Brown

Who were the biggest winners and biggest losers of the European Parliament elections?

Top of the winners’ list are surely Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.  Merkel’s Christian Democrats destroyed her Social Democrat coalition partners at the polls, and Sarkozy’s UMP party brushed aside the opposition French socialists.  Merkel and Sarkozy will feel vindicated in their approach to the global economic crisis, particularly as regards the need to introduce tougher financial regulation (and to lecture central banks from time to time). 

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? 

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? 

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. 

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. 

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.”