Juncker, left, with Schulz ahead of a debate in Hamburg, Germany earlier this week
With voting now underway in Britain and the Netherlands, the first two EU members to go to the polls in the three-day continent-wide election to pick the new European Parliament, Brussels’ favourite parlour game – guessing who will emerge as the next president of the European Commission – has shifted into high gear.
As with almost everything in the EU, from the eurozone crisis to Russian sanctions, all eyes are on Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and whether she will throw her backing to one of the two “spitzenkandidaten” – the lead candidates for the largest political groupings – or decide to back someone else for the job.
“Nobody knows,” says a top political operative from a German-allied country. “Everybody has their opinions and views, but nobody really knows.”
To play our part in the echo chamber, Brussels Blog has compiled its own completely unscientific odds on where the main candidates stand. And as they say in US sports betting, these odds are for entertainment purposes only. The Brussels Blog does not advocate gambling (though you can do so at the UK’s gaming company Ladbrokes).
After months of speculation, official confirmation finally came on Friday that Ramon Fernandez, one of the central players in Brussels on the French side throughout eurozone crisis negotiations, will step down as head of the French Treasury at the end of June.
He will be replaced by Bruno Bézard, 51, currently director general of public finances at the finance ministry and a figure firmly in the tradition of French haut functionnaires: a graduate of both Ena and L’Ecole Polytechnique, the elite graduate schools, he was an economic adviser to former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and has headed the APE, the agency that holds most of the state’s big company shareholdings.
Fernandez, 46, an amiable figure who combines formidable technical skills with an impish sense of humour, found himself in an uncomfortable position after the election in 2012 of President François Hollande. Firmly identified with the centre-right, Fernandez was appointed in 2009 by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and was regarded with deep suspicion by many on the socialist left, notably the voluble Arnaud Montebourg, now economy and industry minister. The directeur du Trésor is a powerful position as the senior civil servant in the finance ministry empire.
With flashes of wit, much earnestness and a certain reluctance to go for the jugular of their opponents, four candidates for the European Commission presidency broke new ground on Monday night by holding a live televised debate designed to drum up public interest in the May 22-25 elections for the European parliament.
If social media are one measure of that interest, the debate may have worked. Halfway through the 90-minute programme, broadcast from the Dutch city of Maastricht, an organiser announced that 10,000 tweets a minute were coming in. The harder question to answer is whether any candidate did enough to convince potential voters that the elections will truly make a difference in a EU blighted by a long recession, mass unemployment and a squeezed welfare state.
Although the debate never turned nasty, Ska Keller, the Greens candidate, got in a sharp jab at Jean-Claude Juncker, the centre-right candidate, when she accused him of “presiding over a tax haven” during his time as prime minister of Luxembourg. An indignant Mr Juncker rejected the charge and managed later to slip in the image-softening remark that one reason why he favoured a EU-wide minimum wage was that he remembered his father’s tough life as a steelworker.
Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who is the centrist, liberal candidate, turned his fire on José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing Commission president, saying Mr Barroso had never taken a decision without first flying to Berlin and Paris to get the green light. “The Commission needs to lead,” he thundered.
He also put Mr Juncker on the spot by challenging him to explain why his centre-right group still included Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, who caused outrage last weekend by suggesting Germans denied the existence of Nazi concentration camps. But Mr Juncker hit back with the succinct sentence: “I was sickened by the statements of Mr Berlusconi.”
Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, David Cameron and 50 other world leaders are battling against the clock to protect the world from a “dirty bomb” attack by terrorists in the heart of a major financial centre.
Military officials briefing the leaders do not know exactly where the attack is going to be carried out and they have limited time to come up with a response to avoid mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people could die.
This might sound like the plot of a Hollywood action film.
In fact it is a “war games” scenario faced by the leaders this week when they took part in a role-playing exercise at a nuclear safety summit in The Hague.
Brussels bureau chief Peter Spiegel reports on the upcoming summit of EU leaders on Crimea. Politicians are expected to decide on further sanctions on Russia and how the EU could help Ukraine progress economically and politically.
FT Brussels blog’s chief writer Peter Spiegel has some scoopy tweets after having spoken to a few EU officials ahead of the summit
David Cameron, UK prime minister, unexpectedly had nothing to say about Ukraine on Thursday as he arrived in Brussels for the meeting of EU leaders.
Ahead of the summit, the British premier is not meeting with the 12 other conservative heads of Government in the European People’s Party group but instead joins members of the smaller European Conservatives and Reformists group.
The ECR struggles to match the EPP’s star power. Apart from the UK Conservatives none of its member parties are in any EU government.Nevertheless, Mr Cameron will meet the finance ministers of Iceland and the Faro Islands at their pre-summit get together.
José Manuel Barroso
Anyone expecting Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, to give any hint as to where EU summitteers might go on Russian sanctions when they gather later today, will be disappointed.
At a press conference following a pre-summit meeting with business and labour union leader to discuss Europe’s jobless recovery, Barroso would only say that “the most important thing to do” is to help create a “credible, stable, prosperous, democratic Ukraine.”
Ukraine's prime minister Yatseniuk returns to Brussels Friday to sign the EU integration treaty
Just how sensitive is tonight’s summit dinner debate over the next steps for EU sanctions against Russia? According to EU diplomats, the meal will be for leaders only – no aides, no experts – and they won’t be allowed to bring in mobile phones or other electronic devices.
That’s because the next most likely step is what one senior EU diplomat termed “phase two-plus”: new names, potentially those closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are expected to be added to the list of 21 Russian and Crimean officials subject to EU visa bans and asset freezes.
As a result, the draft conclusions that were produced from last night’s meeting of EU ambassadors – which apparently includes those names – is not being given the normal circulation to national capitals and will only be given to leaders once they get into the room tonight. The draft produced before last night’s meeting, a leaked copy of which we’ve posted here, is the last one to get distributed more widely.
It is safe to assume that there are parts of the UK Treasury already in a tremendous froth over this leaked opinion from the legal advisers to EU finance ministers.
Remember the only thing that would make George Osborne, the UK chancellor, hate the Financial Transaction Tax idea more than he already does would be its extension to currency exchange transactions. Even the European Commission didn’t go that far.
For that reason this opinion from the EU Council legal service will cause a stir, at least in Brussels. It contradicts the Commission’s own legal service (they are making a habit of this on the FTT) and says that there is no law in principle preventing a joint levy on foreign exchange. This effectively reopens a debate that makes London very nervous.