UPDATE: The demonstrations are already turning nasty. Near the Belgian prime minister’s office, protesters are throwing rocks at riot police, who have opened water cannons on them.
It’s summit day (again!) in Brussels, and for Europe’s presidents and prime minsters gathering this afternoon, the unexpected collapse of the Portuguese government and the ongoing infighting over the Libyan campaign is likely to dominate deliberations behind closed doors.
But those of us without the benefit of a security detail and Belgian motorcycle outriders will have to deal with something far more onerous: thousands of Belgian demonstrators who are expected to clog Brussels’ city centre to protest European austerity measures and the failure of Belgian political leaders to form a government.
A quick morning wander through the city’s EU quarter reveals Belgian security forces armed to the teeth, complete with gas masks, body armour, riot helmets and plexiglass shields. Helicopters buzz overhead. Two Belgian army soldiers were even spotted wandering through the atrium of Justis Lipsius, the EU building where the summit is held.
Who is having a good crisis over at the European commission’s Belaymont headquarters?
Probably not Gunther “Apocalypse” Oettinger, the energy commissioner, whose dire remarks about the Japanese nuclear situation were an embarrassing example of publicly pouring fuel on an unstable reactor. Not Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, whose aide told reporters that a no-fly zone over Libya was both impractical and unwise – only to be overruled a short time later by Britain and France.
While it is still early days, the buzz among eurocrats is that one commissioner who has proved effective in these troubled times is Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva.
The European commission has asked member states to begin testing imported Japanese food for increased radiation levels, although officials believe that health risks for consumers are low.
That assessment is based on the fact that Japanese agricultural exports to the European Union are limited to begin with – particularly from the affected regions. Moreover, the disruption and devastation from the earthquake and tsunami are likely to reduce those exports even further.
Beleaguered Japanese officials are already grappling with a humanitarian crisis wrought by a biblical earthquake and tsunami, and the prospect of apocalyptic meltdowns at a pair of stricken nuclear reactors. Add to their list of woes one European commissioner.
That would be Gunther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, whose ill-judged remarks about the crisis on Wednesday have helped to make a bad situation worse.
It will be Luxembourg that will have the final say on Brussels versus Strasbourg, now that Paris has decided to sue under Lisbon.
In other words, the fight over the seat of the European Parliament has suddenly become a full-blown EU inter-institutional brawl.
The French government on Tuesday decided to take the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg after parliamentarians last week decided to tweak the terms of their regular commute between Brussels and Strasbourg. Paris claims the move violates the EU’s new Lisbon treaty, its governing constitution.
Moody’s decision to downgrade Spain’s sovereign credit rating from Aa1 to Aa2 was very unwelcome to the Spanish government yesterday, but it may have come as a timely reminder to other European leaders, meeting in Brussels today, that they are still a very long way from solving the sovereign debt crisis. Ever since the beginning of the year, the markets have been willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the European negotiators, believing that the Germans and the French had finally come to the view that some form of fiscal burden sharing was a better alternative, for themselves as well as for the troubled economies, than the risk of sovereign defaults, or worse still the break up of the euro.
As he entered today’s EU summit, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, made his first public comments about his unexpected plan for for “defensive” air-strikes against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, saying they should be used in the event Gaddafi uses chemical weapons or unleashes airpower against unarmed demonstrators.
“The French and the English have said that we are open, if the United Nations wants it, and if the Arab League accepts it, and if the Libyan authorities that we want to be recognised ask for it, to have targeted defensive operations in the sole eventuality that Gaddafi would use chemical weapons or use his warplanes to target non-violent demonstrators,” he told reporters.
Today’s back-to-back European Union summits in Brussels kick off with a discussion on Libya, and it’s sure to be dominated by Nicolas Sarkozy’s unexpected decision to recognise the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.
Officials at both Nato (where defence ministers are meeting) and the European Union (where European foreign ministers lunched ahead of today’s heads-of-government summit) said Sarkozy’s initiative was not hugely popular; one foreign minister I talked to said it was 26 vs 1 during the EU session. There are widespread concerns about who, exactly, the west is embracing, since intelligence on the opposition’s leadership remails pretty thin.
If MEPs cannot dump Strasbourg, once and for all, they may at least be able to spend a bit less time with her.
That seems to be the thinking behind the European Parliament’s vote on Wednesday to drop one of the 12 plenary sessions it holds each year in the Alsatian city that is the symbol of Franco-German reconciliation at the heart of the European project. In past years, the Parliament has held two Strasbourg sessions in September or October in order to make up for the summer recess. Pending a legal challenge, it will merge those sessions into one visit for the next two years.
José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, announced he was sending the emergency relief commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, to Tunisia Wednesday night to oversee the EU’s humanitarian aid effort to the growing refugee crisis along the Libyan border.
Your Brussels Blogger has been in Malta reporting on how southern Europe has been preparing for a possible flood of migrants fleeing Libya. Despite all the bluster, thus far the only two who have claimed asylum in Europe from Libya are the two defecting fighter pilots who flew over in their Mirage jets last week.
Why the exodus to Tunisia and not across the Mediterranean? Officials in Malta say the awful weather in the past week is the real reason why nobody has attempted the 400km journey from Libya.
As I explained in my story on Monday, it’s not fleeing Libyans that Europeans are most worried about. Their main concern relates to foreigners living in Libya, mostly from other parts of Africa, who might use the chaos to flee in Europe. Many hail from places like war-torn Somalia, which nearly automatically entitles them to some sort of protection as refugees if they reach Europe.