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
It passed largely unnoticed by the outside world, but perhaps the most intriguing event in European foreign policy last week was a visit paid to Belarus by Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. The European Union has kept Belarus at arm’s length for years because of the repressive domestic policies of President Alexander Lukashenko. Berlusconi was the first western head of government to go to Minsk for well over a decade.
There was something surreal about the visit. Lukashenko, once dubbed Europe’s last dictator, praised Berlusconi as “a global, planetary man of politics, our friend”. Berlusconi responded: “Thank you, and thanks to your people who, I know, love you, as is demonstrated by the election results which everyone can see.” One can only assume this was an example of Berlusconi’s famous sense of humour. Read more
There is an amusing and rather revealing story doing the rounds in Brussels about a conversation that took place at last month’s European Union-Russia summit in Stockholm.
In the course of a conversation with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a mischievous allusion to the EU’s imminent institutional changes, under which Barroso will for the first time deal with a full-time EU president representing the bloc’s 27 governments – Herman Van Rompuy, Belgium’s ex-prime minister. 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
October 30 saw one of the most important moments so far of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency in Russia. On a video blog posted on the presidential website, he squarely addressed the issue of the mass repressions carried out under Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator from the mid-1920s to 1953. I agree with Tomas Hirst, who wrote on the Prospect magazine blog that this was a brave step on Medvedev’s part.
Medvedev didn’t simply condemn Stalin’s crimes. He criticised Russians – and, sad to say, there are an awful lot of them – who make excuses for Stalin by saying some supposed “supreme goals of the state” justified the arrest, deportation, imprisonment, execution and death by starvation of millions of people. It is still quite common to hear Russians defend Stalin by saying that he led the Soviet Union to victory over Nazi Germany. Significantly, however, Medvedev entitles his video blog “Memory of National Tragedies is as Sacred as the Memory of Victories”. 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
Everyone interested in modern Russia should read a report out this week on the nation’s deepening demographic crisis. It’s published by the United Nations Development Programme, but it’s written by a team of Russian academic experts, so no one can say it’s tainted with bias.
The report describes the stark reality of a country whose population is falling fast, to a considerable extent because of rampant alcohol abuse among men, who on average are dying before they make it to 60 years old. “Short life expectancy is the main feature of this crisis, though by no means its only feature. The birth rate is too low, the population is shrinking and ageing, and Russia is on the threshold of rapid loss of able-bodied population, which will be accompanied by a growing demographic burden per able-bodied individual. The number of potential mothers is starting to decline and the country needs to host large flows of immigrants,” the report says. Read more
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
Predictably, the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the second world war provoked a few rhetorical skirmishes this week between Russia, Poland and Poland’s western allies. It reminded me of an unusual evening that I spent in 1989 in Waldkirchen, a small town in southern Germany near the Czech border, on the 50th anniversary of the war.
I was the guest of a German friend who in her youth, when I was a young boy, had lived as an au pair with my family in the UK. She had spent months walking me to school, taking me swimming, reading me stories and fixing meals for me. As we grew up, we stayed in touch, and now I was staying the night with her and her husband in Waldkirchen. Read more
To follow up on Monday’s blog, in which I suggested it was extremely unlikely that Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini would achieve his ambition of becoming the European Union’s next foreign policy chief, the obvious question is – well, who will get the job?
Three names keep cropping up. One is Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a Dutchman who has served as Nato’s secretary-general since 2004 and who is about to be replaced by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister. The second is Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, who is another ex-premier. The third is Olli Rehn, a Finn who is the EU’s enlargement commissioner. Read more
Two weeks ago, Russia announced that it intended to join the World Trade Organisation not on its own but as part of a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. It was a classic Russian initiative, combining brutal power politics with a healthy dose of surrealism.
For at the time of the announcement, Moscow was in the middle of a trade war with its two neighbours, banning imports of Belarusan dairy products and Kazakh meat. Russia was also in the process of freezing a $500m credit for Belarus, which in turn was imposing new customs controls on Russian goods. Acrimonious disputes of this nature do not usually precede the establishment of friendly arrangements such as customs unions. Read more
For anyone interested in European energy security, and especially the long-suffering Nabucco gas pipeline project, there was a fascinating piece of news on Monday. The Obama administration appointed Richard Morningstar, a former US ambassador to the European Union, as its special envoy for Eurasian energy issues.
Morningstar has a career background not only in EU affairs but in the energy diplomacy of the Caspian Sea area. As such, there is no one better placed to give the Europeans the benefit of US advice on Nabucco, a project some energy analysts think may be doomed to failure unless resolute action is taken soon to finance it, secure the necessary gas supplies and get it up and running. Read more