What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union? With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.
What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously. Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. 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
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
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
It’s striking that the Czech constitutional court announced its approval of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty on Tuesday morning just as the prospect of another Russian gas import crisis began to loom on the EU’s horizon. For even though the news from Prague is welcome, a moment’s reflection is all you need to remind yourself that the Lisbon treaty will, in and of itself, do very little to help the EU address its most serious foreign and economic policy problems.
The sheer sense of relief at adopting a new EU treaty – it’s taken eight years, required two different texts, gone through three failed referendums and caused endless trouble in countries such as the Czech Republic, Ireland and the UK – risks fostering the delusion that everything will be better once Lisbon is in force. But this is to fall into the trap of assuming that process can substitute for substance (see Monday’s blog on how the same fallacy affects the EU’s approach to relations with other big powers). Read more
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
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
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. Read more
As the fuss continues about whether or not Vaclav Klaus, the Czech president, will sign the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to a detail that appears to have been generally overlooked. It concerns Klaus’s demand for a special protocol or legally binding exemption from the treaty’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which, he says, is necessary to prevent a flood of claims on Czech property from the descendants of the roughly 3m Sudeten Germans expelled from the former Czechoslovakia after the second world war.
Leaving aside Klaus’s dubious assertion that the Charter could be exploited as the basis for such claims, the fact is that the Lisbon treaty already contains a special declaration by the Czech Republic on the Charter. It is buried near the end of the treaty’s official text in a part called Final Act of the Intergovernmental Conference, Section C: Declarations by Member-States. The Czech declaration, which is labelled No. 53, sets out the Czech position that “the Charter does not extend the field of application of [European] Union law] and does not establish any new power for the Union”. Read more