Herman Van Rompuy

Peter Spiegel

On Monday, we had a scoop on a new effort by the European Union’s two presidents, José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, to revive a “pact for competitiveness” – an economic coordination scheme among the 17 eurozone countries that would entail significant new austerity measures. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Friday’s summit of European heads of government has long been signposted as one of European Council president Herman Van Rompuy’s new interim conclaves to deal with a policy issue of crucial importance to Europe, in this case energy security.

But as many diplomats predicted, energy is increasingly getting drowned out by other, more pressing demands.

First, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, called on the summit to be used to hash out an overhaul of the eurozone’s €440bn sovereign debt bail-out fund so it’s able to more flexibly deal with bond market assaults on struggling “peripheral” economies.

Although that won’t happen, Van Rompuy has agreed to turn over the summit’s traditional working lunch to the eurozone crisis, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has decided to use the opportunity to float a new plan for greater coordination in economic and fiscal policies among eurozone countries.

Now, it seems, the afternoon is being taken over by yet another crisis: Egypt. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Here at the Brussels blog, we’re keeping a close eye on the run-up to next Friday’s rare one-day summit of European Union heads of government. And nothing is occupying more of our attention than whether leaders will actually tackle the ongoing eurozone crisis at the conclave.

One of the events that had been closely monitored by the tea-leaf readers was Tuesday night’s private dinner outside Berlin between the two main antagonists in the debate, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor.

According to people we have talked to, however, there was little meeting of the minds. Even though the dinner lasted for well over three hours – and almost all of it was occupied by discussions of economic policy – there is still no agreement on whether to put reforms touted by Barroso, including a revamp of the EU’s €440bn bail-out fund, on next week’s agenda. Read more

Peter Spiegel

The EU’s final two-day heads of government summit of 2010 starts Thursday and early betting is that it will be much quieter than the last time the 27 leaders assembled in Brussels, a gathering that set off a bond market panic which the continent is still recovering from.

The main event will be Thursday night, when the leaders are expected to sign off on a brief change in the EU’s treaty to allow for the creation of a new financial rescue system to replace the current, temporary €750bn bail-out fund.

There is still some nervousness that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, may push for additional language in the text to make explicit that the new bail-out system can only be accessed as a “last resort,” or ultima ratio in Latin, the phrase being used by the cognoscenti.

But Merkel did not mention the ultima ratio demand in her list of principles before the Bundestag Wednesday, and there seems to be little appetite among other members to let her bulldoze the new language in – particularly since it could cause more confusion among bond traders, who might wonder what all the other resorts are before the last one. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Among the hundreds of confidential US diplomatic cables disclosed by WikiLeaks thus far, very few have dealt with Washington’s relations with the EU. But occasionally, EU leaders have popped up in summaries of other international events in which they have only tangentially been involved.

The most pointed EU-related revelation to be released thus far comes in a 2008 cable from the American embassy in Moscow following French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s heated September 8 confrontation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov over the Kremlin’s invasion of Georgia.

The US account of the “at times…openly hostile” meeting, where Sarkozy “at one point grabbed FM Lavrov by the lapels and called him a liar in very strong terms,” has been reported widely. Less noticed, however, was Moscow’s reception of José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.

In a section labeled secret and “noforn,” meaning it was not to be shown to non-American officials, an unnamed French source retells how “the Russians treated Barroso harshly and condescendingly, and tried to exclude him from many of the sessions.” Read more

There was a common reaction that Chinese premiere Wen Jiabao and his entourage inspired as they swept through Brussels this week: Impressive. That word was uttered repeatedly by European business leaders, policymakers and diplomats on the sidelines of an EU-China Summit. At times, it seemed the Chinese were in motion while the natives stood still, watching with awe and envy as someone else’s national ascent played out.

Things were very different a decade ago, when an Asian banking crisis was raging. Now, in the midst of its own crisis, Europe is the one short of cash, humbly thanking Mr Wen for his promise to buy government bonds issued by Greece and other debt-plagued governments. That gesture has made it particularly awkward for European leaders to press demands that Beijing revalue its currency. Read more

For Europe, this is the pivotal week in which sweeping new rules will be introduced to overhaul the way that governments manage their finances. Read more

Christian Wulff, Germany’s new federal president, has not been idle. He had barely wiped his feet on the doormat in Schloss Bellevue, his splendid new Berlin residence, before setting off on a foreign trip.

While his job is without power, it carries lots of prestige. Indeed, the role is more about symbolism than substance. But the symbolism matters.

His first stop on Wednesday was in Strasbourg to meet Jerzy Buzek, European Parliament president. Second stop was Paris, for a chat with Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysée palace. And third stop, on Thursday, was Brussels, where he had lined up Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato secretary-general.

It was all about pouring oil on troubled waters, to be sure. Germany’s relationship to the European Union has seldom caused so much anxiety amongst its neighbours, since Berlin started to bang the drum with a vengeance about the need for fiscal discipline – first in Greece, and now in the rest of the eurozone. Read more

Tony Barber

The most important speech delivered in Europe last week came from Herman Van Rompuy, the European Union’s full-time president.  It had real depth and did not try to conceal the EU’s problems behind a mask of unconvincing optimism.

The speech addressed how to strengthen Europe’s role in a world in which the Old Continent appears in danger of slipping into faster relative decline unless it gets its act together.  The speech had much to say about economic policy, but it was the foreign policy content that was more original.  This was Van Rompuy’s first detailed exposition of his views on the subject. Read more

Tony Barber

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

Tony Barber

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

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