Enlargement

A bullet hole in an armoured police car used during this week's cannabis raid in Lazarat.

Eight hundred police and SWAT officers besieging a village? Armed drug dealers fighting back with grenades and mortars? This is hardly familiar territory for the wonkish world of the Brussels Blog but a dramatic battle in the Balkans is of critical importance to the course of the EU’s enlargement.

It is all happening in Lazarat in Albania, from where the Associated Press has a hair-raising dispatch. The police moved in to take out what has become the cannabis capital of Europe. Incredibly, AP cites an estimate that the area was earning about $6bn a year through cannabis cultivation, which would be just under half of Albania’s GDP.

It is the timing of this operation that is so vital. On Tuesday, Albania will learn whether it has been accepted for “candidate status” for becoming a member of the EU.

The showdown in Lazarat is a sign of Albania’s intent in the area where it needs to show most progress: judicial accountability and the fight against corruption. It is hardly as if Albania’s security services have only just woken up to what goes on in Lazarat – the key issue is that a plantation of this epic scale must have been protected from on high. Albania wants to show that it is willing to take on vested interests. Read more

Are the Dutch attempting to lead a mutiny on bank reform? It is hard to tell whether the objections are serious enough to unravel the deal last week on the EU rules for handling a bank crisis. But something mildly rebellious is certainly afoot. And it could end in another golden-gloves showdown between Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, and his Swedish sparring partner Anders Borg.

At issue is the draft deal on the bank recovery and resolution directive (BRRD), which was agreed between negotiators for the European parliament and EU member states on Wednesday, brining to a close months of difficult talks. The reforms give all EU countries a rulebook at national level to handle a bank in trouble and, if necessary, bail-in creditors to help foot the bill.

The Dutch, however, are unimpressed. They think the draft agreement offers too much freedom to governments wanting bailout banks with public money, rather than impose losses on bondholders. And it looks like they have a significant number of allies. Read more

David Cameron

David Cameron, UK prime minister, has been loudly campaigning for a crackdown on EU migration in an effort to curb the influx of workers from poorer member states to Britain.

But on Monday, the Tory-led government tried to block key amendments to EU legislation that seeks to do exactly that: reduce the inflow of workers from central and eastern Europe to wealthier member states.The so-called “posting of workers directive” was agreed by member states in 1996 to make it easier for EU workers to carry out work outside of their home country for a limited period of time.

But a number of countries led by France, Germany and Belgium have over the years complained that the directive was being used inappropriately to undercut local labour rules in richer countries. Essentially, workers from poorer countries offered their services at below market prices without asking for any social security contributions. Read more

What has become an increasingly touchy EU-Russia trade relationship took another tit-for-tat turn on Thursday when Brussels escalated a WTO case against Moscow over vehicle recycling fees.

The EU believes a recycling fee Russia charges on imported cars is less about good environmental policy and more a way to squelch foreign competition. The fee does not apply to cars built in Russia or its closest trading partners,Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Brussels complained to the WTO about the levy in July, marking the first case against Russia since it joined the global trade body with much fanfare in 2012 – 19 years after its initial application. On Thursday, the EU asked for a panel to rule on the matter after – to little surprise – settlement talks with Moscow proved fruitless. A result could take months.

“We’ve used all the possible avenues to find with Russia a mutually acceptable solution,” said Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner. “As the fee continues to severely hamper exports of a sector that is key for Europe’s economy, we are left with no choice but to ask for a WTO ruling.” Read more

During his inaugural address on Monday, US President Barack Obama committed himself to a European priority that was shoved to the background during his first term in office: Fighting climate change.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama said. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

Those words were music to the ears of many in Brussels, who had assumed – wrongly, it turns out – that the White House was poised four years ago to join the EU’s campaign to forge an ambitious global climate treaty.

The irony of Obama’s climate pivot is that it was announced on the same day when the price of carbon in the EU’s emissions trading scheme fell to an all-time low, offering a distressing reminder about the disarray in a market that is the centrepiece of Europe’s climate policy. Read more

Jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko showing what she called a bruise on her forearm

Anyone hoping that the ongoing standoff between the EU and Ukraine over the detention of one-time Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko will end soon is likely to be disappointed. With national elections just three months away, there seems to be no interest in Kiev in releasing her during campaign season.

Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, Ukraine’s foreign minister, acknowledged to Brussels Blog that the former prime minister had become more of a problem for his government in jail than free, noting her imprisonment has made an “association agreement” with EU almost impossible to finalise. “We [see] this issue as a certain irritant which obviously is not helping to move ahead with a positive agenda with the European Union,” Gryshchenko said.

But Gryshchenko swiftly repeated the line that other senior Ukrainian officials have made about the Tymoshenko case: there was little he could do to overturn last year’s court ruling that sentenced the former prime minister to seven years in prison for abuse of office. Read more

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

In today’s paper, fellow Brussels Blogger Stanley Pignal has a nice scoop about a letter France and Germany sent to European Union officials announcing their formal objections to including Bulgaria and Romania in the Schengen area, the visa-free travel zone that most EU members are part of.

Traian Basescu, the Romanian president, has already responded this morning by calling the letter a “discriminatory act against Romania,” and vowing to fight the move.

Because the issue could get even hotter, especially since the incoming Hungarian presidency had made Bulgarian and Romanian Schengen membership such a priority, we thought we should post the letter here, with some annotations of our own. Read more

Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is expected to make a little progress today.  I stress “a little”.  In most respects, the cause of Turkish membership of the EU is in worse shape than at any time since EU governments recognised Turkey as an official candidate in 2004.

The progress, minimal though it is, takes the form of an agreement by the EU and Turkey to open formal talks on food security. This is one of the 35 chapters, or policy areas, that a country must complete before it can join the EU.  It means that Turkey will have opened 13 chapters in total.  Of these, however, only one chapter has been closed.  If this is progress, the snail is king of the race track. Read more

After spending three days in Reykjavik and the northern town of Akureyri, just below the Arctic Circle, I am starting to get the feeling that Iceland’s entry into the European Union is anything but guaranteed.  I have met government ministers and officials who are eager to steer their country into the EU.  But I have met a fairly wide range of private sector businessmen, teachers, students and other Icelanders who are either flatly opposed or at best non-committed.

The most passionate opposition I’ve encountered has come from representatives of the powerful fisheries industry and the less powerful but politically influential agricultural lobby.  Here’s what the manager of the national dairy farmers’ association said: “If we entered the EU, our tariffs would have to go.  Our home market share would drop by 25 to 50 per cent.  The number of farmers would drop by 60 to 70 per cent.  EU membership would deal us a tremendous blow, there’s no doubt about it.” Read more

Will Iceland really join the European Union?  I have come to Reykjavik in search of answers.  In one sense, it’s the right time to be here: the skies are white for almost 24 hours a day at this time of year, appearing to throw light on everything.  But in another sense this promises to be a frustrating trip - Iceland itself doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be in the EU or not.

The opinion polls are not good.  After a long period in which a solid majority of about 60 per cent of Icelanders supported EU membership, things have turned upside down in recent months.  Support for EU entry was estimated to be as low as 28 per cent in one recent survey, whilst opposition now runs at about 60 per cent.  If Iceland is serious about joining the EU, it will have to hold a referendum, so these numbers matter.  Right now, however, we are a long way from a referendum – at least two years, and perhaps longer.  Much can change.

Enthusiasm for the EU was high when Iceland’s banking system and currency collapsed in 2008, prompting the introduction of a drastic austerity programme conducted under the beady eye of the International Monetary Fund.  But Iceland’s dispute with the UK and the Netherlands over how to repay British and Dutch savers who lost their money in Icesave, the failed online Icelandic bank, has changed public opinion. Read more

One little-noticed side effect of the Greek debt crisis is that it is playing into the hands of those who oppose faster progress on enlarging the European Union.  Western Balkan countries such as Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are queuing up at the EU’s door, but only Croatia has any chance of membership in the next three years.

Among the reasons is that Greece, the first Balkan state to enter the EU (in 1981), has been exposed as a country that not only ran ruinous and reckless fiscal policies for many years, but deceived its partners with false data in order to join the eurozone at the start of this decade.  Rightly or wrongly, some policymakers in EU national capitals argue that this unhappy experience demonstrates that, when it comes to public probity, Balkan states are just not to be trusted. Read more

The European Union’s rotating presidency will pass on July 1 from Spain to Belgium, and then six months later from Belgium to Hungary.  The direction of EU affairs will therefore soon be in the hands of a centre-right Hungarian government that has wasted little time, since its massive election victory in April, in asserting its patriotic – some would say ‘nationalist’ – credentials.

Policymakers in Brussels are anxiously watching this development.  They recall the unhappy experience of the Czech Republic’s EU presidency in the first half of 2009.  The last thing they want is another turbulent presidency run by one of the 10 central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004-2007.  It would give critics of EU enlargement even more ammunition to fight with. Read more

Two weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean.  It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.

The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today’s European Union.  The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU’s southern member-states – such as France, Italy and Spain – and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea.  It was not a bad idea in principle.  But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM. Read more

Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union.  The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory.  The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.

Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament.  Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc.  Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. Read more

A potentially decisive moment is approaching in the Cyprus settlement talks that started in September 2008.  Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, is to visit the divided island on Sunday and stay there until Tuesday.  He does not, of course, have the authority to impose a settlement or even seriously to bang heads together.  But what he can do is impress on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders that the world is watching them and that a great deal hangs on the outcome of their negotiations.

A sense of urgency hangs over the talks because presidential elections will be held in Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus on April 18.  Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist president who helped revive the effort at reaching a comprehensive settlement more than 16 months ago, looks vulnerable to the challenge of Dervis Eroglu, the nationalist prime minister. Read more

The European Union should be pleased with the outcome of the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election.  Not because the politician who received the most votes was former premier Viktor Yanukovich, the most pro-Russian of the main candidates.  Rather, because the election for the most part met the very high standards of democracy, legality and fairness that the EU had demanded of Ukraine to sustain the process of bringing the country closer to the 27-nation bloc.

It was a genuine contest among a variety of distinctive candidates, and the second, knock-out round on February 7 between Yanukovich and Yulia Tymoshenko, the incumbent prime minister, will be a genuine contest, too.  Compare this with the tainted presidential election of November 2004, which precipitated the Orange Revolution that propelled Viktor Yushchenko to power.  In terms of democracy and the political maturity of society, Ukraine has progressed a long way over the past five years. Read more

Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia.  As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.

Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government.  Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners.  Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime.  A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state. Read more

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

Seen from continental Europe, one of the biggest questions of 2010 concerns David Cameron, leader of the UK’s opposition Conservative party.  The Tories are widely expected to win the forthcoming British election, but few European Union politicians can claim with confidence to know where he truly stands on the all-important matter of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

The lack of clarity isn’t helped by the Tories’ distant relationship with their fellow EU centre-right parties.  I am in Bonn at a congress of the European People’s Party, the leading centre-right party group.  Everyone who matters is here: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Herman Van Rompuy (the newly appointed full-time EU president)…  Countries from Malta to Latvia and Georgia to Croatia are represented.  But there are no Conservative party politicians at all here – not Cameron, not William Hague, his shadow foreign secretary, not Kenneth Clarke, the only authentically pro-EU voice in the shadow cabinet. Read more