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It’s the end of July, which means it’s nearly August, which means it’s time for the holidays!
And boy, does Brussels go on holiday! One minute you’re standing on Place Luxembourg marveling at the sheer weight of people apparently desperate to get into Ralph’s or Pullman, and then, in a puff of smoke, they disappear. All gone, except for some bemused tourists who wander around aimlessly and stare at the bus timetables (perhaps they can’t wait to get out of there), some hardcore summer workers regretting the fact they took their main holidays in May, and the occasional beggar trying his luck.
Last year I recall complaining how, although the popular view is that “everyone” is on holiday, they actually aren’t.
True, the EU institutions pretty much grind to a halt during August, but industry, by and large, keeps going. Consultants like to think of August as being a quiet month, but in truth it rarely is. Once you’ve covered for your colleagues out of the office, prepared for the dreaded rentrée, and began working on all those projects which tend to get earmarked for the quieter times, your day is pretty much full
So industry doesn’t stop during August, but then nor does the rest of the world.
September will see Herman Van Rompuy present his task force’s report on economic governance which looks set to alter the way the Eurozone governs itself forever more. No small matter. Meanwhile, just as everyone is packing their suitcases, the ICJ goes and announces that Kosovo was not breaking international law by declaring its independence from Serbia. How will Lady Ashton manage this delicate conundrum? And what are the repercussions for regions around the world demanding greater sovereignty?
Finally, in case you’d forgotten, we are still in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Second World War. They may be kings of the sporting world at the moment, but will Spain go the way of Greece? How does the EU prepare for this new and much-vaunted era of financial “austerity?”
So plenty to ponder as EU decision-makers head for the beach. Happy holidays to all our readers!
Which will it be?
At the beginning of this month the Belgian State Secretary for European Affairs Olivier Chastel is known to have stated that Belgium will mark a “rupture”, or a break, from current practice following the changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty that, to an extent, give the EU Presidency a backseat role to President Van Rompuy and Baroness Catherine Ashton.
One does wonder however whether the Belgians are not taking this backseat role too literally.
With the full programme and website for the Presidency only having been unveiled today, less than a week before the Presidency is due to begin, it is perhaps not surprising that a certain anxiety has been felt in the air.
While these delays could be explained in light of Belgium’s recent political troubles, and Belgian leaders have tried to reassure everyone that these will not affect the Presidency, the lack of ambition with which certain key political figures reassure still gives ground for concern.
Talking to Mr Barroso this week, for example, Bart De Wever, the Flemish nationalist who claimed victory in the recent election, said he aims “to have a government in place before October, when the really important work of the Presidency will begin”.
It may well be that the groundbreaking work will occur in the autumn months, and having a government in place is not as crucial for ensuring the smooth running of a Presidency.
However, in just six months it is clear that the Presidency has to deliver at a time when fears of a double-dip recession are in the air, and any lack of ambition for the first three of these months could prove fateful.
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%.
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.
The creation of a European diplomatic service is one of the long expected innovations brought in by the Lisbon Treaty. A fundamental of European integration is the belief that the EU has a global mission, but so far it has lacked the tools to carry this out.
This might be changing however with the new post of High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy held by Baroness Catherine Ashton and the upcoming European External Action Service (EEAS).
According to the Treaty, the Council is responsible for setting up the EEAS, a not-so-easy task given that the body is supposed to be a mixture of the Commission and the Council.
With concrete proposals expected from Baroness Ashton end March and a final agreement end April, it is hard to go further than questions:
What will be the structure?
Which kind of and how many national diplomats will be put forward by the Member States?
What portfolios will it share with or take over from the Commission (development and cooperation, humanitarian aid, neighbourhood policy)?
Who will represent the EU in major negotiations, for example on trade and climate change?
For those interested in the details, Europolitics gathered draft organisational charts from Baroness Ashton (page 1) and a counter proposal from the German delegation (page 2).
Hence there are many options and many complications even before you take into account that the European Parliament (EP) wants to scrub in. The EP is not supposed to have much to say on it but is playing the card “if you want me to approve any budget on this, you better let me in on all the rest”.
MEPs Elmar Brok (EPP, German) and Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE, Belgium) for the Foreign and the Constitutional Affairs Comittees respectively are leading this battle. They have expressed 7 priorities highlighting two main preoccupations, namely oversight from the Parliament and as much influence as possible for the Commission on the EEAS to “protect” it from being controlled by national agendas (also see page 3 of the Europolitics document).
The final question, however, lies in the national agendas. Regardless of the body or the structure, the point is how much of a mandate will the EU nations give to the EEAS?
It will take years of work for national players to develop enough trust both in the body – to defend their best interests – and in the system – so that they accept losing on some issues whilst knowing they will win on others.