Britain

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

So it looks as if it is to be Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s prime minister, as the full-time president, and Catherine Ashton, Britain’s EU trade commissioner, as the foreign policy supremo.  This is the culmination of eight years of efforts, starting with the EU’s Laeken Declaration of 2001, to reform the bloc’s institutions and give the EU a more dynamic world profile.

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, thinks the EU had a historic opportunity in its grasp and flunked it – at least as far as the full-time presidency is concerned.  The British government itself was saying more or less the same thing until tonight.  It was adamant that the EU needed a big-hitter as president to convince the rest of the world that the EU was going places.  Now it has participated in a classic EU trade-off that has produced exactly the result it said would be no use to anyone. Read more

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