EU Parliament

Peter Spiegel

Rajoy is still angered by Spain's snubbing during Mersch's selection earlier this year.

If you thought the long, drawn-out saga of Yves Mersch’s nomination to a seat on the European Central Bank’s powerful executive board could not get any stranger, think again.

The Spanish government this morning informed Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, that it objected to the fast-track “written procedure” Van Rompuy had begun in order to get Mersch finally seated in the job. The procedure – which was begun after the European Parliament refused to sign off on the nomination last month – was due to end today, making it possible for Mersch to take the long-empty seat by November 15.

But the Spanish veto means Mersch now can’t go through and the appointment battle, which has dragged on for nearly ten months, will have to be taken up by the EU’s presidents and prime ministers when they summit in Brussels later this month.

The question gripping the Brussels chattering classes now is: Why? Was Madrid trying to fire a warning shot across the bow of the ECB and Berlin, which have been ratcheting up the pressure over the conditions of a long-expected Spanish rescue programme? Senior officials insist the real reason is far more prosaic. Read more

The long-running campaign to scrap the European parliament’s once-a-month commute to Strasbourg bagged a sizeable ally this week: none other than the chamber’s new president, Martin Schulz.

While much of the attention in recent days has been on Greece, the parliament has been on the road again, leaving its usual Brussels residence for its second home near the French-German border.

The two-seat arrangement is estimated by critics to cost €200m a year, a public-relations disaster for the legislative arm of an institution which is imposing austerity across much of the continent.

Schulz has always been rumoured to be an anti-Strasbourger. But he has thus far remained closeted, presumably to avoid ruffling French feathers ahead his ascension to the presidency last month. Paris is very eager to keep the parliament on its home turf, if only once a month. Read more

It will be Luxembourg that will have the final say on Brussels versus Strasbourg, now that Paris has decided to sue under Lisbon.

In other words, the fight over the seat of the European Parliament has suddenly become a full-blown EU inter-institutional brawl.

The French government on Tuesday decided to take the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg after parliamentarians last week decided to tweak the terms of their regular commute between Brussels and Strasbourg. Paris claims the move violates the EU’s new Lisbon treaty, its governing constitution. Read more

Tony Barber

The European Union is nothing if not addicted to targets.  Promises to achieve particular goals by specific dates are part and parcel of the EU’s daily business.  Sometimes the objectives are met, sometimes they are not met, and sometimes it’s hard to tell either way.  European monetary union, for example, was launched in 1999, but only after a two-year delay because a majority of member-states didn’t meet the criteria earlier in the decade (did Greece ever meet them?). Read more

Tony Barber

The election of Dervis Eroglu as Turkish Cypriot president appears at first sight to deal a severe blow to the latest United Nations-sponsored efforts at solving the Cyprus problem.  But appearances can be deceptive.  There may, in fact, be an opportunity for a breakthrough.  Crucially, however, it will require the involvement of the European Union.

Eroglu, 72, is usually dubbed a “hardline nationalist” in the international media on account of his long-standing commitment to Turkish Cypriot independence.  This is to miss the point that the Turkish Cypriots are economically dependent on Turkey and Eroglu can hardly act in defiance of the government in Ankara.  It is in the Turks’ wider diplomatic interests to bring about a Cyprus settlement.  They have already made it plain to Eroglu that they expect him to behave constructively. Read more

Tony Barber

Whether it’s climate change, foreign policy or the increasingly alarming fiscal crisis, the European Union’s difficulties can be summed up in one word: disunity.  After December 1, when the EU’s Lisbon treaty came into force, disunity was supposed to be a thing of the past.  Instead, disunity has proved to be very much a thing of the present.  What’s more, the Lisbon treaty may – at least in the short term – be making matters worse.

Take the world conference on climate change at Copenhagen in December.  According to Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s incoming climate change commissioner, disunity – in the sense of a cacophony of European voices – was an important factor behind the ability of other powers to brush aside the EU’s views.  “Those last hours in Copenhagen, China, India, Japan, Russia and the US each spoke with one voice, while Europe spoke with many different voices.  Sometimes we spend so much time agreeing with one another that when finally the EU comes to the international negotiations, we are almost unable to negotiate,” she told her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament last month. Read more

Tony Barber

There are some who say the forced withdrawal of Rumiana Jeleva as Bulgaria’s candidate for the European Commission on Tuesday was a blow to Commission president José Manuel Barroso.  After all, didn’t Barroso make public a letter in support of Jeleva as late as last Friday, only two working days before she crashed in flames?

I disagree.  The truth is, Barroso found himself in a very delicate situation and needed to extract himself from it without humiliating Jeleva, annoying the Bulgarian government and giving more excuses for the European Parliament to delay confirming his new Commission in office.  By and large, Barroso has achieved these three objectives.  He has handled the whole thing rather well. Read more

Tony Barber

Say what you will about Rumiana Jeleva, Bulgaria’s nominee for the new European Commission, but she is one hell of a dancer.  A Youtube clip shows her doing the rumba in what appears to be Bulgaria’s equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing – and there’s no question, it would be a severe injustice if she didn’t get 10 out of 10.

It would be less of an injustice, however, if the European Parliament refused to support her appointment as the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis response.  This is partly because, in her parliamentary hearing on Tuesday, she did not convincingly answer some of the many questions that MEPs asked her about her financial affairs.  She denied allegations of impropriety, but she seemed remarkably hazy about the details of her involvement with a consultancy that specialised in privatisation matters. Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

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

As European Union leaders gather for their two-day summit in Brussels, the word is that the British government’s effort to have Tony Blair selected as the EU’s first full-time president is running into trouble.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just finished a round of afternoon discussions with other European socialist leaders, trying to persuade them that Blair deserves the job.  The talks did not go well. Read more

Tony Barber

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. Read more

Tony Barber

In the end, it was all so easy.  A few minutes ago, José Manuel Barroso won approval for a second term as European Commission president, after a vote in the European Parliament that went 382 in his favour and 219 against, with 117 abstentions.

Barroso thus comfortably cleared the threshold of 369 votes – that is, more than half of the 736-seat parliament – that he needed in order to remove any doubts about his political authority over the next five years.  No wonder he was wreathed in smiles as he accepted a congratulatory bouquet of flowers from Cecilia Malmström, Sweden’s European affairs minister. 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

Tony Barber

Like much public life in the European Union, José Manuel Barroso’s battle to win reappointment as European Commission president is a battle of low politics dressed up in high ideals.  Barroso will be denied a second five-year term unless he secures the approval of the European Parliament, where a vote on his future should have taken place in July but was postponed until mid-September.  Now the moment of truth is close.  What can Barroso say and do to win over his socialist, Green and liberal critics?

One clue came in a speech, almost entirely ignored by the media, that Barroso delivered last week at a Barcelona business school.  Here he all but set out his policy programme for the next five years.  The speech’s most important passage read as follows: “The recent recovery spots are fragile and do not allow for any complacency.  In any case, it is clear that global growth will not return to pre-crisis levels for some time – if at all.  Those growth rates – and the economic model behind them – were simply not sustainable.” Read more

Tony Barber

Is the “Stop Barroso” campaign finally running out of steam?  Leaders of the main political groups in the European Parliament have pencilled in September 16 as the day when they will hold a vote on whether to confirm José Manuel Barroso for a second five-year term as European Commission president.

If this arrangement holds, then it will mark a defeat for the anti-Barroso forces who wanted to delay the vote until after Ireland held its October 2 referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty.  They were striving to create a situation in which (assuming the Irish voted Yes) the EU would simultaneously choose its first full-time president, the bloc’s new foreign policy high representative and the Commission president.  In such circumstances, they hoped, Barroso would no longer be a shoo-in to run the Commission.  Other candidates would emerge.  Haggling would ensue.  It would (they dreamed) be adeus, José Manuel. Read more

Tony Barber

If it were not funny, it would be tragic.  The UK Conservative party’s decision to quit the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right political group in the European Parliament, is backfiring on the Tories in spectacular fashion.  The decision was always daft – a bit like the right wing of the US Republican Party splitting off and forming a minority group in Congress – but it now looks more short-sighted than ever.

On Tuesday the Tories relinquished the leadership of their new “anti-federalist” faction, the so-called European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, to Michal Tomasz Kaminski, a Polish politician.  They felt obliged to do so after Edward McMillan-Scott, a Tory MEP, refused to respect a deal in which Kaminski had been promised one of the parliament’s prestigious vice-presidency posts. Read more

Tony Barber

The composition of the newly elected European Parliament, which holds its first session next week, will make many Britons hang their heads in shame.  For British politicians are either poorly represented, or not represented at all, in the 736-seat assembly’s three biggest political groups: the centre-right, centre and centre-left.  By contrast, Brits dominate the Eurosceptic and far-right fringes.

The loss of British influence in the parliament, which has a say in most European Union laws, will be substantial.  The likely damage to Britain’s reputation in Europe can only be guessed at. 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