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).
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.