Read more

Back in November I drew attention to the path-breaking research of the genealogists who had discovered that Barack Obama was 1 per cent Belgian. Now it seems Belgium’s contribution to the good of the world goes even further than that.

Two academic researchers, one Australian and one German, claim that a 16th-century English poem proves that the game of cricket originated not in England but, you’ve got it, in Belgium – specifically, in the northern, Dutch-speaking region of Flanders. The poem, attributed (perhaps erroneously) to John Skelton, a humanist writer in Henry VIII’s reign, contains the lines: Read more

The European Parliament’s internal market committee voted this week for a strict ban on the sale and trading of seal products. The ban would cover not only meat and fur skins but certain types of hats, boots and gloves worn by skiers and motorcyclists, as well as products such as Omega-3 fatty acid supplements. There remains a question, however, about whether such a ban – if agreed to by European Union governments – would violate international trade rules.

Who will be the next European Commission president? Until recently, José Manuel Barroso looked comfortably placed to secure reappointment for a second five-year term at a summit of EU leaders in June. Now the picture is not so clear.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy put the cat among the pigeons on Sunday when he refused to reaffirm the support for Barroso’s candidacy that he had offered during France’s spell last year in the European Union’s rotating presidency. “I like Mr Barroso a lot, I’ve enjoyed working with him, I have confidence in him,” Sarkozy said, his words sounding ever more hollow the longer his sentence stretched on. Read more

When I lived in Poland in the mid-1980s, I was once given a one-zloty coin for Christmas. This was no ordinary one-zloty coin, however. It was stamped on one side with an image of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, the birthplace of the Solidarity independent trade union. Poland’s Communist authorities had suppressed Solidarity under martial law in December 1981. Underground Solidarity activists used to take away the coins, stamp them with the shipyard’s image and then put them back into circulation as a way of reminding Poles that the movement had not disappeared altogether.

Today Poland’s government is keen to switch from the zloty to the euro. Like other governments in the region, it sees early eurozone entry as a way of protecting its economy against the world financial crisis. Poland envies Slovenia and Slovakia, which qualified for eurozone membership ahead of other new European Union member-states. They are now reaping the rewards of belonging to a large and – whatever the tensions generated by the financial crisis – broadly stable single currency bloc. Read more