Foreign policy

Romney, left, with Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski during his July trip to Warsaw.

The US presidential debates begin on Wednesday, and if the previous year of campaigning is any indication, Europe is unlikely to be much of a topic. Despite the ongoing eurozone turmoil, the crisis barely registered on the election’s radar screen, even during the contentious and debate-heavy Republican primary process.

Republican Mitt Romney’s views on Europe were largely overshadowed by the gaffes committed on a trip to Britain and Poland earlier this year. But little noticed outside Washington policy circles, the former Massachusetts governor last year appointed two co-chairs to a “Europe working group” within his foreign policy advisory team.

One is well-known to Brussels: Kristen Silverberg, who was the Bush administration’s last ambassador to the EU before leaving office in 2009. But potentially more interesting is the other co-chair: Nile Gardiner, a Briton who served as an aide to Margaret Thatcher before moving to the US, where he now works for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

If a recent article in the Washington Times is any indication, Gardiner holds some strong anti-EU sentiments that could have an impact on a future Romney administration. Read more

Photo AFP

Mohamed Morsi, the new Egyptian president, arrived in Brussels today for day-long meetings with top EU officials. But most of the world’s attention was back in Cairo, where the US embassy, like other embassies in the region, had been the target of attacks by demonstrators angry about an anti-Muslim movie clip uploaded onto YouTube in the US.

Morsi’s morning press conference with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso was his first chance to publicly address the incidents and followed concerns in Washington that he had not condemned the attacks strongly enough. Indeed, US president Barack Obama himself warned that the US did not consider Egypt an ally, nor an enemy, and was watching closely how Morsi would respond.

In order for our readers to make their own judgment, the complete transcript of Morsi’s comments on the incident at the Brussels presser, as conveyed through a translator, are below. He falls short of specifically condemning the attacks, but does say “the Egyptian people reject any such unlawful act” against “individuals, the properties and the embassies.” Read more

Jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko showing what she called a bruise on her forearm

Anyone hoping that the ongoing standoff between the EU and Ukraine over the detention of one-time Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko will end soon is likely to be disappointed. With national elections just three months away, there seems to be no interest in Kiev in releasing her during campaign season.

Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, Ukraine’s foreign minister, acknowledged to Brussels Blog that the former prime minister had become more of a problem for his government in jail than free, noting her imprisonment has made an “association agreement” with EU almost impossible to finalise. “We [see] this issue as a certain irritant which obviously is not helping to move ahead with a positive agenda with the European Union,” Gryshchenko said.

But Gryshchenko swiftly repeated the line that other senior Ukrainian officials have made about the Tymoshenko case: there was little he could do to overturn last year’s court ruling that sentenced the former prime minister to seven years in prison for abuse of office. Read more

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

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

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

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

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