Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The European Union – the policy that dares not speak its name

The second in a series of three party leader debates, last week, featured the thorny issue of the role of the UK in the European Union – or as the broadcaster, Sky News put it EU interference in the UK.

It presented front-runner, the Conservative leader, David Cameron with an opportunity to claw back some ground lost to Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader who dramatically stole Mr Cameron’s thunder in the first leaders’ debate. The Liberal Democrats are considered to be soft on the European Union and David Cameron’s more sceptical position was thought to hold more appeal to wavering voters. However, to the dismay of Conservative supporters, Mr Cameron decidedly failed to land a killer-blow on the Liberal Democrat leader.

This can only be explained by Mr Cameron’s determination to keep the question of the EU on the margins of his election campaign. In 2001, the Conservatives under the leadership of William Hague put their EU policies – particularly on the Euro – at the centre of their campaign and failed to gain any ground on Labour as a result. Mr Cameron has learnt the lesson from this doomed campaign and has so far avoided the issue of the EU as much as possible for fear of exposing the divisions in his party concerning Europe.

Rather than going in for the kill, Mr Cameron spent his time during the debate on Europe defending the Conservative Party’s position from Nick Clegg’s accusations that the Conservatives would put the UK on the sidelines. Gordon Brown gave the goldilocks pitch of dismissing both his opponents approach on Europe – the Liberal Democrats for being to hot on Brussels, the Conservatives for being to cold. Labour, he said, has it just about right.

Mr Cameron told viewers that he wanted to repatriate certain powers from the EU, although he didn’t elaborate on how or where he would try to negotiate opt-outs. The Conservative party manifesto suggests that criminal justice is one such area where they would try to claw back more national sovereignty. The Liberal Democrat manifesto, by contrast, favours more EU co-operation on criminal justice and homeland security.

The Conservative leader repeated his promise that he would hold a referendum if there was ever another change to the institutional relationship between the UK and the EU. However, this failed to differentiate him from the canny Mr Clegg who also offers the same deal. Nick Clegg even rattled Mr Cameron when he reminded the audience that he dropped his “cast-iron” guarantee for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty once the treaty was finally ratified.

David Cameron was clear about the Conservative’s policy to refuse entry to the single currency. But again, he could not score points against his Liberal Democrat opponents who had modified their position in support of the single currency by adding Gordon Brown’s caveats that the country should join “only when the economic conditions were right” and even then only after a positive referendum result.

Mr Clegg ‘s strategy was clearly to marginalise Mr Cameron on his decision to leave the Centre-Right EPP Group in the European Parliament and form a group with – as he calls them - a “bunch of nutters”. This allowed Gordon Brown to dismiss Cameron’s Conservatives simply as anti-European.

Perhaps it was a mistake for Mr Clegg to remind the audience of his understanding of the European Union from his days as a “Eurocrat” adviser to the former Trade Commissioner, Sir Leon Brittan, but Mr Clegg was savvy enough to know that he shouldn’t try to sound as Euro-sceptical as the Conservatives might have done just to appeal to the gallery. Instead, he articulated the case for stronger EU co-operation to help bring about stronger financial service regulation and action on climate change.

Mr Brown took a low-key approach but nevertheless repeated the Blairite offer of putting the UK at the heart of Europe and not on the sidelines. He stuck to a pragmatic defence of the EU, repeatedly claiming that three million jobs depended on UK membership.

Both Mr Clegg and Mr Brown performed as they had been expected to by those familiar with their EU policies. The only surprise of the Europe debate was that Mr Cameron took trouble to tone down his more euro-sceptic views – which for many, should have been his strongest card of the evening, certainly in trying to find some clear blue water between himself and his main threat Mr Clegg. His most effective intervention on the issue of Europe came during a discussion on immigration where he promised a cap on the number of people from newly-joined EU countries settling in the UK.

The three main parties’ manifesto commitments on the EU vary only in so far as tone. With the Lisbon Treaty out of the way, and the single currency only a distant prospect, the manifestos could comfortably avoid making any substantive policy decisions one way or the other.

The Conservative’s policy pledges emphasise the role of the US and NATO “as the ultimate guarantee on Europe’s Security.” Labour, however sees the UK playing a strong role in European defence, in “partnership with NATO.” The Labour Party manifesto points at “the poverty of the Tory vision […] summed by their false choice between alliance with the United States and one with Europe.”

It suits Labour of course to paint the Conservatives as being on the fringes of mainstream decision-making in Europe. It describes David Cameron’s decision to take his MEPs out of the Centre-Right Group, the EPP (the largest Group in the Parliament) as “anti-European” and would only undermine Britain’s influence in the EU. However, Gordon Brown left it to Nick Clegg in the TV debate to turn on David Cameron for allying the Conservatives with niche political parties in the European Union.

The manifesto commitments on Europe were successful in keeping the issue low on the electoral agenda and the Leader’s debate also succeeded in creating a full-blown clash on the UK’s position in Europe. The only surprise from both the manifestos and the debates on Europe is that David Cameron restrained himself from a full-blooded eurosceptic attack on his new nemesis, the Euro-friendly Nick Clegg. He did, however, allow himself to repeat more than once the slogan from the 2001 election campaign, “In Europe but not run by Europe”.

Ashton Critics seize on “half-baked” Euro-Diplomacy Service. Can the Baroness Survive the Onslaught?

European Union Foreign Ministers are meeting today (26 April 2010) in Luxembourg to consider controversial proposals prepared by Baroness Ashton for a new External Action Service (EAS) which will be responsible for all EU diplomatic services around the world. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy desperately needs approval from Member States for her EAS blue-print which has been dogged by criticism for its proposed structure and budgets.

The High Representative has published new proposals a month after her original plan issued on March 25th, was roundly slammed for creating the role of an all-powerful Secretary-General. The new structure sees a triumvirate running the 7,000- strong service. One of the triumvirates would deputise for her at official diplomatic visits. It is not known whether this would be another Commissioner, with a remit in external policy – or even a Foreign Minister from one of the Member States. The Lisbon Treaty does not provide for an official deputy but the three posts are expected to be occupied by heavy-weights in order to give the High Representative the support she clearly needs if she is to make the EAS a success.

The new structure, already provisionally agreed by ambassadors to the EU, is designed to reflect the prevailing interests of the Commission and the Council in EU foreign policy – the Commission, because it is still reluctant to relinquish control over budgets for delegations to countries around the world; and the Council because Member States retain full responsibilities for their foreign policies. However, the new command structure, while trying to accommodate both the Council and the Commission, runs the risk of creating further confusion over who is running the EU’s foreign policy.

A more immediate concern for Baroness Ashton is the growing criticism from MEPs over the lack of accountability of the new EAS. A German Christian Democrat MEP, Ingeborg Graessle, has said that the Ashton proposals are in violation of European laws since they do not provide for any accountability to the European Commission or to the European Parliament.

German MEP Elmar Brok, who is responsible for writing the European Parliament’s report on the proposals, has threatened to pull the plug on the proposals if they are not changed to improve accountability to the Parliament. MEPs refuse to believe the claim by Baroness Ashton will be budget-neutral (ie: would not cost more than the costs of the structure that it will replace). The European Parliament has the power to block the budget for the EAS if it does not agree to its proposed structure.

Once foreign ministers give their approval to the plans today, attention will turn to MEPs who are already critical not just of the plans but also of the architect. The proposals are seen as an important test of the credibility of the newly-appointed High Representative – who just four months into office, has been dismissed by many as a “lightweight” and could even bring about her downfall.

Cathy Ashton took office as soon as the Lisbon Treaty was ratified and was the UK’s candidate for the role after British Foreign Secretary turned it down.

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown was criticized at home for nominating some-one who had so little experience on the international stage. Baroness Ashton was appointed Trade Commissioner only when Lord Mandelson was recalled to Government. It was also seen as a victory for the French who were free to put their man – Michel Barnier – in the coveted Internal Market Commissioner position. Stephen Booth, Director of the Brussels and London think tank “Open Europe” dismissed her as a “complete lightweight”.

The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Savage immediately criticized Baroness Ashton for failing to turn up in Haiti to fly the EU flag after the earthquake. She told journalists she didn’t do “disaster tourism”. She was also criticized by the French Europe Minister, Pierre Lelouche for going to Ukraine for the inauguration of the pro-Russian Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovich rather than a major European defence conference in Majorca. The French have also criticized her for going to London every weekend and having de-briefing sessions on a Friday at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

On 8th March, The High Representative faced down her critics at a meeting of European foreign ministers in Córdoba. Her position had been so badly weakened, she took with her a letter signed by David Miliband and Swedish foreign secretary Carl Bildt saying that EU foreign ministers should get behind her and her plans for the EAS. The storm abated for a short while, before the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy summoned her to the Elysée Palace where he reportedly gave her a dressing down for “amateurism” and, quelle horreur - having such a poor command of French. Monsieur Lelouche made an impertinent offer to arrange a residential French language class for the High Representative.

However, to British ears, the sniping sounded like Paris begrudged losing control of international diplomacy – a policy sphere that France guarded jealously. And given that she needed time to learn the ropes, Baroness Ashton was given the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, the negative response to her proposals for the EAS has put Baroness Ashton in a very dangerous place. Der Spiegel last week reports that there is a growing body of MEPs from across the political spectrum who question whether she is the right person for the job. With a basic salary of €323,000, she is the world’s highest paid female politician and MEPs wonder whether she is out of her depth.

The European People’s Party – a coalition of European Centre-Right parties in the European Parliament – have been sceptical about Baroness Ashton’s capabilities from the outset. Not long after she was approved by the European Parliament, an official spokesperson for the EPP Chairman, Joseph Daul went on record as saying; “We expect a lot from the position of High Representative. So far she has not met that level of expectation. We are not trying to destroy her but want an improvement in her work.” He even was far as saying; “It’s not right to assume she is there for five years. She can be removed. Something must change.”

Political point-scoring alone cannot explain the Ashton-bashing. The EPP cannot get rid of her and have her replaced by one of their own – the deal was always going to be a Centre Left High Representative in return for living with a Centre-Right President – Mr Van Rompuy. It cannot be explained either by Anglophobia since the French were happy with securing the Internal Market portfolio for Michel Barnier and in fact the French President had even boasted that they had beaten the British in securing the job. The only explanation is turf-war politics – The French and Germans want a say in the appointment of key EU ambassadors in the new EAS, concerned that it will become a British Foreign Office writ large. It doesn’t help either that in addition, the Commission President is behind a power grab for the EU aid and development funds.

There are some signs of encouragement for Baroness Ashton’s supporters. Its been acknowledged in diplomatic circles that she has developed a chemistry with US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton and that the appointment of Poul Skytte Christofferon, former Danish Ambassador to the EU, as her special adviser, is considered generally as a good thing.

Nevertheless, there is a real threat that the Baroness might not survive much longer. Brussels is watching the UK election very closely to see what will happen. Should Labour lose the General Election in the UK, she would lose the support of her biggest backer. Her detractors could petition for her replacement – perhaps with David Milliband, the outgoing British Foreign Secretary.