Tony Barber

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

Read today’s analysis in the FT of the consequences of Ireland’s vote on the Lisbon treaty. Follow this link:

EU embarks on voyage of discovery after Lisbon Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

When does No mean Yes – or maybe?  I’m not venturing here into the treacherous territory of date rape law, but rather thinking of what politicians say when they’re asked if they want to be the European Union’s first permanent president.

Take Felipe González, Spain’s socialist prime minister from 1982 to 1996.  Rumours have swirled around Brussels for months that González is interested in the job and that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France would be pleased to see him get it.  González’s fellow Spaniard, Javier Solana, who is the EU’s foreign policy high representative, is on record as saying last June that he believes the ex-premier “has the energy and the capacity for the job”. Read more

Tony Barber

What’s the connection between martial arts and European financial market regulation?  Answers in Bulgarian, please.  Because the most colourful member of the newly elected European Parliament’s powerful economic and monetary affairs committee is surely Slavi Binev, a Bulgarian MEP

Binev is a Taekwondo champion whose parliamentary website describes him, with little exaggeration, as “the most recognisable figure in the history of martial arts in Bulgaria”.  Perhaps I should add that he is also a wealthy man who belongs to Bulgaria’s ultra-nationalist Ataka party and who runs a company specialising in nightclubs, construction and finance.  He knows, shall we say, how to look after himself. Read more

Brussels concerned with institutional uncertainty and being side-lined in economic policy-making. Phase out of light-bulbs which are not energy efficient begins. Britain’s EU rebate under debate again. Read more

Tony Barber

To follow up on Monday’s blog, in which I suggested it was extremely unlikely that Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini would achieve his ambition of becoming the European Union’s next foreign policy chief, the obvious question is – well, who will get the job?

Three names keep cropping up.  One is Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who has served as Nato’s secretary-general since 2004 and who is about to be replaced by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister.  The second is Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who is another ex-premier.  The third is Olli Rehn, a Finn who is the EU’s enlargement commissioner. Read more

Tony Barber

There are two ways of looking at the imminent appointment of Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister, as the next president of the European Parliament.  The first way is to applaud Europe’s politicians for doing the right thing and giving one of the European Union’s top jobs to a man from one of the 10 former communist countries in central and eastern Europe that joined the EU in 2004-2007.  This is the highest honour yet accorded to a public figure from one of the EU’s new member-states.  Poles are justifiably proud.

The second way, however, is to be honest and recognise that the job of parliament president is about the lowest-ranking position someone could be given without its looking like an insult.  Buzek, who belongs to the legislature’s main centre-right group, won’t even hold the job for the assembly’s full five-year term: under a deal with the socialists, he will step down after two and a half years and hand over the reins to a socialist.  The fact is that, by giving this post to Buzek, older and bigger member-states in western Europe are making sure that they will get all the really big jobs when they come up for grabs later this year. Read more

Tony Barber

Sweden’s European Union presidency hasn’t even started yet, but people in Brussels are already saying that the Swedish presidency website is the most impressive that any EU country has so far come up with.  Its homepage is clean, simple and intelligently presented, and the entire site is nice and easy to navigate.

I particularly like the section “The EU in our daily lives”, which is a slideshow of 15 photographs that attempt to explain how EU laws and activities shape so much of everyday European life.  It kicks off with a snapshot of a rather lugubrious-looking dog and the caption: “Dogs and cats travelling within the EU must have their own pet passports.” Read more

Tony Barber

Mikolaj Dowgielewicz is truly a new Pole.  Not yet even 37 years old, he is a minister (for European Union affairs) in Poland’s centre-right government, speaks fluent English and French, was educated partly in the UK, and has spent more of his life in an independent democratic Poland than in a Soviet-controlled communist Poland.  When I was listening to him speak at a think-tank breakfast in Brussels this morning, it struck me with force that he would have been just a small boy when I first visited Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk in the summer of 1980 and witnessed the emergence of the free trade union Solidarity.

Now, like other new Poles, Dowgielewicz talks breezily about Poland’s growing weight in the EU, which it joined five years ago, and its prospects for adopting the euro as early as 2012.  Poland doesn’t want or need the eurozone’s entry rules to be bent, he says.  “We’re not proposing any amendments to the entry criteria.  Not that we think they make absolute sense, but it’s not feasible.  You’d have to change the EU treaties.  We think the criteria strengthen the eurozone’s credibility.  It will have to be down to the merits of each individual country.” Read more

Tony Barber

Jan Fischer, the unassuming non-party technocrat who is holding the fort as Czech prime minister for the next few months, is getting his 15 minutes of fame on the world stage – but it’s certainly not going to his head.  He was sitting in his Prague office today telling me about his preparations for next week’s European Union summit in Brussels – an event he will chair – and somehow his background as a humble statistician kept colouring the conversation.

For example, when I asked him whether most EU heads of government supported a legally binding decision to nominate José Manuel Barroso at the summit for a second term as European Commission president, he replied that it was “50-50 … as regards the sample of people I’ve had a chance to speak to”. Read more

Tony Barber

Well, that’s a good start, isn’t it?  The Netherlands was the first of the European Union’s 27 countries to release exit polls on how its citizens voted in the European Parliament elections.  And guess what?  The Party For Freedom (PVV), a right-wing anti-immigration party led by the anti-Islamic populist Geert Wilders, is expected to finish second with more than 15 per cent of the vote and at least four of the 25 Dutch seats in the EU legislature.

In truth, people outside the Netherlands shouldn’t be surprised by the PVV’s success.  Wilders has been riding high in Dutch opinion polls for quite some time.  Back in March, one survey even suggested that his party would become the biggest party in the Dutch parliament if an immediate election were held. Read more

the 30 power players

Inside Brussels: the 30 power players

Find out which 30 people matter most in the EU capital, in the FT’s guide to who really holds policy-making influence both in public and behind the scenes. Share your views below and leave us your suggestions for the 30 eurostars. Read more

Tony Barber

Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, sounds like a man who intends to enjoy the next two months. In an interview last week with the Czech newspaper Mlada fronta Dnes, he merrily poured scorn on US and European Union measures to fight the world financial crisis and recession by suggesting that they drew on the spirit of 20th-century eastern European and Soviet communism.

Last month, he grabbed the headlines by engineering the downfall of Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek’s government right in the middle of the Czech Republic’s six-month EU presidency. In February, he prompted a walk-out by angry members of the European Parliament when he told them in a speech that their assembly did not encourage freedom of thought. As for his opinions on  climate change (misplaced alarmism), they are quite simply unrepeatable in polite European society. Read more

Tony Barber

There can be few more terrifying sentences in contemporary English than: “The Treaty of Lisbon is not the last word.”

The sentence appears in “Saving the European Union”, a new book by Andrew Duff, a British Liberal Democrat who sits in the European Parliament. It’s certain to raise the hackles of anti-Lisbon campaigners, who have said all along that the EU can never resist the temptation to keep tinkering with its institutional arrangements, no matter how strong the evidence that European voters are thoroughly turned off by the whole process. Read more

Tony Barber

Like the animals that boarded Noah’s Ark, Europe’s leaders are entering their summit conference centre in Brussels today with the world’s economic floodwaters rising around them. According to the Book of Genesis, Noah was almost 600 years old when the rains started. That surely makes him the Old Testament forerunner of Jean-Claude Juncker, Europe’s longest-serving leader. The gaunt-looking Juncker has been prime minister of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg since 1995 and its finance minister since 1989.

As the leaders climb on board for their two-day European Union summit, it is eerie to hear them, one by one, saying exactly the same thing.  “We don’t need to do a new fiscal stimulus… Any room near the lifeboats over there?”  “We don’t need another fiscal stimulus… I’ll just squeeze in here by the bilge water.”  “Another fiscal stimulus? We don’t need one… Pass me a life jacket, would you?” Read more

To the 23 official languages of the European Union can be added a 24th – Silviospeak.
Yes, Berlusconi is back and once again turning heads and headlines across Europe.
The incoming Italian premier has yet to form a government but has already irked Brussels on two issues: his defence of lossmaking airline Alitalia and the nomination of a Italy’s European commissioner.
The billionaire businessman helped wreck talks to sell Alitalia to Air France/KLM by holding out the prospect of an Italian takeover. Now, if local businessmen do not stump up the cash, he could just nationalise it, he said on Tuesday.
He invented a new word – “zignare” – to describe the hectoring of the Commission, which is anxious to ensure that the airline does not receive any more government subsidies, disadvantaging its competitors.
“If they continue hectoring, we could take a decision in which Alitalia could be bought by the state – by the state railway,” Berlusconi told a news conference. “It’s a threat, not a decision.” Some suspect it may also be a joke since the railway lacks the resources to take on the airline.
Jacques Barrot, the EU transport commissioner, has expressed doubts over whether an emergency 300m government loan complied with state aid rules. The Commission on Tuesday said that nationalisation would not pose a problem as long as the state did not pay above market rates for the 50.1 per cent of Alitalia it did not own. Given the lack of private buyers a market rate could be difficult to gauge.
Italy gave Jose Manuel Barroso, Commission president, a further headache on Tuesday when Franco Frattini, its commissioner, asked for his leave of absence to be extended until May 15. He took time off to campaign with Berlusconi and is expected to become Rome’s foreign minister.
Barroso last week said that if he resigned Italy would lose the sensitive justice and home affairs post, which temporary fill-in Barrot would retain. The new Italian would take Barrot’s transport portfolio. Rocco Buttiglione, Berlusconi’s last pick, (cd xref to beeb or our story) had to withdraw in 2004 after offending the European parliament with remarks about homosexuality and the role of women.
Patience with Italy is strained in Brussels. After his time spent with Berlusconi, it might be wise for Frattini not to return.

Who will feature in the next European Commission, to take office in 2009?

Well, for starters, it is widely thought that José Manuel Barroso wants a second term running the show. So how does the Portuguese liberal re-apply for his own job? Read more

A colleague visited recently from the FT’s London mothership, and a few of us took him out to sample some hearty Belgian fare.

Over his beer and stoemp (bangers and mash, Belgian-style) he asked who in the Brussels machine was the ultimate dinner party guest. A member of the European parliament, a national ambassador to the EU, or a European commissioner?

The consensus was that with Brussels dancing to the beat of the European Commission (the EU executive), commissioners were at the top of the pecking order.

Granted, not all commissioners’ roles are equal. Holding the EU education and training portfolio (where the union has only a small role)  hardly has the same cachet as, say, the competition supremo job which gives Neelie Kroes, the incumbent, the power to take on companies such as Microsoft.

But now this Commission has entered its final year and a half, and some of its members have already jumped ship. Markos Kyprianou, formerly health commissioner, has returned to Cyprus to become its foreign minister. Franco Frattini, justice commissioner, is on unpaid leave to participate in this month’s elections in his native Italy. Read more

In many ways, continental Europe is increasingly an area without borders (viz the euro single currency, cheaper cross-border mobile phone calls, the enlarged passport-free travel zone).

But not everything works seamlessly. Read more