Monthly Archives: September 2009

Europe ponders how to pressure the Czechs on Lisbon (Charlemagne blog, The Economist)

Brussels targets carbon trading fraud of Copenhagen summit (Ashley Seager, The Guardian) 

Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty on Friday should in principle be about the treaty’s contents, not the state of the Irish economy.  But the economy’s collapse over the past 12 months compels both pro-Lisbon and anti-Lisbon forces to confront the question of whether membership of the European Union – and, specifically, of the eurozone – has helped (even saved) Ireland, made things worse, or not made much difference one way or the other.

An interesting angle from which to approach this question is to ask whether Ireland has fared better than another island off the north-west coast of Europe that was thrown into turmoil at almost exactly the same moment last year – namely, Iceland.  Iceland isn’t a EU member and doesn’t use the euro.  Has this accelerated Iceland’s recovery or held it back? 

One day I’ll break the habit of only visiting Ireland when there’s a referendum on a European Union treaty.  It can easily mislead you into thinking that the Irish people like nothing better than a passionate ”national conversation” (as the latest faddish expression puts it) about Europe.  In fact, it is closer to the mark to say, as Eamon Delaney does in an article for the Irish magazine Business & Finance, that “Ireland is an island with a self-absorbed political culture which is not all that interested in overseas affairs”.

Be that as it may, I’m back in Dublin and the contrast with the political atmosphere of June 2008, when Irish voters rejected the EU’s Lisbon treaty on institutional reform, is pretty startling.  Fifteen months ago, businessmen and economists I talked with were in no doubt that Ireland was heading into a recession, but none predicted the whirlwind that has wrought unmatched havoc on the economy and come close to destroying the national banking system. 

September’s prize for Headline of the Month goes to the sub-editor with the dry sense of humour who put these words at the top of a story about Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister: “Berlusconi is Best Leader in Italy’s History, says Berlusconi.”

The story itself quotes Berlusconi as telling a news conference in Sardinia, where he was hosting talks with Spanish premier José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: “I sincerely believe I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150-year history.”  So the headline, if not the sentiment behind it, cannot be faulted for lack of accuracy. 

A Commission report-card (Charlemagne, The Economist)

William Hague on the Lisbon Treaty (Ben Brogan, Daily Telegraph) 

In December 1984 western governments detected the first signs of potentially far-reaching change in the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev, three months before he took over as Communist party leader, went on a trip to London.  Gorbachev greatly impressed Margaret Thatcher, the then prime minister, who saw him as an articulate, vigorous man with whom, famously, she could “do business”.

Is a Gorbachev moment about to happen in European-Chinese relations?  In two weeks’ time, Xi Jinping, China’s vice-president, is due to pay a visit to Europe and, among other activities, spend some time at the European Commission in Brussels.  The parallels with December 1984 are intriguing. 

From the FT:

European financial regulation: Big promises fail to dispel prosaic doubts 

Since February 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s anti-bribery convention came into force - with the aim of reducing bribery of foreign officials in international business deals - the US has brought 103 cases, Germany more than 40, France 19 and the UK just one.  So says “Global Corruption Report 2009: Corruption and the Private Sector”, a study published on Wednesday by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog.

From a British point of view, the report makes uncomfortable reading.  “UK companies still have a long way to go to increase their awareness and adopt robust anti-bribery compliance programmes,” it says. 

The colourful posters on Hamburg’s streets tell the story of Germany’s 2009 election.  “We’re electing the chancellor” says the slogan of the Christian Democrats, next to a reassuringly maternal image of Angela Merkel. 

It is at once an idiotically simple but cleverly conceived slogan.  Because Merkel is the incumbent, it communicates the subliminal message to voters that her rivals, and the rivals to the CDU, are smaller in stature.  In particular, it diminishes the Social Democrats, the CDU’s coalition partner.  All the polls show that voters think Merkel makes a better chancellor than Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her SPD foreign minister and challenger, ever would.  Merkel is the CDU’s trump card. 

I’m in Hamburg today wondering what would happen if next Sunday’s German election were to produce not some messy, inconclusive result, but a clear-cut victory for one party or the other in the ruling Christian Democrat-Social Democrat grand coalition.  What might this mean for the allocation of top jobs in the European Union?

Of course, unless the opinion polls are wildly wrong, it is inconceivable that the Social Democrats will emerge as the largest party in the Bundestag.  The post-reunification fissures of the German left seem to have doomed the SPD to second place in perpetuity behind the Christian Democrats.  But if the inconceivable were to happen, then Angela Merkel would no longer be chancellor and would presumably be looking for a new challenge and a new job.