Brussels

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

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