Brussels

Tony Barber

As you’d expect, European Union leaders were quick to congratulate David Cameron on his appointment as British prime minister.  But for all the warm words, they will be watching his first moves on the European stage like hawks.

An important test will come next week at a meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels.  There the UK will find itself under pressure from a majority of countries to agree to new arrangements tightening the regulation of hedge funds and private equity.  Spain, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is desperate to get the deal done next week, having helped out Gordon Brown’s Labour government by delaying it until the British election was out of the way.  But will the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition be inclined to sign up to such an important measure so soon into its period of office? Read more

Tony Barber

With good reason the eurozone’s political leaders have been criticised for reacting too slowly to the Greek sovereign debt crisis.  But what’s new about that?  Slowness often seems to be a defining feature of Europe’s approach to policymaking.

Consider the proposals that are in the air for the creation of a European Monetary Fund to manage Greek-style crises in the future.  There is widespread support for such a fund, ranging from the European Commission to Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s centre-right finance minister, and socialists in the European Parliament. Read more

Tony Barber

At last week’s European Union summit in Brussels, most people were so focused on the Greek debt crisis that they missed an interesting development on the sidelines.  This was an informal proposal from Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, to convene summits of EU heads of state and government once a month.

It would be a significant departure from the way the EU conducts its affairs.  At present the EU holds four scheduled summits a year, usually in March, June, October and December.  Since the financial crisis erupted in 2007-08, there have been various emergency summits as well.  President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who ran the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2008, holds the record for calling unscheduled summits.  Apart from those dealing with the financial crisis, he also convened one in response to Russia’s war with Georgia.  Read more

Tony Barber

Whether it’s climate change, foreign policy or the increasingly alarming fiscal crisis, the European Union’s difficulties can be summed up in one word: disunity.  After December 1, when the EU’s Lisbon treaty came into force, disunity was supposed to be a thing of the past.  Instead, disunity has proved to be very much a thing of the present.  What’s more, the Lisbon treaty may – at least in the short term – be making matters worse.

Take the world conference on climate change at Copenhagen in December.  According to Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s incoming climate change commissioner, disunity – in the sense of a cacophony of European voices – was an important factor behind the ability of other powers to brush aside the EU’s views.  “Those last hours in Copenhagen, China, India, Japan, Russia and the US each spoke with one voice, while Europe spoke with many different voices.  Sometimes we spend so much time agreeing with one another that when finally the EU comes to the international negotiations, we are almost unable to negotiate,” she told her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament last month. Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

My colleague Philippe Ricard wrote a fine piece in Monday’s Le Monde about the scarcity of women candidates for top positions in the European Union – not just the first full-time president and the new foreign policy high representative, but the next 27-member European Commission.

He made the point that if only a few women are nominated to the new Commission, the European Parliament is likely to cause real trouble when the nominees appear for their confirmation hearings, expected to start in December.  The legislature does not have the legal authority to reject individual nominees, but in 2004 it demonstrated that it had the political strength to force their withdrawal when it torpedoed the appointment of Rocco Buttiglione, an Italian conservative, as justice commissioner.  Moreover, the parliament does have the legal power to reject the Commission in its entirety – the so-called “nuclear option”. Read more

Tony Barber

I was fortunate enough to speak with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt on Tuesday about how the European Union is going about the task of choosing its first full-time president and its next foreign policy high representative.

The longer our conversation progressed, the more I realised how damaging to editorial standards, not to mention the people’s understanding of politics and government, are the competitive pressures on modern news organisations to be ahead of the rest of the pack.  For this particular EU story has, over the past few weeks, produced a cornucopia of nonsense as every broadcaster and newspaper has fallen over its rivals in a fruitless and fundamentally misguided attempt to show that it, and it alone, has got the lowdown. Read more

Tony Barber

The fuss over who will be the European Union’s first full-time president is obscuring the less sexy but potentially more important question of who will get the two or three most powerful jobs in the next European Commission.  A good many governments would prefer to see one of their nationals in a truly influential economic policymaking role in the Commission than occupying the EU presidency, which may turn out to be a more hollow job than once foreseen.

Commission president José Manuel Barroso says he will not nominate his new team until EU leaders have chosen their new head of foreign policy, a post that entitles its holder to a Commission seat.  Any country wanting a big economic portfolio at the Commission will therefore steer clear of putting forward a candidacy for the foreign policy job, because there is only one Commission seat for each nation. Read more

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