Britain

The sun is shining in Brussels and the sky has an unseasonably blue, cloudless, late-November-in-Rome quality as European Union leaders make their way here for the summit of summits - the event where they will choose the EU’s first full-time president and new foreign policy chief.  I wonder if the weather will be so fine when the leaders finally drag themselves away from the negotiating table after what is shaping up to be a night of relentless hard bargaining.

By general consent, the frontrunner is Herman Van Rompuy, the amiable, haiku-writing Belgian prime minister.  Even a speech he gave in 2004 that reveals him to be an implacable opponent of Turkey’s entry into the EU (Turkey has been an official candidate for the past four years) doesn’t seem to be doing Van Rompuy any harm.  Well, why should it?  It fits in perfectly with the views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Read more

The distance separating Britain’s perceptions of the European Union from those of its Continental partners is so vast that the English Channel might as well be the Pacific Ocean.  This was my first thought when I read not just David Cameron’s speech on what steps a future Conservative government would take to limit EU involvement in British affairs, but also the way the speech was reported and the reactions on each side of the Channel.

The Financial Times story, for instance, said Cameron’s speech set out “a very limited programme for European reform” – an interpretation which would raise howls of laughter across much of Europe, where the Conservative leader’s proposals are not viewed as “very limited” and are most definitely not seen as an effort at “reform”. Read more

As Tony Blair’s chances of becoming the European Union’s first full-time president fade, so the chances go up that David Miliband will be the EU’s next foreign policy supremo.  This is the picture emerging on the second day of the EU summit in Brussels.

The killer blow to Blair’s prospects was delivered by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, who let it be known that she would prefer the EU’s first permanent president to come from one of the EU’s smaller states.  By definition, this rules out Blair. Read more

As European Union leaders gather for their two-day summit in Brussels, the word is that the British government’s effort to have Tony Blair selected as the EU’s first full-time president is running into trouble.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just finished a round of afternoon discussions with other European socialist leaders, trying to persuade them that Blair deserves the job.  The talks did not go well. Read more

The fuss over who will be the European Union’s first full-time president is obscuring the less sexy but potentially more important question of who will get the two or three most powerful jobs in the next European Commission.  A good many governments would prefer to see one of their nationals in a truly influential economic policymaking role in the Commission than occupying the EU presidency, which may turn out to be a more hollow job than once foreseen.

Commission president José Manuel Barroso says he will not nominate his new team until EU leaders have chosen their new head of foreign policy, a post that entitles its holder to a Commission seat.  Any country wanting a big economic portfolio at the Commission will therefore steer clear of putting forward a candidacy for the foreign policy job, because there is only one Commission seat for each nation. Read more

There can be few presidential campaigns that have kicked off with the declaration “I am not a dwarf”.  But this is what Le Monde quotes Jean-Claude Juncker today as saying in the interview in which Luxembourg’s prime minister reveals he would consider being a candidate for the European Union’s presidency “if the call came”.

I have interviewed Juncker and seen him in action more than a few times over the years, and I can confirm that he is not a dwarf – though I have heard other disparaging terms applied to him that need not concern us here.  What most interests me is the enormous gulf in perceptions of Juncker’s potential candidacy between the UK and certain mainland European countries. Read more

Ask a minister in a European Union government what post their country hopes to get in the next European Commission, and the response is the same every time – something important to do with the economy.  Well, you can’t blame people for not hurrying to step into the shoes of Leonard Orban, the Romanian commissioner for multilingualism.

On the other hand, there aren’t enough top economic jobs for Commission president José Manuel Barroso to satisfy everyone.  Truth to tell, the Commission looks too big with 27 members.  But that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will stay under the EU’s Lisbon treaty.  A guaranteed seat on the Commission seems a simple, visible way of making a country’s citizens feel connected to the EU. Read more

Every now and then, I’m asked in Brussels whether the opposition British Conservative party’s hostility to the European Union is related to the fact that so many of its top people – including David Cameron, likely to be the UK’s next prime minister – went to Eton.  The theory is that they’re so snooty and cut off from the lives of ordinary Britons that they’ve lost all sense of what’s in the national interest.

Well, it’s always tempting to have a rant about privilege.  But in this case, the verdict on Eton is “not proven”. Read more

Victories in referendums rarely come as big as this.  With full results in from more than half Ireland’s constituencies, the pro-Lisbon treaty camp is ahead by 66.8 to 33.2 per cent.  What’s more, the turnout is high – almost 59 per cent, compared with 53 per cent when Irish voters rejected the European Union’s Lisbon treaty in June 2008.

No wonder Irish premier Brian Cowen looks like the cat that’s been served the cream (when he and his party are annihilated in the next Irish parliamentary election, he can always say he did the noble thing on Lisbon before perishing).  And no wonder Irish big business is pleased, too.  They were very visible on the Yes side during this campaign and they needed a convincing result to justify the money and effort. Read more

According to Brian Cowen, Ireland’s premier, a No result in Friday’s referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty would raise the prospect of a “two-speed Europe”, with some countries forging ahead with closer political and economic integration and others staying outside.  But isn’t a two-speed Europe the dog that is hauled out of its kennel every time there’s a EU institutional crisis but which, in the end, never barks?

After Irish voters rejected the Lisbon treaty in June 2008, a number of politicians were quick to assert that a two-speed Europe was the only way to keep the European “project” on the road.  Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, who has lived through more EU crises than most of us have had quetsch plum tarts, mused in public that perhaps it was time for a “Club of the Few” to go ahead on their own. Read more

Since February 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s anti-bribery convention came into force - with the aim of reducing bribery of foreign officials in international business deals - the US has brought 103 cases, Germany more than 40, France 19 and the UK just one.  So says “Global Corruption Report 2009: Corruption and the Private Sector”, a study published on Wednesday by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog.

From a British point of view, the report makes uncomfortable reading.  “UK companies still have a long way to go to increase their awareness and adopt robust anti-bribery compliance programmes,” it says. Read more

Now that José Manuel Barroso is safely re-installed as European Commission president for the next five years, it would be tempting to think that – from an institutional point of view, at least – all is well in Brussels.  Tempting, but wrong.

Once again, it is our old friend the Lisbon treaty that is the problem.  On October 2 Irish voters, who rejected the treaty in a referendum in June 2008, will have the chance to reverse their verdict.  Opinion polls indicate that the Yes camp will win this time.  But there is an unmistakeable air of nervousness at the European Union’s headquarters that the polls may not be a reliable guide to the eventual outcome. Read more

It’s less than a week since General Motors agreed to sell Opel, its European arm, to a group led by Magna International of Canada, but already a wave of anger at the implications of the deal is building up.  Nowhere is this more true than in Belgium and the UK, where workers at GM plants seem far more at risk than their colleagues in Germany of losing their jobs.

This episode is, however, about much more than potential job losses.  It’s about Europe’s reluctance to come to terms with huge overcapacity in its car industry.  It’s about how best to preserve a broad manufacturing base in an era when the other main recent driver of European economic growth - lightly regulated financial capitalism – is discredited.  Finally, it is a test of the European Commission’s ability to uphold its strict rules on competition and state aid during the worst recession in the European Union’s history. Read more

If it were not funny, it would be tragic.  The UK Conservative party’s decision to quit the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right political group in the European Parliament, is backfiring on the Tories in spectacular fashion.  The decision was always daft – a bit like the right wing of the US Republican Party splitting off and forming a minority group in Congress – but it now looks more short-sighted than ever.

On Tuesday the Tories relinquished the leadership of their new “anti-federalist” faction, the so-called European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to Michal Tomasz Kaminski, a Polish politician.  They felt obliged to do so after Edward McMillan-Scott, a Tory MEP, refused to respect a deal in which Kaminski had been promised one of the parliament’s prestigious vice-presidency posts. Read more

It seems light years ago now, but I once had a delightful Swedish friend whose father, reflecting on his distinguished career in public service, told her that the proudest moment of his life was when Sweden switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right and there were no serious traffic accidents.

That was in 1967, and there’s no denying it – it’s damned impressive.  Imagine if they tried to introduce a change like that today in Britain, or in other countries that still drive on the left such as India, Japan, Pakistan or South Africa.  It would make the chaos on the opening day of Heathrow airport’s Terminal 5 look like a spot of trouble with the signalling on a model train set. Read more

José Manuel Barroso is all but certain to be reappointed as European Commission president.  But who will get the other plum European Union jobs that will soon be up for grabs?

The most startling suggestion I have heard in recent days – and it came from a high-ranking EU diplomat – is that the EU’s first ever full-time president could be none other than Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK.  The thinking here is that, because the job will require its holder to represent the EU on the world stage, it would suit Brown well.  He has oodles of experience and excellent connections at the highest level, starting with President Barack Obama. Read more

It’s election day in Europe, but in certain respects the most important events are taking place outside the voting booths.

According to a RTE/Sunday Independent opinion poll in Ireland, supporters of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty will defeat opponents by a margin of 54 per cent to 28 per cent (with 18 per cent undecided) when the treaty is submitted to a second referendum, probably in October.  Such a thumping victory would not only reverse but for all practical purposes bury the memory of Irish voters’ rejection of the treaty in June 2008Read more

German chancellor Angela Merkel is usually a model of diplomatic politeness when she talks in public about Germany’s allies.  Not last Tuesday, however.

Towards the end of a speech in Berlin, she criticised the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and to a lesser extent the European Central Bank for responding to the global economic crisis with an unorthodox and irresponsible splurge of money creation.  Unless the central banks reversed these policies, she warned, the western world would find itself in the same kind of mess 10 years from now that it’s in today. Read more

The closer the European Parliament elections, the sneakier the stratagems of British centre-right politicians and activists in Brussels.

As David Cameron made clear on May 18 when he launched the election campaign of his opposition Conservative party, the Tories are poised to leave the mainstream European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) group soon after the vote.  They plan to set up a new centre-right group in the EU legislature that would be strongly opposed to more EU political and economic integration. Read more

The Czech hosts of Thursday’s European Union summit with six ex-Soviet states are not happy bunnies. The list of the EU leaders who couldn’t be bothered to show up for the Eastern Partnership event in Prague, a highlight of the Czechs’ six-month EU presidency, was embarrassingly long.

Let’s take them one by one. Read more