Britain's David Cameron addresses the press on his way into the EU summit on Thursday evening
David Cameron is in a hole. His flagship policy to curb EU migration – a four-year ban on benefits for migrant workers – looks doomed. When it was announced more than a year ago, Cameron was told it violated a fundamental EU principle of non-discrimination. If the EU stands for anything, it is ensuring EU workers don’t pay a higher effective tax rate on the basis of their passport.
This was flagged up by British officials at the time. Cameron nevertheless ploughed on. While Downing Street were drafting the Conservative party election manifesto, aides suggested leaving out the four-year idea. He ploughed on. When Mr Cameron preparing a letter to other EU leaders on his reform demands, he was told by Whitehall and Brussels the four-year ban was all but impossible and should be dropped. He ploughed on.
The final reckoning may come this evening. Cameron makes a make-or-break pitch for the idea. Having spent far too long trying to understand how the problem will be fixed, it may also be my last opportunity to inflict a benefit reform listicle on Brussels Blog readers.
So while there is still time: behold the nine ways Cameron’s four-year benefits saga may end.
On Tuesday, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president who has been tasked with streamlining and overhauling the way Brussels operates, presented one of his signature initiatives – the so-called “better regulation” package aimed at scrutinising more carefully the rules Brussels imposes on businesses.
As the FT wrote after our hour-long interview with Timmermans, he is a relatively late convert to the Brussels reformist camp, having changed his view after a lot of soul-searching in 2005, when his native Netherlands voted against an EU constitutional treaty that he himself helped negotiate.
Perhaps Timmermans’ most notable contribution to the EU reform debate since then was a June 2013 Dutch government report he helped author that spelled out 54 different policy areas that should not be ceded to Brussels. Now Timmermans gets to practice what he preached – even more so, now that David Cameron, the newly re-elected British prime minister, has launched his attempt to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU focused on many of the same reform issues. Timmermans is widely expected to be the European Commission’s point man in those talks with London.
As is frequently our practice at the Brussels Blog, below we offer an annotated transcript of our interview. Timmermans’ responses have been slightly edited for clarity. We started with that 2013 Dutch report, since much of what Timmermans recommended back then appears to be part of his agenda now that he’s in Brussels – ideas that were also articulated in a November 2013 op-ed in the FT.
I didn’t know you would bring this up but you do because it clearly shows that what I think and what I want to do is more or less in line with what I proposed as foreign minister, and those who say, well, ‘He’s only doing this to appease David Cameron’ can see that I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time.
Actually, it all started with an op-ed that I wrote in your newspaper, and Jean-Claude Juncker picked up on that and when he asked me to do this with him, he referred to some of the ideas that I had written down in the Financial Times. So, this was very much part of his thinking and his programme, as it was in Martin Schulz’s thinking, and this is what they both brought forward in the electoral campaign.
David Cameron, with his Finnish counterpart Alex Stubb, at a summit in Helsinki Thursday
The much-anticipated “emergency meeting” of EU finance ministers David Cameron demanded last month to discuss the €2.1bn surcharge Brussels has levied on Britain begins today – though it is less “emergency” than Cameron may have hoped, since it’s actually finance ministers’ regularly-scheduled November meeting.
As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the Financial Times, Italy, the holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, will table a compromise plan at the meeting which would allow Britain – and the Netherlands, which has the second-highest bill, with €643m due at the end of the month – to pay the new EU tab in instalments.
This is unlikely to be enough for the UK, which is seeking both a delay in the due date and a reduction in the bill, but there are growing signs that its allies in the fight, including the Dutch, are inclined to support the plan.
Ahead of the meeting, Brussels Blog obtained a copy of the two-paragraph Italian proposal, and we’ve posted it here. The measure asks the European Commission to come back with an amendment to existing EU rules for paying such bills that would in “exceptional circumstances” allow countries to pay their surcharge in tranches instead of all at once on the December 1 due date. Here’s the key section: Read more
Does David Cameron now need a reopening of the EU's treaties more than Angela Merkel does?
We have hardly heard a peep from Britain on the latest leg of Europe’s banking union. It is natural enough given the UK will be outside the proposed system for shuttering shaky banks, which is primarily for eurozone countries. But do not imagine it is unimportant for London. Strictly in terms of David Cameron’s plans to renegotiate Britain’s place in the EU, there has perhaps been no more worrying a development in Brussels all year.
Why? Cameron’s renegotiation strategy is partly based on this assumption: the eurozone will need a banking union to survive, and a fully-fledged banking union will need a re-write of EU treaties before 2017. That necessity opens the door for Cameron to press demands to repatriate powers.
The trouble is that this week’s banking union negotiation is showing that Germany and the eurozone will go to great lengths to avoid giving Cameron the leverage he craves. In one senior EU official’s words: “Nobody wants to give the keys to the UK”. Read more
David Cameron is now the only leader in Europe openly advocating the revision of EU treaties by a set deadline. He asserts that this will happen by 2017 because the eurozone will have to make “massive changes” to save the single currency.
But what if that is not the case? What if Britain is the main reason for a treaty revision? How would Cameron trigger a renegotiation?
The answer lies in Article 48 — to spare you from reading the text, here’s a summary of the hurdles it places before any advocate of treaty change: Read more
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
Finland's Jyrki Katainen, right, with Cameron during a visit to Downing Street last year.
In the run up to Friday’s big speech by British prime minster David Cameron on his country’s future in the EU, some of the loudest voices of concern have come from the UK’s closest allies, including Washington, Dublin and Warsaw.
In a meeting with a small group of reporters today in Brussels, Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish prime minister, added his voice to that list, saying that he cannot see what kind of competences Cameron could pull back from the EU.
“Being a member of the EU, and especially in the single market, you cannot kind of pick the raisins out of the bun,” said Mr Katainen, whose National Coalition party is closely aligned with British Conservatives on most major policy issues. “It’s very difficult to say what would be the competences that could be repatriated.”
Katainen added: “The EU without Britain is pretty much the same as fish without chips. It’s not a meal any more.” After the jump, we’ve transcribed the Finnish leader’s full remarks. Read more
Britain's Cameron, left, talks with EU Commission president José Manuel Barroso at May's summit.
With last night’s release of new numbers by Cypriot negotiators, the debate over the EU’s seven-year budget is beginning to heat up, with battle lines hardening over whether – and how much – funding should be cut from the European Commission’s original €1,033bn proposal.
In today’s dead tree edition of the FT, Josh Chaffin points to the growing debate over rebates – one that could have a direct impact on the country EU officials say has been the most difficult negotiator in recent rounds, the UK. Whether the issue is being raised now in an attempt to threaten Britain into softening its hard-line insistence on a budget freeze is unclear.
What is clear, however, is that the European Commission is going for the jugular. In an 8-page paper circulated by the Cypriot presidency last week, and cited in Josh’s story, the European Commission makes a direct attack on Britain’s sacrosanct rebate, saying Britain’s “unique treatment….seems no longer warranted”. We’ve posted a copy of the document here. 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
During his normal mid-summit breakfast with reporters, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, was in a feisty mood, despite the late session Thursday night.
Barroso gave an overview of the debate over treaty changes and a summary of what he hopes will be a strong statement in support of the euro today.
But his most pointed comments were aimed at reports of a letter being circulated by Britain and other member states attempting to set limits to the seven-year budget framework, which starts in 2014. Read more
As you’d expect, European Union leaders were quick to congratulate David Cameron on his appointment as British prime minister. But for all the warm words, they will be watching his first moves on the European stage like hawks.
An important test will come next week at a meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels. There the UK will find itself under pressure from a majority of countries to agree to new arrangements tightening the regulation of hedge funds and private equity. Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is desperate to get the deal done next week, having helped out Gordon Brown’s Labour government by delaying it until the British election was out of the way. But will the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition be inclined to sign up to such an important measure so soon into its period of office? Read more
Viewed from Brussels, the rise of Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats in Britain’s election campaign is a fantasy come true. For most of its 37 years in the European Union, Britain has been the bloc’s most awkward, cussed member-state. Now, the unthinkable is happening. Britain’s opinion polls are topped by a party whose leader spent five years working at the European Commission and another five years as a MEP in the European Parliament. Gott im Himmel! A Brit who actually understands the place!
And it doesn’t stop there. Clegg studied at the elite College of Europe in Bruges, an institution geared to producing crop after crop of graduates with a lifelong enthusiasm for EU integration. He speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish, making him as proficient a linguist as such dedicated Europeans as Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg premier.
Clegg has a Dutch mother, a half-Russian father and three children called Antonio, Alberto and Miguel. There has been no British party leader like him since the EU’s 1957 Treaty of Rome. In fact, you may have to go all the way back to Charles James Fox, the Whig who briefly served as foreign secretary in the Napoleonic wars, to find a British statesman whose mental outlook was so naturally rooted in Europe. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! Clegg’s emergence is enough to make even the most agnostic Eurocrat think that there must be a god, after all. Read more
I take it that everyone has seen the insulting picture on the cover of the February 22 edition of Focus, a lightweight German news magazine? Under the headline ”Swindlers in the euro family”, it shows the Venus de Milo statue, a monument of ancient Greek civilisation, sticking up a middle finger at Germany. In this way the magazine’s editors convey, as offensively as possible, the idea that debt-ridden Greece is robbing Germany blind by forcing it to come to Greece’s financial rescue.
The Greek response has been predictably furious. The Greek consumers’ federation has called for a boycott of German goods, commenting that Greeks were creating timeless works of art like the Venus de Milo at a time when Germans were “eating bananas in the trees”. Read more
Are they just teething problems? Or is something more serious at stake? One way or another, the first signs are emerging that the European Union’s new foreign policy structures, established under the Lisbon treaty that came into force last month, are capable of producing just as much discord and disharmony as the old arrangements.
Let’s take the EU’s response to the Haiti earthquake. Baroness Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, convened an emergency meeting on January 18 at which the 27-nation bloc quickly and efficiently agreed a generous aid package for Haiti worth over 400 million euros. At a news conference after the meeting, she was asked if she would be visiting Haiti and, if not, why not. She replied that she wouldn’t be going, because the United Nations had requested her and other foreign dignitaries to stay away in order not to disrupt the emergency aid effort. However, Karel De Gucht, the EU’s outgoing humanitarian aid commissioner, would travel to Haiti. A perfectly sensible response. Read more
How many days can a Spanish kite stay in the air? About four, to judge from the speed with which Germany and the UK have shot down a proposal from José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s prime minister, to introduce binding mechanisms to enforce economic reform in the European Union.
The short lifespan of Zapatero’s brainwave, which he unveiled last Thursday in Madrid, is hardly surprising. Not that it’s an especially bad idea – in principle. Deep in their hearts, most European policymakers know the EU would benefit from closer fiscal and economic policy co-ordination, particularly in the eurozone. They also know that the lesson from the EU’s ill-starred Lisbon agenda, which notoriously set out – and failed - to turn the bloc into the world’s most competitive economy by 2010, is that it was all too easy for governments to pay lip service to reform without doing much about it in practice (except for the virtuous Nordic countries). Read more
Seen from continental Europe, one of the biggest questions of 2010 concerns David Cameron, leader of the UK’s opposition Conservative party. The Tories are widely expected to win the forthcoming British election, but few European Union politicians can claim with confidence to know where he truly stands on the all-important matter of Britain’s relationship with the EU.
The lack of clarity isn’t helped by the Tories’ distant relationship with their fellow EU centre-right parties. I am in Bonn at a congress of the European People’s Party, the leading centre-right party group. Everyone who matters is here: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, Herman Van Rompuy (the newly appointed full-time EU president)… Countries from Malta to Latvia and Georgia to Croatia are represented. But there are no Conservative party politicians at all here – not Cameron, not William Hague, his shadow foreign secretary, not Kenneth Clarke, the only authentically pro-EU voice in the shadow cabinet. Read more
Watch this video by Quentin Peel, the FT’s international affairs editor, on the Tories and Europe Read more
The inimitable Nicolas Sarkozy couldn’t resist the temptation to term last week’s allocation of jobs in the new European Commission as a victory for France and a defeat for Britain. In particular, the French president crowed, he had outmanoeuvred the Brits by securing the internal market portfolio, which is responsible for financial regulation, for Michel Barnier, the new French commissioner.
It was certainly a little undiplomatic for Sarkozy to uncork the metaphorical Champagne bottles so soon after the announcement of the new jobs. There are many raw nerves in the British government and in the City of London about how various EU measures in the pipeline may damage the UK’s financial sector. Sarkozy touched every one of those nerves with a rod of fire. Read more
As of today the European Union is going about its business under a new set of rules known as the Lisbon treaty. In Brussels this is universally seen as a good thing because, to quote Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-presidents of the European Parliament’s Greens faction, the treaty “sets the framework for increased European democracy, better decision-making, higher levels of transparency and closer participation of European citizens”.
Well, perhaps it does and perhaps it doesn’t. One thing’s for sure: the new arrangements strengthen the European Parliament – hence the enthusiasm of Harms and Cohn-Bendit. But the Lisbon treaty’s reforms are like the ingredients of a good dinner. Use them intelligently, and all will be well. Forget to put in the garlic and the peppers, and it will taste terrible. In other words, wise leadership and a sense of responsibility to something higher than one’s domestic political audience are going to be necessary to make Lisbon work effectively. Read more