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(Taken from this month’s Espresso)
As Espresso and its readers are well aware, communication is key, be it when communicating to the press, externally or internally, or in times of crisis. Sometimes a business shies away from communicating, sometimes it has a strategy to promote to the outside world, and sometimes it is forced to communicate out of necessity as a result of a crisis.
In this sense, the EU is no different. After the infamous “non” and “nee”’ referenda on the EU Constitution in 2005 it was decided that what the EU needed to do was “communicate.” According to EU-logic, if it communicated what it was doing citizens would experience a road to Damascus moment and start voting “oui” and “ja” instead.
Five years later, and it would appear that citizens are still as apathetic as before. Who’d have thought it?!
Time for a revolution – specifically, a “communication revolution.”
New Communications Commissioner Viviane Reding – an experienced operator on the Brussels scene and not to be messed with – wants to bring about a culture shock. In a letter to President Barroso she outlines her vision for communicating Europe, some of which could be considered controversial by the very people she is willing to target.
Firstly she states that the EU project can only work if the Commission is perceived as the EU government. An interesting notion, given that unlike every Member State government the Commission doesn’t have much of a democratic mandate from the electorate.
Similarly, the plan to centre communication in the figure of President Barroso – largely unknown outside political circles, the Brussels bubble, and his home country of Portugal – seems both ambitious and questionable, since President Barroso cannot be said to be democratically elected either.
Despite the fiery rhetoric then, this is far from being a revolution.
In response, Espresso would like to humbly propose that reforming how the Commission communicates should be preceded by reforming the EU institutions themselves; so if you want a revolution, here it is.
Firstly, Commissioners should be elected, either on the EU or Member State level. This would immediately engage citizens, and whilst there is no reason to suppose turnout would be particularly high it would at least make the Commissioners beholden to their electorate. This already changes the dynamics of the communication flow and provides the Commission President with more limelight than is currently the case.
At times of crisis the EU, like any business, needs to communicate – but an EU communication revolution cannot happen without a prior institutional revolution. Since the latter is unlikely to take place, the former will be rendered redundant.
Food for thought, Ms Reding.
It’s a strange week in Brussels. There are definitely fewer people around. The STIB timetables are set to vacances scolaires, and you don’t keep bumping into people on the Rue du Luxembourg. No-one seems to be picking up the phone at the European Commission.
But hark! What is that I hear? Is it the sound of MEPs pressing the electronic voting button in the Parliamentary committees? A smattering of applause as another own-initiative report passes inspection and scuttles off to be grilled in Plenary.
The Lobby’s inbox is swamped with out-of-office requests to contact so-and-so-‘s assistant (assistants, as noted in a previous post, don’t seem to take holidays), yet the Brussels policy machine rumbles on. This can of course present problems for those in the EU bubble who want to spend “quality time” with their children over the school holidays, yet need to keep up with the latest developments in the institutions – if The Lobby had its own family of mini-Lobbies, we may be inclined to sympathise.
MEPs, too, feel the strain. Monica Frassoni, when an MEP, always complained at being called to Brussels on urgent Parliamentary business during Easter week, and used to say so during Committee meetings. Just today, a Polish MEP assistant known to The Lobby complained wearily as we ascended the escalator in the Parliament about having to start back so early – Easter Tuesday morning, in fact.
Still, at least those MEPs busily voting away this week can rest easy in the knowledge that, come August, it will be their turn to be on holiday whilst lobbyists up and down the city will be preparing for the onslaught of la rentrée.
The institutions always seem so keen to harmonise standards across the EU, yet as long as lobbyists continue to take holidays at variance with the EU institutional calendar it will likely be them who suffer in the long-run. Which is why The Lobby is working today!
On 1 April, after more than a year of rumours hinting at Robert Madelin leaving the helm of the European Commission’s Health and Consumers DG (DG SANCO) (he held the position for six years despite the fact that Director-Generals are expected to move on every five years), it finally happened.
Musical chairs – Madelin replaces Fabio Colasanti, who is retiring from the post of Director-General for Information Society and Media (DG INFSO). And as expected, Paola Testori-Coggi, who has been Deputy Director-General for Health and Consumers (DG SANCO) since July 2007, was appointed to replace Robert Madelin.
So what? Well, potentially this could mean quite a few changes. Madelin had transformed the way the health and consumers directorate was run. He has been high profile, taken risks and established what he called “co-operative voluntarism” as the new way of doing things: getting stakeholders to sit around a table and sign up to voluntary commitments, as an alternative to legislation.
Madelin’s departure does raise a question over the future of the European Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, which brought stakeholders together around one table to tackle the obesity pandemic. The same applies to the alcohol forum and its set of voluntary actions.
Ms. Testori-Coggi will most probably keep a lower profile than her predecessor but her scientific background and broad experience of food safety issues and emerging technologies could be seen as real added value now that biotechnologies have been transferred to the health portfolio.
As for Madelin’s new post, there seems to be a consensus in Brussels around the fact that he will be instrumental in shaping Europe’s Digital Future. His health experience could benefit DG INFSO in digital consumer and health related topics such as e-health. As for his trade experience (Madelin used to run the Trade DG), it could help him tackle key challenges of the EU Digital Agenda such as the much needed deployment of next generation access networks.
Director-Generals may be more discrete than Commissioners, but they are some of the most powerful players in Brussels – so watch this space, we certainly will!
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.
Today’s Financial Times reports on how the current financial crisis is affecting Spanish regions and regionalism in general. Viewed from Brussels, where both the European Commission and the Parliament have a vested interest in ensuring that European legislation is made in one place (i.e. Brussels), you could be forgiven for thinking that regionalism was a quaint relic of a distant past.
Up until recently this was very much not the case. The Scottish National Party had just won power in their (regional) Parliament in Scotland, the Basque terrorists ETA continue to plant bombs in Spanish coastal resorts, and Belgium was in danger of being torn asunder by its perennial north-south divide. In the Balkans the newly independent states of Kosovo and Montenegro demonstrate that similar regional aspirations have led successfully to self-determination (although Kosovo is still very much a work in progress).
This apparently contradictory trend of both centralisation towards Brussels and devolution towards the regions looked to be the way forward – until along comes the biggest financial meltdown since the 1930s. Now it’s all about strength in numbers. Catalonia is relying on handouts from the Spanish government in Madrid, Bretons are happy to stick the Gwenn-ha-du flag on their car and leave it at that, and the once proudly independent Iceland, though a country in its own right since breaking with Denmark in 1944, has come running to the EU searching for economic sanctuary.
So has regionalism within Europe had its day? Possibly, and though no doubt ETA and some patriotic kilt-wearing Scots may think differently, what the recent crisis has shown us is the pretty straightforward maxim that, when times are tough, larger countries fare better than smaller countries. Perhaps a lesson for the Commonwealth of Independent States, which in the same week appears to be breaking apart at the seams. They would do well to heed the lessons on their western border.
“If you haven’t heard yet, Jeleva, former MEP, is said to be appointed as next Bulgarian Commissioner and she might take the Regional policy portfolio.”
So says the first email in The Lobby’s Monday morning email inbox. Further enquiries led us to the website of current Bulgarian Foreign Minister Rumiana Jeleva, which features a piano rendition of Ode to Joy on the homepage. So she likes Europe then, which is nice, and having been an MEP for the last two years she ticks all the boxes for a Commissioner-elect.
From now until October Brussels will turn itself in knots as it tries to predict the make-up of the new European Commission. There are many reasons why this is more interesting than a usual government reshuffle.
First and foremost, national interests come into play. France wants the Internal Market portfolio, but having recently gone in for some protectionist measures of its own, might this be seen as being somewhat contradictory? (Moreover, will the Internal Market Commissioner still be responsible for financial regulation? Spies tell us this may not be so…)
Perhaps Romania is owed big-time for being stuck with the – ahem – Multilingualism portfolio, so should be given a decent portfolio this time round (possibly agriculture, or so we have heard). What portfolio is small enough for Malta, population 414,000? Might Ireland be punished for obstructing the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty? And who gets the politically sensitive dossiers such as enlargement, economic & monetary affairs, and justice & home affairs?
Secondly, a Commissioner’s mandate lasts for five years, longer than the usual national equivalent, and a Commissioner can only leave if he or she wants to, or is lured away by a lucrative position in their own country (as happened several times in the current College).
Individual Commissioners can’t be voted out by the European Parliament or the Member States, which leads us to our third point – the process is almost entirely undemocratic. Backroom deals and horse-trading will make or break the fate of Ms Jeleva and the many other potential candidates, out of sight of the prying eyes of the media and political commentators. Voters? Ha, you must be joking.
So all we in Brussels can do is pontificate on “potentialities” and keep our ear to the ground. With the Commission having sole right of initiative, whoever does make up the new College will set the debate for the next five years right across the policy spectrum. Watch this space. Ms Jeleva certainly will be.
Prime Minister van Rompuy had to endure a cascade of criticism from the opposition after they had learned of the Belgian Federal Government’s reshuffle plans on which agreement was reached last night. Sp.a leader Tobback accused van Rompuy of leading a “Government of failures and misfits which is unable to take serious policy actions, with van Rompuy as the biggest looser leading the group”.
The reshuffle, which has been rubberstamped by King Albert II this morning, follows the regional elections of last month and the departure of Foreign Affairs Minister Karel de Gucht who will replace Louis Michel as the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, after the latter was elected to the new European Parliament.
One could be forgiven for having thought that Yves Leterme’s political life was over after having failed to lead two Governments before the King finally accepted his resignation after he was accused of having influenced the judiciary on the sale of Fortis to BNP Paribas. However, nothing should surprise you in Belgian politics and believe it or not but Leterme has now been appointed as Karel de Gucht’s successor, taking over the prestigious post of Minister of Foreign Affairs!
Another interesting appointment to the Federal Government is that of Michel “papa” Daerden. This Walloon Socialist acquired world fame through Youtube in 2006 after giving an interview to the press in a very “happy” mood, and is said to have been “dumped” into the Federal Government by the Walloon Government… Mr Daerden has been given the not too public portfolio of Minister of Pensions and the Big Cities.
Ah good old Belgian politics! It becomes clearer by the day that van Rompuy will not be the man taking Belgium out of its political deadlock. In the meantime, all the good politicians (and especially Guy Verhofstadt) are fleeing Belgian politics for European politics.
One person’s democracy is another person’s dictatorship. Or so you would believe if you’ve been following the interminable debate surrounding the next Commission President. Will it be the incumbent José Manuel Barroso? Or will it be….er…. well, actually there are no other candidates at the time of writing.
Barroso is of course affiliated to the EPP group, who increased their lead over the Socialists and the rest so markedly following last month’s elections. No other party has put forward a candidate, so he’s a shoe-in, right?
Not according to the Socialists. Or the Liberals. Or the Greens. According to them, the Council has foisted Barroso on a reluctant Parliament and is trying to rush MEPs into approving Barroso this month. So much so that there is now increasing support for the vote in the Parliament to be put back until the Autumn – or until Barroso decides that he faces too much opposition in the Parliament and calls it quits.
Barroso has the support of the largest party in the European Parliament, the support of the Member States including “Socialist” leaders in Spain and the UK, and – so it would appear – the support of the European electorate, since it was his party that stormed the elections in June – and not the Socialists. Or the Liberals. Or the Greens.
Hence a Barroso appointment would appear to meet all the requirements of “democracy”, yet his political opponents in the Parliament are trying to portray this process as precisely undemocratic, because they don’t feel they have been properly consulted.
All of which leaves Barroso in limbo, the EPP holding their collective head in their hands, and the EU electorate wishing they could elect the Commission President to spare us this whole charade. Now that would be democracy in action….
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…