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Could another Treaty change be on the cards?

European leaders still bearing the scars of the tortuous ratification of the Lisbon Treaty are now having to contemplate the prospect of re-writing the rule-book to accommodate further fiscal integration of the beleaguered Eurozone.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has said that Berlin believed all 27 EU member state leaders would need to convene next year to agree to a new Treaty.

This has caused alarm in Brussels. Treaty changes require ratification in each Member State – in some cases, a referendum is compulsory – in all cases, there will be a painful political process with numerous pitfalls on the way.   The Lisbon Treaty took eight years to ratify.

It seems that Germany believes a Treaty change is required for Eurobonds – something they are understandably reluctant to see introduced. The European Commission is expected to come up with proposals for Eurobonds later this year.

However, there is no reason why Eurobonds cannot be introduced through the “community method”. Of course, the community method requires enormous political will from the EU27.

It doesn’t help that the Commission is giving mixed messages. Commission President José Manuel Barroso has said the Commission is “open” to new Treaty changes but then went on to say at a high-level think tank event on Thursday this week that his 5-point Roadmap out of the crisis did not require a treaty change. He told the audience at the “Re-thinking Europe” event: “We can enhance growth without treaty change.”

But the devil is in the detail.

The five points in his plan – bailing out Greece, recapitalising banks, boosting the Eurozone rescue fund, pursuing growth policies, and building stronger economic governance – seem to be a reasonable response, but limits to the Commission’s competences will be increasingly tested.

Commission Vice President Joaquín Almunia went further and warned that the EU was too weak to go through another Treaty convention. As he put it: “We are not mature enough for Treaty change.”

Barroso spelt out his strategy at his annual State of the Union address at the end of September.  His plans are far-reaching, and he has clearly been stung by criticism that the solutions to the crisis have been piecemeal.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron wants the Eurozone to take the so-called “bazooka” approach – a one-off fix – instead of piecemeal measures. Barroso this week called it “getting ahead of the curve.”

The bazooka approach to dealing with the sovereign debt crisis is being applied to the financial services regulatory regime, including credit rating agencies and corporate governance. And he is deadly serious about his proposed financial transaction tax.

There is no real appetite among Europe’s leaders for Treaty changes – even in the UK where David Cameron resisted growing pressure from his own party to demand a referendum to repatriate some EU powers.

A referendum would be politically divisive in Germany too. It’s just a threat to ward off any attempts to bring in Eurobonds through the back door.

We shall have to wait until next week when leaders meet at the European Council and the Eurozone Summit to see whether Treaty changes are still seen as a realistic prospect.

– Kevin

Now that the Lisbon Treaty has come into force and the new Commission is up and running, who do you think is the most powerful person in Brussels? Who truly sits in the seat of power?

Is it Barroso, Ashton, Buzek, Van Rompuy, or Farage – or someone else entirely? We want to know what you think, so vote in our poll by clicking here.

– The Editors

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The Commissioners’ candidate hearings have been something of a disappointment, with some notable exceptions called Almunia, Barnier, Hedegaard, or Oettinger. The Bulgarian candidate Ms Jeleva was sacked and Ms Kroes, Mr Rehn, Mr Semeta, and Baroness Ashton had lucky escapes after disappointing MEPs in their respective committees.

© European Communities, 2009

In theory, Commissioners should be chosen for their suitability for the portfolio, their knowledge of the portfolio, and their European commitment, which includes their independence from national influence.

It is clear that this is not quite the case in Brussels yet, but what was striking during the hearings was the vagueness of the candidates’ responses, leading to perceptions of being unprepared. Candidates were generally weak in presenting priorities for their five years in office and avoided demonstrating any audacious vision or “big picture” in their policy area.

What emerged later is that candidates actually followed Mr Barroso’s instructions for the hearings to the letter. Low-profile, low-exposure, and evasive answers was the brief given by Mr Barroso, who wanted to prevent any clear answers from causing a revolt in the European Parliament, as happened back in 2004 with Mr Buttiglione.

Aside from the fact that Ms Jeleva was rejected anyway, the initial impression is that the incoming college of Commissioners is perceived as weak and unprepared. The final verdict on the new Commissioners is pending, and we will have to wait for a few months before they show their true colours…Barroso permitting.

– Ilja

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Finally, the end of the tunnel for José Manuel Barroso who has been elected as Commission President with 382 positive votes out of 736. Many protested, many were unenthusiastic, but finally an absolute majority raised their hands and said ‘yes’.

That was not such an obvious prediction this morning and The Lobby did not expect such a ‘comfortable’ majority – maybe Barroso didn’t either!

Throughout the campaign, the Commission President appeared to be on the defensive, and instead of giving a convincing demonstration that he was a candidate with a vision for Europe, he rather gave the impression that he was soliciting a personal favour from MEPs. As he said himself yesterday in a bid to convince sceptical MEPs: “at least, give me the benefit of the doubt!”

Anyway, the deal is done now and Barroso can serenely look ahead and dedicate his energy to address the most urgent challenges he agreed to set for himself: combating unemployment and the crisis, strengthening the internal market, re-branding and re-launching the Lisbon Strategy, and restoring the authority of the Commission that has been seriously challenged during the crisis with regard to Member States’ public deficit, European competition rules and state aid policy.

Barroso will also have to look closely into ways to correct the EU’s identity and credibility deficit. Looking back at his previous mandate and his recent campaign, The Lobby doubts that the new President has the vision and sufficient public confidence to really perform in that respect. Again, it will probably be up to the Member States to decide whether the EU is a good or a bad thing for their citizens.

But we’ll give Barroso the benefit of the doubt. For the time being.

– Maxime

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Verhofstadt eyes up his eurosceptic opposition

Verhofstadt eyes up his eurosceptic opposition

After the EPP, the newly-termed PASD (Socialists), and the Greens had elected their leaders last week, the Parliament’s third force, the Liberal ALDE group finally followed suit yesterday by nominating Guy Verhofstadt as their new leader. Since the support for his candidature was so overwhelming, Diana Wallis, the only other serious contender for the post, dropped out of the race before it even came to the vote.

It will be interesting to see in which direction the former Belgian Prime Minister steers the European Liberals in the coming months. No doubt his nomination as group leader will set off some heated confrontations between the currently-confident Eurosceptics and the markedly Euro-federalist Verhofstadt.

Within his own party, composed of diverse representatives from around 18 Member States, there could yet be some sensitivity towards Verhofstadt’s ambition to create a “United States of Europe”, a stance that had previously led to his defeat in the 2004 nomination race for President of the Commission.

In an ironic twist, Verhofstadt, who just a couple of weeks ago was one of the most likely contenders to challenge Mr Barroso, may now actually play a crucial role in re-nominating his former opponent for a second term. Verhofstadt will now make his support for Barroso subject to a number of concessions, one of which may be a liberal President of the European Parliament. Finally, Graham Watson’s dream may come true…

– Felix

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Messrs Barroso, Martens and Santer

Messrs Barroso, Martens and Santer

This morning, The Lobby was surprised to find itself sitting on Bus 71 next to Wilfried Martens, the President of the European Peoples Party, and we briefly chatted about the latest developments at this week’s EU Summit.

Exhausted but happy from last night’s Council marathon which saw José Manuel Barroso winning political support from EU leaders, the former Belgian Prime Minister compared the current situation with the controversial nomination of the Santer Commission in 1994. Back then and like now, the European Parliament expressed its dissatisfaction with the conditions of that appointment and only approved Santer by a narrow majority. Is this another example of history repeating itself?

Mr Martens is known for his calmness under pressure, no doubt stemming from his considerable political experience. Usually, not even the slow moving public transport in Brussels can make him lose his temper. Today however, even his patience was tested to the limit, and in the end enough was enough and he got off and walked (in so doing overtaking the bus…). Whoever the Commission President may be, they could do worse than start sorting out the dreadful Brussels traffic!

– Felix

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Commission President Barroso with the Kokob Team

Commission President Barroso with the Kokob Team

If you’ve never experienced the spicy joy of eating Ethiopian food, then Kokob is the place to go. Kokob is an Ethiopian restaurant on 10 Rue des Grands Carmes with great atmosphere and very welcoming staff. Food is served in the traditional Ethiopian way; in the middle of the table on one big platter. You use your hands to make small parcels of meat and vegetables using ‘injera’ a type of crêpe-like bread, and while you’re at it you should try some ‘tedj’ – Ethiopian honey wine.

The menu features all of the classics you would find in Addis Ababa; doro wot (chicken, egg and berbere spice), begh tibs (lamb with onions, tomatoes and green peppers), ketfo (Ethiopian-style steak tartar), and shiro wot (pea flour and shallots with berbere spice) to name but a few. Yes, it’s different and yes eating with your hands can get a bit messy for the uninitiated – but it is fun, tasty, and you get to experience a truly aromatic cuisine. Having spent time in Ethiopia the Lobby can entirely vouch for the quality and authenticity of the food.

You still need convincing? Well, Commission President Barroso has already given his stamp of approval to Kokob…

Now, go, pick up the phone, and book a table!

– Emil

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Barroso at risk?

Barroso at risk?

As expected (see Elections re-shape party alliances), the Socialist group in the European Parliament has agreed to re-brand in a move to welcome the main Italian’s opposition party, the Partito Democratico (PD). In the past legislature, the Partido Democratico was split between the PES and the ALDE, putting the Italian Democrats in an uncomfortable position.

Renaming the “Party of European Socialists” as the “Alliance of Socialists and Democrats” (ASDE) was not an easy task due to the opposition of several socialist MEPs, scared of losing the socialist essence of the second largest group of the Parliament. However, the poor election result of the Socialists across Europe made the re-branding a less bitter pill to swallow and the Socialists were finally pleased to welcome their new fellow-members.

The first consequence of this move is numeric, and as such, political: the current 162 MEP strong socialist group will be propped up by another 21 members from Italy, which will also significantly shift the left-right balance of the parliament back towards the centre, thereby making centre left majorities more likely again. Second, the PES is opening-up to a wider spectrum of parties across Europe, possibly attracting further MEPs into their group. Finally, the move could increase the growing support for Mr Guy Verhofstadt to replace Barroso at the helm of the European Commission: one of the conditions for the Italian Democrats to join the new group was that they would oppose a new term for Barroso.

It is therefore no accident that Socialist leader Martin Schulz was quoted yesterday strongly opposing Barroso’s run for a new term. Today, the NUE/GUL group also suggested that it would rather support Guy Verhofstadt than Barroso. The Socialists, the Liberals, and the Greens have now announced their dissatisfaction with the Portuguese candidate.

The coming weeks will be exciting indeed…the scene is set; let the political wheeling and dealing begin!

– Ilja and Felix

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Barroso had a chance to speak to the French and breathe some renewed European enthusiasm into the campaign, but his interview in Le Monde will hardly do the job. His administrative and institutional thinking lead him to declare that the European elections were none of the Commission’s business, trying as he was to justify his lack of commitment in the campaign. The sentence was picked up by the journalist and immediately stirred up a few (very French) irritated comments.

Barroso does not seem to have any particular vision for Europe apart from the fact that he is likely to be President again and that everything has to be done under the Nice Treaty. We learn one thing about the man though: he says he likes his job and has a European conviction.

– Maxime

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So, with the European Parliament elections rapidly approaching, the horse-trading between political parties from across the whole spectrum has intensified as factions look to the future and, more importantly, for new buddies to befriend in the next Parliament. Conflicting visions of Europe, party strategies to get more seats and personal rivalries for top jobs are already resulting in the dismantling and creation of European political parties.

The UK Tories announced some time ago that they would leave the EPP-ED after the elections to form their own euro-sceptic party.

Now it looks like the ALDE is facing problems on several fronts. First up, the next Commission President… a fringe of the party is not supportive of Barroso, favouring instead the Italian Mario Monti or the Belgian Guy Verhofstadt. Add to the equation that the Italian members of ALDE might join the Socialists because of a recent merger between the Italian socialist and centrist parties, and it appears that the Liberals could be a much-changed entity in the new Parliament.

Finally, rumor has it that the new name of the Party of European Socialists could be changed into the ‘Alliance of Socialists and Democrats’ to reflect the possible absorption of the Italian dissidents. When vying for seats in the EP, changing party names and alliances do not seem to matter so much: ‘a rose by any other name will smell as sweet’.

– Michele and Victoria

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