A potentially decisive moment is approaching in the Cyprus settlement talks that started in September 2008. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, is to visit the divided island on Sunday and stay there until Tuesday. He does not, of course, have the authority to impose a settlement or even seriously to bang heads together. But what he can do is impress on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders that the world is watching them and that a great deal hangs on the outcome of their negotiations.
A sense of urgency hangs over the talks because presidential elections will be held in Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus on April 18. Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist president who helped revive the effort at reaching a comprehensive settlement more than 16 months ago, looks vulnerable to the challenge of Dervis Eroglu, the nationalist prime minister.
How can Greece dig itself out of crisis? From the sunny shores of south-eastern Europe, it could do worse than take a look at the windswept, north-western corner of the continent and study what the Irish government is doing.
As I noted last week, Greece, in spite of the disastrous condition of its public finances, has hardly suffered at all so far in terms of the living standards of ordinary citizens. Gross domestic product is thought to have slipped by a mere 1.1 per cent last year. By contrast, Ireland has experienced a vicious recession: between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the second quarter of 2009, Irish GDP slumped by more than 10 per cent.
There is a need to clear up some misconceptions about how Greece, or some other fiscal miscreant in the 16-nation eurozone, would be rescued by its partners in the event that it was unable to refinance its debts.
Quite a few commentators seem to think eurozone governments would find it hard to sidestep the ban on bail-outs specified in European Union treaty law. The European Central Bank, the European Commission and certain EU governments, not least that of Greece itself, have contributed to the confusion by insisting in public that a rescue is undesirable and unnecessary (while quietly planning for precisely this contingency).
Are they just teething problems? Or is something more serious at stake? One way or another, the first signs are emerging that the European Union’s new foreign policy structures, established under the Lisbon treaty that came into force last month, are capable of producing just as much discord and disharmony as the old arrangements.
Let’s take the EU’s response to the Haiti earthquake. Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, convened an emergency meeting on January 18 at which the 27-nation bloc quickly and efficiently agreed a generous aid package for Haiti worth over 400 million euros. At a news conference after the meeting, she was asked if she would be visiting Haiti and, if not, why not. She replied that she wouldn’t be going, because the United Nations had requested her and other foreign dignitaries to stay away in order not to disrupt the emergency aid effort. However, Karel De Gucht, the EU’s outgoing humanitarian aid commissioner, would travel to Haiti. A perfectly sensible response.
There are some who say the forced withdrawal of Rumiana Jeleva as Bulgaria’s candidate for the European Commission on Tuesday was a blow to Commission president José Manuel Barroso. After all, didn’t Barroso make public a letter in support of Jeleva as late as last Friday, only two working days before she crashed in flames?
I disagree. The truth is, Barroso found himself in a very delicate situation and needed to extract himself from it without humiliating Jeleva, annoying the Bulgarian government and giving more excuses for the European Parliament to delay confirming his new Commission in office. By and large, Barroso has achieved these three objectives. He has handled the whole thing rather well.