Foreign policy

France's Laurent Fabius, left, and Britain's William Hague co-authored the letter to Cathy Ashton.

[UPDATE] During Monday’s appearance with Kerry, which includes a town hall meeting with European Commission staff, Barroso is expected to announce a new “comprehensive package” of EU humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, according to officials briefed on the initiative.

This weekend’s announcement by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, that Washington is prepared to double the amount of non-lethal aid it is sending to the mainstream opposition in Syria kicks off what is expected to be a busy week in Brussels on the issue.

Kerry is due in the Belgian capital for this week’s Nato foreign ministers’ meeting, where Syria will be debated, and officials familiar with Kerry’s schedule said there was even a discussion of his attending the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. That has since been ruled out – though Kerry will meet with José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, on Monday ahead of the Nato ministerial.

Still, the Monday EU foreign ministers’ meeting will be the latest venue in the ongoing Franco-British effort to lift the EU’s arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. EU diplomats said they do not believe a definitive decision will be made at the meeting, but it comes just weeks before the entire sanctions regime is set to expire at the end of next month, so the deliberations are likely to become even more spirited.

For those looking to read up on the topic ahead of the Monday meeting, Brussels Blog has got its hands on the joint letter Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, and his British counterpart William Hague sent to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, last month arguing for a change in policy – we’ve posted it here, in both French and English. Read more

Brussels bloggers Peter Spiegel and Joshua Chaffin discuss the unexpected Anglo-French push to lift the arms embargo for Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime.

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It is now become standard operating procedure: a big story breaks, and the Taiwanese news organisation NMA — which came to fame with its CGI take on Tiger Woods’s complicated love life — does its own unique interpretation of the event. Past favourites have included former British prime minster Gordon Brown’s temper tantrums and ex-US vice president Al Gore’s alleged harassment of a masseuse. Now, they’ve done Friday’s highly-anticipated speech by David Cameron on Britain’s future in the EU, complete with Bulgarians and Romanians storming Buckingham Palace and Nick Clegg in a Baby Bjorn: Read more

Geithner, left, has been in frequent touch with ECB's Draghi and his predecessor, Trichet.

A joint election party co-hosted by Democrats and Republicans Abroad at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels this evening is scheduled to go until 3am in anticipation of a long night ahead for any eurocrats waiting to get first word on who has won the US presidential contest.

Looking for something to do in the interim? For his part, French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel, scoured the recently-released calendars of US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner to find out which of the American’s EU counterparts he talked to most frequently since the eurozone crisis broke nearly three years ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, by far his most frequent phone calls have gone to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. Pisani-Ferry counts 114 contacts with either IMF chief Christine Lagarde or her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or their deputies.

What is a surprise is that Geithner’s most frequent interlocutor on this side of the Atlantic has not been in Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Instead, it was Frankfurt, where he contacted European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, 58 times in the 30 months examined. Read more

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