Foreign policy

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.”

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vladimir Putin and 12 of his ministers blew through Brussels Thursday, reiterating many of their long-stated complaints about the European Union’s energy policies, which Russian leaders believe discriminate against Russian energy giant Gazprom.

But Putin’s remarks on Libya may deserve more scrutiny, especially since the UN Security Council will be meeting today to discuss possible sanctions against the regime of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi. Russia is, of course, one of the five permanent members of the security council.

Russia long proven resistant to US and European efforts to impose sanctions against another regional oil producer – Iran – and could prove so again, if the prime minister’s comments at a press conference with José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, are any indication. Read more

Putin and BarrosoIn today’s paper, we have a story about the history of bad blood between Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, an account based on dozens of US diplomatic cables that we got our hands on thanks to WikiLeaks.

The two men are summiting today in Brussels, so we thought it would be worth posting the full text of a cable from the US embassy in Moscow detailing the last time the two men summited in February 2009. Although we have redacted the names of the officials who briefed US diplomats, they included a senior European Commission official and a top diplomat in Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs. Read more

With Libya at risk of becoming the latest North African country to be destabilised by a popular uprising, the European Union’s diplomatic service faces a problem: Tripoli has long been the only capital in Europe’s neighbourhood without an EU diplomatic representation.

Sources in the diplomatic service say that is about to change.

The European Union is to open a representative office in Libya as part of its burgeoning European External Action Service network, they say.

Tripoli has been a gaping hole in EU diplomacy thus far, the only country in the European neighbourhood where its diplomatic service doesn’t have a baseRead more

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, heads off for a tour of the Middle East and North Africa today – a trip that’s expected to include both Tunisia and Egypt – after coming under quite a bit of criticism for her handling of the upheaval in the region.

But the criticism has not all been in one direction. Ahead of her trip, a senior EU official briefed the Brussels press corps and laid some of the blame for the frequently discordant European reaction to recent events in the laps of national foreign ministers.

“One of the difficulties that we have is making sure that we not only speak with one voice but act with one voice,” the official said. “I mean, how many foreign ministers are in the Middle East now? It’s a bit complicated. The high representative wants to go, but can she go the same day or the day after when three foreign minsters have been? To do what? It’s a real problem.” Read more

For those who might not have noticed, Marton Hajdu, an affable and always reliable spokesman for Hungary’s EU presidency, has taken issue with our Brussels Blog item from last week about the covering put over the controversial Hungarian carpet during Friday’s European summit here in Brussels.

In a posting in the comments section of our blog, Marton gently prods us for constantly writing about the carpet issue to begin with – admittedly a somewhat tangential issue, but what’s a blog for if not to occasionally write about tangential issues?

Importantly, however, Marton says there’s a more prosaic reason for why the carpet – which includes a map of Hungary in 1848, riling Slovaks and Romanians, since parts of their countries were Hungarian at the time – was covered during the summit: “presidency decoration” is no longer allowed at the Justis Lipsius building during EU summits. Read more

Implicit in suggestions today from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, that Hosni Mubarak should not be rushed out the door was this: A fear of what could come after the long-ruling Egyptian president. Chief among them is the possibility that Mr Mubarak would be replaced by an Islamist government hostile to the west.

But to David Cameron, the UK prime minister, Egypt’s future should not be cast in such binary terms. “I simply don’t accept that there is just a choice in life between, on the one hand, having a regime that does not respect rights and democracy and on the other hand having Islamic extremism,” Mr Cameron said, pointing to the example of well functioning democracies in Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia. Read more

Friday’s summit of European heads of government has long been signposted as one of European Council president Herman Van Rompuy’s new interim conclaves to deal with a policy issue of crucial importance to Europe, in this case energy security.

But as many diplomats predicted, energy is increasingly getting drowned out by other, more pressing demands.

First, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, called on the summit to be used to hash out an overhaul of the eurozone’s €440bn sovereign debt bail-out fund so it’s able to more flexibly deal with bond market assaults on struggling “peripheral” economies.

Although that won’t happen, Van Rompuy has agreed to turn over the summit’s traditional working lunch to the eurozone crisis, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has decided to use the opportunity to float a new plan for greater coordination in economic and fiscal policies among eurozone countries.

Now, it seems, the afternoon is being taken over by yet another crisis: Egypt. Read more