Futility

The European Commission still can’t tell participation from a horse’s arse. Neither, sadly, can the advocates of closer European integration. At least the ones who the Commission (and all the other institutions) thinks will help them win friends and influence people.

Example the first. Three organisations – the European Movement, plus something called “Notre Europe”, and something else called “Europanova” – are going to hold a gathering in Lille on the 17th of March. Now, the European Movement is familiar enough – rather worthy, painfully Commission-ish. Who the hell are the others? Notre Europe is run – indeed, going by the bylines on its website, is – two superannuated bureaucrats and Jacques Delors. Europanova has the first devilish sign of Euro-dullness on its home page, a reference to “jeunes leaders”.

They turn out to be a French academic who, surprise surprise, works at the European College in Bruges, and a German CSU MEP, a von to boot, who boasts that he invented the concept of “privileged partnership” for Turkey. I wouldn’t boast of that if it were me. It’s run by somebody who headed the European Youth Parliament, and then ran the news magazines Euro92 and A’l Heure de’l Europe.

Look, if anyone’s got a copy of either, I’ll vote for you in the Pyjamas. Can’t say fairer than that. It was 1992 – couldn’t he have been out dancing? The rest of them all seem to work for the Robert Schuman foundation, and one of them for the French national assembly’s European secretariat.

They are a congregation of vapours, but hardly foul or pestilent. Not enough there for that. Honestly, you want to grab them all by the neck and shake them until they do something interesting.
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The HRC is dead, long live the HRC?

The UN has elected a brand new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission. Why was the old HRC discredited? Well, basically and officially, because several of its members were known to violate human rights and/or to protect their own interests. It is only logical. However, who will be taking a seat in the new and improved HRC? Right, some of those very same countries that were known to violate human rights: China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
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EU Energy Policy II

Well the new EU energy plan has been released (and here, and you can also find the actual Commission statement here). The final product is pretty much as the leaks suggested.

As was indicated yesterday, Russia related concerns are central. The FT comments:

Russia supplies a quarter of Europe’s gas needs and the Union’s dependence on the country for energy was illustrated in January when a dispute between Moscow and Kiev disrupted gas deliveries to the EU.

All of this was I think anticipated on this blog back in January when the Gazprom/Ukraine dispute first really broke into the public arena. What wasn’t anticipated was this, and especially the gas related dimension of the Suez/Gaz de France merger.

The major changes taking shape in Europe’s energy sector at present undercut the arguments of those who have long been predicting a gradual break-up of monopolies and the disappearance of the industry’s biggest players. The planned merger of Suez and Gaz de France to counter an offensive by Enel and Veolia and the fight between Gas Natural and E.On for the hand of Endesa make it abundantly clear that concentration remains very much a watchword in the branch and that even powerful old public monopolies like Electricite de France could be forced into marriages with others in future.

None of the reasons trotted out to justify the merger between Suez and Gaz de France, to cite but that operation, dwelled on the future role of Russia in Europe’s energy landscape. True, the Russians aren’t directly involved in any of the operations underway in Western Europe. On further examination, however, Gazprom’s moves in recent months could be seen as justification for the consolidation.

The future Suez/Gaz de France grouping will become the leading buyer and the top supplier of gas in Europe. As such, it will rank as one of Gazprom’s prime customers in the world. That, however, isn’t necessarily good news for Gazprom. In its dealings with such a powerful client the Russian monopoly won’t be able to exert as much pressure upon it as upon a smaller entity, let alone bully it.

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Oh We Are The Champions

Yes we are really, aren’t we. Especially if we are called Arcelor, or Danone, or Endesa, or Eni, or Enel, or Banca Antonveneta or Pekao. And what these champions have in common, and it is this which sets them so much apart from their footballing equivalents, is not the ability to win anything, but rather their capacity to lose, especially in a take-over battle from a foreign pretender. And just for this very reason it is, it seems, ok for you to include the referee in your line-up. Indeed such is the sporting prowess of these ‘champions’ that it is deemed that what they are most in need of is not the cold harsh wind of competition, but rather protection, and indeed protectionism, anything rather than face outright competition from would-be global rivals. A rare breed of champions these.

I think before I go further, I would like to draw attention to one idea which holds us all together here at Afoe:

Purity of race does not exist. Europe is a continent of energetic mongrels. – H.A.L. Fisher
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Turnering The Screw

The Turner Report is about to appear. The Turner in question is the UK peer Lord Adair Turner, and the subject of the report the future of the UK pensions system. Although the final report is not due till the end of the month, the FT has been ‘ leaking’ some of the possible contents.

The commission will apparently suggest that the age at which workers can claim their full state pension should, over time, rise from 65 to 67. The increase is intended to come in stages, starting after 2020 when the UK’s women’s state pension age is set to be aligned with men’s at 65. Thereafter, state pension age should rise in line with increasing longevity, the commission will say. Now this idea seems to me to be a very important one, and I’d just like to take the time out to explain why I think this.
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Balkans moving forward…

The European Commission released its annual reports on enlargement yesterday, including a recommendation that Macedonia be recognised as an EU candidate. Eagerly anticipated (including by Doug Muir a few weeks back), but also pretty stunning given the difficulties the region has had, and given the general perception of enlargement fatigue.

However in my view this piece of good news is put in the shade by this morning’s Guardian story about likely Bosnian constitutional reform. Apparently a deal brokered by the Americans, but lubricated by the prospect of EU entry, “would give Bosnia the ‘normal’ trappings of an integrated, non-ethnic parliamentary democracy: a national parliament with full legislative powers, central government and cabinet enjoying full executive power, and a titular head of state”.
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Promises, Promises, But More Than A Technical Detail

Well the eurozone government deficit problem has hit the agenda with a thud again in the last few days. Yesterday the FT ran a story about how the ECB has decided that it will not accept government paper (bonds) in the future from any country which has not maintained at least an A- rating from one or more of the principal debt assesment agencies. (Dave Altig at MacroBlog has also covered the story here, and Nouriel Roubini here). Today the FT has another story about how Trichet has confirmed the policy, and how the Commission too plans to get tough (well they would, wouldn’t they, since this may now become a credibility auction).

This topic must appear appaulingly technical and yawn-provoking to the non-economist. In fact nothing could be further from the truth. Let me explain a bit.
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Slowed or stalled?

Taking a break from the German elections, I ran across this recent article over at Radio Free Europe. Short version: EU accession for the Western Balkans (Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania) is stalling.

All of these five states would like to be part of the EU, but — with the partial exception of Croatia — none of them are particularly welcome. The EU appears to be going through a period of “accession fatigue” in general. The “No” votes in France and the Netherlands, though not directed specifically at these countries, have definitely created an atmosphere of doubt and uncertainty.

Furthermore, many of the countries of the Western Balkans are — there’s no way to be polite about this — unpopular. A recent Eurobarometer poll shows that more people oppose membership for Bosnia (43%) than support it. Only 40% of Europeans support EU membership for Serbia, while 44% oppose it. And for Albania, those numbers are a depressing 36% for, 50% against.

Obviously this could change over time. Again with the exception of Croatia, all of these countries are at least a decade away from membership. So opinions might shift. Still, the poll numbers suggest that there’s not much popular support within the EU for even starting the process.

Looking at the potential members one by one, below the flip.
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A Good First Step

The Financial Times reports this morning that EU Commission President José Barroso is about to launch a major ‘deregulation campaign’. He is reported as saying that he was determined to get the Commission to embrace better regulation, to carry out more systematic impact assessments and to make more frequent use of the option of not legislating at all. “The important thing is to change the culture of the organisation”. Maybe all this won’t turn out to be the last word in sliced bread, but it is moving in the right direction. According to the FT:

Mr Barroso wants to axe a wide variety of laws designed to impose EU-wide standards, claiming that some legislation was “absurd” and brought Europe into disrepute….
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Here We Go Again

The Financial Times is running this story this morning:

Britain is coming under pressure from the European Commission to say when it will honour its 25-year-old promise to go fully metric, converting miles to kilometres and pints to litres.G?nter Verheugen, EU enterprise commissioner, says he wants clarity on the issue, claiming he is facing pressure from British pro-metric campaigners to act.

Isn’t this really the kind of silly non-issue the EU could safely live without? UK consumers and citizens have every right to purchase their beer in pints or measure their journeys in miles if they chose so to do. Trying to force them to change is not non-intrusive government. And the argument about pressure from the ‘pro-metric’ lobby is a canard: if they want to lobby, they should lobby inside the UK, and try and convince public opinion there, while Verheugen should have the strength of character to tell them to get lost in the meantime.

Incidentally, on this issue I have no strong feelings personally, since frankly my dear I couldn’t give a damn.

Update, here’s another example:

The decision by the Netherlands to lock up 5.5m free-range birds as a precaution against the spread of avian flu may have breached European Union rules, it was claimed on Friday. The European Commission said its lawyers were studying whether the unilateral action was legal, since animal health is an EU matter and the Dutch action was taken before EU animal health experts had co-ordinated their response. Commission lawyers are also considering how long Dutch free-range egg producers should be allowed to market their products as such, following the decision to confine all poultry to sheds last week.

It seems little has been learned from the referendum ‘sebacks’. What we are in danger of creating is an intransigent’s paradise. If the Dutch government can’t take the measures it sees fit to protect its citizens because it’s against the rules then it’s time to ammend the rules in question and not castigate the government of the Netherlands. This is the case whether or not it could be claimed that the government have ‘overreacted’.