Monthly Archives: February 2011

Peter Spiegel

If it is axiomatic that success has many fathers, it should be no surprise that many will this week claim parentage to “The King’s Speech”, the low-budget film that ran away with the most Oscars at Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony.

But the European Union?

Monday morning, Androulla Vassiliou, the European commissioner in charge of cultural issues, put out a statement noting the film received €562,000 in “distribution support” from the EU’s Media programme, which spends about €110m per year to promote and distribute European films. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Vladimir Putin and 12 of his ministers blew through Brussels Thursday, reiterating many of their long-stated complaints about the European Union’s energy policies, which Russian leaders believe discriminate against Russian energy giant Gazprom.

But Putin’s remarks on Libya may deserve more scrutiny, especially since the UN Security Council will be meeting today to discuss possible sanctions against the regime of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi. Russia is, of course, one of the five permanent members of the security council.

Russia long proven resistant to US and European efforts to impose sanctions against another regional oil producer – Iran – and could prove so again, if the prime minister’s comments at a press conference with José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, are any indication. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Putin and BarrosoIn today’s paper, we have a story about the history of bad blood between Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, an account based on dozens of US diplomatic cables that we got our hands on thanks to WikiLeaks.

The two men are summiting today in Brussels, so we thought it would be worth posting the full text of a cable from the US embassy in Moscow detailing the last time the two men summited in February 2009. Although we have redacted the names of the officials who briefed US diplomats, they included a senior European Commission official and a top diplomat in Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs. Read more

José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, tells Peter Spiegel, Brussels bureau chief, that he is confident an agreement over what to do with the euro will be reached when the eurozone member states meet at a summit in March.  Read more

With Libya at risk of becoming the latest North African country to be destabilised by a popular uprising, the European Union’s diplomatic service faces a problem: Tripoli has long been the only capital in Europe’s neighbourhood without an EU diplomatic representation.

Sources in the diplomatic service say that is about to change.

The European Union is to open a representative office in Libya as part of its burgeoning European External Action Service network, they say.

Tripoli has been a gaping hole in EU diplomacy thus far, the only country in the European neighbourhood where its diplomatic service doesn’t have a baseRead more

Belgium sets a dubious record on Thursday when it overtakes post-war Iraq as the country that has gone longest without a government.

It’s a surreal achievement greeted with a mix of amusement and quiet despair in the streets of Brussels. (I speak of “Brussels” as the capital of Belgium here – Eurocrats based in the city pay only passing attention to things Belgian).

For those not following the Kafkaesque saga that is Belgian politics, ever since the government collapsed on April 26th, and after Flemish nationalists became the country’s biggest party in the ensuing June elections, politicians have been unable to patch over linguistic and cultural differences that separate Dutch speakers in Flanders from Francophones in Wallonia. Read more

With all the controversy surrounding succession at the head of the European Central Bank, at least European finance ministers could agree on another ECB succession challenge with quite a bit less conflict.

Peter Praet, a regulation expert from Belgium, has been selected to replace Austria’s Gertrude Tempell-Gugerell on the European Central Bank’s governing council, eurozone finance ministers unanimously agreed during their afternoon gathering in Brussels.

The outcome doesn’t come as much of a surprise: the only other nominee, Slovakia’s Elena Kohutikova, had a lacklustre hearing at the European parliament, even as Praet’s star continued to rise.

But his nomination means there will be no women on the 23-member council, comprised of 17 central bankers from the countries that use the euro, and six executive board members, of which Praet will be one. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, heads off for a tour of the Middle East and North Africa today – a trip that’s expected to include both Tunisia and Egypt – after coming under quite a bit of criticism for her handling of the upheaval in the region.

But the criticism has not all been in one direction. Ahead of her trip, a senior EU official briefed the Brussels press corps and laid some of the blame for the frequently discordant European reaction to recent events in the laps of national foreign ministers.

“One of the difficulties that we have is making sure that we not only speak with one voice but act with one voice,” the official said. “I mean, how many foreign ministers are in the Middle East now? It’s a bit complicated. The high representative wants to go, but can she go the same day or the day after when three foreign minsters have been? To do what? It’s a real problem.” Read more

Paris lost no time in rebutting yesterday’s study suggesting members of the European Parliament would rather end the monthly to-and-fro between Brussels and Strasbourg.

A statement released by the foreign ministry on Friday was a Gallic blend of rebuke, snub and curtness.

“The question of the seats is judicially mandated by the treaties: these are applicable to member states and to institutions alike,” it reads. Read more

There are plenty of things to like about Strasbourg – the Christmas market, the soaring cathedral and the ambient spirit of Franco-German reconciliation. But you might not want to visit the place 12 times a year.

That appears to be the verdict of members of the European Parliament, who – in one of the European Union’s stranger rituals – decamp to the Alsatian capital roughly once a month for a plenary session. Accompanying them on their journey from Brussels are thousands of journalists, assistants and diplomats – as well as a special trainload of files.

But a new study commissioned by Briton Edward McMillan-Scott, a Liberal Democrat MEP, indicates that 91 per cent of MEPs and their staff find the trip intolerable and would prefer to stay put in Brussels. Schlepping to Strasbourg is inefficient, they say, and takes a toll on their work and emotional life. Read more

Peter Spiegel

For those who might not have noticed, Marton Hajdu, an affable and always reliable spokesman for Hungary’s EU presidency, has taken issue with our Brussels Blog item from last week about the covering put over the controversial Hungarian carpet during Friday’s European summit here in Brussels.

In a posting in the comments section of our blog, Marton gently prods us for constantly writing about the carpet issue to begin with – admittedly a somewhat tangential issue, but what’s a blog for if not to occasionally write about tangential issues?

Importantly, however, Marton says there’s a more prosaic reason for why the carpet – which includes a map of Hungary in 1848, riling Slovaks and Romanians, since parts of their countries were Hungarian at the time – was covered during the summit: “presidency decoration” is no longer allowed at the Justis Lipsius building during EU summits. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Negotiations over a “grand bargain” to attack the ongoing eurozone financial crisis have for weeks included a behind-closed-doors debate about what to do with Greece, which by nearly all estimates will be unable to meet its debt obligations despite its €110bn bail-out. Read more

Implicit in suggestions today from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, that Hosni Mubarak should not be rushed out the door was this: A fear of what could come after the long-ruling Egyptian president. Chief among them is the possibility that Mr Mubarak would be replaced by an Islamist government hostile to the west.

But to David Cameron, the UK prime minister, Egypt’s future should not be cast in such binary terms. “I simply don’t accept that there is just a choice in life between, on the one hand, having a regime that does not respect rights and democracy and on the other hand having Islamic extremism,” Mr Cameron said, pointing to the example of well functioning democracies in Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia. Read more

Peter Spiegel

For those, like the Brussels Blog, who have been following every twist and turn of the saga over Hungary’s carpet in the European Union building that hosts major summits, here’s another twist: the carpet has been covered up.

For those not following the drama so closely, a quick summary: To mark their turn at the EU’s six-month rotating presidency, Hungary laid down the carpet with symbols of the country’s history – including a map of Hungary from 1848, when parts of current-day Slovakia and Romania were within Hungarian borders. It has added to concerns about the nationalist tendencies of the government in Budapest.

Suffice it to say, the Slovaks and Romanians haven’t been amused.

But for today’s heads of government summit in Brussels, the first during the Hungarian presidency, the carpet has been covered by a giant Hungarian-green rug, raising questions of whether Budapest has backed down in the face of criticism.

We’ve been told, however, that no such climb-down is in the works. Read more

As European leaders gather in Brussels for a summit meeting nominally dedicated – for the first time – to energy policy, one uninvited guest is looking on with some dismay: Russia.

High on the agenda is energy security. Which is a polite way of saying that European leaders are discussing how the bloc can break its dependency on Russian gas. In some parts of the EU – notably among the new member states of central and eastern Europe – that policy goal has become an obsession.

“We are totally dependent,” said one Lithuanian diplomat. “Whatever Gazprom says, we pay.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

In this morning’s paper, we have a scoop on the contents of the draft conclusions for today’s European summit, which were circulated to heads of government by Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, ahead of the meeting.

As is our practice here at the Brussels Blog, we thought we’d give our readers a deeper dive into the document itself by posting its contents, with some explanatory annotations. We’re just posting the segments on the eurozone economy; there are several pages on energy and innovation, which is the nominal main subject of the summit.

The section on the debt crisis is included as an addendum at the end of the conclusions and entitled “Statement by the Heads of State or Government of the Euro Area and the EU Institutions”. Be forewarned that this could change over lunch, when leaders debate its contents: Read more

Peter Spiegel

Friday’s summit of European heads of government has long been signposted as one of European Council president Herman Van Rompuy’s new interim conclaves to deal with a policy issue of crucial importance to Europe, in this case energy security.

But as many diplomats predicted, energy is increasingly getting drowned out by other, more pressing demands.

First, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, called on the summit to be used to hash out an overhaul of the eurozone’s €440bn sovereign debt bail-out fund so it’s able to more flexibly deal with bond market assaults on struggling “peripheral” economies.

Although that won’t happen, Van Rompuy has agreed to turn over the summit’s traditional working lunch to the eurozone crisis, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has decided to use the opportunity to float a new plan for greater coordination in economic and fiscal policies among eurozone countries.

Now, it seems, the afternoon is being taken over by yet another crisis: Egypt. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Cynthia O’Murchu, who lead our investigation last year into how the European Union’s €347bn in regional development funds are spent, writes to Brussels Blog with an update:

Just in time for the Fifth Cohesion Forum, during which EU officials mulled the future of its policy towards developing the bloc’s poorer regions, the European Commission responded to a slew of parliamentary questions fielded by MEPs about last year’s FT’s investigation.

 Read more

Peter Spiegel

As we reported last week following an interview with Hungary’s foreign minister, the government in Budapest appears to be willing to diffuse the dust-up over its controversial media law, which critics charge is intended to stifle press opposition.

In a letter sent to the European Commission Monday, and posted by our colleagues at the Hungarian daily Nepszabadsag, Hungary’s deputy prime minister and justice minister Tibor Navracsics said his government was willing to amend the law, if the Commission deemed it necessary. (English translation of letter here.)

My half-hour interview with Janos Martonyi wasn’t all about the media law, however. We talked about his desire to see Friday’s summit of EU heads of government focus on energy issues – as originally planned – and not get overshadowed by the ongoing eurozone debt crisis.

And we also talked about The CarpetRead more