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Viewed from Brussels, the rise of Nick Clegg and his Liberal Democrats in Britain’s election campaign is a fantasy come true. For most of its 37 years in the European Union, Britain has been the bloc’s most awkward, cussed member-state. Now, the unthinkable is happening. Britain’s opinion polls are topped by a party whose leader spent five years working at the European Commission and another five years as a MEP in the European Parliament. Gott im Himmel! A Brit who actually understands the place!
And it doesn’t stop there. Clegg studied at the elite College of Europe in Bruges, an institution geared to producing crop after crop of graduates with a lifelong enthusiasm for EU integration. He speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish, making him as proficient a linguist as such dedicated Europeans as Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg premier.
Clegg has a Dutch mother, a half-Russian father and three children called Antonio, Alberto and Miguel. There has been no British party leader like him since the EU’s 1957 Treaty of Rome. In fact, you may have to go all the way back to Charles James Fox, the Whig who briefly served as foreign secretary in the Napoleonic wars, to find a British statesman whose mental outlook was so naturally rooted in Europe. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! Clegg’s emergence is enough to make even the most agnostic Eurocrat think that there must be a god, after all. Read more
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
Two thoughts spring to mind when you consider the appointment of João Vale de Almeida, a Portuguese Eurocrat, as the European Union’s next ambassador to the US. The first is that the EU seems to be retreating from its experiment of placing a political heavyweight in Washington to speak up for Europe. John Bruton, the EU’s outgoing envoy, is a former Irish prime minister whose face was well-known in the White House and on Capitol Hill when he got the job in 2004.
Vale de Almeida is familiar to certain US officials – he has been the European Commission’s top liaison man for G8 and G20 meetings. But as a civil servant who started his career with the Commission in Lisbon back in 1982, he has never been elected to office, has never served as a government minister and altogether lacks the profile of someone like Bruton. Americans are already struggling to recall which two figures were chosen last year as the EU’s first full-time president and new head of foreign policy. Now they have a third obscure European name to remember. Read more
Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union. The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory. The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.
Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament. Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc. Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. Read more
Whether it’s climate change, foreign policy or the increasingly alarming fiscal crisis, the European Union’s difficulties can be summed up in one word: disunity. After December 1, when the EU’s Lisbon treaty came into force, disunity was supposed to be a thing of the past. Instead, disunity has proved to be very much a thing of the present. What’s more, the Lisbon treaty may – at least in the short term – be making matters worse.
Take the world conference on climate change at Copenhagen in December. According to Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s incoming climate change commissioner, disunity – in the sense of a cacophony of European voices – was an important factor behind the ability of other powers to brush aside the EU’s views. “Those last hours in Copenhagen, China, India, Japan, Russia and the US each spoke with one voice, while Europe spoke with many different voices. Sometimes we spend so much time agreeing with one another that when finally the EU comes to the international negotiations, we are almost unable to negotiate,” she told her confirmation hearing at the European Parliament last month. Read more
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
The biggest fights at European Union summits are usually about money. It’s no different this time. At their final summit of 2009, the EU’s 27 national leaders have been wrestling in Brussels with the question of what contributions each country should make to a “fast-start” fund to help developing countries address climate change.
It looks as if EU governments will come up with an offer of about €2bn a year – much of it coming from rich countries such as France, Sweden and the UK - for the three-year period of 2010 to 2012. “Anything above €2bn will be an impressive offer,” European Commission president José Manuel Barroso said this morning. Read more
Next week’s summit of European Union leaders faces an important choice on Turkey. Should the EU toughen existing measures that are holding up Turkey’s EU accession talks, because of Ankara’s refusal to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic? Or should the EU recognise that this would send completely the wrong message, just when Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders are trying to reach a comprehensive settlement of the long-standing Cyprus dispute?
Precisely because the EU is divided on the Turkish question – the Greek Cypriot-run government of Cyprus wants a strong line, and other countries are split between supporters and opponents of Turkey’s entry into the EU – it seems unlikely that a consensus can be reached in favour of placing additional obstacles in the path of Turkey’s negotiations. Read more