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
There is a gulf separating Germany from France on how to cure the eurozone’s ills, and it does not bode well.
Germany identifies the eurozone’s chief problems as excessive budget deficits, weak fiscal rules and a general culture of over-spending in the region’s weaker countries. The remedy, say the Germans, lies in austerity measures, tougher punishments for rule-breakers and better housekeeping. Germany is so sure that it has got the answer right that it is introducing a €80bn programme of tax increases and spending cuts – not because the German economy desperately needs such measures, but because the government in Berlin wants to set an example to other eurozone states.
France knows the eurozone has a fiscal problem, but it disagrees with the German view that immediate and drastic austerity measures are essential. The French contend that, if budget hawks win the day, Europe’s fragile economic recovery will fade away and there may even be another recession (as Paul Krugman notes, an example often cited in support of this argument is the “Roosevelt recession” of 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, having just about dragged the US economy out of the Great Depression, inadvertently caused another economic downturn with a premature attempt to balance the budget). Read more
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
Well, did he say it or didn’t he? I am referring to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. According to El País, Spain’s most reputable newspaper, Sarkozy told his fellow eurozone leaders at a May 7 summit that France would “reconsider its situation in the euro” unless they took emergency collective measures to overcome Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. The source? Officials in Spain’s ruling socialist party, quoting remarks purportedly made after the summit by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, prime minister.
It would be extraordinary, if true – for two reasons. First, if France were to leave the euro area, European monetary union would have no reason to continue. It would collapse. And that would be like dropping a financial nuclear bomb on Europe. Secondly, it is inconceivable that France would consider it to be in its national interests to take such a drastic step. We are left to conclude that if Sarkozy really did utter these words, it was just a bluff to get Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany to sign up to the eurozone rescue plan that was ultimately agreed in the early hours of May 10. Read more
With all eyes on Europe’s last-ditch efforts to save the eurozone from collapse, it is hardly surprising that a thoughtful, 46-page report on the European Union’s long-term future has gone almost completely unnoticed. But the study, commissioned by EU heads of state and government in 2007 and published last weekend, is worth taking a look at.
It was written by a group of 12 experts led by Felipe González, the former Spanish premier, and including Mario Monti, the distinguished former EU commissioner, Jorma Ollila, chairman of Finland’s Nokia mobile phone company, and Lech Walesa, the ex-Polish president and hero of the opposition Solidarity movement in communist times. There was a good mix of northern, southern, western and eastern Europe on the panel.
They begin with a disturbing observation: “Our findings are neither reassuring to the Union nor to our citizens: a global economic crisis; states coming to the rescue of banks; ageing populations threatening the competitiveness of our economies and the sustainability of our social models; downward pressure on costs and wages; the challenges of climate change and increasing energy dependence; and the eastward shift in the global distribution of production and savings. And on top of this, the threats of terrorism, organised crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction hang over us.” Read more
At last week’s European Union summit in Brussels, most people were so focused on the Greek debt crisis that they missed an interesting development on the sidelines. This was an informal proposal from Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, to convene summits of EU heads of state and government once a month.
It would be a significant departure from the way the EU conducts its affairs. At present the EU holds four scheduled summits a year, usually in March, June, October and December. Since the financial crisis erupted in 2007-08, there have been various emergency summits as well. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who ran the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2008, holds the record for calling unscheduled summits. Apart from those dealing with the financial crisis, he also convened one in response to Russia’s war with Georgia. Read more
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
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
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
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
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
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 finances. Read more
Who were the biggest winners and biggest losers of the European Parliament elections?
Top of the winners’ list are surely Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. Merkel’s Christian Democrats destroyed her Social Democrat coalition partners at the polls, and Sarkozy’s UMP party brushed aside the opposition French socialists. Merkel and Sarkozy will feel vindicated in their approach to the global economic crisis, particularly as regards the need to introduce tougher financial regulation (and to lecture central banks from time to time). Read more
There is a wonderful scene in “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”, the 1979 movie that satirizes religion, in which two bungling terrorist groups, the People’s Front of Judea and the Campaign for Free Galilee, conduct simultaneous raids on Pontius Pilate’s palace and end up fighting each other rather than the Romans, their common enemy. This is the scene that comes to mind when one looks at the European Union’s recent diplomatic interventions in the Middle East.
The trouble started in January with the embarrassing spectacle of two separate European missions - one led by the Czech Republic in its capacity as holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, and the other led by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France – touring the region in an attempt to calm down the Gaza conflict. One or two countries, notably the Czechs, appeared distinctly more sympathetic to the Israeli notion of justified self-defence against Hamas than did the majority of EU member-states. Read more
The Czech hosts of Thursday’s European Union summit with six ex-Soviet states are not happy bunnies. The list of the EU leaders who couldn’t be bothered to show up for the Eastern Partnership event in Prague, a highlight of the Czechs’ six-month EU presidency, was embarrassingly long.
Let’s take them one by one. Read more
Just as sunny weather has come to Brussels for the first time this year, so have the first signs that the European Union is weaning itself off its addiction to ever more frequent summits. True, today’s G20 event in London is the mother of all summits, and there are plenty of Europeans at it (too many, some non-Europeans might say).
But other planned summits are being downgraded or won’t be particularly grand occasions. Back in February Mirek Topolanek, the recently deposed Czech premier, announced he intended to hold two emergency anti-recession summits – one to uphold the EU’s free trade and single market principles against the threats of protectionism and economic nationalism, and the other on employment. The first meeting took place in Brussels on March 1 and didn’t get good reviews from summit critics in the European media. Read more
Who will be the next European Commission president? Until recently, José Manuel Barroso looked comfortably placed to secure reappointment for a second five-year term at a summit of EU leaders in June. Now the picture is not so clear.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy put the cat among the pigeons on Sunday when he refused to reaffirm the support for Barroso’s candidacy that he had offered during France’s spell last year in the European Union’s rotating presidency. “I like Mr Barroso a lot, I’ve enjoyed working with him, I have confidence in him,” Sarkozy said, his words sounding ever more hollow the longer his sentence stretched on. Read more
Apart from all their summits on the recession and financial crisis, European Union leaders are planning to get together in Prague on May 7 to launch something called the “Eastern Partnership”. This is an initiative designed to draw six post-Soviet states – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – closer to the EU, without holding out an explicit promise of membership at some future date.
Let’s hope that fate treats the Eastern Partnership more kindly than it has done the EU’s Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), a similar initiative for the bloc’s southern neighbours. This project, the brainchild of French President NIcolas Sarkozy, was launched in Paris to great fanfare in July. Then it nose-dived in January when the Gaza war broke out. Read more
The bad feeling between France and the Czech Republic is finally out there for everyone to see. For anyone who likes their European Union united, it is not a pretty sight.
Suspicion was in the air even before the Czechs took over the EU’s rotating presidency from France on January 1. The French doubted that the Czechs would be up to the job. The Czechs sensed that President Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to stay in the spotlight even after the end of France’s six-month EU presidency. “Old Europe” was in the red corner, “new Europe” was in the blue, and Round One was about to start. Read more
José Manuel Barroso’s campaign for a second term as European Commission president is coming along nicely. Last week he secured a public endorsement for the first time from Gordon Brown, the UK premier.
Of course, it’s hardly a campaign in the normal democratic sense. European voters aren’t directly involved. The vast majority probably has no idea what’s going on. The selection of the Commission president, one of Europe’s most powerful jobs, rests with the 27 leaders of the European Union’s member-states. Read more