Reforming the management of economic policy, primarily in the eurozone but also in the European Union as a whole, is without question one of Europe’s highest priorities. Few steps would do more to raise the EU’s credibility with the US, China and the rest of the world than concerted action to improve European economic performance and make the euro area function more efficiently as a unit. Much of this comes under the heading of “economic governance”. But the difficulty is that it is not always easy to figure out which Europeans are in charge of the process.
On Monday Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s full-time president, chaired the latest meeting of a task force on economic governance that he was chosen last March to lead. The task force, consisting largely of EU finance ministers, came up with various sensible ideas on tightening sanctions (financial and non-financial) on countries that break European fiscal rules. Task force members also want to strengthen the monitoring of macroeconomic imbalances, such as the gap between large current account surpluses in Germany and deficits in southern Europe.
From Gideon Rachman’s blog
At European summits, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that the arguments are all about finding the correct policies or defending national interests. I suppose, sometimes, that is the case. But more often that not, it seems to come down to personality politics. I was struggling earlier today to understand why the French had been so reluctant to involve the IMF in the putative rescue of Greece. In my innocence, I thought it might have something to do with a French preference for a “European solution”. But then a French colleague explained to me. It’s simply that Nicolas Sarkozy sees Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, as a potential rival in the next French presidential election. So he doesn’t want to agree to anything that might make Strauss-Kahn look good.
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.
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.
Europe’s leaders are getting radical. On Thursday the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of the European Union will meet for a day of economic policy discussions in Brussels – but not in their normal location, the marble-and-glass Council of Ministers building, famous for its charmless, disinfected atmosphere and its 24km of headache-inducing corridors. No, this time they will get together in a nearby building called the Bibliothèque Solvay, which is a pleasant old library rented out for dinners and receptions.
The switch of location was the brainwave of Herman Van Rompuy, the EU’s first full-time president, who thought it would encourage a more creative, informal exchange of views. He has introduced another innovation: each leader is to be restricted to just one adviser at the talks. This isn’t a problem for countries with leaders who are masters of economic policy detail. But others are less happy about the arrangement. It is whispered that the Italians are swallowing especially hard, wondering what on earth Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will say once he’s on his own.
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.
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.”
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).
Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia. As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.
Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government. Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners. Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime. A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state.
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.