Monday, June 29, 2009

Could Baroness Vadera be the UK Commissioner? And who would be sitting with her at the next College of Commissioners?

My money's on Shriti Vadera being the next European Commissioner. Its such a no-brainer I don't know why I hadn't suggested it before. Now it looks as though Lord Mandelson has given Baroness Vadera his blessing. Its been leaked in the weekend pres that Gordon is thinking of nominating Shriti - a politician entirely of his making - rather than Geoff Hoon who had previously been the favourite. I had assumed that when he left government after the European elections, it was to pave the way to his nomination. But the prospect of an embassing defeat for Labour in Hoon's constituency if he was sent to Brussels was always going to be a dark cloud hanging over his chances. No such problem for Baroness Vadera - a member of the House of Lords. It helps that she is a woman. Barroso has said he wants more women to be nminated to his Commission. The current holder Baroness Ashton is also a woman of course but she has only ever been considered as an interim appointment to allow Brown pull off his masterstroke by bringing Mandelson into his government in 2008. Vadera will either get Trade or Competition.

What about the other names being considered by Member States across the EU? 20 of the 27 Commissioners could be new - so who could they be?

Lithuanian finance minister, Algirdas Semeta has already replaced Dalia Grybauskaitė, the EU budget Commissioner, after the latter was elected President of Lithuania last month. It is expected that Semeta will keep the budget portfolio in the new Commission.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has chosen Janusz Lewandowski, a member of the European Parliament (EPP-ED) who was re-elected in June, to replace Danuta Hübner, currently commissioner for regional policy, who herself also won a seat in the Euro-elections.

Other possible new Commissioners include the Former Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt (centre-right) who might take the Communication Strategy Commissioner Margot Wallstrom’s place. Industry Commissioner, Gunter Verheugen is retiring and there is equal support for rivals Peter Hinze (centre-right) and Martin Schluz (Socialist Group Leader). Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, Jacques Barrot may have to stand aside to allow President Sarkozy to nominate French Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier to be the new Commissioner for the Internal Market. Another candidate is the Chairman of the regulatory body for financial markets in France – Jean-Pierre Jouyet. Hence it is widely believed that the French are campaigning hard to get the Internal Market job which has been in the hands of the laissez-faire pro-free market Charlie McCreevy and the French have led the way in calling for tougher regulations in the sector.

I expect the Estonian, Siim Kalls to keep his job as Commissioner for Administrative Affairs. So too is Health Commissioner Androulla Vassilou from Cyprus. Italian Antonio Tajani, Transport Commissioner, is expected to be renominated but serve in a different role. Rather unusually, Viviane Reding is expected to serve a third term with the same portfolio after coming top in the European elections. Greek Stavros Dimas is also likely to stay. He wants to remain as the Environment Commissioner for as long as he keeps the responsibilities that are going to form part of a newly proposed DG for Climate Change. He faces a serious challenge from the UK if Gordon Brown cannot keep the Trade portfolio. Malta’s Joe Borg, the Maritime and Fisheries Commissioner wants to stay but may be replaced. Slovenia’s Janez Potocnik, Science Commissioner, may stay unless former PM Anon Rop wants the job. Finland has confirmed Olli Rehn, the enlargement Commissioner as its candidate – although he is rumoured to want the job as the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy once the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. Meglena Kuneva, the Consumer Affairs Commissioner from Bulgaria is almost certain likely to be re-nominated. Vladimir Spidla (socialist) the Employment Commissioner from the Czech Republic is also likely to stay despite a strong challenge from the Europe Minister Alexander Vondra (centre-right).

Spain’s Joaquin Almunia, Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner, may be called back to Madrid to become Finance Minister and could be replaced by fellow Socialist, Lopez Aguilar. Slovakia may replace Jan Figel, the Education Commissioner with Maros Sfcovic. Former Belgian PM, Yves Leterme may replace Louis Michel, the Development Commissioner since Michel is standing down. Nellie Kroes, the Competition Commissioner from the Netherlands is set to be replaced by NATO Secretary Japp de Hoop Scheffer or Europe Minister Frans Timmermans. There are a number of potential names for Ireland’s candidate following the announcement that Charlie McCreevy, Internal Market Commissioner is retiring. Among them are former PM John Bruton and former European Parliament President Pat Cox. The Austrian Benita Ferrero-Waldner, External Affairs Commissioner, is expected to be replaced by former federal chancellor, Wolfgang Schussel. Danish Mariann Fischer Boel, Agriculture Minister is expected to stand down as is Laszlo Kovacs, the Taxation Commissioner, from Hungary. So too is Romanian Leonard Oban, the Multilingualism Commisioner, and Andris Piebalgs, the Energy Commissioner from Latvia.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Centre-Right anti-federalists form new political group

The Conservatives have succeeded in forming a new political group within the European Parliament. Tory MEPs led by Geoffrey van Orden MEP have put together a grouping of MEPs from eight different member states - meeting the requirement of having at least one MEP from seven different EU countries. Negotiations over the last couple of days led by Van Orden and the Party's shadow minister for Europe, Mark Francois, have focused on getting commitments from individual MEPs from across the EU27 that they could peel away from the centre-right EPP Group and among new MEPs enetering the Parliament for the first time.

The Conservatives had already secured agreement from the Polish Law and Justice Party which returned 15 MEPs and from the Czech Civic Democratic Party which returned 9 MEPs. The new group includes single MEPs from Belgium, the Netherlands, Hungary, Latvia and Finland.

All member parties have varying domestic political agendas but can claim to be united in their opposition to what they pericieve as federalism. The new Group will be called the European Conservatives and Reformists Group. The Prague Declaration sets out their common values; namely free enterprise, personal responsibility, sustainability, family-values, transatlantic security, effectively controlled immigration, modern public services and greater transparency of EU funds. They will have to carve out a niche for themselves in the Parliament by finding ways of making the Group more distinctive from natural political allies. To this end, they call themselves "Euro-realists" - neither as enthusiastically pro-European as EPP members nor as euro-sceptic as the anti-EU parties such as UKIP.

Already the business community is nervous about the new dynamics of the European Parliament now that the Conservatives have left the EPP. There is a feeling that the EPP - the largest political group in the Parliament - will be effectively a Franco-German alliance and that their approach to business regulation will prevail in the Parliament now that the Conservatives are no longer parliamentary partners. The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso (himself a former centre-right PM from Portugal) has already expressed his "regret" at this move by the UK Conservatives.

Nevertheless, David Cameron has expressed a willingness to co-operate with the EPP. This is the first real practical test of his judgement as leader. He will be keen for this to work. If he senses that the Group will be too euro-sceptic for his mainstream members and the wider public to stomach, it wouldn't surprise me if he would effectively hand the whip back to the EPP Group on everything outside the on-going debates on the Lisbon Treaty.

Friday, June 19, 2009

UK govt succeeds in changing EU proposals on financial services supervision

The UK has done well to get the EU Summit to share its concerns over the transfer of powers away from national authorities in the financial services sector and has now seemed to have pledged to safeguard the powers of national authorities.

The Czech presidency, along with France, Germany and the UK, reached an agreement in creating the 'European Systemic Risk Board' and the UK succceeded in getting a compromise on the nomination of the Chair. It will finally be given to someone named by the general council of the European Central Bank (where a British governor sits), and not simply to the ECB governor. Another major concession made to the UK; a clause will be included to financial supervision regulations currently being considered stipulating that any mediation between two national supervisors will not have any consequences on the "fiscal sovereignty" of member states.

The Czech presidency already approved the text, and it has been endorsed by the European Council on June 19th 2009. The Council has called for the framework for EU supervision to be implemented in the course of 2010. But lets see what the Commission makes of it all in October

The French and Germans are playing games but it is the Irish who are causing sleepless nights for Barroso

It was complicated enough in the days when the appointment of new Commissioners was subject to political bartering and backroom deals. Now the negotiations are not only highly political but institutional and legal too.

The coming Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty is causing all kinds of headaches in terms of timing (the Summit this week agreed provisions for the concerns raised by the Irish in a new annex of the Treaty).

Before the euro elections earlier this month, the Parliament deferred the Commissioners appointment to November, when the referendum results will be known. The Nice Treaty (currently in effect) allows for the nomination of a total of 26 European Commissioners, hence leaving one member state deprived of a representative.The Lisbon Treaty makes provision for the nomination of a commissioner per Member State. We have no way of knowing which rules will apply to the make up of the new Commission until we know the outcome of the Lisbon ratification process. How can Commissioners be nominated, approved by the Parliament and appointed to new jobs if we don't know yet how many Commissioners there wil be?

While this is a headache for the Commission, it does offer some political convenience to member states, since it gives them time promote their favoured candidates for a top job and secure policy commitments from the Commission President. Angela Merkel, for instance, wants to wait until the outcome of national elections in September where she is confident of good result for her party following a strong showing in the Euro-election results. If she succeeds in getting the Social democrats out of the government coalition, she will be free to nominate a Christian democrat.

But postponing the Commission nomination so that it falls under the Lisbon Treaty regime invites another legal problem. People tend to forget that the Lisbon Treaty will not be implemented for a few years, and, even more importantly, is contested by constitutional courts.

In the meantime, the President of the Commission has to be nominated. The European Council gathering this week for the last time under the Czech presidency unanimously called for the renewal of José Manuel Barroso as president of the college of commissioners. Uncertainties prevailed at the Summit about the legal effect of this nomination. Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel called for this decision to be merely informal and political, whereas Sweden asked for the decision to be legally binding. Fredrik Reinfeldt, the Swedish PM, declared that he feared “uncertainty” and that the EU needed a stable force at this time of transition. In the end, EU leaders only showed an informal and political support to Barroso's nomination to start a second term as President. They put off the legal endorsement of Barroso until mid July when the Parliament is expected to vote on the matter.

However this half-hearted support for Barroso from Council is only half the story. There is a dilemma over when the Parliament's endorsement or otherwise should take place. Should it take place in July, under the Nice treaty, which asks only for a simple majority of the voters? Or should it take place after the Irish referendum, as requested by France, to fall under the Lisbon Treaty regime, hence requiring an absolute majority, much more difficult to achieve?

Even Angela Merkel, who declared a clear support for Barroso's candidature, said that reaching even a simple majority in Parliament will be easier said than done. Whyso? Barroso is facing opposition from the Greens, the Socialists, some Liberal Democrats, and even some from his own group the PPE, who intend to present another candidate in the person of Mr Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium’s former PM.

But altogether, this opposition represents 294 MEPs, which is clearly not a majority (there are 736 MEPs in total). But they maybe will count with the 93 MEPs who are not affiliated yet. However, since the ballot is actually secret, it is difficult to make any sensible prediction.

My money is still on Barroso getting re-nominated - simple or absolute majority. The nomination of Barroso is seen by many as the only solution to resolve the financial crisis and assure continuity in the European Union policies. Asked about his priorities for his second mandate; the former Portuguese prime minister said he would first focus on tackling the financial and economic crisis. Striking a deal at the UN global climate talks in Copenhagen is his second short-term priority, he said.

Furthermore, rumors are flying bout the possible the possible commissioners. Only 7 out of 27 are expected to renew their mandate.

France is pushing to get Barnier, former Agriculture ministry and newly elected MEP, as the Commissioner for Internal Market. However, seeing that this portfolio is significant for the financial supervision reform, Sarkozy might propose the nomination of Jean-Pierre Jouyet, chairman of the French financial market authority.

On the other hand, Merkel stated that she would nominate the Commissioner only when the portfolios are done being attributed to Member States. However, it seems that she plans for Wolfgang Schäuble, Christian Democrat Interior minister, to be the next German EU commissioner, even though others already declared their interests. On the contrary, in Luxembourg, the choice seems to be made, and Viviane Reding should be assured to go on being the Commissioner for the information society portfolio for the third time. In the UK, Geoff Hoon might replace Mandelson, but it would lead to a by-election in his constituency which would be another blow to the already beleagured Prime Minister if Labour were to lose it at a time he is focusing on his fight-back.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Centre-Right Parties Make a Clean Sweep

Centre-Right Parties Celebrate Electoral Advances Across Europe
The European Parliament elections presented voters across Europe with their first opportunity to cast a verdict on how the EU has responded to the economic crisis that has gripped its 27 Member States. The result was a surprising endorsement of centre-right governments across Europe. Centre-left governments – particularly the Labour government in the UK - fared less well.

The elections should really be a vote on how well sitting MEPs have served their constituents and a mandate for another five years of scrutinising laws made in Brussels and Strasbourg. There is, however, always a temptation to present the European elections as a snapshot of public opinion across the EU 27 Member States. In many ways, that is understandable. Given that voters are not choosing or rejecting a European government, they will take the opportunity to register support or opposition to their own country’s leaders. The political parties’ European groups nevertheless promote pan-European manifestos that address issues such as immigration, climate change and unemployment.

Even though centre-right governments enjoyed a strong showing, there were no significant, pan-European trends to call. The extremist parties enjoyed a surge in support in some Member States but a slump in others. Even the lower turnout – a slip from 45.47% in 2004 to 43.09% in 2009 - can be attributed to factors that varied from country to country.

One clear pattern that has emerged is the consolidation of support for the centre right parties. In the “Big Five” Member States – Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain, the leading centre-right parties came top of the polls.

The Party of European Socialists (PES) will be dismayed by their poor results. Their share of the vote has fallen from 27.6% to just 22%. The PES had hoped that the centre-right parties who govern Germany, France and Italy would be punished for the economic downturn that has driven up unemployment. However, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, German chancellor Angela Merkel, and the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi all saw their parties’ support hold up. In most cases, they faced divided and weak opposition.

In Germany, chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and a regional sister party, the CSU, won a total of 42 seats. Their tally is down seven but the result puts the centre-right far ahead of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior party in the governing Grand Coalition. The CDU/CSU remains the largest party in the EPP. The CDU / CSU. With 20.8%, the SPD had its worst result in nationwide elections since the Second World War. This is huge blow to the SPD, which is gearing up for heavy losses in the general election on 27 September. Angela Merkel should be in a stronger position after the elections, not having to keep her opponents on board. Still, she may form a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats, following a surge in their support at the Euro-elections.

In France, the Socialists’ complacency led them to suffer a heavy defeat on Thursday. M. Sarkozy’s personal approval ratings have been in the low 30s yet his UMP won 30 seats – up by 13 from the 2004 elections. The Socialists lost 17 MEPs and ended up with just 14. Francois Bayrou, the centrist who came third in the presidential election of 2007 suffered a humiliating defeat. He tried to use the European campaign to attack M. Sarkozy and build support for another presidential bid in 2012. This seems to have run into the ground following his poor showing in the polls.

Martine Aubry, the new Socialist leader, admitted her party was no longer credible, that it needed to stop internal divisions and make some profound reforms. These elections might plunge the already weak party into further disarray. Many are already referring to the electoral earthquake in 2002 when the party's presidential candidate, Lionel Jospin, failed to reach the second round.

The leader of the New Anti-Capitalist Party, Olivier Besancenot who achieved notoriety for leading a strong left-wing response to the economic downturn also failed to make any breakthrough in the election.

In contrast to M.Sarkozy, Italy’s prime minister Silvio Berlusconi could claim that personal popularity was enough to see off his opponents – even if his party, the People of Liberty Party (PDL) won a smaller share of the vote than expected. The fact that PDL did not reach the 40 per cent share Mr Berlusconi hoped for can be attributed to the ongoing scandal over claims of an inappropriate relationship with Noemi Leitzia, an 18 year old model. Mr Berlusconi won 29 seats compared to the 22 seats won by the centre-left Democratic Party (DP). He was helped by a strong showing from the Lega Nord, a right-wing party that forms part of the governing coalition.

Antonio Di Pietro, a former state prosecutor and fierce critic of Mr Berlusconi, saw his support almost quadruple compared to 2004 to 8%, which will give his party a total of eight MEPs.

The centre-right also made big gains in Poland. Prime Minister Donald Tusk's Civic Platform party won 45.3% of the vote – twice as much as his 2004 results, giving him 25 seats. The nationalist and conservative opposition Law and Justice party was second with 29.5% (15 seats). The Law and Justice Party will join the UK Conservatives in a new political group in the European Parliament. The results confirm a clear trend in Poland towards the Centre-Right at the expense of both the far right and the far left.

United Kingdom voters turned on the governing Labour Party in spectacular style. Labour scored its lowest share of the vote since the days of Ramsay Macdonald.

Spain’s socialist prime minister, Jose Zapatero, seemed get off lightly compared to the drubbing that political commentators were expecting. The Spanish socialists slipped into second place, but they lost just three MEPs and their opponents, Partido Popular, lost a seat.

Fears that the eurosceptic parties would make further in-roads in the European Parliament were unfounded. Despite a strong showing from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which came second in the share of the overall UK vote, the Independence-Democracy group, lost votes and the threat from the anti-Lisbon Treaty party, Libertas never materialised.

The Greens say they ran an EU-wide and EU focused campaign but their results across the EU-27 were highly variable. In Germany, the Greens slightly improved on their result from 2004, winning 12.1% of the and gaining one MEP, for a total of 14, In France, the Green Party, headed by Daniel Cohn-Bendt surprisingly finished in third place – just 0.6% behind the Socialists. They won 8 new seats and now have 14 MEPs. Yet in Italy, all the Greens MEPs were defeated and in the UK Green Party didn’t make the gains in the UK as they had hoped.

The election of two British National Party MEPs sent political shockwaves through the UK. Yet the far-right fared even better in the Netherlands where the controversial Gert Wilders Freedom Party came second with 16.9% of the vote. The party is openly anti-Islamic, and Wilders has been refused entry to the UK because of his inflammatory views. The far right made significant gains too, in Austria, where it scored nearly 18% of the vote, and in Slovakia, Hungary and Denmark. However, again there was no pan-European trend since the National Front lost 3 seats in France, three were lost in Latvia and were wiped out in Poland.

The voter turnout across Europe, although generally lower than in 2004, cannot be attributed to any single factor. In some countries such as Poland, the fall in turn out (27.4% - up from 20.87% in 2004) can be attributed to general satisfaction of the EU. However, the proportions of voters in the UK (34.8%) Germany (43.33%), France (40.48%) remain stubbornly low, owing to the growing cynicism and lack of interest towards EU politics.

Even though the British Conservatives (with 26 MEPs) are leaving the centre-right bloc, the European People’s Party (EPP) remains by far the largest political group in the European Parliament, notching up a total of 263 against 163 for the Socialist Group, the PES. The latter won 54 fewer seats than in 2004. The Liberal and Democrat Group (ALDE) has lost 20 MEPs but remains the third largest political grouping in the Parliament with 80 members.

The EPP had been the predominant group in the last European Parliament with 284 MEPs (including 26 UK Conservatives) while the Socialist Group contained 215 members. However the gap has widened and the European People’s Party can expect the support of the UK Conservatives and its allies in the new right-wing grouping on many pieces of legislation going through parliamentary committees.

The strong showing by the EPP parties will change the nature of the European Parliament. There will be less consensus-seeking and a clearer demarcation between left and right. The president of the Parliament come from the EPP and centre right members will have first pick of the most powerful committees. The Commission president Jose Barroso, himself a former centre right prime minister of Portugal, will be relieved that he can push his post-2010 “competitiveness and growth” programme through the European Parliament, without being troubled too much by Socialist Group delays.

The 2009 election results mean that the centre-right will be the dominant force in European politics. The EPP has increased its lead in the European Parliament, Moreover, the collapse in the support for the centre-left in the major Member States such as France, Italy, the UK, Germany, Spain and Poland point to a European Council with a strong centre-right presence.