France

Tony Barber

Two weeks ago European leaders decided to postpone an upcoming summit of something called the Union for the Mediterranean.  It is safe to say that very few people in the Mediterranean noticed or cared.

The story of the UfM is a classic tale of what passes for foreign policy in today’s European Union.  The organisation was the brainchild of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who wanted to strengthen relations between the EU’s southern member-states – such as France, Italy and Spain – and their North African and Arab neighbours across the sea.  It was not a bad idea in principle.  But it aroused the suspicions of Germany and other northern EU countries, which insisted in the name of European unity that all EU member-states should belong to the UfM. Read more

Tony Barber

The European Union is often derided for policy confusion and speaking with a multitude of voices – but sometimes it’s not the EU’s fault, it’s the fault of one of the member-states.  Take the idea of setting up a European Monetary Fund.  This emerged as a serious possibility for the first time when Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, offered support for it in an interview last weekend with Welt am Sonntag.

Within a couple of days, however, Germany’s two most important central bankers – Axel Weber, the Bundesbank president, and Jürgen Stark, an executive board member of the European Central Bank – had distanced themselves from the idea.  Even more confusingly, Chancellor Angela Merkel chipped in with the remark that it wouldn’t be possible to set up a European Monetary Fund without changes to the EU’s governing treaty.  As she well knows, after the agonising experiences first with the EU’s failed constitutional treaty and then with the Lisbon treaty (which finally came into force in December), there is next to no appetite for such changes among the EU’s 27 governments. Read more

Tony Barber

Nothing illustrates the sensitivity of the European Union’s relationship with Israel better than the statement which EU foreign ministers issued on Monday complaining about the use of forged European passports in last month’s killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas commander, in Dubai.  The statement contained several sentences that were masterpieces of waffle, such as the following: “The EU … believes that its passports remain among the most secure in the world, fully meeting all international standards.”

The statement was, however, remarkable chiefly for its reluctance to spell out that the EU holds Israel responsible for the flagrant misuse of identity documents belonging to European citizens.  It could hardly be otherwise, of course.  There is insufficient evidence at this stage to state with certainty that Israel’s agents used the false passports and killed Mabhouh.  Instead, it was left to a couple of EU foreign ministers to conduct some finger-wagging in one-on-one meetings with Avigdor Lieberman, their combative Israeli counterpart, who just happened to be in Brussels on Monday. Read more

Tony Barber

Since the Fifth Republic’s birth in 1958, France has had six presidents – and only one, François Mitterrand (1981-1995), was a man of the left.  Now certain elements of the French left see a great opportunity to capture the presidency again by selecting Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the International Monetary Fund’s director-general, as their candidate to run against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election.

I saw Strauss-Kahn, or “DSK”, in action in October 1998 when, as France’s finance minister, he travelled to Saarbrücken, capital of the tiny German state of Saarland, for a meeting with Oskar Lafontaine, his left-wing German opposite number.  Back then, the big economic story in Europe was what many people saw as an effort by Lafontaine and Strauss-Kahn to push for politically managed exchange rates and thus, supposedly, to curb the European Central Bank’s independence on the eve of the euro’s introduction.  The fuss over this was quite out of proportion to what the two ministers had in mind, let alone what they were capable of delivering.  Lafontaine didn’t last even one year as German finance minister. Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

Is it Islamophobia, ignorance, a crisis of European identity, a problem of a poorly integrated minority community, or something of all of these? 

According to an opinion poll published in today’s Le Soir , one of Belgium’s leading newspapers, some 59.3 per cent of Belgians support a ban on the construction of new minarets in their country.  This is about 2 per cent more than the proportion of Swiss who voted in a referendum last month to halt the building of new minarets. Read more

Tony Barber

The inimitable Nicolas Sarkozy couldn’t resist the temptation to term last week’s allocation of jobs in the new European Commission as a victory for France and a defeat for Britain.  In particular, the French president crowed, he had outmanoeuvred the Brits by securing the internal market portfolio, which is responsible for financial regulation, for Michel Barnier, the new French commissioner.

It was certainly a little undiplomatic for Sarkozy to uncork the metaphorical Champagne bottles so soon after the announcement of the new jobs.  There are many raw nerves in the British government and in the City of London about how various EU measures in the pipeline may damage the UK’s financial sector.  Sarkozy touched every one of those nerves with a rod of fire. Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

The winner of this year’s FT ranking of European finance ministers, France’s Christine Lagarde, talks about tackling the economic crisis. Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

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

The fuss over who will be the European Union’s first full-time president is obscuring the less sexy but potentially more important question of who will get the two or three most powerful jobs in the next European Commission.  A good many governments would prefer to see one of their nationals in a truly influential economic policymaking role in the Commission than occupying the EU presidency, which may turn out to be a more hollow job than once foreseen.

Commission president José Manuel Barroso says he will not nominate his new team until EU leaders have chosen their new head of foreign policy, a post that entitles its holder to a Commission seat.  Any country wanting a big economic portfolio at the Commission will therefore steer clear of putting forward a candidacy for the foreign policy job, because there is only one Commission seat for each nation. Read more

Tony Barber

There can be few presidential campaigns that have kicked off with the declaration “I am not a dwarf”.  But this is what Le Monde quotes Jean-Claude Juncker today as saying in the interview in which Luxembourg’s prime minister reveals he would consider being a candidate for the European Union’s presidency “if the call came”.

I have interviewed Juncker and seen him in action more than a few times over the years, and I can confirm that he is not a dwarf – though I have heard other disparaging terms applied to him that need not concern us here.  What most interests me is the enormous gulf in perceptions of Juncker’s potential candidacy between the UK and certain mainland European countries. Read more

Tony Barber

Even before he was elected as president of France in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy made it crystal-clear that he didn’t want Turkey to join the European Union - ever.  Now concerns are growing in Brussels that Sarkozy is contemplating a formal Franco-German initiative next year to offer Turkey a “privileged partnership” instead of, as now, the long-term prospect of full EU membership.

The idea of a “privileged partnership” has been around for a good few years.  Sarkozy likes it, and so does Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic party.  It also appeals to Angela Merkel, the CDU chancellor.  However, Merkel has up to now taken a nuanced approach, recognising that Germany, along with other EU countries, recognised Turkey as an official candidate for membership in 1999.  A responsible country cannot just wriggle out of agreements made in good faith, Merkel believes. Read more

Tony Barber

Ask a minister in a European Union government what post their country hopes to get in the next European Commission, and the response is the same every time – something important to do with the economy.  Well, you can’t blame people for not hurrying to step into the shoes of Leonard Orban, the Romanian commissioner for multilingualism.

On the other hand, there aren’t enough top economic jobs for Commission president José Manuel Barroso to satisfy everyone.  Truth to tell, the Commission looks too big with 27 members.  But that’s the way it is, and that’s the way it will stay under the EU’s Lisbon treaty.  A guaranteed seat on the Commission seems a simple, visible way of making a country’s citizens feel connected to the EU. Read more

Tony Barber

A couple of months ago, some European Union policymakers talked despairingly of how 2009 risked turning out to be “a wasted year”.  Now the EU is on a roll.  The impasse over José Manuel Barroso’s reappointment as European Commission president was removed last month when the European parliament stopped playing games and renewed his term of office.

And all of a sudden, it looks as if “a decade of deadening debate over the European Union’s institutional shape” – as British foreign secretary David Miliband puts it in today’s FT – will soon come to an end, after Ireland’s referendum on the Lisbon treaty produced a massive majority in favour.  It may not be long before the EU has its first full-time president, a new head of foreign policy and a new Commission with a five-year mandate serving under Barroso. Read more

Tony Barber

According to Brian Cowen, Ireland’s premier, a No result in Friday’s referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty would raise the prospect of a “two-speed Europe”, with some countries forging ahead with closer political and economic integration and others staying outside.  But isn’t a two-speed Europe the dog that is hauled out of its kennel every time there’s a EU institutional crisis but which, in the end, never barks?

After Irish voters rejected the Lisbon treaty in June 2008, a number of politicians were quick to assert that a two-speed Europe was the only way to keep the European “project” on the road.  Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, who has lived through more EU crises than most of us have had quetsch plum tarts, mused in public that perhaps it was time for a “Club of the Few” to go ahead on their own. Read more

Tony Barber

Since February 1999, when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s anti-bribery convention came into force - with the aim of reducing bribery of foreign officials in international business deals - the US has brought 103 cases, Germany more than 40, France 19 and the UK just one.  So says “Global Corruption Report 2009: Corruption and the Private Sector”, a study published on Wednesday by Transparency International, the anti-corruption watchdog.

From a British point of view, the report makes uncomfortable reading.  “UK companies still have a long way to go to increase their awareness and adopt robust anti-bribery compliance programmes,” it says. Read more