EU foreign policy

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. 

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. 

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. 

On Tuesday a numerically impressive delegation of Europeans will be in Washington for the first formal US-European Union summit since Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration last January.  Fredrik Reinfeldt, Sweden’s prime minister, will be there in his capacity as leader of the country that holds the EU’s rotating presidency.  So will Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister.  So will Javier Solana, the EU’s head of foreign policy.  So will Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU’s external affairs commissioner.  So will José Manuel Barroso, the Commission president – and from what I hear, a few other bigwigs are going along for the ride as well.

This is quite a turnout.  It would be nice to think it reflects an exceptionally warm and constructive relationship between the Obama administration and its EU allies.  But as a timely new report by the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, the real picture is less rosy.  “To Americans, these summits are all too typical of the European love of process over substance, and a European compulsion for everyone to crowd into the room regardless of efficiency,” write the authors, Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro. 

As Tony Blair’s chances of becoming the European Union’s first full-time president fade, so the chances go up that David Miliband will be the EU’s next foreign policy supremo.  This is the picture emerging on the second day of the EU summit in Brussels.

The killer blow to Blair’s prospects was delivered by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, who let it be known that she would prefer the EU’s first permanent president to come from one of the EU’s smaller states.  By definition, this rules out Blair. 

With a mere 27 members (all European heads of state or government, admittedly), the electorate that will pick the European Union’s first full-time president and new foreign policy high representative is even smaller than the conclave of Roman Catholic cardinals that chooses a new pope.  But this isn’t stopping other European busybodies from trying to muscle in on the decision.

Take the main political groups in the European Parliament, for example.  They have no formal say in the matter whatsoever.  Nonetheless, the parliament’s socialist group appears confident that it has an informal understanding with the centre-right European People’s Party that the full-time EU presidency should go to a EPP politician and the foreign policy post should go to a socialist. 

There is something fishy about the race to fill two of the biggest jobs going in Europe – the first long-term presidency of the European Union, and the post of EU foreign policy chief.  The closer the EU gets to decision time, the more various unofficial candidates are ruling themselves out or running into difficulties.  As far as concerns the presidency, the latest person to say she doesn’t want to be considered for the job is Mary Robinson, the former Irish head of state.

In some ways, it’s a shame.  The politically independent Robinson commands much respect across Europe and beyond – more than certain candidates I could mention from Belgium and Luxembourg.  It would also be a clever move on the part of the EU’s 27 leaders to put a woman in the presidency and so boost the EU’s profile in the eyes of its citizens. 

In December 1984 western governments detected the first signs of potentially far-reaching change in the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev, three months before he took over as Communist party leader, went on a trip to London.  Gorbachev greatly impressed Margaret Thatcher, the then prime minister, who saw him as an articulate, vigorous man with whom, famously, she could “do business”.

Is a Gorbachev moment about to happen in European-Chinese relations?  In two weeks’ time, Xi Jinping, China’s vice-president, is due to pay a visit to Europe and, among other activities, spend some time at the European Commission in Brussels.  The parallels with December 1984 are intriguing. 

Like it or not, the European Union faces the distinct possibility that the latest United Nations-mediated effort at producing a comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus dispute will fail.  From a EU perspective, would that be a disaster?  Or just a bit depressing and annoying?  Disaster is a strong word, but the consequences of failure would unquestionably be serious.

Talks between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have been going on for the past 12 months, and the next round is due to be held on Thursday – having been postponed for a week, because of a row over some Greek Cypriot pilgrims who were trying to visit a church in Turkish Cypriot territory. 

What should be the top five priorities of the next European Commission?

1) Top of my list is the defence, and if possible the strengthening, of the single European market.  This is the European Union’s bedrock achievement.  It secures prosperity for its citizens, and it underpins the EU’s collective weight in the world.  Without the single market, the EU would lose not merely its cohesion but its very reason for existence.  The single market is under strain at present because of the emergency measures taken over the past year to prop up Europe’s banking system.  These have, in effect, suspended the EU’s state aid rules in this sector.  The Commission will need to be tough in making sure that EU governments do not manipulate the rules as the emergency measures are gradually withdrawn.  Meanwhile, it should continue to press the case for integrating and liberalising the EU’s service sector, which accounts for two-thirds of all EU economic activity.