Saturday, December 18, 2010

Bail-outs and Budgets: The Big Three leading Europe

European leaders are hoping that just two sentences to be added to the Treaty will be enough to put an end to the on-going crisis that has plagued the Eurozone in 2010. EU Heads of State reached an agreement yesterday in the Justus Lipsius building in Brussels on a permanent mechanism for bailing-out stressed Euro-zone countries.

Germany succeeded in ensuring that the mechanism was only used in extremis. However, it failed to make it a condition that it is activated only as a last resort – an important distinction given Chancellor Merkel’s nervousness about the treaty change.

“The Member States whose currency is the euro may establish a stability mechanism to be activated if indispensable to safeguard the stability of the euro area as a whole. The granting of any required financial assistance under the mechanism will be made subject to strict conditionality” ; – the Eurozone is counting on these two sentences to deal with the single currency’s inherent flaws. It was Germany – with the support of France – that nailed an agreement where others failed. The Italy-Luxembourg proposal for Europe-wide bonds was dismissed as was the Belgian proposal to increase the £440bn fund to buy bonds from at-risk countries.

The European Stability Mechanism will replace the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the European Financial Stability Mechanism (EFSM) in 2013. The UK also got what it wanted. The Council agreed to limit explicitly the application of the ESM to Eurozone countries – to reassure UK Prime Minister David Cameron that the UK would not be sucked into any bail-out obligations.

Mr Cameron is having a good summit. He has guaranteed the UK won’t be part of the Eurozone stability mechanism. He has had more mixed results in his other battle to avoid any increase in the EU budget. The UK has agreed to the increase for 2011 to be kept under 3% without giving MEPs anything in return for backing down over demands for a 6% increase. However, Mr Cameron had gone into budget negotiations with the intention for a freeze on the budget.

The European Parliament on 15th December backed down on its demands to have a greater role in the post 2013 multi-annual budget negotiations in return for a limited increase to the 2011 budget. It has been a humiliating end to 2010 for the European Parliament since winning new powers under the Lisbon Treaty 12 months ago. The Council position – held together by the UK and Germany – took the European Parliament to the brink. The alternative would have been a 2011 budget being approved on a month to month basis. The Parliament finally acknowledged the troubles this would bring.

Mr Cameron is reported to have struck a deal last night with Germany and France on the 2013-2020 budgets which would in effect bring about a real-term freeze in EU spending. The acquiescence of the French suggests that this deal would most likely affect the EU cohesion funds which disproportionately affect the Member States in Central and Eastern Europe. Poland will lead the backlash against the deal, if it transpires, given that it is a large beneficiary of cohesion funds. The French will have insisted on ring-fencing agricultural funds. France has been a long-term defender of the Common Agricultural Policy and this time the Germans are supporting them. Germany had recently signed a joint declaration with France calling for a strong CAP.

The UK would get to keep its rebate as part of the deal. France and the UK would be the winners; Poland and her East European neighbours the big losers. This is a scenario that ResEuropa had floated a few weeks ago and while there is no confirmation of the deal, reports in today’s press suggest it could well be on the cards. David Cameron will need to be careful to explain why he is not pressing for reductions in CAP rather than the cohesion funds.

The EU big three have out-foxed the Commission President Mr Barroso who will want to see cohesion funding kept in tact since this funding is regarded as European solidarity in action.

Time will tell whether this summit has marked the start of a powerful axis of UK, France and Germany – or whether it was just the easy thing for Mr Cameron to do since he will not have the appetite to deal with yet more calls to give up the UK rebate. I suspect that this new alliance won’t last for long: It was a minor miracle that the France and Germany could agree on the stability mechanism. Nevertheless this week demonstrates that, even if only for now, the big three are in the driving seat. What both the agreement on the budget and on the stability mechanism show is that when it comes to Europe, Mr Cameron and his coalition government will do almost anything for a quiet life.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Hungary sets out its ambitious EU Presidency Priorities

The Hungarian Government has published its priorities for the Presidency of the European Union – and they have in mind a very political Presidency with a rather ambitious programme for the next six months.

This is the first time Hungary has held the rotating Presidency position since it became an EU member six years ago and Budapest is determined to make it a success. With the help of Spain and Belgium, both of which were Presidency office-holders in 2010, Hungary has put in a lot of planning and preparation for their big break on the European stage.

Hungary is the eager new kid, showing signs of impatience with the lack of any real progress made by the Council over the last 12 months. In the first half of 2010, Spain was distracted by the fall-out of the financial crisis – and tried to run the Presidency from Madrid rather than send civil servants en masse to Brussels. Belgian civil servants didn’t need to leave home for their Presidency during the second half of 2010 but they had no Government in place to report back to. So while it may not have been an annus horribilis for the EU (it has had worse years), 2010 has been a little pedestrian as far as policy achievements are concerned. Without Mr. Herman van Rompuy at the helm, it would have been hopelessly directionless. The dynamic Hungarians hope to change all that.

While Presidencies are required to push the European interest, they inevitably reflect the national priorities of the office-holder. Hungary will be no exception. The priorities reveal a particular emphasis on issues that have pre-occupied them at home in the hope that there will be a European solution where national measures have failed.

Security of energy supply, the environment, and ethnic minorities and immigration are big priorities for Hungary.

Hungary is vulnerable to severe gas supply disruptions and so will use the opportunity of the EU Presidency to score some quick wins on security of supply. Budapest wants the EU to establish a truly common energy market and has scheduled a special Council meeting on energy on 4 February.

The toxic chemical mudslide which emanated from the Ajka resevoir in western Hungary in October and polluted the Danube river affected 5 European countries. The Hungarians see this as a cross-border issue that requires EU leadership and have prioritised progress for an EU Strategy on the Danube as well as a wider EU water policy.

Hungary has been criticised for the treatment of Roma and the country was offended when France sent hundreds of Roma back to Central Europe. The EU Presidency will include new initiatives to ensure better integration of migrants. Similarly, immigration into the EU – and within the EU - is high on the agenda. Hungary promises a better migrant flow management and will want to secure the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen system of free movement. Hungary is also strongly in favour of Turkish membership of the EU and this will set it on a collision course again with France and Austria, which are resolutely against the idea of Turkish membership.

The draft Presidency programme has some very lofty ambitions. The priorities of jobs and growth will be the most pressing on the EU agenda. There will be some tough negotiations on the macroeconomic surveillance mechanism and on European economic governance. The Hungarian Presidency will start on the actual implementation of the EU 2020 strategy. They will work on the Single Market Act in the hope of stimulating job creation and growth through new legislation on taxation, counterfeiting and a revision of the Small Business Act. They will also hope to secure a deal on legislation for a common European patent which has dogged the Belgian Presidency. It will be up to the Hungarians also to make a success of the European External Action Service – the EU diplomatic corps - which has suffered teething problems over the last 12 months.

Hungary also wants to salvage something from the wreckage of the Copenhagen summit on climate change last year. The low key Cancun negotiations are flagging and the China-US bilateral talks have squeezed out the EU as a driving force on climate change policy.

Regardless of its grand ambitions, Hungary will have to prove it is a steady pair of hands and that it can be trusted to steer the EU’s 27 member states through some very difficult decisions. The signs are that it will not be so compromising. At a time when views are deeply polarised on the size of the EU budget, the Hungarians seem indifferent to the austerity pressures to EU spending from the UK and Germany. Speaking earlier this week at the London School of Economics the Hungarian Foreign Ministry Janos Martonuyi said, "I don't think it is time to discuss about percentages and figures. First let's discuss policies, let's discuss substance, and thereafter of course we can look into the financial resources and the possible [...] ceilings or caps as far as the financing of individual policies is concerned," He wasn’t speaking on behalf of the Council, of course, but nevertheless, Mr Martonuyi and his government colleagues will soon have to learn the difference between what Hungary can do in its national interest and its role in leading the European interest.

In Defence of Rompuy-Pompuy

It’s been a full year since Herman Van Rompuy started his term as President of the European Council. On 19 November 2009, Van Rompuy was chosen unanimously by the European Council, at an informal meeting in Brussels. He took office on 1st December 2009 – the day the Lisbon Treaty came into force – and his term runs until 31st May 2012. He has spent his first twelve months trying to carve out a distinctive role for himself – not easy when the Commission President Jose Barroso is on his second term - and demonstrates his experience with such a strong command of the EU’s internal affairs. And as he tries to present himself to the world as the EU’s international statesman, he is constrained by the so-called High Representative, Baroness Cathy Ashton, who represents both the Commission and the Council to the world. It is no wonder Mr Rompuy is already being written off as a lame duck President. His task looks impossible.

And yet, despite these limitations and against all the odds, Mr Rompuy is making his mark. The best way to judge his record is to measure his achievements against the expectations of the treaty that created him. The European Parliament will (and does) exploit the opportunities that the Treaty presents to them and the European Commission is pleased with a smoother decision-making system that was promised to them, it is the European Council – representing 27 Member States governments – that needs to prove more than most that the Lisbon Treaty does what it says on the tin; namely create better conditions for inter-governmental co-ordination, traditionally a weak-spot under the 6 month rotating presidency system. If Mr Van Rompuy can co-ordinate the Council and reconcile the national interests of 27 different governments, then he will have done not just what the Treaty requires him to do, but also prove to us that the Treaty can get the EU motoring again, particularly at a time of financial crisis and a mounting pressure of protectionism.

On Mr van Rompuy’s elevation, he was ridiculed in the British press as a non-entity. While some had been expecting a figure with an established international status, like Tony Blair – some-one who could stop the traffic; Mr Rompuy, they said would find it difficult to hail a cab. UKIP MEP Nigel Farage MEP caused a storm when he told Mr Rompuy that he had “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk". The Sun newspaper simply called him Rompuy Pompuy.

The tensions between the two European Presidents are often clear enough. In most cases, the territory that has been carved out between them, is unambiguous. The Council President represents the EU abroad in foreign policy and security matters. The Commission President takes the lead role in climate change. But on energy policy, which is both a security and commission policy area, they have to agree between them who will take the floor. Both Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso were present at the G8 and G20 meetings.

The Lisbon treaty was supposed to have resolved the old question of Henry Kissinger's – “when I want to phone the EU, whom do I call?” The answer wasn’t clear to President Obama as he stood between Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso for the official photo-call at the EU-US Summit in Lisbon on 21st November. But the EU is (for good reason) complex and it would be disingenuous to pretend that it can be led by one person alone.

To even try and answer Mr Kissinger’s question is to ignore the dynamics between the EU institutions. These dynamics have changed a lot in the 12 months, post-Lisbon. The Council’s position vis-à-vis the Commission is stronger but it still relies heavily on the Commission. Mr van Rompuy led a task-force to propose ways of strengthening economic governance for Eurozone members – something that the Commission would normally feel responsible for. The Commission, in response pressed ahead with its own proposals, because it feared that the Council’s measures would be half-hearted. In reality, Mr Rompuy knew he would need to rely on the Commission to initiate new legislation. While this caused some friction between the two institutions, it served to demonstrate that the Council is willing to be pro-active when it needs to be. It did so again last month when the Commission was told to go back to the drawing board over its budget plans. The Council, led by Mr Van Rompuy, made it clear who was running the show.

It has taken President Barroso some time to adjust to the new power-sharing arrangements but he is now thinking more creatively about how he could work with Mr Rompuy to get what he wants from member state leaders. He also needs Mr Rompuy to help him deal with a European Parliament which has become much more strident and demanding after being bestowed with a wider scope of competences under the Lisbon Treaty. MEPs are becoming frustrated with an increasingly cautious Commission. As long as this directs their fire towards President Barosso, then President Van Rompuy is safe.

The Lisbon Treaty has changed the power landscape of the EU in just the last twelve months – and it is to Mr Van Rompuy’s credit that he has not become a victim of it. Instead, he has put the Council back in the game – at a time when neither Germany nor France are providing any effective leadership to the EU. And while he may have ruffled some feathers over at the Commission, he is credited for the way he has deftly handled any inter-institutional fall-outs. MEPs admire the way he has insisted on taking the European interest; something that had been missing at the Council which had normally followed the national interests of its most powerful members. Of course, Mr Van Rompuy has not been perfect. His low profile does not nearly match the importance of his position and he can do more to show he is a safe pair of hands (for instance, instead of adding to the sense of alarm and despair of the Euro-crisis by saying that the entire EU will disintegrate if the Euro fails, he should have kept a cool head and looked beyond the short term troubles). He is after all, supposed to provide the EU with a long term perspective – an important part of the equation when member state governments will always have an eye on the next election. The Lisbon Treaty’s objective for the President of the European Council was for some-one to provide strategy and stability. He needs still to demonstrate he can fulfill these goals. But the Lisbon Treaty is already proving to be the life-line that the EU needed. And President van Rompuy can certainly take some well-earned credit for that.