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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Herman Van Rompuy during a public appearance at the European Council building on Wednesday
EU leaders are gearing up for their first summit in four months tomorrow – the longest hiatus since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis three years ago.
It is a measure of how calm the financial markets have been that no major decisions are to be taken at the two-day get-together, which is supposed to focus on telecommunications and digital policy issues. “It’s not a summit for decisions,” said one top EU diplomat. “The objective is decisions at the December summit.”
Still, for the cognoscenti there is much to comb over, including the simmering spat between France and Britain over José Manuel Barroso’s effort to streamline EU regulations.
On Wednesday afternoon, the office of Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council and chair of all summits, circulated a final draft of the summit communiqué, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and posted here. A few things worth noting: Read more
Did tight-fisted budget policies in Germany help make the eurozone crisis deeper and more difficult for struggling bailout countries like Greece and Portugal?
That appears to be the conclusions of a study by a top European Commission economist that was published online Monday – but then quickly taken down by EU officials.
Our eagle-eyed friend and rival Nikos Chrysoloras, Brussels correspondent for the Greek daily Kathimerini, was able to download the report and note its findings before the link went dark (Nikos kindly provided Brussels Blog a copy, which we’ve posted here).
Shortly after being contacted by Brussels Blog, officials said they would republish the 28-page study, titled “Fiscal consolidation and spillovers in the Euro area periphery and core”, once a few charts were fixed. And as Brussels Blog was writing this post, it was indeed republished here.
Still, the paper’s day-long disappearance looks suspicious given the hard-hitting nature of its findings. For some, they may not be surprising. Many economists have argued that it was the simultaneous austerity undertaken by nearly all eurozone countries over the course of the crisis that pushed the bloc into a deeper recession than predicted, hitting Greece and other weak economies particularly hard.
But coming from the European Commission’s economic and financial affairs directorate – which was responsible for helping administer Greek and Portuguese bailouts as well as provide semi-mandatory policy advice to other eurozone economies – the criticism of Berlin is unexpected, to say the least. Read more
Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, triumphantly claimed that “data protection is made in Europe” after a committee of European lawmakers reached a compromise agreement yesterday to overhaul the bloc’s pre-internet privacy rules.
But for those who have not been following the EU’s data protection process closely, particularly in the wake of the ongoing NSA spying scandal, Ms Reding’s declaration of victory may have seemed a little premature. Read more
Backstops? A safety net for banks in difficulty? Why the fuss? We have one already! That is the rough conclusion from finance ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday.
To provide some context, the apple of discord is whether Europe should pool more public funds to stand behind its banking system. Looming on the horizon is a stress test of banks next year that is supposed to restore faith in the financial system. It may uncover horrors that can’t be covered by contributions from private investors. If a bailout is needed, the open question is whether the bank’s sovereign will be able to fund it by borrowing from the market or from eurozone bailout funds without rekindling the sovereign debt crisis.
So what is the plan? Well there is no sign of new money. For the more optimistic finance ministers the ultimate, ultimate backstop — only to be used in exceptional circumstances — is apparently a “direct recapitalisation” from the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s E500bn bailout fund.
The trouble is that there are a legion of hurdles to clear before using this instrument in practice — especially if it is to be used to cover any shortfall exposed next year. The rough rules on the use of the instrument were published in June. Many senior officials think it is so encumbered with conditions as to be almost pointless. If direct recap is the backstop, some finance ministers will be worriedly looking over their shoulder.
TEN OBSTACLES TO A DIRECT RECAPITALISATION
1. German veto: Any ESM decision to take a direct stake in a bank is subject to a German veto. Berlin is determined to ensure that even if this tool is theoretically “available”, it remains unused. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, even said on Tuesday that German law would need to be changed to use the direct recap instrument.
2. German veto: the Bundestag would have to vote through any direct recap. Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, the most likely coalition partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel, is dead-set against direct recapitalisation of banks. It thinks the financial sector, not taxpayers, should foot the bill for bank failure. 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
My big fat Greek presidency it will not be. When Athens takes the reins of the EU’s rotating presidency in January, the government will manage the event like a family throwing a frugal wedding.
That is only to be expected since Greece’s crisis-hit economy is now enduring its sixth year of recession, the public coffers are bare and unemployment is nearing 30 per cent. Dishing out huge amounts of cash to impress visiting diplomats would likely provoke outrage from a citizenry that is increasingly unhappy with the EU, as it is.
So how frugal is Greece planning to be? The government has set a €50m budget for the six-month affair, down from the €60m to €80m spent by predecessors like Ireland,Cyprus,Denmark and Lithuania. Officials say they are hoping that the final bill comes to even less.
The Greeks have found a few simple ways to cut costs. They will limit the number of ministerial meetings that will be held in their country to just 13 – keeping as much of the work in the EU’s Brussels headquarters as possible. All of the Greek meetings will be hosted in Athens. Read more
Brussels and Beijing appear to be nearing a settlement in a trade fight over solar panels that is the EU’s biggest ever anti-dumping case – based on the more than €20bn in Chinese-made solar products shipped to the bloc in 2011. Sometime on Friday afternoon, EU officials are expecting to learn whether or not their counterparts in Beijing have taken their latest offer.
In theory, the two sides have until August 6th to haggle over a deal. After that date, provisional duties imposed by the EU will jump from about 11 per cent to an average of 47 per cent. The reality is that they have probably already missed that deadline, according to diplomats, given the amount of legwork that Brussels must do to translate an agreement and circulate it among national governments. Hence, the next few days are crucial. Read more
Is some lobbying in Brussels too heavy and contrived for its own good?
Two examples spring to mind from some of the most over-lobbied issues handled by the European Commission: card fees and the antitrust case against Google. Read more