Foreign policy

Peter Spiegel

The EU's Ashton and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem last September.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has spent most of the day under attack from Israeli leaders for allegedly comparing the killing a four people at a Jewish school in Toulouse yesterday to the death of children in Gaza at the hands of the Israeli military.

Ashton’s spokesmen have vehemently denied she was drawing a comparison between the two and was simply listing places where children have been violently killed, including the recent death of Belgian students in a bus crash, the shooting of Norwegian students last year by a right-wing extremist, and the Assad regime’s assault on Homs.

One problem: almost 24 hours after the speech was given, someone in the EU bureaucracy noticed the transcript posted by the European Commission’s communication team was incorrect. In the list of places cited by Ashton was also Sderot, the Israeli town near the Gaza Strip that has been targeted by Palestinian militias with rocket attacks.

The new version of the transcript still leaves out some of Ashton’s rhetorical flourishes, so Brussels Blog put together its own transcript of the section in question, which can be viewed in this video around minute 12. Read more

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of the tidal wave that unleashed a disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility and forced a profound shift in Europe’s nuclear debate.

Within weeks of the disaster, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, decided to switch course and phase out the country’s nuclear plants – a move that was subsequently copied by Switzerland and Belgium.

Talk of a nuclear revival that once filled the air in Italy and other member states – encouraged by the industry and supportive governments – has been dashed. Even in France, Europe’s nuclear champion, public opinion has turned increasingly negative.

But in spite of Fukushima, one European Union member state has lost none of its nuclear ardour: LithuaniaRead more

Peter Spiegel

Obama shakes hands with Treasury chief Geithner after his State of the Union address.

The news overnight focused on President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address. For the Brussels crowd, the most interesting thing in the speech may have been what was not in the speech: Europe.

Despite the ongoing eurozone crisis, and the increasingly deep involvement of senior US officials like Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner in crisis management, Obama did not mention Europe’s economic problems once. In fact, his only reference to the continent at all was a line that military alliances in Europe (and Asia) were “as strong as ever”, and putting “Berlin” in a list of global capitals where governments are “eager to work with us”.

Obama’s Republican adversaries have not done much more than that in their frequent televised debates, despite growing concern in Washington that a crisis-induced collapse of Europe’s economy could have a severe impact on the US economy in the midst of this year’s presidential campaign. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Ukraine's Viktor Yanukovich, left, and Commission president José Manuel Barroso in March 2010

The European Commission announced today that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich was no longer welcome in Brussels on Thursday after opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison last week.

Both Yanukovich (who made Brussels his first foreign stop when he became president last year) and Tymoshenko (who attended the pre-summit gathering of centre-right presidents and prime ministers ahead of the March EU summit) have been regular visitors to Europe’s capital as Ukraine tries to finalise an “association agreement” with the EU before the end of the year.

Coincidentally, Ukrainian foreign minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko was in town on the day of the Tymoshenko verdict and held a round-table with a small group of Brussels-based journalists. Given the day’s events, Brussels Blog though it would be a good time to provide more excerpts from last week’s interview. Read more

Triploi's Old City. September 2011

Tripoli's Old City. September 4.

The European Union’s diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, has landed in Tripoli – the first step in a move to establish a delegation office there. But now that the EU is on the ground in the Libyan capital, don’t expect a torrent of aid to begin flowing just yet.

A post-Gaddafi Libya, and the Arab Spring, in general, present a big opportunity for the new EAS to demonstrate that it can play a useful role helping to promote development and nurture fledgling democracies in the region. The EAS was envisioned as one of the main levers of the EU’s “soft power” when it was enshrined in the 2009 Lisbon treaty. Yet it has got off to a decidedly rocky start.

The extent of the EAS’s role in Libya remains in question. EU officials say they have been told by Libya’s National Transitional Council that it does not intend to hand over the country’s post-conflict reconstruction to foreign interests, and that it will insist on leading the process itself. Read more

Peter Spiegel

British defence secretary Liam Fox, left, at June's meeting of Nato defence ministers in Brussels

Just how much support is Nato providing to rebels in Tripoli hunting for Col Muammer Gaddifi? There seems to be a significant amount of disagreement among alliance officials and leaders of some of its largest members.

This morning, Liam Fox, the British defence secretary, said in an interview with Sky News that Nato reconnaissance assets – presumably spy planes and drones flying over the Libyan capital – were directly aiding the opposition National Transitional Council’s operations.

“I can confirm that Nato is providing intelligence and reconnaissance assets to the NTC to help them track down Col Gaddafi and other remnants of the regime,” Fox said. But that would directly contradict Nato’s claims Tuesday, where a military spokesman vehemently denied any coordination with the opposition. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Rebel fighters on the streets of the Libyan capital Monday morning

UPDATE: Jonathan Beale, the BBC’s defence correspondent, tweets that British defence secretary Liam Fox told him in an interview UK bombing operations in Libya have been halted.

Despite the stunning events in Libya, a Nato spokeswoman here in Brussels says the alliance is not currently planning any special briefing today on the campaign’s progress. The normal weekly news conference is scheduled for Tuesday. That may change, but for now Nato headquarters is keeping a low profile.

The alliance just released its regular daily update on the basic facts and figures of their Libyan mission, but it reveals little out of the ordinary. It notes that 46 strike sorties were flown yesterday (not out of the normal range), with most targeting facilities in and around Tripoli, including three “command and control facilities” and one “military facility”. It provides no more detail than that.

The alliance has for weeks been calling for a post-Gaddafi peacekeeping plan, but has insisted the United Nations has the lead and will only get involved if asked.

Last night, the alliance’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, issued a statement warning forces loyal to teetering leader Muammer Gaddafi to lay down their arms, saying Nato warplanes were still willing to act to protect Libyan civilians. Rasmussen’s full statement is after the jump. Read more

Barroso at EU-Russia summit

José Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, emerged from the latest EU-Russia summit with a conditional pledge from Moscow to lift a blanket ban on European vegetables imposed more than a week ago in the midst of a deadly E. coli outbreak.

Moscow’s concession may bring a conditional sigh of relief from European farmers, who have been devastated by the outbreak. But it underscores the simmering tension between the two trading partners when it comes to the health and sanitary standards that govern agricultural goods.

Russia has become the biggest market for EU exports of meat and vegetables. But if it is an important customer, it is also a hugely demanding one. The chief complaint among EU producers is that Moscow uses arbitrary health and sanitary standards to restrict their goods – be it German pork or Dutch apples. Read more

Tuesday saw Catherine Ashton at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. But leaving Brussels did not mean a vacation from the torrent of criticism that has rained down on the European Union’s first foreign policy chief.

Just after Ashton finished debating Syria, Libya and other foreign policy hot spots with MEPs, Franziska Brantner, the German Green who serves as the parliamentary group’s foreign policy spokesperson, released a blistering critique.

“EU foreign policy is suffering from a chronic lack of direction, leadership and imagination under Cathy Ashton’s watch, despite the fact the union today has more foreign policy competences and instruments than ever,” said Brantner, long an advocate of the new EU diplomatic corps. “Clearly, Cathy Ashton is failing to grasp what her job is.”

 Read more

Pakistan looks set to snag a European Union perk it has long coveted: admission to the bloc’s GSP+ trade programme. But the death last week of Osama bin Laden in a compound just up the road from Islamabad may cast a shadow over the country’s entry.

The Generalised System of Preferences, or GSP, is an EU programme that aims to help developing countries by reducing tariffs on their exports to Europe. GSP+ is an even better bargain. For the poorest countries, it eliminates tariffs altogether, provided they commit to protecting human rights and good governance. Together, the programmes covered some €53.3bn in EU imports in 2009.

By a narrow margin, Pakistan has repeatedly missed out on GSP+ in the past. It seems its economy is a bit too dynamic, based on the numerical criteria cooked up by EU trade wonks. That should now change after Karel De Gucht, the trade commissioner, won commission support on Tuesday for a GSP revamp. Read more

Peter Spiegel

A good chunk of the Brussels press corps is in Berlin this week for an annual trip by foreign media to meet German government leaders. On Tuesday morning this included a session with Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, where he vociferously defended the embattled Cathy Ashton.

Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has come under surprisingly public attack recently for her handling of the north Africa crisis, particularly from Belgium’s foreign minister Steven Vanackere, who made a rare public rebuke of her performance last month in a Belgian newspaper interview.

But Westerwelle insisted Berlin, at least, was on her side. “Germany and myself, we will support Cathy Ashton,” he told the motley group of Brussels-based journalists who had assembled at the foreign ministry. “She has our full support and especially my personal support.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

Thursday’s catastrophic defeat for Britain’s Liberal Democrats in local elections has led to speculation that Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister, may get the heave-ho and replace Catherine Ashton, the UK’s member of the European Commission and EU foreign policy chief.

The speculation appears based on not much more than it making some logical sense: Clegg is a Brussels veteran, having served as an MEP and aide to Leon Brittan when Brittan was a European commissioner in the 1990s. And Ashton continues to bear the brunt of intense criticism for her performance as foreign policy chief, recently suffering an unexpected broadside from Belgium’s foreign minister. Read more

European Union diplomats will meet at 3pm today to discuss possible responses to the ongoing violence in Syria. Even before that meeting commences, one thing is clear: The EU’s Big Three are determined to begin work on sanctions against the Assad regime as quickly as possible.

A paper circulated by Germany, France and the UK ahead of today’s meeting, and obtained by the Financial Times, calls for member states to begin the prep work for travel bans and asset freezes against those top Syrian officials responsible for the violent crackdown against protestors.

“Our credibility depends on rapid action. Some steps can and should be taken immediately. Others will require run-up,” the paper states. “But the lesson learnt from other countries in the region is that we should put ourselves in a position to take action as quickly as possible on a wide variety of measures.”

The Big Three are also calling for an arms embargo and a cut-off of EU aid if the regime does not change its behaviour “within in a matter of days.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

With France’s presidential election already in high gear, some top EU diplomats Brussels Blog has talked to in recent weeks are concerned that in the months leading to the summer break, the Brussels agenda could become overwhelmed by the politically sensitive issue of migration.

Tuesday’s summit between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is evidence their concerns are well placed.

For those who haven’t read it yet, it’s worth taking a look at the letter Berlusconi and Sarkozy sent to the EU’s two presidents, Commission chief José Manuel Barroso and Council boss Herman Van Rompuy. Pay special attention to the letter’s section III, where the two propose “enhanced security” in Europe’s visa-free Schengen area. Read more

Peter Spiegel

It’s been something of a rough week for European relations with China after the Spanish government erroneously put out word that Beijing was preparing to invest €9bn in its struggling savings bank. Chalk it up to an over-eager translation of Chinese intentions. Read more

Peter Spiegel

As the international community prepares for a gathering of political leaders in Qatar next week to discuss the crisis in Libya, it is worth watching the recent travels to Brussels and other European capitals of Jean Ping, head of the African Union commission. Read more

Peter Spiegel

UPDATE: The demonstrations are already turning nasty. Near the Belgian prime minister’s office, protesters are throwing rocks at riot police, who have opened water cannons on them.

It’s summit day (again!) in Brussels, and for Europe’s presidents and prime minsters gathering this afternoon, the unexpected collapse of the Portuguese government and the ongoing infighting over the Libyan campaign is likely to dominate deliberations behind closed doors.

But those of us without the benefit of a security detail and Belgian motorcycle outriders will have to deal with something far more onerous: thousands of Belgian demonstrators who are expected to clog Brussels’ city centre to protest European austerity measures and the failure of Belgian political leaders to form a government.

A quick morning wander through the city’s EU quarter reveals Belgian security forces armed to the teeth, complete with gas masks, body armour, riot helmets and plexiglass shields. Helicopters buzz overhead. Two Belgian army soldiers were even spotted wandering through the atrium of Justis Lipsius, the EU building where the summit is held. Read more

Beleaguered Japanese officials are already grappling with a humanitarian crisis wrought by a biblical earthquake and tsunami, and the prospect of apocalyptic meltdowns at a pair of stricken nuclear reactors. Add to their list of woes one European commissioner.

That would be Gunther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, whose ill-judged remarks about the crisis on Wednesday have helped to make a bad situation worse. Read more

As he entered today’s EU summit, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, made his first public comments about his unexpected plan for  for “defensive” air-strikes against forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, saying they should be used in the event Gaddafi uses chemical weapons or unleashes airpower against unarmed demonstrators.

“The French and the English have said that we are open, if the United Nations wants it, and if the Arab League accepts it, and if the Libyan authorities that we want to be recognised ask for it, to have targeted defensive operations in the sole eventuality that Gaddafi would use chemical weapons or use his warplanes to target non-violent demonstrators,” he told reporters. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Today’s back-to-back European Union summits in Brussels kick off with a discussion on Libya, and it’s sure to be dominated by Nicolas Sarkozy’s unexpected decision to recognise the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate representatives of the Libyan people.

Officials at both Nato (where defence ministers are meeting) and the European Union (where European foreign ministers lunched ahead of today’s heads-of-government summit) said Sarkozy’s initiative was not hugely popular; one foreign minister I talked to said it was 26 vs 1 during the EU session. There are widespread concerns about who, exactly, the west is embracing, since intelligence on the opposition’s leadership remails pretty thin. Read more