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Blessed with offices with a park-view, it has been hard not to notice the veritable explosion that has taken place over the last ten days: spring has finally come to Brussels!
What was grey and brown has once more become green.
And how fitting that greening is such a topical matter in Brussels at the moment.
In a rare display of harmony, Belgium and the European Union seem to keep the same pace with each other.
Unfortunately, the sun does not shine as radiantly on the policy side of things as on Brussels’ trees, quite the contrary; dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.
The first thing that springs to mind are the ongoing negotiations on the CAP reform in both Parliament and Council, where the Commission’s greening proposals have come to form a divide between MEPs and delegations.
While decision-makers in principle welcome the measures, opinions vary on the modalities and character of the Commission’s proposal.
After all, tying 30%of the Direct Payments to farmers for greening measures was bound to cause a stir…
Speaking of stirs, the negotiations on the future EU budget finally seem to have hit a nerve for some Member States. Naturally, we are referring to last week’s GAC meeting ,during which delegations let off some steam concerning spending obligations.
Once again, the green was the main focus of discussions, although a different kind of green: several net-paying Member States demanded the budget be cut by €100 bn. Sometimes too much green makes you see red, says the Lobby.
Surely, the negotiations on the CAP and the budget will be lengthy (did I hear someone say delayed?) and keep on stirring emotions.
In the meantime we will keep enjoying the park view.
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.”
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!
“These are the rules…”
No doubt this phrase is familiar to several colleagues working in EU affairs when access to the EU institutions is rightly refused because a name is not on the accreditation list. Bureaucracy and rules help avoid favoritism and guarantee fair treatment. However, The Lobby feels that the way in which security guards in the Parliament interpreted and applied the rules a couple of weeks ago are – at the very least – questionable.
On this occasion security guards at the main entrance to the European Parliament in Brussels prevented a group of students from Palermo University from entering the Parliament since the T-shirts they were wearing were deemed to carry a political message, thus violating the code of visitor conduct rules.
The students came to Brussels to attend an anti-mafia conference in the Parliament on the fight against the mafia and were wearing T-shirts carrying the slogan ‘No Mafia – Sicilians against any type of Mafia‘ in Italian, English, French, and German. They were invited by Italian Socialist MEP Rosario Crocetta, a former anti-mafia Mayor of the Sicilian city of Gela and currently under police protection after receiving death threats.
A row followed after the guards blocked the students from entering. They were only allowed to enter the building after removing the T-shirts, which were collected by two Italian MEPs who managed to get them through the security blockade (MEPs are exempt form the rules applied to visitors). Rather than leaving it there, the security guards escorted these ‘dangerous’ students whilst they were in the building to ensure they did not put the T-shirts back on.
Maybe an anti-mafia T-shirt is considered too political for the European Parliament, or at least for its visitors’ code of conduct, but students coming from parts of Europe where lives could be in danger for simply wearing such t-shirts should perhaps a receive a warmer welcome.
One of The Lobby’s intrepid sources was caught in a parallel universe yesterday after discovering that the Parliament’s PHS building in Brussels has a 5th-and-a-half floor.
Not content with confounding visitors with a maze of confusing signposts and meandering corridors, the powers that be have found a home for a large swathe of the ALDE group in a Being John Malkovich-esque middle ground between the fifth and sixth floors.
Far be it from The Lobby to speculate on what this says about the group’s politics, nor can we confirm any sighting of a lost Harry Potter looking for platform 9 and three quarters (perhaps he was wearing his invisibility cloak.)
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.
Some would clearly say yes. Others will just look at you with big open eyes and ask what you are on about?!
When sitting in Brussels and dealing with EU affairs, the Lisbon Treaty is a BIG thing because it gives more power to Brussels to make policies and legislation which will directly impact businesses and the lives of millions of people and, ultimately, move the EU cause forward, dare I say, positively.
But if you are a citizen sitting in your armchair, what would you be thinking?
“Oh god, more interference from Brussels, more power to those grey technocrats who will simply come up with more rules to bend or unbend my bananas, perhaps even change the natural orange colour of my carrots, or better still tell me where to place my electric plug in relation to my bidet – at least to those Europeans who know what they are supposed to be used for!”
If you are a businessperson sitting at your desk, you will be considering what new laws Brussels will come up with which will impact, and most probably, restrict the way you do my business, which means you will need to spend more time, resources and money representing and defending your interests when all you really want to do is go about doing your business!
And here lies the irony. In their wisdom, those who came up with the Lisbon Treaty, aka the Constitution, wanted to make a better Europe, one that would work more efficiently, that would conform to citizens’ wishes, one that would get the thumbs up from the Europeans. Yet, on the whole we Europeans do not understand what the EU is about. Only 47% turned up to elect the new Parliament – the institution with at least the same amount of power to that of the Member States, but the only one actually elected by the people – and in many instances the EU is an unknown quantity…sorry to say this, but this is the majority perception.
So, what should we make of all this? It comes down to communications from Brussels to the Member States, but also the buy-in from the Member States themselves – that is surely the greatest challenge. Our respective governments and parliaments have to become de facto EU allies, rather than partners in crime, but this will take a long time. The good news, however, is that we have plenty of it…after all the European Union, now for the first time a legal entity, is only 52 years old – “barely out of nappies” to some; “in the prime of life” to others.
While visiting the European Parliament’s website yesterday, The Lobby came across the new “multicoloured” EP calendar, along with a brief allusion to Arthur Rimbaud’s poem ‘Voyelles’. A nice touch!
The Lobby finds the new calendar colourful indeed and appreciates the fact that the EP seems to have swung into full action again, especially after a period almost as tranquil as the scene described in Rimbaud’s ‘Le dormeur du val’…