Thorning-Schmidt, left, and Merkel at last week's EU summit. Is the Danish PM's star falling?
With Jean-Claude Juncker’s confirmation as European Commission president by the European Parliament in two week’s time something of a foregone conclusion, attention in Brussels corridors has turned to the other two top jobs that are due to be decided at a special summit July 16: European Council president and High Representative for foreign affairs.
According to officials and diplomats, there was much discussion of candidates’ names on the sidelines of last week’s EU summit, and while two weeks is a long time in politics, a few trends are emerging:
1. Momentum to get a centre-left candidate into the European Council presidency is stalling. Going into last week’s summit, it was widely assumed that because the centre-right European People’s party (EPP) got one of their own atop the Commission, the Council job would go to the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES). But that conventional wisdom has changed. Read more
Setting up the European Union’s new diplomatic service was never going to be easy. Turf wars between the EU’s 27 member-states and the European Commission were inevitable, and the ever meddlesome European Parliament was certainly not going to pass up an opportunity to stick its oar in. But if the EU doesn’t get this right, the world’s other big powers will never be convinced that the Europeans are serious about operating a coherent common foreign policy. Read more
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
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
The sun is shining in Brussels and the sky has an unseasonably blue, cloudless, late-November-in-Rome quality as European Union leaders make their way here for the summit of summits - the event where they will choose the EU’s first full-time president and new foreign policy chief. I wonder if the weather will be so fine when the leaders finally drag themselves away from the negotiating table after what is shaping up to be a night of relentless hard bargaining.
By general consent, the frontrunner is Herman Van Rompuy, the amiable, haiku-writing Belgian prime minister. Even a speech he gave in 2004 that reveals him to be an implacable opponent of Turkey’s entry into the EU (Turkey has been an official candidate for the past four years) doesn’t seem to be doing Van Rompuy any harm. Well, why should it? It fits in perfectly with the views of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Read more
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
I confess to a certain surprise at the way that Massimo D’Alema is climbing up the list of candidates for the post of European Union foreign policy chief. At first sight the former Italian prime minister and foreign minister ticks far too few boxes to get the job. But there are, in truth, some straightforward reasons for his ascent – none of which reflects well on the EU.
First, the unticked boxes. 1) His communist past. This is usually condensed into: “He’s a former communist and therefore unacceptable to Poland and other EU countries, which suffered under Soviet domination while the Italian communist party was gorging itself on covert funds from Moscow.” In fairness, D’Alema abandoned communism 20 years ago. I spent five years in Rome covering Italian politics, and he never struck me as an extremist or a hardliner. Quite the opposite: he was highly pragmatic, in a shifty kind of way. Read more