Spain

President Barack Obama’s decision not to travel to Spain in May for a US-European Union summit does not come as a great surprise to EU policymakers.  They knew weeks ago that he had gone cool on the idea.  Nonetheless, it will hurt.  It will be read as a signal from the White House that the president doesn’t think the meeting would be especially productive.  And that speaks volumes about how other powers, even allied countries such as the US, view the EU as a force on the global stage.

“An unsentimental President Obama has already lost patience with a Europe lacking coherence and purpose,” wrote Nick Witney and Jeremy Shapiro in a report last November for the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.  “In a post-American world, the United States knows it needs effective partners.  If Europe cannot step up, the US will look for other privileged partners to do business with.” Read more

Greece’s fiscal emergency is a most mystifying crisis.  At one level, it is the most serious test of the eurozone’s unity since the launch of the euro in 1999.  Unless correctly handled, the problem with Greece’s public finances could shake the foundations of Europe’s monetary union.

At another level, however, Greece itself seems to be getting off remarkably lightly.  Germany suffered a 5 per cent slump in gross domestic product last year; Greece is expected to have suffered a fall of about 1.1 per cent.  Spain has a 19 per cent unemployment rate; Greece’s rate is only 9 per cent.  The Irish government is imposing extreme austerity measures on its citizens to protect Ireland’s eurozone membership; Greece’s government is, so far, doing nothing of the sort.  No wonder Greece’s 15 eurozone partners, the European Commission and the European Central Bank are furious with the political classes in Athens. Read more

How many days can a Spanish kite stay in the air?  About four, to judge from the speed with which Germany and the UK have shot down a proposal from José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s prime minister, to introduce binding mechanisms to enforce economic reform in the European Union.

The short lifespan of Zapatero’s brainwave, which he unveiled last Thursday in Madrid, is hardly surprising.  Not that it’s an especially bad idea – in principle.  Deep in their hearts, most European policymakers know the EU would benefit from closer fiscal and economic policy co-ordination, particularly in the eurozone.  They also know that the lesson from the EU’s ill-starred Lisbon agenda, which notoriously set out – and failed - to turn the bloc into the world’s most competitive economy by 2010, is that it was all too easy for governments to pay lip service to reform without doing much about it in practice (except for the virtuous Nordic countries). Read more

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

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