Monthly Archives: July 2009

Tony Barber

The Spanish press is dominated by Eta’s attack in Mallorca, which left two police officers dead. El País reports that José Antonio Alonso, spokesperson for the ruling PSOE party, says there is “zero” chance of dialogue with the Basque separatist group. El Mundo, meanwhile, says the incident marks “50 years of terror, 50 years of blood and 50 years of fear”.

One of the big stories in France today is the announcement of Renault’s huge first-half loss of €2.71bn. According to Le Figaro, these are the worst results in the company’s history, far beyond the 12.5bn francs lost in 1984 (equivalent to €1.9bn today). France’s second biggest carmaker has been the victim not only of the economic crisis, the paper reports, but also of its ties with Nissan, Avtovaz and AB Volvo. The FT also has the story.
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Tony Barber

The German MP whose official car was stolen in Spain – where she was on holiday – continues to drive the agenda of her national press. Süddeutsche Zeitung reports today that the Social Democrats will not name Ulla Schmidt (who is currently Germany’s health minister) in their team for the September elections until they know the results of an investigation into the theft of her car.

Nicolas Sarkozy appeared on French television yesterday to reassure people about his health. The French president was hospitalised on Sunday after falling ill while jogging. He said he had simply been momentarily “overcome by fatigue”; the incident was not, as the Elysée said earlier this week (in a statement they subsequently retracted), related to any “cardiac” problems. Libération has the story. Read more

Tony Barber

Today sees the last cabinet meeting in France before the summer recess. Top of the agenda is a controversial proposal to reform the country’s postal service. Libération reports that the reform would introduce a part-privatisation of the post office next year, which unions complain will damage working conditions and service. The draft legislation will be debated by parliament in September. The unions plan to mark the discussions with a nationwide day of strikes and demonstrations.

In Germany, a scandal over the use of official cars has stalled the Social Democrat party’s campaign for the Septemeber general election, writes Die Presse. Ulla Schmidt, health minister and a Social Democrat, recently had her official chauffeur-driven Mercedes stolen in Spain, where she was on holiday. Yesterday it was reported found. Several other ministers, all of whom happen to be Social Democrats, subsequently admitted that they were also using their official vehicles during vacation – but of course only for official business. Polls show the Social Democrats lagging 15 per cent behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition. Read more

Tony Barber

The German and Austrian press devote much coverage to Volkswagen’s takeover of Porsche, also reported in depth in the FT this morning. According to Germany’s Die Welt, the takeover has sparked renewed debate over the so-called VW law, which protects the car company against hostile takeovers. Centre-right MEP Klaus-Heiner Lehne is quoted as saying the European Commission should challenge the law – but it’s unlikely to do so, the paper argues, because Commission President José Manuel Barroso wouldn’t want to incur the wrath of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Elsewhere in the Germanophone press, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports on Iceland’s application to join the EU, saying it may take longer than expected to reach its more-than-likely successful conclusion. Die Presse writes that negotiations over access to the country’s fisheries, a key sector of its troubled economy, may present an obstacle. Read more

Tony Barber

Further comment today on Tony Blair’s candidature for the EU presidency (should the position come into being under the Lisbon Treaty, of course).

Le Figaro makes the case for the former British prime minister, saying that with a job description yet to be defined, a prestigious title and the option of staying in office after the two-and-a-half-year term comes to an end, the position would suit him perfectly. However, the writer questions why Gordon Brown felt it so urgent to announce his support for his former boss, arguing that early candidatures have a habit of fizzling out. Read more

Tony Barber

Plenty of banking news in the European press today. Some selected highlights:

Germany is considering nationalising parts of its banking sector by force, according to Süddeutsche Zeitung. The government has reached the conclusion that its bad bank scheme stands no chance of increasing credit flows, the report argues, and it is now looking to the US and the UK for ways of doing so. The apparent move has been driven by fears of further economic trouble coinciding with a general election at the end of September. Read more

Tony Barber

Is the “Stop Barroso” campaign finally running out of steam?  Leaders of the main political groups in the European Parliament have pencilled in September 16 as the day when they will hold a vote on whether to confirm José Manuel Barroso for a second five-year term as European Commission president.

If this arrangement holds, then it will mark a defeat for the anti-Barroso forces who wanted to delay the vote until after Ireland held its October 2 referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty.  They were striving to create a situation in which (assuming the Irish voted Yes) the EU would simultaneously choose its first full-time president, the bloc’s new foreign policy high representative and the Commission president.  In such circumstances, they hoped, Barroso would no longer be a shoo-in to run the Commission.  Other candidates would emerge.  Haggling would ensue.  It would (they dreamed) be adeus, José Manuel. Read more

Tony Barber

If it were not funny, it would be tragic.  The UK Conservative party’s decision to quit the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right political group in the European Parliament, is backfiring on the Tories in spectacular fashion.  The decision was always daft – a bit like the right wing of the US Republican Party splitting off and forming a minority group in Congress – but it now looks more short-sighted than ever.

On Tuesday the Tories relinquished the leadership of their new “anti-federalist” faction, the so-called European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to Michal Tomasz Kaminski, a Polish politician.  They felt obliged to do so after Edward McMillan-Scott, a Tory MEP, refused to respect a deal in which Kaminski had been promised one of the parliament’s prestigious vice-presidency posts. Read more

Jerzy Buzek’s election as president of the European parliament yesterday provided a temporary let up in the speculation surrounding who will land the more powerful jobs leading the Commission and as first permanent president of the Council. Very temporary.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Franco-German Green MEP still best known for his May 1968 antics, is now suggesting José Manuel Barroso should get the Council job “as a “perfect compromise” and a “face-saving” move for both the European Parliament and the EU heads of state and government,” reports Euractiv, a Brussels-beltway news service. (That would leave the Commission job open for a centre-left candidate, one assumes). Read more

Jerzy Buzek is the new president of the European Parliament. There isn’t much power associated with the job, but it will be seen as a symbol of new member states gaining influence in Brussels. “For my country, it’s very important,” Mr Buzek told the Financial Times before the vote. “And for new member states – I hear it in parliament all the time – it would have a lot of symbolic importance.”

Perhaps Mr Buzek’s election really does reflect a change in power structures. “Poland was so eager to win the post that, according to one senior E.U. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, Prime Minister Donald Tusk held no fewer than 15 meetings to lobby other heads of state and party leaders,” says the International Herald Tribune. Read more

Tony Barber

What should be the top five priorities of the next European Commission?

1) Top of my list is the defence, and if possible the strengthening, of the single European market.  This is the European Union’s bedrock achievement.  It secures prosperity for its citizens, and it underpins the EU’s collective weight in the world.  Without the single market, the EU would lose not merely its cohesion but its very reason for existence.  The single market is under strain at present because of the emergency measures taken over the past year to prop up Europe’s banking system.  These have, in effect, suspended the EU’s state aid rules in this sector.  The Commission will need to be tough in making sure that EU governments do not manipulate the rules as the emergency measures are gradually withdrawn.  Meanwhile, it should continue to press the case for integrating and liberalising the EU’s service sector, which accounts for two-thirds of all EU economic activity. Read more

As France prepares to celebrate le quatorze juillet, here’s the latest:

The Wall Street Journal outright blames French consumers for Europe’s sluggishness. “The French are getting thriftier, and that poses a problem for the European economy,” it says. Read more

Tony Barber

The great thing about blogging is that you learn something new almost every day.  This morning, while preparing a blog on the European Union’s foreign policy, I have learnt the French expression avaler des couleuvres, which translates literally as “to swallow grass snakes” and means “to believe anything you’re told”.

What a magnificent idiom!  I came across it in the widely followed Coulisses de Bruxelles blog of Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent of the French daily Libération.  Quatremer was writing about Javier Solana’s decision to give up his job as the EU’s foreign policy high representative, a post he has held since 1999. Read more

Tony Barber

The composition of the newly elected European Parliament, which holds its first session next week, will make many Britons hang their heads in shame.  For British politicians are either poorly represented, or not represented at all, in the 736-seat assembly’s three biggest political groups: the centre-right, centre and centre-left.  By contrast, Brits dominate the Eurosceptic and far-right fringes.

The loss of British influence in the parliament, which has a say in most European Union laws, will be substantial.  The likely damage to Britain’s reputation in Europe can only be guessed at. Read more

Tony Barber

From a European Union perspective, it’s somewhat surprising that the extraordinary financial crisis we’ve been living through has not generated more pressure for another big push at EU integration – if not in the political sphere, then at least in the economic one.  According to conventional EU wisdom, it usually takes a crisis to make Europeans understand why closer integration is a good thing.  But on this occasion, it’s not happening – or at least, not yet.

For the perfect explanation as to why this should be so, I recommend an article by Otmar Issing, the European Central Bank’s former chief economist, in the latest issue of the journal Europe’s World.  Issing’s article discusses the merits of issuing common bonds for the 16-nation eurozone – an initiative that would, in theory, mark a major step forward in European integration – and comes down firmly against the proposal. Read more

Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy call for an end to “dangerously volatile” oil prices. “The oil market is complex,” they acknowledge in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “but such erratic price movement in one of the world’s most crucial commodities is a growing cause for alarm”. They call on regulators to “consider improving transparency and supervision of the oil futures markets to reduce damaging speculation”.

The Times says Mr Sarkozy’s wife, the Italian-born Carla Bruni, won’t be joining the “first wives” at the G8 events in Romein an apparent snub to Silvio Berlusconi, the meeting’s host. “Relations between the model [Bruni] and the billionaire [Berlusconi] soured earlier this year after Mr Berlusconi reportedly boasted to her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, that he “gave” him his wife. Mr Berlusconi denied the comment.” Read more

Tony Barber

To follow up on Monday’s blog, in which I suggested it was extremely unlikely that Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini would achieve his ambition of becoming the European Union’s next foreign policy chief, the obvious question is – well, who will get the job?

Three names keep cropping up.  One is Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who has served as Nato’s secretary-general since 2004 and who is about to be replaced by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister.  The second is Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who is another ex-premier.  The third is Olli Rehn, a Finn who is the EU’s enlargement commissioner. Read more

With the G8 around the corner, key issues are jostling for positions atop the agenda.

Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, in a pre-summit mini-summit are pushing economic growth to feature again: “the French president and British prime minister expressed their concern that tentative hopes of a recovery could be crushed if other leading economies failed to kick-start bank lending or curb rising protectionism,” says our man in Evian. The suspicion is that Germany is ready to revert to fiscal discipline too early. Read more

Tony Barber

There are two ways of looking at the imminent appointment of Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister, as the next president of the European Parliament.  The first way is to applaud Europe’s politicians for doing the right thing and giving one of the European Union’s top jobs to a man from one of the 10 former communist countries in central and eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004-2007.  This is the highest honour yet accorded to a public figure from one of the EU’s new member-states.  Poles are justifiably proud.

The second way, however, is to be honest and recognise that the job of parliament president is about the lowest-ranking position someone could be given without its looking like an insult.  Buzek, who belongs to the legislature’s main centre-right group, won’t even hold the job for the assembly’s full five-year term: under a deal with the socialists, he will step down after two and a half years and hand over the reins to a socialist.  The fact is that, by giving this post to Buzek, older and bigger member-states in western Europe are making sure that they will get all the really big jobs when they come up for grabs later this year. Read more

Forget the Wimbledon final, Brussels is the true home of legendary rivalries. Here is an update on the top jobs.

First, for the record, Javier Solana confirmed to Spanish daily ABC that he would step down as the EU’s foreign-policy chief, after two terms in one of Brussels’ highest-profile jobs. The surprise is more that he will not be stepping down before October, as had once been rumoured. The role is set to gain wider powers post-Lisbon. “After the mandate ends, he will be very active doing other activities,” Solana’s spokesperson told the IHT. Read more