And Over to You, Too, Mr Socrates

Portuguese Prime Minister José Sócrates Carvalho Pinto de Sousa will need all of his namesake’s wisdom, and none of his taste in last drinks, as he takes over the rotating presidency (careful, the page has an annoying soundtrack) of the European Council this weekend.

Chancellor Merkel’s quiet persuasion has brought the EU much closer to a renovation of its institutions than seemed likely at the beginning of 2007. The governments now have a mandate to negotiate the details and prepare, by the end of the year, a treaty revision that can be ratified in 2008, or at the very latest in early 2009.

This half-year will also be a test of the “trio” approach to the rotating presidency. Starting this year, groups of three presidencies will work together to present a common agenda for the 18 months of their collective tenure. Anything increasing continuity in an office that countries can expect to hold about once every two decades (a far cry from the period when the rotation principle was established) is good news. Germany, Portugal and Slovenia worked together to set things up; now is the first actual transition within a trio.

The Portuguese don’t plan on wasting any time, and the intergovernmental conference will begin in late July. Coming just three weeks after the mandate, this is something like record time for the EU. And the plan is to wind it up by the end of the year. Given that past IGCs have tended to sprawl over about 18 months, this would be quite the accomplishment as well. Coming up with a Treaty text will, of course, be no small task, even with the former constitutional draft to serve as a basis.

On the other hand, there’s this “In addition, other priorities urgently deserve our attention.” That’s the horse’s nose under the tent. There follows a long list of things Portugal wants to do, including summits with Africa and Brazil, to say nothing of following up on the Lisbon Agenda (which to my thinking is what one should say at this point). The country’s leadership has limited personnel and resources. Taking their collective eye off the ball of institutional reform is asking for trouble on the Treaty front. It’s an accident of the calendar that Portugal has ended up with this responsibility for the Union, and that its more self-interested topics ought to take a back seat, but on the other hand, it’s an opportunity for a small state to have a historic achievement. Word to the wise, Mr S.


Well, this is a little late, but we ought to put on record that the fun-lovin’ minicaudillo’s fingers were eventually pried from the Italian prime ministership. As predicted, he went out with a considerable degree of low comedy, as the Italian senate struggled to elect a speaker largely because the Berlusconi side insisted on making a fuss about whether ballots cast for the eventual winner read “Franco” or “Francesco” Marini. Eventually, though, it was done.

The Senate speakership had been the last real opportunity to cling on, as the Left has a working majority in the lower house and therefore appointed its man without trouble. The deeper play of the Senate vote, by the way, was an effort to cause trouble in the Unione’s ranks – Romano Prodi chose to put forward a Refounded Communist, Faustino Bertinotti, as speaker of the lower house, thus getting the far Left on side, and therefore needed to balance the ticket by putting someone from the ex-Christian Democrat wing of his coalition in the Senate. This being achieved, Berlusconi had no longer any excuse to hang on.

The next problem will be to elect a President. In Italy, the presidency is a nonexecutive position more like that of Germany than that of France, but the president does choose who is asked to form a government, so without a prez there can be no prime minister. Now, the simplest option would just have been to re-elect Ciampi, but he says he’s too old. This is where it gets complicated, because a super-majority is needed to elect a president.

Recalling that the Refounded Communists got the speakership of the lower house, and the ex-democristiani the speakership of the upper house (and in all probability the prime ministership). Which major faction on the left is empty-handed? That’s right, the non-refounded communists, who in fact really did refound themselves to become the Democratic Left, unlike their former comrades in the Refoundation who didn’t refound themselves and remained communist. Their leader, former PM Massimo D’Alema, was therefore put forward as a candidate for the presidency even though the chance of Berlusconi’s side supporting him was exactly nil.

In fact, the Right is threatening a campaign of mass demonstrations in the event of his election, and suggesting that Marini be the President. This, your keen and agile minds will soon perceive, is a transparent device to reopen the speakership issue and thus destabilise the Left. Alternatively, the Right proposes, the secretary of the Presidency, Gianni Letta, might be a candidate.
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Towards a European strategy for the security of energy supply

Here’s the link to the EU Energy green paper I mentioned yesterday. As is to be expected, the report is ‘fair and balanced’. The section on nuclear energy focuses mainly on the sovereign decision making process as to its adoption and emphasises the role of Brussels in ensuring environmental safety. It does, however, contain this intriguing paragraph:
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A new hope?

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.
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A Big Problem?

Just a brief query: Can anyone think of the last time one of the big four countries in the EU — Germany, France, Britain, Italy — had a successful presidency of the Union?

It looks like the UK’s turn at the top will end without a budget agreement, which is fine for Blair’s domestic politics, but not so good for running the 25-country EU. Italy’s last run was marred by an initial spat between Berlusconi’s government and the European Parliament and never really got back into gear. Germany’s last presidency, back in ’99, featured the resignation of the Commission, the resignation of Germany’s finance minister and the war in Kosovo. The French presidency in 2000 ended with the summit in Nice, one of the least productive EU summits in memory. (EU mandarins from Central Europe still haven’t forgotten how Chirac gratuitously slighted them at Nice, setting the tone for his approach to enlargement.)

Breakthroughs seem to come during the presidencies of smaller countries. In recent years, think Ireland and Denmark. In the interests of better governance, maybe the Union should ban big countries from holding the presidency?

Le Petit ‘Non’

Well, if you believe Times (and after last weeks episode with the Independent I believe no-one), le petit ‘non’, like its equivalent le petit mensonge, is not all that serious after all. According to the Times, Britain is working with other European states to draw up plans to keep the European Union constitution alive if there is a narrow ?non? vote in France next week. Just a soupcon of ‘no’ will, in the end ‘help the medicine go down’.

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