Monthly Archives: June 2009

Tony Barber

I was in Stockholm this morning when the happy news arrived that Germany’s constitutional court had given the green light in principle to the European Union’s Lisbon treaty.  I call the news “happy” not because I am biased in favour of Lisbon, but because it meant that for once the task of writing about the treaty fell to someone else at the Financial Times (on this occasion, my Berlin-based colleague Bertrand Benoit).

The EU’s masochistic efforts at institutional reform, encapsulated in the Lisbon treaty, were one of the first things I wrote about when I arrived in Brussels in 2007.  Two years later, I find that the subject refuses to go away, seeping into my daily work like a sewage leak in a cellar (a domestic problem familiar to house-dwellers in low-lying Brussels).  All the more maddening is the knowledge that almost no one in the outside world cares one stale fig about the treaty. Read more

Sweden takes over the six-month rotating EU presidency tomorrow, but already its Prime minister is tending to official business, asking for a swift end to the Barroso re-appointment parlour game. “If there is not another candidate, what are we waiting for?”, European Voice reports Frederik Reinfeldt as saying.

No last-minute announcements from the outgoing Czechs, meaning a hodge-podge of news today. Wonky fruit and veg is set to reappear on supermarket shelves from July 1st after years of being banished for cosmetic reasons, says the Telegraph. And the days of travelling with a tangled mess of different mobile phone chargers could be over by next year after the EU pushed equipment makers towards a single model.

Tony Barber

The last time that a dispute between Madrid and Brussels seized the international spotlight was in 1568 – and boy, was it big.  That was when the Spanish rulers of the Low Countries sparked the 80-year-long Dutch Revolt by executing Counts Egmont and Horne on the Grand’ Place of what is today the Belgian capital.

This month, another quarrel between Spain and Belgium broke out.  Admittedly, it’s less serious, and for the moment it’s stayed behind closed doors.  But in the interests of transparency, and because the squabble tells you rather a lot about the way the European Union operates, I shall share the details with you. Read more

Tony Barber

Next Tuesday, Turkey’s bid to join the European Union will creep forward one more inch.  The EU and Turkey will open formal talks on taxation, one of the 35 “chapters”, or policy areas, that a candidate for EU membership must complete before joining the bloc.

Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, is pleased but, unsurprisingly, not overwhelmed.  After the taxation talks start, only 11 of Turkey’s 35 chapters will be open.  The EU froze another eight chapters in December 2006 in retaliation for Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to vessels and aircraft from the Greek Cypriot-controlled government of Cyprus. Read more

Tony Barber

Sweden’s European Union presidency hasn’t even started yet, but people in Brussels are already saying that the Swedish presidency website is the most impressive that any EU country has so far come up with.  Its homepage is clean, simple and intelligently presented, and the entire site is nice and easy to navigate.

I particularly like the section “The EU in our daily lives”, which is a slideshow of 15 photographs that attempt to explain how EU laws and activities shape so much of everyday European life.  It kicks off with a snapshot of a rather lugubrious-looking dog and the caption: “Dogs and cats travelling within the EU must have their own pet passports.” Read more

Tony Barber

Is José Manuel Barroso’s reappointment as European Commission president in trouble?  Probably not.  But the jury is still out on whether he will secure formal approval from the European Parliament as early as mid-July.  If he does not, it will be difficult to dispel the clouds of doubt that will linger over his future for two months or more.

Such uncertainty is hardly what the European Union needs at a moment when its banking system faces hundreds of billions of euros in losses this year and next, and when Germany and France, the eurozone’s two biggest economies, appear utterly at odds over when and how to rebalance their public financesRead more

Tony Barber

Two weeks ago, Russia announced that it intended to join the World Trade Organisation not on its own but as part of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan.  It was a classic Russian initiative, combining brutal power politics with a healthy dose of surrealism.

For at the time of the announcement, Moscow was in the middle of a trade war with its two neighbours, banning imports of Belarusan dairy products and Kazakh meat.  Russia was also in the process of freezing a $500m credit for Belarus, which in turn was imposing new customs controls on Russian goods.  Acrimonious disputes of this nature do not usually precede the establishment of friendly arrangements such as customs unions. Read more

Tony Barber

So exciting are European Union summits that they sometimes distract attention from developments that, though perhaps less eye-catching, tell you a lot more about what’s going on in the EU.  For example, the latest two-day summit is concentrating on financial regulation, guarantees for Ireland’s sovereignty so that it can hold another referendum on the EU’s Lisbon treaty, and the nomination of José Manuel Barroso for a second term as European Commission president.

But a more interesting story was the breakdown on Thursday of EU-mediated talks between Slovenia and Croatia over their bilateral maritime border dispute.  This makes it virtually certain that Croatia will not complete its EU accession negotiations by the end of this year – the goal that Barroso and Croatia’s government had originally set themselves. Read more

Tony Barber

Hello, hello, hello, what’s this, then?  Another attempt by Czech President Vaclav Klaus to derail the European Union’s Lisbon treaty?  Surely not!  Let’s take a closer look.  Oh, my God, yes, it’s true.  And how could we ever have doubted it?  Because the thing about Klaus is that if it looks like pork and dumplings, and it smells like pork and dumplings, and it tastes like pork and dumplings, then you can bet your life that it definitely is pork and dumplings.

The Czech Republic’s six-month EU presidency comes to an end on June 30.  This date once looked likely to mark Klaus’s departure from the EU stage.  Instead, it now appears certain that Klaus – who delights in being one of the least liked EU leaders of all time - will press on with his campaign to sabotage the Lisbon treatyRead more

Tony Barber

Back in 1970 or so, there was a children’s Saturday morning TV show called “The Banana Splits”, in which some ludicrous character or other would frantically splutter “Hold the bus!” – always too late, for the bus would proceed on its way regardless.  It is an irresistible temptation to compare the four Banana Splits of 40 years ago - Bingo, Fleegle, Drooper and Snorky – with certain members of today’s European Parliament.

For while the legislators are busy spluttering “Stop Barroso!”, they are saying it much too late.  José Manuel Barroso is proceeding on his way to reappointment as European Commission president.  In fact, the entire episode threatens to show the European Union in the worst possible light, after EU-wide elections to the European Parliament that, with their record low turnout, were themselves not exactly a ringing endorsement of the way the EU conducts its business. Read more

Tony Barber

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz is truly a new Pole.  Not yet even 37 years old, he is a minister (for European Union affairs) in Poland’s centre-right government, speaks fluent English and French, was educated partly in the UK, and has spent more of his life in an independent democratic Poland than in a Soviet-controlled communist Poland.  When I was listening to him speak at a think-tank breakfast in Brussels this morning, it struck me with force that he would have been just a small boy when I first visited Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk in the summer of 1980 and witnessed the emergence of the free trade union Solidarity.

Now, like other new Poles, Dowgielewicz talks breezily about Poland’s growing weight in the EU, which it joined five years ago, and its prospects for adopting the euro as early as 2012.  Poland doesn’t want or need the eurozone’s entry rules to be bent, he says.  “We’re not proposing any amendments to the entry criteria.  Not that we think they make absolute sense, but it’s not feasible.  You’d have to change the EU treaties.  We think the criteria strengthen the eurozone’s credibility.  It will have to be down to the merits of each individual country.” Read more

Tony Barber

José Manuel Barroso is all but certain to be reappointed as European Commission president.  But who will get the other plum European Union jobs that will soon be up for grabs?

The most startling suggestion I have heard in recent days – and it came from a high-ranking EU diplomat – is that the EU’s first ever full-time president could be none other than Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK.  The thinking here is that, because the job will require its holder to represent the EU on the world stage, it would suit Brown well.  He has oodles of experience and excellent connections at the highest level, starting with President Barack Obama. Read more

Richard Corbett, a well-liked British Labour MEP who won’t be coming back to Brussels, has a few harsh words for the national politicians whose shenanigans sealed his political fate. “Losing is one thing – ceding a seat to the BNP is another,” he says.

Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish commissioner in charge of communications strategy, is clear that the low turnout is not Brussels’ fault. “A hunt for someone to blame will also no doubt start and some will look to blame the Commission, which would be absurd.  The main responsibility for persuading people to vote lies with the political parties.  … It is for others to learn the lessons for the next few years.” Read more

Tony Barber

There are two schools of thought on whether Latvia should devalue the lat, or fight tooth and nail to keep its currency peg to the euro.  One, espoused by the Latvian government, the International Monetary Fund  and the European Commission, is that devaluation would destabilise the Latvian banking system, wouldn’t really address the long-term challenges facing the Latvian economy, and would risk spreading shock waves beyond Latvia across the Baltic and into other parts of central and eastern Europe.

The other view, espoused by some of the world’s leading economists, such as Paul Krugman and Nouriel Roubini, can be summed up as: “Get Real”.  Without devaluation, the only path that Latvia can go down to extract itself from crisis is massive deflation, through spending cuts and sharp falls in wages that will inflict terrible damage on society and will unnecessarily prolong Latvia’s recession. Read more

Tony Barber

Jan Fischer, the unassuming non-party technocrat who is holding the fort as Czech prime minister for the next few months, is getting his 15 minutes of fame on the world stage – but it’s certainly not going to his head.  He was sitting in his Prague office today telling me about his preparations for next week’s European Union summit in Brussels – an event he will chair – and somehow his background as a humble statistician kept colouring the conversation.

For example, when I asked him whether most EU heads of government supported a legally binding decision to nominate José Manuel Barroso at the summit for a second term as European Commission president, he replied that it was “50-50 … as regards the sample of people I’ve had a chance to speak to”. Read more


Ever since the economic crisis broke I have been scanning the European horizon for signs of political turmoil: red flags being unfurled, jackboots polished. But on the evidence of the elections for the European parliament over the weekend, I should have directed my gaze closer to home. There is only one big country in the European Union that is having a national nervous breakdown – Britain. Read more

The elections did, finally, make an appearance on Twitter, at one point accounting for … 0.71 per cent of all “tweets”. Late at night on Sunday, a time in which relatively little else was happening, one guesses. It’s now back to 0.02 per cent.

Much of the blogging looked at why turnout once again anaemic: Read more

Tony Barber

Who were the biggest winners and biggest losers of the European Parliament elections?

Top of the winners’ list are surely Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.  Merkel’s Christian Democrats destroyed her Social Democrat coalition partners at the polls, and Sarkozy’s UMP party brushed aside the opposition French socialists.  Merkel and Sarkozy will feel vindicated in their approach to the global economic crisis, particularly as regards the need to introduce tougher financial regulation (and to lecture central banks from time to time). Read more