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
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
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.”
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