Twenty years ago, on October 19, 1989, I found myself in East Berlin reporting on a crisis that was to lead (though very few experts predicted it at the time) to the fall of the Berlin Wall only three weeks later. I have been asked many times since then if this was the ”best” story I’ve ever covered, in the dual sense of “biggest” and “most enjoyable”. I have usually answered Yes in the first sense of the question, but No in the second sense.
For the truth is that it wasn’t an enjoyable experience at all. From early morning to late at night, I spent the day attached to a clunky word processor in a grim, East German government-supervised press centre in Mohrenstrasse, very close to the Wall. There I churned out thousands upon thousands of words about the accelerating disintegration of the regime for my pitilessly news-driven employers, the Reuters news agency.
Buried in this month’s “Annual Report on the Euro Area 2009″ from the European Commission is some absorbing material on competitiveness in the eurozone. Some countries, above all Germany, Europe’s export champion, have consistently outshone others in terms of business competitiveness since the euro’s launch in 1999. The result has been the accumulation of large current account deficits in countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain – but also in Ireland, Malta, Slovakia and Slovenia.
As the Commission says, in impeccably understated language: “The build-up of large external liabilities has increased exposure to financial shocks… In the current downturn, financial markets have become more responsive to the net external financial asset position for the euro area countries. Even if to a large extent the net external position is related to the private sector, the public sector can be affected by private sector debt in the form of potential bail-outs and other fiscal implications.”
As the fuss continues about whether or not Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, will sign the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to a detail that appears to have been generally overlooked. It concerns Klaus’s demand for a special protocol or legally binding exemption from the treaty’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which, he says, is necessary to prevent a flood of claims on Czech property from the descendants of the roughly 3m Sudeten Germans expelled from the former Czechoslovakia after the second world war.
Leaving aside Klaus’s dubious assertion that the Charter could be exploited as the basis for such claims, the fact is that the Lisbon treaty already contains a special declaration by the Czech Republic on the Charter. It is buried near the end of the treaty’s official text in a part called Final Act of the Intergovernmental Conference, Section C: Declarations by Member-States. The Czech declaration, which is labelled No. 53, sets out the Czech position that “the Charter does not extend the field of application of [European] Union law] and does not establish any new power for the Union”.
Even before he was elected as president of France in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy made it crystal-clear that he didn’t want Turkey to join the European Union - ever. Now concerns are growing in Brussels that Sarkozy is contemplating a formal Franco-German initiative next year to offer Turkey a “privileged partnership” instead of, as now, the long-term prospect of full EU membership.
The idea of a “privileged partnership” has been around for a good few years. Sarkozy likes it, and so does Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic party. It also appeals to Angela Merkel, the CDU chancellor. However, Merkel has up to now taken a nuanced approach, recognising that Germany, along with other EU countries, recognised Turkey as an official candidate for membership in 1999. A responsible country cannot just wriggle out of agreements made in good faith, Merkel believes.
Ask a minister in a European Union government what post their country hopes to get in the next European Commission, and the response is the same every time – something important to do with the economy. Well, you can’t blame people for not hurrying to step into the shoes of Leonard Orban, the Romanian commissioner for multilingualism.
On the other hand, there aren’t enough top economic jobs for Commission president José Manuel Barroso to satisfy everyone. Truth to tell, the Commission looks too big with 27 members. But that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will stay under the EU’s Lisbon treaty. A guaranteed seat on the Commission seems a simple, visible way of making a country’s citizens feel connected to the EU.
It was inevitable, I think, that Czech President Vaclav Klaus would take his last stand against the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on the Sudeten German issue. This has been one of the most highly charged themes of Czech politics since the former Czechoslovakia threw off communism in 1989. By raising it, Klaus aims to break out of the extreme political isolation into which his hostility to Lisbon has pushed him on both the Czech and the wider European stage. But it is a step that smacks of desperation as much as of calculation.
The Sudeten German question touches a genuinely raw nerve among some Czechs. It relates to the several million ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of the second world war at the behest of the Prague authorities, who were convinced – with good reason - that large numbers of the German minority had served as a Nazi fifth column. Some Czech politicians have proved willing to play on the fears of ordinary Czechs that descendants of the Sudeten Germans may one day succeed, through legal action, in reclaiming the property of which their forebears were stripped.