Ashton and Van Rompuy will have a tough start

22/11/2009

 

The time for celebration is over. Now Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton must start preparing for their new jobs.

Catherine Ashton has a delicate balancing act to perform. The High Representative should take up her new responsibilities on 1 December, according to the Lisbon Treaty. But Ashton is facing European Parliament hearings before she is confirmed as Vice-President of the Commission.

She cannot wait for the vote. A number of urgent dossiers are already piling up on her new desk. One of them is the European External Action Service, EEAS.

When EU governments agreed guidelines for the EEAS, they left a number of controversial questions unanswered. Catherine Ashton must move quickly to gain control.

Herman Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton face big challenges. Photo Gunnar Seijbold/Government Offices

The relationship between foreign and development policy is one such issue. During the European Development Days in October, many speakers were eager not to subordinate EU development aid programmes to short-term foreign policy priorities. Poverty reduction should remain the aim for EU financial assistance and the Commissioner for Development should be in control over programming (over the money, to put it more frankly). This view is shared by many Ministers for Development.

However, the guidelines for the EEAS state that the geographical desks should `play a leading role in the strategic decision-making´ about programming and implementation. Proposals to the College of Commissioners will be prepared jointly by the High Representative and the Commissioner for Development.

How this should work in practice must be decided before the end of the year, according to the guidelines. Catherine Ashton must move quickly to find a solution to the internal conflicts that remain. The European Parliament and many others will closely monitor the organizational structure for development programmes in the new Commission. Similar issues arise for EU Neighbourhood Policy programs.

Before April 2010, Catherine Ashton must submit her proposal for a Council decision on the organisation and functioning of the EEAS. Other difficult issues include the role of special representatives, and of EU delegations around the world. This goes especially for EU Delegations at the UN and other multilateral institutions.

At the same time, Ashton must quickly become a key player in foreign policy. Her first statement on Iran, for example, will be scrutinized in detail. To have any chance of success, she must delegate a number of tasks related to organization without losing overall control.

Hopefully, she will still have time to use the Lisbon Treaty to advance EU policy on horizontal issues such as human rights, conflict prevention, and green diplomacy. It is a tall order for someone with little experience in foreign and security policy, but Ashton should have the benefit of the doubt.

Herman Van Rompuy has a somewhat easier task. The Swedish Presidency will chair meetings until the end of the year, and Van Rompuy will be able to ease the transition of power in Belgium before taking up his new post.

However, the new President of the European Council must quickly agree a division of tasks with the upcoming Spanish Presidency. That might not be so easy. Zapatero is likely to fight for a strong Spanish role for example in the preparation of a post-Lisbon strategy.

Herman Van Rompuy must, like Ashton, devote much energy to the new organizational structure. What will be the relation between the President and the rest of the Council Secretariat, led by Pierre de Boissieu? Who will, in practice, prepare the work program of the Council and negotiate with the rotating Presidencies? My bet is on Pierre de Boissieu.

Many have asked whether Ashton and Van Rompuy were really the best two candidates Europe could muster. That is a good question.

But now, the choice has been made. Europe needs leaders who work well together and who make the European Union more than the sum of its individual parts. Ashton, Barroso and Van Rompuy deserve a fair chance.


Progress on Enlargement

08/11/2009

 

The final approval of the Lisbon Treaty opens the door to the European Union again. Many obstacles to further enlargement remain, but there has been significant progress during the Swedish Presidency.

Signature of arbitration agreement Croatia-Slovenia.  Photo: André Mkandawire/Swedish Government Offices

Signature of arbitration agreement Croatia-Slovenia. Photo: André Mkandawire/Swedish Government Offices

At a ceremony in Stockholm this week, the Croatian and Slovenian Prime Ministers signed an arbitration agreement on the border dispute between the two countries. Slovenia lifted its blockage of Croatia´s accession negotiations at the end of September. As a consequence, enlargement negotiations with Croatia now move forward at full speed.

The Presidency is careful not to take credit for the breakthrough, instead praising the political leadership of Croatia and Slovenia. However, behind the scenes there have been intense efforts to solve the border issue both by enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn and by the Swedish Presidency. Carl Bildt´s statement on the eve of the Presidency was carefully crafted to put pressure on both sides. Croatia´s ambassador to France acknowledged the role of the EU and the US recently in an interview with Euractiv.

This week´s border agreement is not the end of the story. While Croatia´s Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor is saying that she will send the agreement to Parliament next week, her Slovenian colleague Borut Pahor is advocating an advisory referendum before ratification. But there will be significant progress in negotiations during the coming weeks. Sweden will be able to close a large number of negotiation chapters before the end of the year.

Iceland might well accede at the same time as Croatia. The Swedish Presidency skillfully achieved an agreement already at the Foreign Ministers´ meeting in end July to ask the Commission to prepare the opinion on Iceland´s membership. Another country at the helm might not have been as motivated to navigate the difficult waters of the economic compensation from Iceland to bank customers in the UK and the Netherlands. Sweden was able to prevent this question from delaying Iceland´s accession process.

Now the European Council in December is likely to agree that Iceland should be able to start accession negotiations early next year. Whether the Icelanders in the end will vote yes to membership is another story.

There has also been progress on the membership bids of Macedonia and Serbia, while Turkey remains a difficult issue and Cyprus is a cause of big concerns for the Swedes. The `big bang´ breakthrough of the first Swedish Presidency in 2001 will not be repeated.

Ratification of the accession treaties might become more difficult next time, with all the add-ons to the Lisbon Treaty that are supposed to be annexed to the treaties, and with a possible conservative government in the UK (Tony Barber writes well about the opt-outs on his FT Brussels Blog). Friends of enlargement should try to decouple the opt-outs from the ratification of the accession treaties.

Still, enlargement could be the success story Fredrik Reinfeldt badly needs, with failure on climate approaching.

But most of the credit should go to Carl Bildt and Olli Rehn.

 

A short note on the new posts in the Lisbon Treaty: I played a small role once during discussions on a Swedish Commissioner. My experience is that nothing is decided until very late in the process. I guess this is true for the two new posts as well. While it is fun to speculate, and others might have better sources when making their assessments, personally I will wait until more first-hand information is available. Maybe we will know more by tomorrow evening, after talks at the celebrations in Berlin.

One question, though. Is Michel Barnier really going to get the internal market portfolio in the new Commission? Earlier, I thought it would be too provocative to give this post to a Frenchman (don´t get me wrong, Barnier is very skilled, but politically it seems difficult). However, Barroso´s recent appointment of Mario Monti as an independent expert on the development of the internal market looks like a compensatory measure to fence off criticism when Barnier is appointed.


Reinfeldt´s Big Test

18/10/2009

 

Preparing a European Council is never easy, but this time it seems extremely difficult. Few will envy Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish Prime Minister. After Ireland voted yes to the Lisbon Treaty, the prospects for the EU Summit 29-30 October looked bright. Then Vaclav Klaus put forward his demands for concluding the Czech ratification process.

Yesterday, Vaclav Klaus made clear that he will not block the ratification until after the UK elections. He also backed down from demanding legal guarantees already now. However, Klaus is asking for a declaration that such guarantees will be included in the future – probably in connection with the accession treaty of Croatia.

This will be difficult for other governments to accept. Many would prefer a simple and strong message to Klaus: `F*ck off´. That is not how the EU works, however. There has been so many cases before when people making a lot of noise get a fig leaf to cover their retreat in the end. The most likely solution seems to be a declaration stating that the Charter of Fundamental Rights applies to EU institutions only, and not to issues within the competence of the Member States. Without any specific mentioning of issues related to the Second World War.

Will that be enough for Vaclav Klaus? Only the Czech President himself knows. But it is also an issue about what Member States such as Austria, Hungary and Slovakia can accept, and about the responsibility for EU leaders not to reignite old sensitive controversies. Vaclav Klaus should follow the advice John Cleese is giving to himself in Faulty Towers: `Don´t mention the war´.

Vaclav Klaus is a difficult obstacle, but there is also a positive scenario for the European Council.

If the Czech constitutional court already 27 October decides against the complaints about the Lisbon Treaty, and Klaus backs off, it might even be possible to keep to the original plan and fill the new posts at the Summit. This is very optimistic, but should not be ruled out entirely. Otherwise, the positions might be filled at an extra Summit in November, as foreseen by the Financial Times. Why not bet a euro on Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende as President of the European Council?

Climate is another nightmare for Fredrik Reinfeldt. It seems extremely complicated to reach a legally binding agreement in Copenhagen. On Tuesday, EU finance ministers will try to agree on financing, with environment ministers meeting the following day to negotiate the full EU position for Copenhagen.

Although there was progress in COREPER last Friday, sensitive issues remain, including the burden sharing of  additional financing and the future of the Clean Development Mechanism. Environment ministers will also have difficulties agreeing on how to handle the `hot air´  in the Kyoto protocol, the emission allowances not used by the participating countries.

On another issue, Reinfeldt can be more optimistic. The Swedish Presidency has been very active on the principles for the External Action Service, which will be established by the Lisbon Treaty. Although there has been differing views on inter alia the competence of the EU Commission, a compromise solution now seems close.

According to a text to be discussed by COREPER tomorrow, the controversial issue about development assistance would be solved by emphasizing the High Representative´s role as Vice-President of the EU Commission. Strategies and similar decisions of principle would be submitted to the College by the Commissioner for Development Aid, in agreement with the Vice-President, but detailed programming would be the sole responsibility of the Commissioner for Development Aid. Should this compromise satisfy Member States, the Swedish Presidency will have at least one positive result to show at the European Council.

If Reinfeldt also can overcome the resistance of Vaclav Klaus, he will be able to claim success at the Summit. But climate negotiations remain a dark cloud over the Swedish Presidency.


Iran looms over Gymnich meeting

03/09/2009

 

What line should the EU take on economic sanctions towards Iran?

This is one of the crucial questions at the informal meeting with EU Foreign Ministers, starting tomorrow.

Angela Merkel´s statement last week on Iran has been interpreted as a shift towards a tougher German position (excellently described by Judy Dempsey in today´s IHT).

Merkel mentioned sanctions “in the energy, financial and other important sectors” if Iran does not change its nuclear policy. It is not clear whether this view is shared by the entire government, including Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt                                                                    (Photo:Pawel Flato/Government Offices

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (Photo:Pawel Flato/Government Offices

So far, the issue of economic sanctions has been controversial within the EU. Sweden is one of the countries with reservations about their effectiveness, and the consequences should the EU take such a decision without agreement in the UN Security Council. Carl Bildt has earlier spoken out against sanctions, warning that “to isolate Iran even more is to lock them in among the dark forces”.

Most likely the E3 (France, Germany, and the UK) will tomorrow inform other EU governments about consultations with the US, Russia and China yesterday. Maybe the big three will seek support for stricter economic sanctions as the next step.

Since the Italian Presidency in 2003, the E3 (and to some extent, Javier Solana), has had a mandate to conduct negotiations on the nuclear issue with Iran on the EU´s behalf. No EU Presidency from other member states has played a significant role in these negotiations.

Economic sanctions are something else, however. The Swedish EU Presidency will be keen not to be sidestepped in such discussions. This is perhaps the most sensitive issue at the Gymnich meeting.

My qualified guess is that the Swedish government will play down the Iran issue when talking to the media during the informal Stockholm meeting, maybe stating that it is not yet mature. A conclusive discussion on sanctions will be relevant only later this autumn, the message might be, after consultations in connection with the UN General Assembly on Iran´s response.

Instead, the media spin on Gymnich will probably be based on Carl Bildt´s recent visit to Afghanistan and Javier Solana´s report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Important issues.

Still, Sweden´s ability to keep the EU together on the issue of sanctions towards Iran will be a decisive test for Carl Bildt.


Wanted: a better EU policy on Latvia

07/07/2009

 

My editorial in Aftonbladet deals with the crisis in Latvia and ECOFIN discussions about this subject today.

A Fistful of Euros has described the situation excellently. The dogmatic refusal to devaluate the Latvian currency is worsening the situation. IMF seems to be getting cold feet.

The conditions imposed by the EU and the IMF are causing a dramatic drop in domestic consumption. In the editorial, we urge the Swedish government to listen more to trade unions and independent experts in Latvia, not only to Swedish banks and to the Latvian Ministry of Finance.

My earlier posts on Latvia are here, here, here, here, and here.


Do EU leaders understand why Latvians protest?

01/03/2009

Today´s European Council will discuss the serious economic situation in Eastern Europe. Latvia is one of the countries most affected by the financial crisis.

I wrote about Latvia and the Swedish banks in one of my first posts here.

Yesterday, the resigning Prime Minister was interviewed by Sveriges radio. Ivars Godmanis told interviewer Tomas Ramberg that Swedbank and SEB have made both positive and negative contributions to Latvia´s economy. They supplied credits necessary for the country´s development. But they also fuelled a boom in property prices that was detrimental to the economy.

Ivars Godmanis argued against a devaluation of the lat, but I did not find him very convincing. And what Prime Minister – resigning or not – would not rule out devaluation as long as his country is defending its currency?

I am not an economist, but I find the arguments in a paper by Torbjörn Becker rather strong. Becker is Director of the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics. He claims that the current policy could be disastrous for Latvia´s industry:

“not adressing the overvaluation will most certainly make sure that little is left of the export sector a few years from now”

Torbjörn Becker argues against the IMF package and advocates instead that Latvia should either devaluate and adopt the euro, or widen the band for the exhange rate, allowing a depreciation of 15 percent.

What worries me is not only the economic arguments by Torbjörn Becker, Paul Krugman and others, but also the lack of democratic deliberation in the implementation of Latvia´s reforms.

The IMF package was negotiated without any significant consultations with social partners, such as trade unions. It follows a period of tax cuts, with benefits for people with high incomes.

In the interview with Sveriges radio, Ivars Godmanis did not dwell much on the need for reform packages to be socially fair.

No real consultation, no emphasis on social justice. Who should be surprised about the public protests?

I hope EU leaders are not. Their discussion today should not only be about economic scenarios, but also about public participation in solving the crisis.

Other blogs on Latvia and the IMF package: Fistful of euros, Spectrezine, Latvia Economy Watch, Baltic Economy Watch, IMF´s Christoph Rosenberg on RGE Monitor


When will the smaller Members States react?

22/02/2009

I have been down with a nasty flu and barely managed to write a few texts in Swedish, so this blog had to take a temporary break.

Today, I notice that the big EU economies have taken steps towards a common line at the G-20 meeting in April. At today´s meeting in Berlin, they agreed inter alia on the need to provide more capital to the IMF and to regulate hedge funds.

Seems like a good thing. But the meeting as such causes worry in small and medium-size Member States, such as Sweden.

When I was in the Council, there was always talk about co-ordination between the Big Three – France, Germany and the UK. However, more often than not, their views diverged.

Then we had enlargement to 25 Member States and policy issues such as Iran, where the Big Three did international relations on behalf of the EU. By that time I had left the Foreign Ministry. “It´s OK as long as it turns out well”, a high-level Swedish diplomat told me.

With a further expansion to 27 Members States, signs of close co-ordination between the bigger members began to show. I heard rumours of regular meetings at senior officials level to discuss the EU agenda in different fields. In some areas, such as justice and home affairs, the Big Five – now including Italy and Spain – agreed common action plans.

Swedish diplomats seemed at bit more worried by then, but still kept a brave face. “OK, they try to co-ordinate, but in the end they still have disagreements and we have the possibility to influence the final EU decisions”

Now, the tone is more somber. Today´s meeting in Berlin is causing concern that the big states are now definitely running the show.

The five co-ordinate more now, senior diplomats tell me. Apparently, this development has been reinforced by the amateurish Czech Presidency and the delayed ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

My questions is: how long will the small and medium-states tolerate to being treated as second-class members?

After all, the European Union is built on nation states, and more than 20 of them are not represented when the Big Five try to decide EU policy.

One sign will be the designation of the new posts foreseen in the Lisbon Treaty. Will the big Member States do the deal on the President of the Council and appoint someone from their own circle (as they did in 1999, when Pierre de Boissieu got the influential post as Deputy Secretary-General instead of Denmark´s well-qualified candidate)?

Or will the 22 other Member States demand a counter-balance to the informal co-ordination between the Big Five, through a stronger leadership of the Commission and a President of the Council with the courage to say No to Berlin, London and Paris?

Sweden will play a crucial role as the EU Presidency the second half of this year, when the decisions will be made.