Monthly Archives: January 2012

Monday’s meeting of EU leaders is meant to focus on growth and jobs, which makes it all the more ironic that it will likely be heavily disrupted by a general strike called by Belgian unions on the same day.

The timing of the strike is a coincidence, unions claim: this is a Belgian rather than a European strike. It was called for in response to clumsy pensions reforms by the new government, led by the Socialist Elio Di Rupo, rather than as a protest against the EU’s austerity measures (though the unions don’t like those much either.)

The impact of the strike is unclear. One high-ranking official in the secretariat of the Council, which organises the event, told Brussels Blog yesterday that there had been serious talk of moving the entire meeting to Luxembourg, where some EU ministerial-level meetings are regularly held.

But assurances from the Belgian government that the show could go on convinced Herman Van Rompuy, who chairs the summits, to push ahead. As a Belgian who championed (and partly enacted as premier) the reforms that are being disputed, he was perhaps unlikely to yield to the street.

“Inside the building, it will be business as usual,” the source said. The subtext is that outside the Justus Lipsius venue it will be impossible to get to Brussels, find a taxi or even a sandwich. Read more

Obama shakes hands with Treasury chief Geithner after his State of the Union address.

The news overnight focused on President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address. For the Brussels crowd, the most interesting thing in the speech may have been what was not in the speech: Europe.

Despite the ongoing eurozone crisis, and the increasingly deep involvement of senior US officials like Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner in crisis management, Obama did not mention Europe’s economic problems once. In fact, his only reference to the continent at all was a line that military alliances in Europe (and Asia) were “as strong as ever”, and putting “Berlin” in a list of global capitals where governments are “eager to work with us”.

Obama’s Republican adversaries have not done much more than that in their frequent televised debates, despite growing concern in Washington that a crisis-induced collapse of Europe’s economy could have a severe impact on the US economy in the midst of this year’s presidential campaign. Read more

EU commissioner Neelie Kroes

Viktor Orban is in Brussels today on the second part of a charm offensive designed to cool tensions between Budapest and the European Union.

Last week he flattered the European parliament by dropping in on its second home in Strasbourg to reassure MEPs that the sweeping reforms his government are currently undertaking are in line with fundamental European values.

But one commissioner at least is standing firm against the Orban’s overtures, and in a very public way. Just hours before Orban was to meet Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, Neelie Kroes, the commissioner who oversees media issues, held talks in Brussels with the management at Klubradio, a talk and news station which is no fan of the Fidesz government. Since Orban came to power in 2010, it has had a knack of losing out in radio frequency allocation rounds, which it says is an attempt to muzzle dissident voices.

After the meeting, Kroes tweeted to her 33,876 followers:

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/NeelieKroesEU/status/161762486524198913"] Read more

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban listens to MEPs during Wednesday's debate in Strasbourg

The buzz around Brussels since Viktor Orban’s appearance before the European parliament Wednesday has been that the Hungarian prime minister got the better of the parliamentarians, coming across as conciliatory and reasonable in the face of occasionally hectoring MEPs.

But Hungary’s troubles in Brussels are far from over. In addition to continued European Commission resistance to giving Budapest much-needed financial aid until it overhauls a new law critics believe threatens the independence of the central bank – a topic of discussion today when Hungary’s lead negotiator meets in Brussels with Olli Rehn, the Commission’s economic chief – next week is going to be a rough one for Orban’s government.

Most unexpectedly, the three Benelux countries – Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg – have asked that Hungary be discussed at Friday’s meeting in Brussels of all 27 national Europe ministers. Although no decisions will be taken, the move for the first time takes the Hungarian issue from the realm of EU technocrats to that of national politicians, where things could get more heated. Read more

Viktor Orban, Hungarian prime minister. AFP/Getty Images

Viktor Orban, Hungarian prime minister. AFP/Getty Images

Welcome to our live coverage of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s appearance before the European parliament, where he intends to defend his government’s recent actions against accusations they are anti-democratic. All times are GMT.

The Brussels Blog’s Peter Spiegel in Brussels and Stanley Pignal in the parliament’s second home in Strasbourg will be anchoring coverage, with contributions from other FT reporters who write about central and eastern Europe. Read more

Hungary's Viktor Orban during his address in Strasbourg last year. Brussels Blog will be live blogging his appearance on Wednesday .

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s combative prime minister, already had a lengthy list of Brussels’ critiques to rebut during an address today at the European parliament in Strasbourg, which the Brussels Blog is planning to live blog when it begins at 3pm local time.

Expectations are high after last year’s rowdy appearance, and the list of particulars has only grown in the last 24 hours: the European commission, the European Union’s executive arm, on Tuesday declared three new Hungarian laws in violation of the EU treaties, and warned that one may threaten the independence of the country’s central bank.

Just this morning, however, the commission added to the list again, hitting out at Orban – who prides himself on ridding his country from Soviet communism – for failing to respect “media freedom and media pluralism”, the same criticism he faced in Strasbourg a year ago. Read more

Barroso, left, at Thursday's news conference with Denmark's Thorning-Schmidt in Copenhagen

A good chunk of the Brussels press corps has been in Copenhagen this week for the formal kick-off of Denmark’s turn at the EU’s 6-month rotating presidency. Days of back-to-back ministerial briefings and ceremonial events have focused intensively on the Danish government’s “green growth” agenda – down to the green skirt-clad Danish National Girls Choir performing “Plant a Tree” at a concert attended by EU bigwigs Wednesday night.

But when it came to today’s official handoff of the EU reins to Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, there was a slight hiccup: Denmark’s Vestas, the world’s largest maker of wind turbines, chose the same day to announce it was cutting 2,335 jobs – most of them in its home country. Read more

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban during an address last week.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, will meet tomorrow in Copenhagen amidst their ongoing investigation of new laws just passed by the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, which have drawn accusations his ruling Fidesz party is using its overwhelming parliamentary majority to trample the independence of the judiciary and central bank.

Officials say the Commission is unlikely to come to a conclusion tomorrow, but the Hungarian government appears to be taking no chances. In a letter by Orban’s foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, sent to other EU countries and obtained by Brussels Blog, Budapest tries to insist the new laws are within European norms.

“Some of the critics are going as far to question the democratic commitment of the Hungarian government,” writes Martonyi. “I admit…that the sheer magnitude of the changes my government is carrying out or has initiated does not make the job of those who want to understand easy.” Read more