Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

They say newspapers are the first draft of history. Here I’m on a mission to prove that blogs are the second draft.

The piece of history I have in mind is the European Union summit of March 19-20, when the bloc’s 27 leaders issued a statement pledging €75bn in new EU contributions to the International Monetary Fund to help fight the global economic crisis. This commitment was duly reported in the Financial Times and other newspapers and was the “first version of history”. Read more

Tony Barber

It’s one of the most eagerly awaited events of the European Union’s 2009 political calendar. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is giving a speech on Tuesday to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and everyone who’s anyone in Europe wants to be there to hear it.

One reason is that people remember the last time a UK premier addressed the EU legislature. It was Tony Blair in June 2005, and those who were present recall it as one of the finest speeches of his entire political life. Looking at Blair’s speech almost four years later, how well does it hold up? Read more

Tony Barber

Among the various headaches keeping European Union leaders awake at night is the prospect of a thumping Conservative victory in the UK’s next general election, which must be held by June 2010. The fear is that the new Tory government would be so anti-EU that it would make the 1979-1997 governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major look like Jacques Delors’s European Commission in its heyday.

The nightmare inched one step closer on Wednesday when the Conservatives confirmed their intention of leaving the European People’s Party (EPP), the European Parliament’s main centre-right political group. This is a club with members from all over the 27-nation bloc. It is the largest group in the parliament, with about 37 per cent of the seats, and it will probably retain that position after June’s European Parliament elections. Read more

Tony Barber

Surprises galore at the European Union summit that opened in Brussels on Wednesday. The heroes of the hour are turning out to be Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy. Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi are still recovering from poor performances in the run-up to the summit. And as for the leaders of Poland … the least said, the better.

First, Brown. Eyes popped out when Brown showed up in Brussels, hours before the summit started, for a conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and an appearance before the media. Could this really be the same UK prime minister who, less than a year ago, deliberately arrived late for an EU summit so that he wouldn’t be seen signing the bloc’s Lisbon treaty at the same time as the other leaders? Read more

An intriguing development here: it looks as if Britain has been cornered in a fight to settle two hugely controversial EU labour rules.

This would be more bad news for Gordon Brown, and infuriate some British employers.

To them, these laws  – one on temps’ rights, the other on the maximum working week – are a pet hate, a sign of Brussels meddling in the UK’s flexible labour market.

But many countries are keen to get agreement on the rules, which are stuck in a legislative deep freeze after years of delays.

If the plan – put forward this week by the Portuguese EU presidency – goes through, the UK would have to compromise on one of the laws. Read more

Brussels has never taken to Gordon Brown. The man who refused to let Britain join the euro is seen by some as a scowling eurosceptic, who only turned up at monthly Ecofin councils to lecture other finance ministers.

Most European capitals know little about the new prime minister: unlike Tony Blair he does not have a big network of foreign politicians he can call friends. But there is a willingness to give the new man the benefit of the doubt and see whether the move from Number 11 to 10 Downing St will change his style.

My guess is that he will, not least for domestic political reasons. By projecting himself as a hard-headed pro-European he hopes to present David Cameron’s Conservatives as a bunch of eurosceptic obsessives, happier in the company of climate change-denying Czechs than mainstream Christian Democrats.

Mr Cameron has already helped him with this strategy by pulling the Tories out of the moderate European People’s Party, alienating such allies as Germany’s Angela Merkel. The folly of this policy was highlighted in brutal style by Quentin Davies, the Tory MP who defected to Labour this week.

Another sign of possible things to come was the appointment on Thursday of David Miliband, a personable pro-European, as Britain’s new foreign secretary. Miliband founded the Centre for European Reform, a Blairite think tank, and has long espoused an active British engagement in the EU. Read more

Gordon Brown knows how to deliver a budget. His last financial statement in the House of Commons on Wednesday contained the usual bullish economic optimism (of course) and a surprise: a cut in the basic rate of income tax.

So much we know. For all the criticism of Mr Brown’s personal style, his macro-economic record in the UK is envied by many in Europe. But can Mr Brown, prime minister-in-waiting, translate his economic standing into real influence in Brussels?

There are signs that Mr Brown is starting to take Europe more seriously. His lieutenant, Treasury minister Ed Balls, has been a regular visitor to Brussels projecting a less abrasive face than that usually seen from the chancellor’s camp. Read more

A rare sighting of Gordon Brown in Brussels on Tuesday, which dutifully followed his usual routine for Ecofin councils. Namely the British press in London is briefed in advance on the lecture he intends to deliver to fellow finance ministers – this time on the failings of the EU’s single market.

Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer then turns up at the meeting and delivers the message that other finance ministers have already read about in the morning papers. Then he flies home again. Job done.

“He’s right of course,” says one Ecofin participant. “His observations on the single market and what needs to be done are valid, but the way he does it is counter-productive. He comes across as arrogant, he doesn’t get involved in networking.” Read more