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The newly elected European Parliament President Martin Schulz announced in an interview that he is going to try to “put the European Parliament in a confrontation with the heads of government.”

Is the Parliament going to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee? (photo courtest of Mark Pellegrini)

The reason behind this is that, in Mr Schulz’s view, the European Council is becoming more and more powerful, while the European Parliament’s role either “goes unappreciated or [is] stolen by the Member States”.

Clearly, this assessment can only be confirmed by people working in the “Eurobubble”.

When going back home, people seldom realise that the European Parliament is in fact a key institution and no longer a talking shop. Worse, only 43% of electors actually go and vote on election day.

This confirms one of the many shortcomings of the Lisbon Treaty: instead of truly democratising the EU, it actually gave more powers to the European Council by making it an official EU institution, which can de facto act as a sort of directoire.

Of course, one could say that governments are under control of their Parliaments back home, but in times when an increasing number of competences are being transferred to the EU, one would expect that the Parliament – which only focuses on EU issues – gets a louder voice and is appreciated as such by the general public.

In this regard, Martin Schulz’s initiative seems very positive.

Yet, the Lobby cannot help thinking that domestic politics may be the cause. By weakening the Council, the Parliament is weakening its de facto leadership, namely Ms Merkel –  something which the SPD, Mr Schulz’s home party, may try to exploit in the 2013 national elections.

It would be disappointing if this should be true, since this would show that even the European Parliament only sees itself as a means to fulfil domestic politics goals.

Yet, sometimes the ends do justify the means. Therefore, whatever its intentions, The Lobby hopes the European Parliament will experience some proper infighting, which at least will ensure the EU gets a little more democratic!

– Christian

The news that Portugal has finally bitten the bullet and requested a bailout will surprise few, but the impact on the Eurozone as a whole – and particularly Spain – remains to be seen.

Historians may look back at this moment and consider it the end-game of the current Euro-crisis- the three countries that were always going to ask for a bail-out did, but that was the end of it.

Spain suffered but survived.  Italy hung on.  And Belgium finally got its act together.

This is the best-case scenario, but what actually does happen next is anyone’s guess.  In the short-term, will the bailouts be successful?  In the long-term – well, just who would want to join the Eurozone now?

As they say in the US, “all politics is local”, but this looks like one of the few trends which will successfully span the transatlantic divide.

At the end of the day, Chancellor Merkel is not elected by Portuguese citizens, and her shocking defeat in the Baden-Württemberg elections a few weeks back will focus Christian Democrat minds, meaning that Portugal can expect few favours from Europe’s paymaster in the weeks and months ahead.

Germany will pay, but it will get its money’s worth.  It has to. Make no mistake.

Further ahead, the question needs to be asked: will the Eurozone ever agree on a common fiscal policy?

The current crisis has demonstrated the folly of a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to a single monetary policy, stretching as it does from Finland to Faro, whilst fiscal policy remains a national comptetence.

It was worth a try, but the carrot hasn’t worked, so the stick needs to make a comeback.  Hence, if Spain is to be brought back on an even keel, the Eurozone needs to act now or risk being terminally stunted by its members on the periphery.

It won’t go down well in Stuttgart or Salerno, but the time has come for the Eurozone to put its money where its collective mouths are!

– Rob

The reluctance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to help Greece has tarnished the image of Germany and Germans in the country of Aristotle, Plato, and feta cheese.

The coverage given by the German press regarding the need for an EU rescue plan for Greece has not improved relations between the two Eurozone Member States -witness the front page of the German magazine Focus in February which showed the famous Venus di Milo making an obscene gesture.

According to a poll published on 25 March by the Kappa Research Institute which questioned Greek citizens about their views on Germany, only 28.8% replied positively, which is very low when compared to the 78.4% recorded five years ago for a similar poll.

The German low cost airline Air Berlin recently announced that the company had noted a significant drop in the number of reservations for Greece, and on this evidence it seems that the crisis has created a real gap between the two countries and their populations.

Let’s hope that the agreement on an EU plan to help Greece, reached yesterday at the European Summit, will serve to reconcile our Greek and German friends.

– Denis

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Me.

Or at least this is what I expected.  Imagine my surprise however when none other than European Commission President José Manuel Barroso came out on top by a country mile.  He managed to rack up a stunning 62% of the vote, leaving everybody’s favourite “damp rag”, Council President Herman Van Rompuy, trailing in second place with a meagre 10%.

Buzek glum-faced at finishing 4th in The Lobby powerpoll (Credit © European Parliament - Audiovisual Unit)

Parliament President Jerzy Buzek picked up a paltry 2%, whilst the EU’s new foreign policy supremo Baroness Catherine Ashton and arch-eurosceptic MEP Nigel Farage both trailed with a disappointing 0% – the latter therefore proving to be an even damper rag than the current Council President!

15% of you opted for the mysterious “other” category, which we can now reveal included such venerable statesmen and women as Angela Merkel (4 votes), Goldman Sachs (they might rule Wall Street, but clearly not Brussels), Mickey Mouse, and Sarkel (we see what you’ve done there, well done…).

So what has this told us?  Well, first and foremost, that Barroso is the king in his own backyard.  Having been around in Brussels, and specifically the EU scene, for years longer than either Van Rompuy and Ashton, he has consolidated his power base and now looks set to dominate Brussels for the years to come.  At least this is the perception, but, as a wise-man once said (and still says), perception is reality…

All of which leaves President Van Rompuy and particularly Baroness Ashton with much work to do to stamp their mark on the Brussels political scene.  Will a poll twelve months from now give us the same result?  Mr Barroso may be hoping so.

– Rob

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German Euros (Euro background by Petr Kratochvil from http://www.publicdomainpictures.net)

Germany appeared to take a decisive step back from her traditional post-war role as paymaster of Europe today when Chancellor Angela Merkel issued harsh words on the prospect of a European bailout for the crippled Greek economy.

During the government’s debate on the 2010 budget she warned against premature European action which might not actually solve Greece’s problems in the long term and could also actually weaken the Euro further, and stated that a rash show of solidarity was not the right solution.

In addition she expressed her support for Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s idea of putting together an agreement which would be able to exclude future persistent offenders from the Eurozone as a last resort. According to her, current provisions are not sufficient to deal with a situation where a Eurozone country is on the brink of insolvency. She believes a new agreement is crucial for future cooperation.

This reluctance to pay out to Greece seems at odds with Germany’s usual role as financial martyr to the EU cause.  So is the Federal Republic’s long-term love affair with all things EU showing signs of fatigue?

Or is Angie merely trying to placate her public, who, during times of financial uncertainty at home, certainly don’t want to be dishing out the Euros to those abroad?!

Indeed, behind her stern stance towards a rapid rescue for Greece surely lies a genuine concern for and continued commitment to the success of the currency union.

Keine Panik, Germany hasn’t given up on us yet!

– Rhian

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So who do I call? (Credit © European Union, 2010)

Once upon a time, there was a great leader of the new world who had a vision of creating a bilateral arrangement with the old world, and so he asked his political advisors whom he should speak to in Brussels.

His advisors usually responded to his questions in a flash, but this time around they looked at each other perplexed and informed the great leader that they would have to research the matter in great detail.  Having investigated the matter quite thoroughly, the advisors returned and, instead of giving him the answers he sought, suggested that their young European intern from the European Commission would be best placed to explain the complex web of people and procedures…and so the nightmare began.

The young intern turned to the great leader and asked what kind of bilateral arrangement he had in mind? He replied proudly that he wanted to urgently create a new arrangement where the US and Europe would pool their knowledge and resources to eradicate all forms of the flu once and for all, and that both regions would equally donate US$25 billion to the initiative.

The advisors all looked at each other, some raising their eyebrows; others were heard to sigh deeply, whilst others scratched their heads and looked confused, realising that the night would be long.

The young intern turned to the great leader and said:

“You should probably first speak to the President of Europe, sometimes referred to as the Head of the Council of Ministers, because he is the top guy in Europe.  This is a new job, so he has only been in power for a few months – a lovely chap called Van Rompuy who is very keen to engage on the world stage, but since he does not have any real powers, I would advise that you contact José Manuel Barroso because he has been around for a long time and is President of the European Commission which is responsible for policy and legislation. But there again, Sir, as you know the Commission is a weakened institution, and I am not sure that they would be able to push your great idea without the support of some important people!”

The great leader interjected and asked how many other important people there were in Brussels that he should consider meeting as he was very busy and needed to speak to the most important leader.

The intern blushed and explained that there was another President, namely that of the European Parliament, the only democratically elected institution representing the interests of European citizens. At this point the great leader said that this was the man! But then the intern began to look agitated.

“Well go on then,” the great leader enquired of the intern, “explain to me if I should not see him, what other President should I consider?”

The intern went on to explain that it was not so much other Presidents as other Prime Ministers, such as Mr Brown and Ms Merkel, although she is a “Chancellor”, and, of course, there was Mr Sarkozy who was actually another President.

The great leader looked him in the eye and said:  “But this Mr Sarkozy, is he more or less important that the other Presidents?” Now there was a question…

The intern was by now fully engaged and explained that this President and those Prime Ministers were really very important indeed because they were the leaders of the three most important countries in Europe and that they were actually more important than the President of the Commission, the Parliament, and the so-called Council of Ministers, and that if he really wanted to conclude this agreement he would definitely need their support.

The great leader reflected on what he had just learnt and finally proclaimed that he understood that he had to speak, not to one, but to six Presidents, and that in many ways he thought this very original and democratic, albeit it a little exaggerated. But he was nonetheless willing to give it a go, so he ordered his advisors to set up these meetings and told them he was going to Brussels the next day.

Upon hearing this news, the most senior advisor grew paler by the second and eventually asked the great leader to consider some additional factors. The great leader, pleased with his earlier solution, managed to grunt “What else now!?”

The advisor explained that he would not be able to visit all six at the same time or in the same place. The great leader looked more perplexed than ever and asked exactly how many places he would have to visit in order to meet them all. Having studied the calendar of the EU institutions the intern stated proudly that the great leader would have to first go to Brussels, then Strasbourg because it was Parliament plenary week, and finally to London, Paris and Berlin.

“Anything else, I should be considering?” asked the great leader.

A dead silence reverberated around the room as the advisors gathered their courage to explain that there were indeed a few more people to consider, such as the EU Health Commissioner John Dalli, but that he was on business in Malta next week, and then there was Baroness Ashton, the Commissioner responsible for foreign affairs and security policy who was also Vice-President of the Commission and a great ally of America, and then of course there was the Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response who would have to be considered. And why not the head of the WHO in Geneva?

The great leader, known for his composure, sat back, put his head in his hands and was heard mumbling.

“So I have to see six Presidents/Prime Ministers/Chancellors in five locations, three Commissioners, one in Malta and two in Brussels, and some leader in Geneva – so that makes 10 people in seven cities.”

Surveying his advisors he asked: “So if I see all 10 people in 7 cities all will be fine?”

By then he knew the answer and challenged his intern to surprise him. The intern, knowing that he was coming to the end of his work placement, provided a very pragmatic answer.

“They will most likely all agree with you, Sir, but at the same time they all disagree with each other, and reaching an agreement could take literally years as the EU decision-making process is based on full stakeholder participation and consultation and is therefore very time consuming!”

Itching to speak, but not daring to, one of the other advisors finally mustered up all his courage and explained that as far as he knew there was also the Prime Minster of Spain whom the great leader should meet, because his country currently holds the EU Presidency.

“In fact”, the advisor continued, “you should also speak with the Prime Ministers of Belgium and Hungary because they share the Presidency with Spain in this new troika system.”

His fellow advisors were astonished at their colleague who had neglected to mention the role of the national parliaments which have now been given the power to reject EU proposals if they feel the issue could be dealt with better by them.

“How many of these are there?” the great leader asked.

“Oh, only 27 for the moment,” replied his advisors.  “But there could be 30 very soon…”

The great leader, who by then was lost in deep thought, very quickly came out of his reverie to claim that he would abandon his initiative with the EU altogether and instead would propose it to the UN, as this would definitely be quicker and would resolve the problem at a global level.

All looked at each other, and for the first time that morning smiles appeared on all their faces. The perfect solution had been found!

“No wonder the EU was not at the final table negotiating the climate change no-deal!” reflected the great leader that evening.

– Russell

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On Sunday the EU’s most populous state and economic powerhouse goes to the polls in the 17th German Federal Elections.  The contest pips the incumbent and starlet of the CDU/CSU centre-right Angela Merkel against current Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the centre left SPD.

It’s all for Chancellor Merkel’s to lose.  Despite heading the country during the worst economic crisis of the last 100 years, she remains one of the most popular politicians in the country and has become a force to be reckoned with on the world stage

Mr Steinmeier, for his part, is an extremely capable and intelligent Foreign Minister and would probably make a very good Chancellor, but for the fact that in terms of charisma and charm he is somewhat lacking.  Some SPD circles question whether he was the right candidate to challenge someone as popular as Merkel, though the lack of a viable replacement symbolises the depths to which the SPD has sunk in recent months.

The CDU/CSU are hoping to link up with their erstwhile partners in government, the liberal FDP, but recently concerns have been raised that Merkel’s party will not obtain enough votes to make this happen, meaning that a second successive Grand Coalition could be on the cards.

Grand Coalitions show Germans at both their best – their ability to compromise and arrive at mutually beneficial solutions – and their worst – in that the pace of decision-making slows down the already cumbersome bureaucratic and federal system of government.  No surprise then that Germany-watchers fear the country will continue not to push its weight in EU circles, should a Grand Coalition transpire in the next few weeks.

(A version of this article also appeared in Grayling’s Circum Europa.)

– Rob

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It’s nearly two weeks since the Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party, Harriet Harman, told the high-brow newspaper The Sunday Times that she does “not agree with all-male leaderships” because men “cannot be left to run things on their own.” (Perhaps she was angling for a job as an Editor of The Lobby?)

Meanwhile, over in female-led Germany, Ms Harman’s calls for women to be taken seriously in politics are being ignored by her female counterparts who seem willing to flaunt their wares to attract votes.   Vera Lengsfeld, a centre right politician from Chancellor Merkel’s CDU party, has chosen to portray herself in her electoral poster dressed in a low-cut top next to her party boss who is in similar attire.  The image is accompanied by the slogan Wir haben mehr zu bieten (we have more to offer).  More jobs?  Lower taxes?  Lower necklines?  Probably all three in fact, but it’s the latter which is getting the most attention.

Vera Lengsfeld - doing her bit for women's lib

Vera Lengsfeld - doing her bit for women's lib

Unfortunately for Ms Lengsfeld, it appears that Ms Merkel didn’t actually give permission for her photo to be used. “We are not amused” appears to be the message from CDU headquarters.  Yet Ms Lengsfeld, who hails from the east of the country and was once imprisoned by the Stasi, is sticking by her guns, and according to Spiegel magazine several other German politicians are considering a similar stunt.

Still in Germany but across the political divide, the Green Party has come under attack for their own election poster which depicts a white woman grasping the buttocks of a black woman.  “The only reason to vote black” screams the slogan (black being the electoral colour of the CDU).  According to the Greens, the poster is meant to highlight the party’s support for same-sex marriages, but instead they are now having to fend off accusations of both racism and sexism.  This, despite the fact that the two leaders of the German Greens are a woman (Claudia Roth) and a male of Turkish descent (Cem Özdemir).

Back in the UK, Ms Harman must be non-too pleased that her seemingly feminist messages are being undermined in the German campaign, but at least it makes elections interesting.  Those North Koreans don’t know what they’re missing.

– Rob

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