Greek protesters prepare for Chancellor Angela Merkel's visit this morning in central Athens.
Since coming a surprise second in June’s Greek elections, Syriza, the radical left-wing coalition, can point to at least one (admittedly modest) success in addressing the country’s monstrous unemployment problem: It has found a job for Aphrodite Babassi.
Babassi, a Syriza supporter who appeared in the FT’s pages in May, had been jobless for three years before she took a post in July on the staff of one of the party’s new members of parliament, Afrodite Stapouli, researching science policy.
We bumped into Babassi, 27, at Syntagma Square on Monday night, where – as she prepared to protest against the pending visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – she recalled the joy of receiving her first pay check. Read more
Who will succeed José Manuel Barroso as president of the European commission?
That question has long been debated around the corridors and coffee bars ofBrussels. But it gained special urgency after Barroso’s state-of-the-union speech in Strasbourg last week. In it, Barroso suggested that each political party nominate their own choice for commission president and place that person atop their list for the 2014 European elections.
The idea is to generate some much-needed excitement for EU elections that tend to suffer from paltry voter turnout.
“This would be a decisive step to make the possibility of a European choice offered by these elections even clearer. I call on the political parties to commit to this step and thus to further Europeanise these elections,” Barroso said.
So that begs the question: who is generating the most buzz as the next commission president? Who has the right stuff? As a service to our readers, Brussels Blog has decided to present a list of early contenders from each of the major political families. Read more
China’s solar panel manufacturers are facing an uphill battle in their legal fight against the EU, which last week targeted them as it launched the bloc’s biggest-ever an anti-dumping investigation. The case involves Chinese exports of solar panels, wafers and other products that totalled some €21bn last year.
More than half of such anti-dumping investigations result in tariffs being imposed, according to EU officials. Yet there are at least two technical factors at work in the solar dispute that could make the odds even worse for the Chinese. Read more
Over at the socialist gathering held in a conference centre overlooking an ornate garden in the centre of Brussels, a gaggle of reporters – and a few bemused tourists – clustered around Jean-Marc Ayrault, the new French prime minister, as he arrived for the meeting.
Jean-Marc Ayrault arrives at the meeting of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Reuters
The European commission, the European Union’s executive arm, has been one of the staunchest supporters of the proposed Nabucco pipeline, a 3,900-kilometer behemoth that would carry natural gas from the Caspian region to Austria.
For the commission, Nabucco represents the backbone of a new southern corridor that would break Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas. It has touted the project repeatedly over the years, and has also opened its wallet, committing up to €200m in funding.
But in a recent conversation with Brussels Blog, Gunther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, made a departure from the usual script and gave support to the growing suspicion that the full Nabucco may be a lost cause. Read more
Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the tidal wave that unleashed a disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility and forced a profound shift in Europe’s nuclear debate.
Within weeks of the disaster, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, decided to switch course and phase out the country’s nuclear plants – a move that was subsequently copied by Switzerland and Belgium.
Talk of a nuclear revival that once filled the air in Italy and other member states – encouraged by the industry and supportive governments – has been dashed. Even in France, Europe’s nuclear champion, public opinion has turned increasingly negative.
But in spite of Fukushima, one European Union member state has lost none of its nuclear ardour: Lithuania. Read more
When word filtered out on Tuesday that Russia’s Gazprom would be capping its gas shipments to the European Union, a shiver went through an unusually frigid Brussels.
After two major supply cuts in the last ten years – the most recent in 2009 – European policymakers have become conditioned to believe that any interruption in Russian gas may be the beginning of another full-blown crisis instigated by the Kremlin.
Gazprom said it was going to have to limit European sales in order to serve the needs of domestic consumers struggling through a cold winter. Fears appeared to subside a bit, though, when the company promised to try to make up the difference over the coming days.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the incident is how quickly it has become a non-event. The reason, according to EU officials, is that the continent learned the lessons from the last gas crisis and has worked to make itself far less vulnerable to future Russian shocks. 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
Baltic Sea fisherman. Image by Getty
Has the UK lost its influence in Europe? That has become the conventional wisdom in Brussels after prime minister David Cameron last week spurned France and Germany by refusing to sign up to a new “fiscal compact” to further integrate the bloc’s economies.
A first indication may come over the next 24 hours, during which a group of bleary-eyed ministers will try to close an agreement on the European Union’s annual fisheries quotas. Unlikely as it may seem, the UK is expected to get its way because it has rounded up support from France and Germany.
The December fisheries council is one of Brussels’ quirky annual rites and arguably the world’s ultimate fish market. Working late into the night, European diplomats barter quotas on scores of salt water species – from North Sea cod to the nephrop norvegicus – to piece together a comprehensive agreement governing the fisheries of the world’s biggest seafood consumer.
As my colleague, Andrew Bolger, reported in Thursday’s FT, Scotland’s fishing industry is nervous, thanks to Cameron’s defiance. Read more
For the unfortunate diplomats locked in the Justus Lipsius council building all of Friday and into Saturday morning, the European Union’s 2012 budget negotiations were an arduous affair. Upon emerging, one groggy diplomat lamented “an evening I can never get back.”
But to the union at large, the remarkable thing about the talks was how easily they went down.
For those who missed the news early Saturday morning, representatives from the EU’s 27 member states, the European parliament and the European commission agreed on a 2.02 per cent increase in next year’s budget, bringing it to €129bn.
That was well below the 5.23 per cent sought by MEPs, and the 4.9 per cent recommended by the commission. Read more
France and Germany may be divided over the key issues on the agenda of today’s European Union summit. But President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel have found common ground in the need to hammer Italy over its heavy debt load.
The leaders of the EU’s biggest and most powerful member states called in Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, this morning for a pre-summit tongue-lashing. The message they delivered, according to one diplomat familiar with the discussion, was that Italy must deliver “specific and convincing reform measures soon.” They communicated a similar message to Berlusconi at a gathering on Saturday evening held by the centre-right European People’s Party.
Sarkozy also expressed his displeasure with Italy’s refusal to make way for a Frenchman on the European central bank’s executive board, according to the diplomat. France is due to lose its seat when Jean-Claude Trichet steps down as ECB president at the end of the month to be replaced by Mario Draghi, the outgoing president of the Bank of Italy. Berlusconi infuriated the French this week when he declined to free up a seat on the powerful decision-making committee by refusing to name current board member Lorenzo Bini Smaghi as Draghi’s replacement. Read more
Tripoli's Old City. September 4.
The European Union’s diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, has landed in Tripoli – the first step in a move to establish a delegation office there. But now that the EU is on the ground in the Libyan capital, don’t expect a torrent of aid to begin flowing just yet.
A post-Gaddafi Libya, and the Arab Spring, in general, present a big opportunity for the new EAS to demonstrate that it can play a useful role helping to promote development and nurture fledgling democracies in the region. The EAS was envisioned as one of the main levers of the EU’s “soft power” when it was enshrined in the 2009 Lisbon treaty. Yet it has got off to a decidedly rocky start.
The extent of the EAS’s role in Libya remains in question. EU officials say they have been told by Libya’s National Transitional Council that it does not intend to hand over the country’s post-conflict reconstruction to foreign interests, and that it will insist on leading the process itself. Read more
New York Stock Exchange on August 4, 2011. Image by AFP
In a sign of the severity of this week’s market turbulence, Olli Rehn, Europe’s economics commissioner, has cut short his holiday and will be back in Brussels today. Rehn is to address the press corps at midday – presumably to undo some of the damage caused by an explosive letter penned by his boss, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.
In his letter – which was sent to the eurozone heads of government on Wednesday, but released to the press on Thursday – Barroso acknowledged that the big decisions taken at a eurozone summit on July 21 were not having the intended effect on financial markets. He also called for a “rapid reassessment” of the eurozone’s €440bn bailout fund just two weeks after leaders had armed it with new weapons following a torturous, months-long debate. Read more
Demetris Christofias, president of Cyprus, at the eurozone summit in Brussels in June
The news of further turmoil in Cyprus is a reminder that Italy and Spain are not the only eurozone members that may soon be forced to seek European Union support.
After weeks of negotiations, the coalition government’s junior partner, the centrist Democratic Party, has broken off talks with the ruling AKEL, led by communist president Demetris Christofias. As of this morning, that has pushed the yields on 10-year Cypriot bonds above 11 per cent. Read more
Angela Merkel in Brussels on July 21.
Eurozone leaders have made their way into the council building in Brussels, and their comments – though still cautious – have turned upbeat. Here is a sample of the chatter, thanks to our door-stepping friends at Reuters.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, believes a decisive deal is at hand. “I expect that we will be able to seal a new Greece programme. That is an important signal. And with this programme we want to grasp the problems by their root,” Merkel said.
Asked whether a Franco-German agreement – which would likely push Greece into a selective default – had the support of its main critic, Jean-Claude Trichet, the European Central Bank president, she was more circumspect. “We spoke at length with ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet and listened to his arguments, too. For this reason, I hope that today will be a constructive day.” Read more
What is the most sought-after invitation in Brussels these days? An invite to the monthly meetings of eurozone finance ministers, apparently. That closed-door gathering has been the nerve centre of European Union efforts to solve a debt crisis that has shaken the single currency for more than a year.
One week ago, as Poland was launching its first EU presidency, Jacek Rostowski, the country’s finance minister, sounded desperate to gain entrance to the inner-sanctum. The problem for Rostowski, of course, is that he fails the most basic criteria for eurogroup membership: His country has not yet adopted the euro. Like a bouncer stationed outside a Manhattan nightclub, France has been particularly adamant about guarding the eurogroup’s exclusivity.
The ruffle over the guest list is another reminder of the way that protocol and procedure remain paramount in the 27-member bloc – even in the face of disaster. It was on display in May when a secret meeting convened in Luxembourg to discuss the Greece crisis sparked envy and resentment among member states that were not invited. Read more
So much for the “six pack,” the sprawling fiscal reform package that was supposed to rein in government debt and prevent a recurrence of the crisis currently threatening the euro.
Hungary placed the six pack atop the priority list for its six month European Union presidency, and worked doggedly to try to forge a compromise with the European parliament before its term ended last week.
The Hungarians were not the only ones keen to close a deal: Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, spent months in tortured negotiations leading a task force that developed the rules, which would allow Brussels to fine governments that do not put their fiscal houses in order. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has promised the Bundestag she will not participate in a new eurozone bailout fund, set to go into effect in mid-2013, without the new budget controls in place first.
But as Poland takes the EU’s presidential reins, it appears intent on dialling back the urgency. Polish diplomats will resume negotiations with MEPs in Strasbourg this week. But people involved in the talks say it is now impossible that a deal could be finalised before September – if one gets done at all. Read more
Corien Wortmann-Kool, a Dutch MEP, trekked to Luxembourg for breakfast this morning with finance ministers from her political group, the European People’s Party. The hope was that meeting over coffee and croissants might help to narrow differences between the European parliament and the member states over the sprawling “six pack” legislation, which would force eurozone countries to rein in spending and make their economies more competitive. It is one of the eurozone’s chief policy responses to a crippling debt crisis.
But the breakfast meeting yielded no breakthroughs – in part because many of the finance ministers did not turn up. After a contentious meeting to discuss the Greek debt crisis that lasted into the wee hours of the morning, they either could not rouse themselves from bed or were simply too busy.
The empty seats at the breakfast table highlighted a broader concern of Wortmann-Kool: that the Greek crisis is so consuming that there is little energy or capacity to complete the six pack, let alone anything else. “As you can imagine at the moment, Greece is the issue,” she told Brussels Blog this morning, complaining that “the decision-making power in Europe seems to be lacking.” Read more
Barroso at EU-Russia summit
José Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, emerged from the latest EU-Russia summit with a conditional pledge from Moscow to lift a blanket ban on European vegetables imposed more than a week ago in the midst of a deadly E. coli outbreak.
Moscow’s concession may bring a conditional sigh of relief from European farmers, who have been devastated by the outbreak. But it underscores the simmering tension between the two trading partners when it comes to the health and sanitary standards that govern agricultural goods.
Russia has become the biggest market for EU exports of meat and vegetables. But if it is an important customer, it is also a hugely demanding one. The chief complaint among EU producers is that Moscow uses arbitrary health and sanitary standards to restrict their goods – be it German pork or Dutch apples. Read more
Hungarian finance minister Gyorgy Matolcsy, left, at last month's meeting of EU finance ministers
It is no secret that in the waning days of their European Union presidency, the Hungarians are going for broke trying to broker a deal on the “six pack” – the sprawling legislative package that would provide new tools, including fines, to force member states to rein in excessive spending and reform their economies.
The six pack is one of the bloc’s chief responses to the debt crisis, and pushing it over the finish line would surely rank as the high point of Hungary’s first ever turn in the EU’s big chair. (Depending on whom you ask, it could also mark an historic moment in the march toward an ever-closer European union.)
While the chances of finding common ground between member states, the European commission and a muscle-flexing parliament seemed remote just a few weeks ago, the Hungarians are not ready to give up just yet. The next hurdle comes Tuesday, when Hungarian diplomats will present a possible compromise to EU finance ministers at a dinner in Brussels. Read more