Many thanks to David for offering me a chance to raise my profile just before the second edition of the Satin Pajama Awards with a two-weeks guest-blogging stint here at AFOE.
For the 99% of you who don’t already know me, I usually display my limited knowledge of economics and politics at my own blog Ceteris Paribus and also, though not that often since a certain fateful 29th of May, at the group blog Publius. Oh, and I’m also French, which explains my awful English style and may or may not be a good reason to disregard my analysis about European matters.
Anyway, enough about me, since the quite unexpected European budget deal of last night offers plenty of things to write about.
First of all, I think the deal itself offers a weak refutation of the “curse of the big countries” argument made by Doug. Sure, the mere existence of a deal doesn’t provide conclusive proof of success. The Nice treaty wasn’t the kind of monstrous absurdity that most people now think it is, but it was a pretty bad deal nonetheless and certainly bad enough to deem the French presidency of 2000 a failure.
The budget for 2007-2013 agreed today is also flawed, as all grand European compromises are, almost by definition. But it is a real and significant achievement in what was otherwise an annus horribilis for the EU. The soft bigotry of low expectations is playing its part here, to be sure. But, assuming a positive vote from the grudging Parliament, the famed European bicycle is at least finally moving forward again.
A good case can be made that the fact that Blair was in the driver’s seat was the major reason for the agreement. Remember that only Britain really blocked the Juncker budget proposal last June. It was now and never for Blair and the other countries knew it, as BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell recounts in his excellent Summit diary:
For a couple of weeks now, the Foreign Office and Downing Street have been arguing that it isn’t going to get any better than this: if a deal isn’t reached by this weekend it can’t be under the Austrian presidency which starts in January or the Finns who hold the reins after that.
They haven’t quite said that Britain would veto any deal on offer next year but logic is on their side. If the devilishly clever but dastardly underhand British (that’s how the Foreign Office flatter themselves we’re seen by the rest of Europe) can’t design a deal to their own liking during their own presidency then how can anyone else come up with anything more acceptable?
Well, many leaders have bought this argument – or at least pretend to have done so.
They emerged suggesting that a deal simply MUST be done by this weekend or it is inevitable that the European Parliament will be left in 2007 to set the deal year by year, and their proposals would be, in the words of the Swedish prime minister, “frightening”.
Whether Blair was serious or not about blocking any budget deal next year, his strong-arm tactics were pretty darn effective to snatch a few more concessions from the other member states. Not enough to please the British press, to be sure, but enough to get a not insubstantial financial and political improvement for Britain compared to the June baseline. And all that with Blair reclaiming his place in history as the most pro-European British Prime minister since Edward Heath.
The other big winner of the summit is of course Angela Merkel. The SÃ¼ddeutsche Zeitung may be overdoing it with a “the Angela-summit” title, but Merkel has emerged, somewhat unexpectedly considering her lack of experience at the European level, as an effective power-broker between Britain and France. I remember that, back when the EU Constitution debate was tearing France apart last spring, the “oui” coalition made great hay of the fact that Germany was bound to turn right in the near-feature. Consequently, any suggestion that a “renegotiation” of the EU Constitution would be more favourable, as seen from a French point of view, was just flat-out absurd: better to vote “yes” now to a text that was devised when a majority of EU member states were on our side than to try to ram a “more social” treaty down the throat of a majority of right-leaning governments. I still believe that particular argument, of course.
But, in light of the Brussels summit and of the damage done to Europe by the Chirac-SchrÃ¶der alliance, I now tend to think that the arrival of Angela Merkel could be very good news indeed for those of us who want a less dysfunctional and more forward-looking European Union.
Or, Le Monde says in its last editorial titled “European recovery“, “beyond an always disappointing fight over percentages, the Brussels summit has given a few signs of hope”. Not that bad, considering where we were only a few days ago.