Uma Thurman, in front of a cutout of her "Kill Bill" character "The Bride", during its 2003 premiere.
Few people pay much attention to European Union public information campaigns, except when they misfire. This seems to be happening with one particular set of ads designed to boost the public’s enthusiasm for EU enlargement.
The European Commission on Tuesday took down a video it released last week that critics claimed was veering on racism. In the clip, still visible here, the EU is cast as “The Bride”, the yellow tracksuit-donning martial artist played by Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.
The clip features the heroine being besieged by a group of assailants which – and this is where the problems lie – are grossly stereotyped versions of India, China and Brazil. The impending threat they pose is disarmed when the EU fighter multiplies into 12 fighters who can intimidate the savages into peaceful dialogue.
Is this really offensive? Arguably, the stereotypes are used for a reason: because we see them everywhere, including in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and video games. Read more
The long-running campaign to scrap the European parliament’s once-a-month commute to Strasbourg bagged a sizeable ally this week: none other than the chamber’s new president, Martin Schulz.
While much of the attention in recent days has been on Greece, the parliament has been on the road again, leaving its usual Brussels residence for its second home near the French-German border.
The two-seat arrangement is estimated by critics to cost €200m a year, a public-relations disaster for the legislative arm of an institution which is imposing austerity across much of the continent.
Schulz has always been rumoured to be an anti-Strasbourger. But he has thus far remained closeted, presumably to avoid ruffling French feathers ahead his ascension to the presidency last month. Paris is very eager to keep the parliament on its home turf, if only once a month. Read more
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
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
Journalists arriving early for the European Commission’s daily midday briefing Monday caught a once-familiar figure in the press room: Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the former German defence minister who resigned in disgrace earlier this year after it was revealed he plagiarised his doctoral thesis.
The aristocratic zu Guttenberg , once widely tipped as a future German chancellor, was in Brussels at the invitation of Neelie Kroes, telecoms commissioner, to work on an anti-censorship initiative targeted at dictatorships blocking parts of the internet.
“This is not a political comeback,” zu Guttenberg insisted, on what looked a lot like the first step of his political comeback. Read more
European commissioners’ official Twitter feeds usually consist mainly of links to their latest speech on arcane regulation, or platitudes about whichever country they happen to be visiting.
Enter Laszlo Andor, the social affairs commissioner:
Assuming the Germans are monitoring the micro-blogging platform, they will probably be unamused by the Hungarian’s assessment of automatic sanctions for countries breaching EU debt rules being branded “a joke”: it is one of the pillars of their crisis resolution plan, and will thus feature heavily at the summit of national leaders on Thursday and Friday. Read more
Eurozone governments: Are “the markets” refusing to lend to you? Turn to “the people” instead.
That is in essence what Belgium is proposing to do, with an appeal to retail investors (i.e. you) to buy the sovereign bonds it is struggling to sell to institutional investors (i.e. Goldman Sachs).
Yves Leterme, prime minister, plugged the bonds-for-the-people in the local press on Thursday, arguing they were a particularly good deal now that Belgium’s institutional muddle has helped send yields to attractive levels.
For those who have not been following Belgian politics in the past 577 days, the country has been run by a caretaker administration since April 2010 while its political class tries to cobble together a new government. Read more
Image by Getty.
One week, two set-backs for Belgium. First markets started attacking its debt, then the putative prime minister throws in the towel in his protracted efforts to form a new government, citing lack of common ground between the main political parties over the 2012 budget. After 529 days of negotiations, is it time for a technocratic government?
It’s probably a bit soon. Elio Di Rupo, the Socialist leader, may have offered his resignation to King Albert II, but it has yet to be accepted. It would not be the first time that Di Rupo has “resigned”, only to be begged to stay on as new, unexpected consensus is found. The King, at his countryside estate recovering from a recent nose operation, is consulting party leaders this week and will advise on Di Rupo’s fate later this week. A few have already reaffirmed their faith in Di Rupo.
Two factors suggest a government is closer at hand than may at first seem the case. Read more
After a two hour overrun, the meeting of the EU 27 has broken up here in Brussels, to be followed by a pow-wow of the 17 eurozone members. This could be another late one.
One thing we know has been agreed so far: more meetings.
Instead of a single summit of eurozone leaders next Wednesday, as had been planned on Thursday afternoon, it now looks like there will be at least two – but probably three – more separate get-togethers.
The most important of those will be European Council (of 27) just before Wednesday’s eurozone summit.
This is painted as a big win for Britain and Poland, the biggest “outs” (of the eurozone) who are afraid of seeing their influence on the wider EU wane by literally not having a seat at the negotiating table for the big decisions taken by eurozone leaders. Read more
European summits are fertile ground for PR stunts, if only because of the hundreds of journalists milling around waiting for decisions to be made.
Oxfam today has distributed copies of “(Not the) Financial Times”, a 4-page edition of our paper dated November 2016 and devoted to the effects of a hypothetical tax on cross-border financial transactions, or Financial Transaction Tax, apparently agreed in 2011.
In this alternative universe, bankers will be pleased to discover that the adoption of a so-called Tobin tax has helped boost their popularity rating from near 0 per cent today to 80 per cent by 2014. Read more
Our colleague Gideon Rachman in his FT column this week gives one reason why the euro is in trouble: just look at its banknotes.
Unlike other currencies such as the US dollar or the drachma of old, euro notes shun portraits of dead statesmen and national monuments in favour of abstract bridges and arches. You apparently can’t stick Finland’s national liberation hero on a euro banknote, because he is likely to be unknown in Portugal.
Gideon argues this illustrates the lack of a common European identity that would come in handy in the current crisis.
One other peculiarity: unlike other large currencies, it lacks any kind of nickname. A happy American feels like a million bucks; an Englishman pays three quid for a pint of beer; a Frenchman in the past might have paid cinq balles for a baguette.
But ten years after the notes and coins first appeared, the single currency is still known as, well, the euro. Read more
Flowers are the traditional way to say “I love you”. But in European Union etiquette, they can just as well be the side-product of a political spat.
Romanian authorities this week-end blocked six trucks filled with flowers from the Netherlands, citing health concerns linked to unspecified “dangerous bacteria”.
The blockade came – perhaps coincidentally, but likely not – just one day after the Dutch government said it would veto the enlargement of the passport-free Schengen zone to Romania and Bulgaria.
The Dutch are not the only sceptics when it comes to expanding Europe’s borders to include the eastern duo, a decision that requires unanimity among current Schengen members.
At least a dozen other countries, including France and Germany, lined up against Schengen enlargement last year, worried that though Bulgaria and Romania had met the technical requirements laid out in the accession programme, the endemic corruption in both countries had to be addressed first. Read more
Yves Leterme resigned as prime minister of Belgium in April 2010, prompting a 500-days-and-counting run without a government during which he stayed on as caretaker leader. Now it looks like he intends to resign from that job as well, to join the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Does that mean a new government may finally be afoot?
The announcement last night that Leterme would become deputy secretary-general at the OECD, the rich country think-tank stunned the Belgian political world, which is currently negotiating to replace him with a full-powers government. Read more
Later this week the European Commission will put forward its plan to reform the passport-free Schengen area, as we detailed in our paper edition some weeks ago, and again today.
But its proposals won’t address what to do about Bulgaria and Romania, the two EU members who want to join Schengen but so far haven’t been allowed to.
Both countries have met the technical requirements to be part of Schengen, but existing members – led by France and Germany – say systemic corruption in the civil service are undermining border controls. An onerous “cooperation and verification mechanism” is meant to ensure steady improvement.
Diplomats are thinking creatively, however. One of the sticking points is that allowing Bulgaria and Romania into the pact would create a “land bridge” from Greece to mainland Schengen. (Greece currently has no land borders with other Schengen countries, and seeing as the Greek-Turkish border is the prime gateway for illegal migrants to come into Europe, losing the existing buffer is a problem.)
Poland, which is now handling the dossier as holder of the rotating EU presidency, has revived an idea to grant Schengen access to Romania and Bulgaria in two stages: keep passport controls for now on land and sea borders, but abolish them for air travel. Read more
Brussels has a mysterious way of letting legislative proposals get stuck in the institutional mire – look at the single EU patent idea first mooted over a decade ago, or the “six pack” measures to curb excessive debt, which the parliament and national governments are still fighting over.
But an episode this week suggests that imbroglios can disappear just as quickly as they first formed.
After three years of stasis, a proposed extension of copyright on music recordings from 50 to 70 years was brokered in just a few weeks and very much below the radar.
The recording industry has lobbied heavily for the extra 20 years, going so far as wheeling out its ageing rockers – think Cliff Richard, Paul McCartney and The Who – to convince governments that their 1960s hits should be covered by copyright until the 2030s. (The European Commission, which as the EU’s executive arm proposes all legislation, had suggested 95 years in an early draft) Read more
Europe’s track record of getting its member states to abide by common debt rules is clearly a mixed bag. Perhaps not for long, if Günther Oettinger, the German energy commissioner has his way.
In an interview with Bild, the mass-circulation daily, Oettinger floats a new debt-busting plan which he hopes might succeed where past treaties have failed: countries with excessive debt should have to live with the mortification of having their national flags flown at half mast outside official European Union buildings.
The unconventional idea – acknowledged as such by the commissioner – “would only be a symbol, but it would be a powerful deterrent,” he said. Read more
The US isn’t the only big democracy electing a new president in 2012. The European Union will also potentially select a fresh leader after Herman Van Rompuy’s first two-and-a-half year term expires next spring.
The European battle was never likely to rival the US ballot for excitement. For one, the president of the European Council – Van Rompuy’s job title – is “elected” only by members of the said Council, which is made up of national leaders.
On top of that, it was always widely assumed that Van Rompuy would be put in for a second two-and-a-half years, matching the five year tenure of other EU officials. On Monday he indicated his interest in staying on through January 2015, in an interview on Belgian radio VRT:
If I dare to think about a second term, it’s because the work is not yet done. I must not do it for my own glory.
According to the Belgian press, the European Commission is readying itself to wade into the miasma that is Belgian politics, urging the country to end its 492-day run without a permanent government.
Thursday’s Le Soir newspaper claims the EU’s executive arm has lost patience with its host country’s political class, and will publicly urge a coalition to be forged in double quick time in order to enact economic reforms.
The article prompted an energetic rebuttal from the Commission, which released a statement making clear that it has no new views on the subject. Yves Leterme, caretaker prime minister, also dismissed the story.
To wit: it’s not that the EU would object as such to a new government. It’s just not complaining about the current absence of one. It “has confidence in the democratic process in Belgium”, such as it is. Read more
That Brussels slows down during August is well known. Though European Commission spokespeople repeatedly stress that the EU’s executive arm remains hard at work – especially this year – anyone strolling through the corridors of its Berlaymont headquarters can see there are more than a few people out of the office.
Now in the age of social media, it might be a bit easier to establish who is working and when. To wit: of the eight EU commissioners who regularly use Twitter, four of them have gone completely quiet for the whole month of August, with another commissioner managing only one entry.
All told, the group have tweeted 23 times in as many days. That’s less than a tenth of the usual Twitter activity. In June, for instance, the eight tweeters managed 270 messages, including retweets, between them.
A breakdown of Twitter summer stats after the jump. Read more
Those who have read today’s paper edition of the FT will have seen our interview with Didier Reynders, Belgium’s finance minister and doyen of the EU’s economic and financial council meetings.
Reynders has been in the job since 1999, three years before the euro was introduced in its physical form, so knows a thing or two about the politics of monetary union. Because we never have enough space in the paper to delve into everything we talk about in such hour-long interviews, we thought we’d offer a bit more for our Brussels Blog readers. Read more