European Union

The European commission, the European Union’s executive arm, has been one of the staunchest supporters of the proposed Nabucco pipeline, a 3,900-kilometer behemoth that would carry natural gas from the Caspian region to Austria.

For the commission, Nabucco represents the backbone of a new southern corridor that would break Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas. It has touted the project repeatedly over the years, and has also opened its wallet, committing up to €200m in funding.

But in a recent conversation with Brussels Blog, Gunther Oettinger, the energy commissioner, made a departure from the usual script and gave support to the growing suspicion that the full Nabucco may be a lost cause. Read more

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

Apart from wars and economic slumps, nothing divides Europeans as much as the Eurovision Song Contest.

This annual televised orgy of glitzy musical mediocrity is now in its 55th year.  Good God, it is even older than the European Union’s 1957 founding Treaty of Rome!  The years have truly taken their toll.  Some would say the last memorable winning song was “Waterloo” by Sweden’s Abba in 1974.  Still, this year’s final, to be staged in Oslo on Saturday, is as certain as previous spectacles to hold millions of viewers spellbound.  It would have been no different 2,000 years ago if a multinational gladiatorial contest had been broadcast from Rome’s Colosseum to the rest of Europe. 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

Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union.  The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory.  The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.

Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament.  Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc.  Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. Read more

There is a need to clear up some misconceptions about how Greece, or some other fiscal miscreant in the 16-nation eurozone, would be rescued by its partners in the event that it was unable to refinance its debts.

Quite a few commentators seem to think eurozone governments would find it hard to sidestep the ban on bail-outs specified in European Union treaty law.  The European Central Bank, the European Commission and certain EU governments, not least that of Greece itself, have contributed to the confusion by insisting in public that a rescue is undesirable and unnecessary (while quietly planning for precisely this contingency). Read more

Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia.  As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.

Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government.  Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners.  Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime.  A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state. Read more

Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s first full-time president, is getting down to business.  Hitting the ground running?  Not exactly.  But in various subtle ways the mild-mannered, philosophically inclined former Belgian premier is already making an impact on the way the EU goes about its work.

On Monday, his first official working day, he announced that he was summoning all 27 EU heads of government to Brussels on February 11 for an unscheduled summit on economic policy.  This statement didn’t attract much attention, because plans for such a summit were being laid even before Christmas.  But the announcement was significant nonetheless.  Chairing summits is one of the few duties that the EU’s Lisbon treaty specifically reserves to the full-time president.  By calling an unscheduled summit, Van Rompuy was signalling to the world that he intends to use his presidential authority to the full. 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

Next week’s summit of European Union leaders faces an important choice on Turkey.  Should the EU toughen existing measures that are holding up Turkey’s EU accession talks, because of Ankara’s refusal to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic?  Or should the EU recognise that this would send completely the wrong message, just when Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders are trying to reach a comprehensive settlement of the long-standing Cyprus dispute?

Precisely because the EU is divided on the Turkish question – the Greek Cypriot-run government of Cyprus wants a strong line, and other countries are split between supporters and opponents of Turkey’s entry into the EU – it seems unlikely that a consensus can be reached in favour of placing additional obstacles in the path of Turkey’s negotiations. Read more

There are all sorts of threats to the European Union’s unity, but something tells me that the biggest threat isn’t the Visegrad group.  This appears to be a view not shared by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

Speaking after the October 29-30 EU summit in Brussels, Sarkozy criticised the fact that the leaders of the four Visegrad countries – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia – had held a pre-summit meeting to co-ordinate their positions.  “If they were to meet regularly before each Council, that would raise some questions,” Sarkozy said. 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

According to an opinion poll, more than half of Denmark’s population has little or no confidence that world leaders will strike an agreement on fighting climate change at December’s landmark United Nations summit in Copenhagen.  It is just a hunch, but I reckon one impulse behind this pessimism is the widespread European suspicion that China, which recently overtook the US as the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, will play an unconstructive role at the talks.

What if this suspicion is unfounded? Read more

The great thing about blogging is that you learn something new almost every day.  This morning, while preparing a blog on the European Union’s foreign policy, I have learnt the French expression avaler des couleuvres, which translates literally as “to swallow grass snakes” and means “to believe anything you’re told”.

What a magnificent idiom!  I came across it in the widely followed Coulisses de Bruxelles blog of Jean Quatremer, the Brussels correspondent of the French daily Libération.  Quatremer was writing about Javier Solana’s decision to give up his job as the EU’s foreign policy high representative, a post he has held since 1999. Read more

Say what you like about Nicolas Sarkozy, he certainly knows how to capture your attention.  At a meeting in the Elysée Palace last week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it appears that the French president recommended in no uncertain terms that Avigdor Lieberman, the hardline foreign minister, should be dropped from the Israeli cabinet and replaced with Tzipi Livni, the less abrasive opposition leader.

“Grave and unacceptable!” fumed Lieberman’s spokesman – how dare the leader of one democracy interfere in the internal affairs of another? Read more

I was in Stockholm this morning when the happy news arrived that Germany’s constitutional court had given the green light in principle to the European Union’s Lisbon treaty.  I call the news “happy” not because I am biased in favour of Lisbon, but because it meant that for once the task of writing about the treaty fell to someone else at the Financial Times (on this occasion, my Berlin-based colleague Bertrand Benoit).

The EU’s masochistic efforts at institutional reform, encapsulated in the Lisbon treaty, were one of the first things I wrote about when I arrived in Brussels in 2007.  Two years later, I find that the subject refuses to go away, seeping into my daily work like a sewage leak in a cellar (a domestic problem familiar to house-dwellers in low-lying Brussels).  All the more maddening is the knowledge that almost no one in the outside world cares one stale fig about the treaty. Read more

The last time that a dispute between Madrid and Brussels seized the international spotlight was in 1568 – and boy, was it big.  That was when the Spanish rulers of the Low Countries sparked the 80-year-long Dutch Revolt by executing Counts Egmont and Horne on the Grand’ Place of what is today the Belgian capital.

This month, another quarrel between Spain and Belgium broke out.  Admittedly, it’s less serious, and for the moment it’s stayed behind closed doors.  But in the interests of transparency, and because the squabble tells you rather a lot about the way the European Union operates, I shall share the details with you. Read more

Next Tuesday, Turkey’s bid to join the European Union will creep forward one more inch.  The EU and Turkey will open formal talks on taxation, one of the 35 “chapters”, or policy areas, that a candidate for EU membership must complete before joining the bloc.

Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, is pleased but, unsurprisingly, not overwhelmed.  After the taxation talks start, only 11 of Turkey’s 35 chapters will be open.  The EU froze another eight chapters in December 2006 in retaliation for Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to vessels and aircraft from the Greek Cypriot-controlled government of Cyprus. Read more

Is José Manuel Barroso’s reappointment as European Commission president in trouble?  Probably not.  But the jury is still out on whether he will secure formal approval from the European Parliament as early as mid-July.  If he does not, it will be difficult to dispel the clouds of doubt that will linger over his future for two months or more.

Such uncertainty is hardly what the European Union needs at a moment when its banking system faces hundreds of billions of euros in losses this year and next, and when Germany and France, the eurozone’s two biggest economies, appear utterly at odds over when and how to rebalance their public financesRead more

So exciting are European Union summits that they sometimes distract attention from developments that, though perhaps less eye-catching, tell you a lot more about what’s going on in the EU.  For example, the latest two-day summit is concentrating on financial regulation, guarantees for Ireland’s sovereignty so that it can hold another referendum on the EU’s Lisbon treaty, and the nomination of José Manuel Barroso for a second term as European Commission president.

But a more interesting story was the breakdown on Thursday of EU-mediated talks between Slovenia and Croatia over their bilateral maritime border dispute.  This makes it virtually certain that Croatia will not complete its EU accession negotiations by the end of this year – the goal that Barroso and Croatia’s government had originally set themselves. Read more