Malmstrom makes a point during her unexpectedly contentious hearing on Monday
It is rare that an obscure bit of international trade arcana turns into a major political kafuffle, but that’s just what appears to have happened on Monday over a relatively obscure arbitration system proposed for a new EU-US trade pact.
Although there is much substance behind the dispute, what really has Brussels insiders buzzing is the role played by Martin Selmayr, the increasingly powerful head of Jean-Claude Juncker’s transition team.
According to several EU officials, Selmayr – a workaholic German lawyer who is expected to become Juncker’s chief of staff when the Luxembourger assumes the European Commission presidency – changed the written testimony of Cecilia Malmström, the incoming trade commissioner, before it was submitted to the European parliament without her knowledge.
Dutch Liberal Marietje Schaake, a rising star within the European parliament, first made the accusation publicly during Malmström’s confirmation hearing on Monday afternoon (a video of her revelation can be seen here).
Schaake’s allegation is supported by a copy of the commissioner’s final testimony obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here. The document shows dozens of edits made by Selmayr that were recorded by the word processing programme’s track changes at 8:38am on Sunday. MEPs say the testimony landed in their in-box less than 20 minutes later.
Lord Hill says that there will be no exceptions for member states who fail to jump into line on banker bonuses.
Beppe Grillo arrives at a polling station near Genoa during last week's election
The only more interesting political spectator sport in Brussels these days other than the fight over the next European Commission president is the battle between the three euroceptic political groups in the European Parliament to secure allies from the sudden surge of anti-EU and anti-establishment parties that are coming to town.
On Tuesday, two of the most prominent potential kingmakers arrived in Brussels on the same plane: Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian turned political insurgent who heads the Five Star Movement and its 17 newly-minted MEPs, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian separatist Northern League, who arrived with 5 seats.
Both were being courted by the two new big eurosceptics on the block: Nigel Farage, the bombastic head of the UK Independence party, and Marine Le Pen, his counterpart for France’s Front National, who both are trying to form their own seven-country party groupings going into the new session.
David Cameron and his wife Samantha after voting in last week's EU parliament elections
David Cameron’s anti-federalist group in the European parliament entered these elections looking a bit shaky. While anti-establishment parties were faring well, the polls for the ECR group were worrying. Cameron took a huge gamble when leaving the centre-right European People’s Party to form a eurosceptic bloc. Some ECR folk feared the group could unravel in the wake of the election.
Daniel Hannan, one of the ECR’s best known MEPs, dismissed the doom laden predictions from “half-clever commentators” (this correspondent included). He was correct; the speculation proved only half-right. The ECR have emerged in a solid position from the vote. It survived and its feathers are well preened for a beauty contest for the leadership of Europe’s eurosceptics. But the dynamics of the group are changing — and it poses some serious political dilemmas for Cameron.
1) The ECR is here to stay….
If it makes no new allies and loses no group members, the ECR will live on. The election results show it has cleared the rather arbitrary seven country official threshold to form a group (there are MEPs from at least 8 member states). At present though, their numbers are down. The ECR is projected to reach 45, a loss of 11 seats. The Tories and the Czech members both suffered at the hands of the electorate.
2) ….with reduced Tory influence
Perhaps as significant is the changing balance of power within the party.
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).
Juncker delivers his acceptance speech Friday at the EPP's party congress in Dublin
By Vincent Boland in Dublin
It is one of the biggest events in the European political calendar. The pre-European parliament election congress of the centre-right European People’s party, which concluded Friday in Dublin, was notable for several things. But three in particular stand out.
The first is that the congress – well organised, held at the new(ish) Dublin Convention Centre, and hosted by Fine Gael, the leading party in Ireland’s coalition government – was a triumph for Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach (prime minister). He managed to both look and sound statesmanlike.
Moreover, Kenny’s rebuttal of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, will have done his domestic poll ratings no harm at all. Barroso, an EPP member who attended the congress, lashed out at critics of his handling of the eurozone crisis, blaming “panic in the financial markets” and too much self-imposed austerity for the pain being felt across the eurozone economy.
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.
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.
Günther Oettinger, EU energy commissioner, proposed tweaking the biofuels policy last year
Among the EU’s less successful policies, the one governing biofuels looms as a particular case study in unintended consequences.
Five years ago, member states agreed to binding targets requiring each country to derive 10 per cent of all transport fuel from renewables by 2020. Those targets were meant to speed the adoption of environmentally-friendly biofuels and were part of a broader campaign by Brusselsto claim the lead in the fight against global warming.
These days, that policy is a mess. The increased demand for crop-based biofuels – made from corn, rape and soya, for example – has been blamed for a surge in world food prices. It also appears to contribute to deforestation as farmers in far corners of the world chop down rainforests to plant biofuel crops.
The EU is now seeking to correct that. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, made a new proposal last year that aims to phase out crop-based biofuels in favour of cleaner ones derived from waste products and algae, among other substances. The European parliament’s environment committee last week voted through its own version of the draft legislation.
But it seems even the revised biofuels policy may have its own unintended consequences, including a brewing fight between Europe’s oleochemicals industry – the folks who use processed animal fats to produce everything from lubricants to lipstick – and their suppliers.
Politics in Brussels can verge on the absurd. As a case in point, we bring you the bizarre tale of how Greek Stalinists seemingly helped rescue European fund managers from a bonus cap, then deployed a form of Brussels magic that lets you vote against something, then for it.
Before we start, it is worth mentioning that this blog is partly intended as a way to fully lay out the evidence and address accusations that the FT launched a “sycophantic attack” on the Greek Communist party.