British election 2010

With Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s ruling Labour party heading towards defeat in Thursday’s British general election, the European left may soon be in even worse condition than it was just one year ago.  The trouble started in last June’s European Parliament elections, when centre-right parties swept to victory in the European Union’s six biggest countries – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK.

Then came the Social Democrats’ crushing defeat in September’s German election: the SPD took a mere 23 per cent of the vote, its worst result in the Federal Republic’s 60-year history.  Finally, Hungary’s ruling socialists were decimated last month in an election that saw the triumph of the centre-right Fidesz party and a strong performance by the ultra-right Jobbik party. 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

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

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

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

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