On Tuesday, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president who has been tasked with streamlining and overhauling the way Brussels operates, presented one of his signature initiatives – the so-called “better regulation” package aimed at scrutinising more carefully the rules Brussels imposes on businesses.
As the FT wrote after our hour-long interview with Timmermans, he is a relatively late convert to the Brussels reformist camp, having changed his view after a lot of soul-searching in 2005, when his native Netherlands voted against an EU constitutional treaty that he himself helped negotiate.
Perhaps Timmermans’ most notable contribution to the EU reform debate since then was a June 2013 Dutch government report he helped author that spelled out 54 different policy areas that should not be ceded to Brussels. Now Timmermans gets to practice what he preached – even more so, now that David Cameron, the newly re-elected British prime minister, has launched his attempt to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU focused on many of the same reform issues. Timmermans is widely expected to be the European Commission’s point man in those talks with London.
As is frequently our practice at the Brussels Blog, below we offer an annotated transcript of our interview. Timmermans’ responses have been slightly edited for clarity. We started with that 2013 Dutch report, since much of what Timmermans recommended back then appears to be part of his agenda now that he’s in Brussels – ideas that were also articulated in a November 2013 op-ed in the FT.
I didn’t know you would bring this up but you do because it clearly shows that what I think and what I want to do is more or less in line with what I proposed as foreign minister, and those who say, well, ‘He’s only doing this to appease David Cameron’ can see that I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time.
Actually, it all started with an op-ed that I wrote in your newspaper, and Jean-Claude Juncker picked up on that and when he asked me to do this with him, he referred to some of the ideas that I had written down in the Financial Times. So, this was very much part of his thinking and his programme, as it was in Martin Schulz’s thinking, and this is what they both brought forward in the electoral campaign.
David Cameron, with his Finnish counterpart Alex Stubb, at a summit in Helsinki Thursday
The much-anticipated “emergency meeting” of EU finance ministers David Cameron demanded last month to discuss the €2.1bn surcharge Brussels has levied on Britain begins today – though it is less “emergency” than Cameron may have hoped, since it’s actually finance ministers’ regularly-scheduled November meeting.
As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the Financial Times, Italy, the holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, will table a compromise plan at the meeting which would allow Britain – and the Netherlands, which has the second-highest bill, with €643m due at the end of the month – to pay the new EU tab in instalments.
This is unlikely to be enough for the UK, which is seeking both a delay in the due date and a reduction in the bill, but there are growing signs that its allies in the fight, including the Dutch, are inclined to support the plan.
Ahead of the meeting, Brussels Blog obtained a copy of the two-paragraph Italian proposal, and we’ve posted it here. The measure asks the European Commission to come back with an amendment to existing EU rules for paying such bills that would in “exceptional circumstances” allow countries to pay their surcharge in tranches instead of all at once on the December 1 due date. Here’s the key section: Read more
David Cameron and his wife Samantha after voting in last week's EU parliament elections
David Cameron’s anti-federalist group in the European parliament entered these elections looking a bit shaky. While anti-establishment parties were faring well, the polls for the ECR group were worrying. Cameron took a huge gamble when leaving the centre-right European People’s Party to form a eurosceptic bloc. Some ECR folk feared the group could unravel in the wake of the election.
Daniel Hannan, one of the ECR’s best known MEPs, dismissed the doom laden predictions from “half-clever commentators” (this correspondent included). He was correct; the speculation proved only half-right. The ECR have emerged in a solid position from the vote. It survived and its feathers are well preened for a beauty contest for the leadership of Europe’s eurosceptics. But the dynamics of the group are changing — and it poses some serious political dilemmas for Cameron.
1) The ECR is here to stay….
If it makes no new allies and loses no group members, the ECR will live on. The election results show it has cleared the rather arbitrary seven country official threshold to form a group (there are MEPs from at least 8 member states). At present though, their numbers are down. The ECR is projected to reach 45, a loss of 11 seats. The Tories and the Czech members both suffered at the hands of the electorate.
2) ….with reduced Tory influence
Perhaps as significant is the changing balance of power within the party. Read more
Does David Cameron now need a reopening of the EU's treaties more than Angela Merkel does?
We have hardly heard a peep from Britain on the latest leg of Europe’s banking union. It is natural enough given the UK will be outside the proposed system for shuttering shaky banks, which is primarily for eurozone countries. But do not imagine it is unimportant for London. Strictly in terms of David Cameron’s plans to renegotiate Britain’s place in the EU, there has perhaps been no more worrying a development in Brussels all year.
Why? Cameron’s renegotiation strategy is partly based on this assumption: the eurozone will need a banking union to survive, and a fully-fledged banking union will need a re-write of EU treaties before 2017. That necessity opens the door for Cameron to press demands to repatriate powers.
The trouble is that this week’s banking union negotiation is showing that Germany and the eurozone will go to great lengths to avoid giving Cameron the leverage he craves. In one senior EU official’s words: “Nobody wants to give the keys to the UK”. Read more
It’s hard enough to get 27 member states to agree unanimously on a seven-year, €1,000bn budget – as anyone following the latest EU summit wrestling match can attest. But completing an EU budget deal requires one more thing: the consent of the European parliament.
Martin Schulz, the German social democrat and parliament president, reminded EU leaders and the Brussels press pack of this fact on Thursday evening. In a mildly foreboding press conference, Schulz re-stated his threat that leaders should be prepared for MEPs to block any budget proposal that strays too far from the €1,033bn proposal submitted more than a year ago by the European commission, the EU’s executive arm.
“Yes, we are prepared to make savings, but we are not prepared to have the European Union budget simply amputated,” he said.
Schulz declined to say whether the latest €960bn proposal being considered by Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, crossed the line from extreme weight loss to amputation. But he was clearly displeased. Read more
Ukip leader Nigel Farage at a European Parliament session in Strasbourg last year
Following prime minister David Cameron’s address on Britain’s EU future, there may not be two politicians in Europe spoiling for a fight more than the two men who are arguably the most high-profile members of the European Parliament: Nigel Farage and Guy Verhofstadt.
There’s one thing Britain’s foremost eurosceptic and Belgium’s most prominent European federalist agreed on: Within minutes of Cameron finishing his speech in London, both had blasted out e-mail responses lambasting it.
Farage, however, prefaced his criticism by saying he viewed it as the “greatest achievement to date” of his political group, the UK Independence Party, since it put Britain’s EU exit firmly on the agenda. Read more
David Cameron is now the only leader in Europe openly advocating the revision of EU treaties by a set deadline. He asserts that this will happen by 2017 because the eurozone will have to make “massive changes” to save the single currency.
But what if that is not the case? What if Britain is the main reason for a treaty revision? How would Cameron trigger a renegotiation?
The answer lies in Article 48 — to spare you from reading the text, here’s a summary of the hurdles it places before any advocate of treaty change: Read more
It is now become standard operating procedure: a big story breaks, and the Taiwanese news organisation NMA — which came to fame with its CGI take on Tiger Woods’s complicated love life — does its own unique interpretation of the event. Past favourites have included former British prime minster Gordon Brown’s temper tantrums and ex-US vice president Al Gore’s alleged harassment of a masseuse. Now, they’ve done Friday’s highly-anticipated speech by David Cameron on Britain’s future in the EU, complete with Bulgarians and Romanians storming Buckingham Palace and Nick Clegg in a Baby Bjorn: Read more
Finland's Jyrki Katainen, right, with Cameron during a visit to Downing Street last year.
In the run up to Friday’s big speech by British prime minster David Cameron on his country’s future in the EU, some of the loudest voices of concern have come from the UK’s closest allies, including Washington, Dublin and Warsaw.
In a meeting with a small group of reporters today in Brussels, Jyrki Katainen, the Finnish prime minister, added his voice to that list, saying that he cannot see what kind of competences Cameron could pull back from the EU.
“Being a member of the EU, and especially in the single market, you cannot kind of pick the raisins out of the bun,” said Mr Katainen, whose National Coalition party is closely aligned with British Conservatives on most major policy issues. “It’s very difficult to say what would be the competences that could be repatriated.”
Katainen added: “The EU without Britain is pretty much the same as fish without chips. It’s not a meal any more.” After the jump, we’ve transcribed the Finnish leader’s full remarks. Read more
Cameron and Barroso last week at Downing Street, where they discussed the EU budget
Amid all the hand-wringing about the Greek parliamentary vote on the key €28b austerity package this afternoon in Athens, the European Commission will meet to give its final assent to its proposed EU budget for the next seven-year cycle, normally the most-watched event on the Brussels agenda.
Much of the outlines of the budget have already been reported on the pages of the FT, but many will be watching the top line: just how much will the Commission, which, as the EU’s executive branch, has the responsibility for kicking off the 18-month negotiations, propose member countries should contribute to Brussels’ budget?
This will be a big question for David Cameron, British prime minister, who has made cutting down on Brussels’ spending the centre of his Europe strategy. For reference sake, after the jump we are re-publishing a letter Cameron got his French and German counterparts to sign calling for an effective freeze on the seven-year budget plan, known as the mutli-annual financial framework in eurocrat-ese. Read more
Implicit in suggestions today from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, that Hosni Mubarak should not be rushed out the door was this: A fear of what could come after the long-ruling Egyptian president. Chief among them is the possibility that Mr Mubarak would be replaced by an Islamist government hostile to the west.
But to David Cameron, the UK prime minister, Egypt’s future should not be cast in such binary terms. “I simply don’t accept that there is just a choice in life between, on the one hand, having a regime that does not respect rights and democracy and on the other hand having Islamic extremism,” Mr Cameron said, pointing to the example of well functioning democracies in Muslim countries such as Turkey and Indonesia. Read more
The EU’s final two-day heads of government summit of 2010 starts Thursday and early betting is that it will be much quieter than the last time the 27 leaders assembled in Brussels, a gathering that set off a bond market panic which the continent is still recovering from.
The main event will be Thursday night, when the leaders are expected to sign off on a brief change in the EU’s treaty to allow for the creation of a new financial rescue system to replace the current, temporary €750bn bail-out fund.
There is still some nervousness that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, may push for additional language in the text to make explicit that the new bail-out system can only be accessed as a “last resort,” or ultima ratio in Latin, the phrase being used by the cognoscenti.
But Merkel did not mention the ultima ratio demand in her list of principles before the Bundestag Wednesday, and there seems to be little appetite among other members to let her bulldoze the new language in – particularly since it could cause more confusion among bond traders, who might wonder what all the other resorts are before the last one. Read more
Twenty-six European leaders turned up for a dinner in Brussels this evening with one burning question to discuss: Whether or not to change the European Union treaties to accommodate Germany’s demands for a new permanent bailout fund?
But one European leader burst in and insisted on talking about something else. That would be David Cameron, the UK prime minister, and his obsession was the European budget. Read more
Poor old Turkey has been getting mixed messages from European governments again, after visits by Britain’s David Cameron and Germany’s foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, this week.
The UK prime minister was very outspoken in his support for Turkish membership of the European Union. “I will remain your strongest possible advocate for EU membership,” he said. “Together I want us to pave the road from Ankara to Brussels.”
It was familiar British policy, but spelt out with unusual passion, and very few cautionary words. Praising Turkey’s contributions as a Nato ally (no mention of Ankara’s tiresome blocking of Nato-EU co-operation on security issues), Mr Cameron declared: “It’s just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent.”
Turkish media seized on some of the most flattering comments from Mr Cameron. “Our golden age” was the headline in the top-selling newspaper Hurriyet, while the Sabah daily blazoned its front page with “The EU would be poor without Turkey”. Read more
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
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
The distance separating Britain’s perceptions of the European Union from those of its Continental partners is so vast that the English Channel might as well be the Pacific Ocean. This was my first thought when I read not just David Cameron’s speech on what steps a future Conservative government would take to limit EU involvement in British affairs, but also the way the speech was reported and the reactions on each side of the Channel.
The Financial Times story, for instance, said Cameron’s speech set out “a very limited programme for European reform” – an interpretation which would raise howls of laughter across much of Europe, where the Conservative leader’s proposals are not viewed as “very limited” and are most definitely not seen as an effort at “reform”. Read more
Every now and then, I’m asked in Brussels whether the opposition British Conservative party’s hostility to the European Union is related to the fact that so many of its top people – including David Cameron, likely to be the UK’s next prime minister – went to Eton. The theory is that they’re so snooty and cut off from the lives of ordinary Britons that they’ve lost all sense of what’s in the national interest.
Well, it’s always tempting to have a rant about privilege. But in this case, the verdict on Eton is “not proven”. Read more
Victories in referendums rarely come as big as this. With full results in from more than half Ireland’s constituencies, the pro-Lisbon treaty camp is ahead by 66.8 to 33.2 per cent. What’s more, the turnout is high – almost 59 per cent, compared with 53 per cent when Irish voters rejected the European Union’s Lisbon treaty in June 2008.
No wonder Irish premier Brian Cowen looks like the cat that’s been served the cream (when he and his party are annihilated in the next Irish parliamentary election, he can always say he did the noble thing on Lisbon before perishing). And no wonder Irish big business is pleased, too. They were very visible on the Yes side during this campaign and they needed a convincing result to justify the money and effort. Read more