Catherine Ashton

As with many things involving the European Parliament, there is an air of unreality about this week’s confirmation hearings of the nominees to the next European Commission.  It would be entirely mistaken to think that the process bears much resemblance to the kind of rigorous hearings that presidential appointees are obliged to undergo in the US Senate.  To judge from the proceedings so far in Brussels, the questions asked in the European Parliament’s committees are far less probing, and the nominees are able to get away with answers that are at best platitudinous, at worst utterly incoherent.

There are some honourable exceptions.  The best performance has been that of Belgium’s Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner-designate, who wasn’t afraid to speak frankly about his opposition to a carbon border tax, a policy favoured among others by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Equally authoritative were Spain’s Joaquín Almunia, who will run the important competition portfolio, and Finland’s Olli Rehn, responsible for economic and monetary affairs.  This trio looks set to be the powerhouse of the next Commission, along with France’s Michel Barnier, the internal market commissioner-designate. Read more

As of today the European Union is going about its business under a new set of rules known as the Lisbon treaty.  In Brussels this is universally seen as a good thing because, to quote Rebecca Harms and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-presidents of the European Parliament’s Greens faction, the treaty “sets the framework for increased European democracy, better decision-making, higher levels of transparency and closer participation of European citizens”.

Well, perhaps it does and perhaps it doesn’t.  One thing’s for sure: the new arrangements strengthen the European Parliament – hence the enthusiasm of Harms and Cohn-Bendit.  But the Lisbon treaty’s reforms are like the ingredients of a good dinner.  Use them intelligently, and all will be well.  Forget to put in the garlic and the peppers, and it will taste terrible.  In other words, wise leadership and a sense of responsibility to something higher than one’s domestic political audience are going to be necessary to make Lisbon work effectively. Read more

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