EU Commission

Peter Spiegel

Pierre Moscovici arrives in Paris for the government's confidence vote earlier this month.

One of the most highly anticipated confirmation hearings in the European Parliament this week will be that of Pierre Moscovici, the former French finance minister tapped to be the European Commission’s new economic chief, who will appear before the economic affairs committee on Thursday morning.

Members of the parliament’s centre-right grouping, the European People’s party, have vowed to give him a grilling on whether he will vigorously enforce the EU’s tough budget rules – particularly since he comes from a French Socialist government that has advocated more flexibility in the rules.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming Commission president, took the unusual step of issuing a legal decision that spells out in black and white Moscovici’s relationship with the Commission’s new vice president in charge of the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister with a reputation as a deficit hawk. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

 

 

We have posted the entire 6-page document here. Most of it is unsurprising boilerplate – though there is a somewhat intriguing US-style line of succession among the vice presidents on page 2, which ranks Dutchman Frans Timmermans first and Finland’s Jyrki Katainen last. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Lord Hill says that there will be no exceptions for member states who fail to jump into line on banker bonuses. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Commission nominee Phil Hogan, left, with Irish prime minister Enda Kenny

Much of the back-room plotting ahead of next week’s European Parliament confirmation hearings for the new European Commission has focused on four controversial nominees who are likely to face a tough grilling: Britain’s Jonathan Hill, Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics, Slovenia’s Alenka Bratusek and Spain’s Miguel Arias Cañete.

But suddenly Ireland’s Phil Hogan has moved into a strange spotlight.

The incoming agriculture commissioner has threatened Irish MEP Nessa Childers with legal action over a letter she sent to fellow parliamentarians opposing his appointment as commissioner.

In the letter (which we have posted here), Childers alleges that Hogan, while a member of the Irish parliament, agreed to try to prevent a “Traveller family” from moving into public housing in his constituency. Childers argues this makes him an unsuitable nominee.

Hogan has responded by sending some letters of his own: legal threats from his lawyers at Mason Hayes & Curran, alleging that Childers’ claims were untrue and defamatory. We have those three letters, labeled “strictly private & confidential”, here, here and hereRead more

Peter Spiegel

Juncker's "key political challenges" session will feature Ukraine, EU-US trade and budget rules

Fresh with their newly-minted portfolios in hand, the 28 members of the incoming Juncker commission headed off for an “informal seminar” on the outskirts of Brussels by bus Thursday morning for a bit of team-building.

As we reported in this morning’s dead-tree edition of the FT, one of the highlights of the two day gathering will be a debate this afternoon on the EU’s budget rules between the new economic affairs commissioner, France’s Pierre Moscovici, and one of the new economic vice presidents, Finland’s Jykri Katainen.

According to a copy of the agenda for the two-day event, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here, the budget rules are one of three “key political challenges” that will be debated in a two-hour session after lunch. The other two are Ukraine and the increasingly controversial EU-US trade agreement. Read more

Peter Spiegel

There is only one topic in the brasseries of Brussels, at least among the EU crowd: Which portfolios will President-elect Jean-Claude Juncker give to his 27 incoming commissioners? Which is why we here at Brussels Blog were rather pleased when the organisation chart above purporting to show where the negotiations stood last Saturday landed in our in-box.

We had no obvious reason to doubt its authenticity when we got it. Such leaks are commonplace in Brussels, and are occasionally a lubricant for political negotiations. Without going into too much detail, it was realistic to conclude the document was being worked on by Juncker’s inner circle.

But once we took a closer look at the line-up, we began to scratch our heads. The negotiations are fluid and the document is three days old, so there would naturally be changes. But it went beyond that. After a call to several trusted sources involved in the talks, it quickly became clear that something strange was afoot. The chart includes glaring inconsistencies, unbelievable political gambles and factual inaccuracies – all set amidst a few things that ring absolutely true.

At the FT, we’ve had a long discussion about how to handle this leak. We’ve decided to publish the chart with a serious health warning, as well as a guide to what is wrong and what may be correct (whether by accident or design). We leave the rest to the Poirots of Brussels, who seem to like nothing more than chewing over what Juncker may decide. Can Brussels survive another week of this speculation-fest? Read more

Peter Spiegel

Van Rompuy meeting with Britain's David Cameron at Downing Street on Monday

The less-watched parallel process to selecting the new head of the European Commission has been Herman Van Rompuy’s effort, backed by several member states, to come up with a work programme for the new commission president that will lock him in for the next five years when it comes to policy programmes and priorities.

Even though advocates of such an idea appear to be pushing the same policies that are mentioned in nearly every EU summit communiqué, several countries – including strange bedfellows like the Netherlands and Italy – have argued such an agenda is in some ways more important than the leader who takes over the commission in November. They insist it will enable Europe’s prime ministers to put their stamp on the next commission and its priorities after the European Parliament was seen to have dragged the current one around.

As a first step towards agreeing such a programme, Van Rompuy, the outgoing European Council president, on Monday circulated a four-page “strategic agenda” for the new commission, which he hopes to get agreed at this week’s high-stakes EU summit. We wrote about it here, but as usual for readers of Brussels Blog, we’re providing a bit more detail for those more interested, including a copy of the document, which we’ve posted hereRead more

Peter Spiegel

Campaign manager Selmayr, left, with Juncker on election night in Brussels last month.

In a town that is reading every tea leaf available to divine whether Jean-Claude Juncker, the ex-Luxembourg prime minister and front-runner for next European Commission president, will actually get the job, it seemed a rather big leaf of tea.

Martin Selmayr, the workaholic German lawyer who served as Juncker’s savvy campaign manager during last month’s European Parliament elections, took many EU officials by surprise when it was announced Wednesday he had been appointed to a top job in the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (see announcement here, under the “Five new senior management appointments” heading).

Many in Brussels had tipped Selmayr as Juncker’s chief of staff if he won the presidency. Prior to working for Juncker, Selmayr had been chief of staff to Luxembourg’s current commissioner, Viviane Reding, and he is close to the man who holds the powerful chief of staff job under José Manuel Barroso, fellow brainy German lawyer Johannes Laitenberger.

Is Selmayr’s departure a sign Juncker’s prospects for winning the presidency are dimming and he’s bailing out of a sinking ship? On Twitter, Selmayr denied it, tweeting: “You really think Juncker needs me to win? Believe in democracy!” Read more

Peter Spiegel

Juncker, left, with Schulz ahead of a debate in Hamburg, Germany earlier this week

With voting now underway in Britain and the Netherlands, the first two EU members to go to the polls in the three-day continent-wide election to pick the new European Parliament, Brussels’ favourite parlour game – guessing who will emerge as the next president of the European Commission – has shifted into high gear.

As with almost everything in the EU, from the eurozone crisis to Russian sanctions, all eyes are on Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and whether she will throw her backing to one of the two “spitzenkandidaten” – the lead candidates for the largest political groupings – or decide to back someone else for the job.

“Nobody knows,” says a top political operative from a German-allied country. “Everybody has their opinions and views, but nobody really knows.”

To play our part in the echo chamber, Brussels Blog has compiled its own completely unscientific odds on where the main candidates stand. And as they say in US sports betting, these odds are for entertainment purposes only. The Brussels Blog does not advocate gambling (though you can do so at the UK’s gaming company Ladbrokes).

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Tony Barber

With flashes of wit, much earnestness and a certain reluctance to go for the jugular of their opponents, four candidates for the European Commission presidency broke new ground on Monday night by holding a live televised debate designed to drum up public interest in the May 22-25 elections for the European parliament.

 

If social media are one measure of that interest, the debate may have worked. Halfway through the 90-minute programme, broadcast from the Dutch city of Maastricht, an organiser announced that 10,000 tweets a minute were coming in. The harder question to answer is whether any candidate did enough to convince potential voters that the elections will truly make a difference in a EU blighted by a long recession, mass unemployment and a squeezed welfare state.

 

Although the debate never turned nasty, Ska Keller, the Greens candidate, got in a sharp jab at Jean-Claude Juncker, the centre-right candidate, when she accused him of “presiding over a tax haven” during his time as prime minister of Luxembourg. An indignant Mr Juncker rejected the charge and managed later to slip in the image-softening remark that one reason why he favoured a EU-wide minimum wage was that he remembered his father’s tough life as a steelworker.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who is the centrist, liberal candidate, turned his fire on José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing Commission president, saying Mr Barroso had never taken a decision without first flying to Berlin and Paris to get the green light. “The Commission needs to lead,” he thundered.

He also put Mr Juncker on the spot by challenging him to explain why his centre-right group still included Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, who caused outrage last weekend by suggesting Germans denied the existence of Nazi concentration camps. But Mr Juncker hit back with the succinct sentence: “I was sickened by the statements of Mr Berlusconi.” Read more

It is safe to assume that there are parts of the UK Treasury already in a tremendous froth over this leaked opinion from the legal advisers to EU finance ministers.

Remember the only thing that would make George Osborne, the UK chancellor, hate the Financial Transaction Tax idea more than he already does would be its extension to currency exchange transactions. Even the European Commission didn’t go that far.

For that reason this opinion from the EU Council legal service will cause a stir, at least in Brussels. It contradicts the Commission’s own legal service (they are making a habit of this on the FTT) and says that there is no law in principle preventing a joint levy on foreign exchange. This effectively reopens a debate that makes London very nervous. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Barroso, right, meets with UK prime minister David Cameron at Downing Street last year.

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, caused quite a kerfuffle in London at the weekend when he said on one of Britain’s most-watched political chat shows that Scotland would find it “extremely difficult, if not impossible” to rejoin the EU if it were to secede from the UK.

But for those who have been following the debate closely, Barroso’s position had been telegraphed long before – in fact, it has been the stated European Commission view for nearly a decade.

In 2004, then-Commission president Romano Prodi, in a statement published in the Official Journal of the European Union – where all laws and decisions must be published before they can take legal effect – made clear that any region that decided to declare independence must reapply for EU membership and face the same kind of unanimous agreement as any other applicant: Read more

Jean-Claude Trichet, right, with the parliament's economic committee chair, Sharon Bowles

The troika of bailout lenders has not been getting much love at the European Parliament’s ongoing inquiry into its activities in recent weeks. But the criticism is not just coming from MEPs in the throes of election fever. Predictions of the troika’s demise have come from some unexpected quarters, including current and former members of the European Central Bank executive board.

During the hearings, MEPs have particularly criticised the troika — made up of the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and the ECB — for its overly optimistic growth forecasts for bailout countries, which have been repeatedly revised downwards. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have also suggested that the troika be subject to greater parliamentary oversight.

Hannes Swoboda, the Austrian social democrat who heads the centre-left caucus in the parliament, went further, saying the body is undemocratic, hostile to social rights and that the EU would be better off without it. Read more

José Bové, campaigning in France last year

Before coming to the European parliament in 2009, José Bové was best known as the French sheep farmer who demolished a McDonald’s near his hometown of Milau and was later jailed for destroying a crop of genetically modified rice.

But as of today, the anti-globalisation crusader with a trademark Asterix moustache can add another achievement to his curriculum vitae: the Green party’s candidate for president of the European Commission.

After a three-month online primary, Bové and Ska Keller, a 32-year-old German MEP, received the most votes and will run as co-candidates for the EU’s most high-profile job. Keller, who received 11,791 of the 22,676 votes cast through the Greens’ website, actually edged out Bové, who won 11,726. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Verhofstadt, right, with his centre-right counterpart in the European parliament, Joseph Daul

Despite the hopes advocates had for a full-scale political campaign for European Commission president this year, the contest thus far has been a rather staid affair: German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, the European parliament president, sewed up the centre-left’s nomination unopposed and nobody yet has formally thrown their hat in the ring on the centre-right.

The one place where an all-out race is underway, however, is among the centrist Liberals, where two high-profile candidates – Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and Liberal leader in the European parliament, and Olli Rehn, the Finnish economic chief on the European Commission – are locked in a neck-and-neck fight to become the party’s presidential candidate.

The chance of the Liberals – whose two largest parties, the British Liberal Democrats and the German Free Democrats, are expected to take a drubbing in May’s European elections – actually getting the Commission presidency job are slim. But that hasn’t stopped Rehn and Verhofstadt from engaging in a spirited battle ahead of the party voting, which opens January 24 and ends February 1.

Olli Rehn

The latest salvo is over Verhofstadt’s desire to have a two-man debate, which Rehn has apparently refused to participate in. According to an internal party email sent to the two men yesterday and obtained by Brussels Blog (and posted here), a Liberal party leader – whose name has been redacted – says the Rehn team has begged off:

I have this afternoon been informed that it will not be possible for you, Olli, to commit to such a debate by today’s deadline. I have therefore no option than to cancel our plans for a debate and propose to move to our alternative proposed solution, that I have previously communicated to both of you, which is the separate Q&A sessions by each nominee to be webstreamed.

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James Fontanella-Khan

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

James Fontanella-Khan

Demonstrators in Berlin protest against alleged US spying activities in July.

In today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, we report on a draft of a stinging report the European Commission will issue Wednesday which could send shock waves through the US tech industry: unless the Obama administration changes the way it handles online data of European citizens, American companies like Google and Facebook will have to find another way to do business in the EU.

Given the importance of the Commission’s review of the 13-year-old “safe harbour” agreement with the US – which allows American firms to operate in Europe under US privacy rules because of an assumption that Washington treats the data similarly to European governments – and the fact we got our hands on it before its official release, we thought Brussels Blog readers might be interested in a bit more detail about the Commission’s findings. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Rehn, left, with President José Manuel Barroso at Wednesday's press conference

It may have appeared that Olli Rehn, the EU’s economic chief, today was siding with Washington in the going transatlantic tussle over Germany’s current account surplus by launching an inquiry into whether the surplus was harming growth in the rest of Europe.

But Rehn went out of his way to make clear that he was no fan of the US Treasury department report that pushed the dispute into overdrive last month.

Speaking at a press conference announcing the European Commission’s decision to launch the “in-depth review” of Germany’s surplus, Rehn said the US Treasury’s report was “to my taste somewhat simplified and too straight forward”. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Rehn, right, consults with Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble at last month's IMF meetings.

Over the last few weeks, the normally über-dismal science of German economic policymaking has unexpectedly become stuff of international diplomatic brinkmanship, after the US Treasury department accused Berlin of hindering eurozone and global growth by suppressing domestic demand at a time its economy is growing on the backs of foreigners buying German products overseas.

The accusation not only produced the expected counterattack in Berlin, but has become the major debating point among the economic commentariat. Our own Martin Wolf, among others, has taken the side of Washington and our friend and rival Simon Nixon over at the Wall Street Journal today has backed the Germans.

Now comes the one voice that actually can do something about it: Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic tsar who just made his views known in a blog post on his website. Why should Rehn’s views take precedence? Thanks to new powers given to Brussels in the wake of the eurozone crisis, he can force countries to revise their economic policies – including an oversized current account surplus – through something soporifically known as the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure.

On Wednesday, Rehn will announce his decision on whether Germany will be put in the dock for exactly what the US has been accusing it of: building up a current account surplus at the expense of its trading partners. And if Rehn’s blog post is any indication, he’s heading in exactly that direction. Read more

So this is it. Google’s revised offer to settle the European Commission probe into its search business has been described extensively in the press. But the actual text and screenshots of how new Google searches will look under the proposal were not published, much to the annoyance of the complainants asked for confidential feedback. One of the parties has decided to revolt and set the documents free. We’re publishing them here in full.

Before the legal text, a screenshot: this is what Google proposes its EU sites will look like for a restaurant search. Note the three “Almunia links” — what negotiators are calling the forced search results that display competitors’ offerings — that appear under the paid-for “sponsored” Google search results. Under the revised offer, they are spruced up with bigger fonts, icons and two lines of text.

And here is what a search for an iPod would look like. It’s important to note that the Almunia links (to rival price comparison sites Supaprice, Kelkoo and Shopzilla) are still paid for through an auction, but the minimum offer price has been reduced. More on the objections to that at the bottom of the post.

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The three-year Brussels probe into Google’s search business seems to be meandering towards a thundering anticlimax. With every legal twist, revised settlement offer and procedural shuffle, the case is losing the zip that made it a cause célèbre in the antitrust world. The opposing camps, meanwhile, appear ever more entrenched and polarised. Nobody is satisfied.

For now Joaquín Almunia, the EU competition chief, is still ploughing towards a settlement, rather than issuing formal charges. But it has been a bumpy ride. The protracted process will have many more months or years to run, especially with legal appeals. There could still be surprises, even perhaps a charge-sheet, the so-called “statement of objections”. The anti-Google camp are far from surrendering. The details still matter.

The latest inch-forward came on Monday with Almunia seeking feedback on Google’s second settlement bid. The terms of the latest package will not be published, for various reasons that are hard fathom. Even so, all the complainants and most journalists covering the case now have a copy of the offer or have been talked through it. Below is a medley of insights on what is on the table and what to expect next: Read more