In Paris, British Chancellor George Osborne warns other EU Member States to follow the UK’s example of implementing austere spending cuts to tackle Europe’s deficit problem; In Budapest, the European Commission President berates the Hungarian Government over controversial new media restrictions; In Tallinn, Estonian shoppers are getting used to the Euro which has just replaced the national currency, the Kroon.
So begins the New Year for the European Union. After a miserable 2010, Brussels is hoping for a more successful 2011. There are some promising signs. Estonia has just become the 17th member state to adopt the Euro and the switchover on New Years’ day went smoothly; the new EU financial supervisory advisory bodies are now in operation and the EU’s diplomatic service, the External Action Service is now up and running.
However, the Hungarian Presidency of the European Council has got off to a poor start. The Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso is in Budapest today where he will raise concerns over new media laws that the OSCE believe gives Viktor Orban and his government sweeping powers to restrict press freedom. The new Hungarian government has also introduced new taxes for foreign firms – mainly German - and a new citizenship law that allows ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia to get a Hungarian passport.
It is not yet clear whether the new media laws, which include forcing journalists to reveal their sources and imposing heavy fines on newspapers for “offending human dignity”, contravene European law but the international criticism has forced the Commission President to put pressure on Budapest. The Hungarians – a relatively new member of the EU – have only just got used to interference from the European Commission. What is new and seemingly even more offensive is the criticism from other Member States in their domestic affairs. On Tuesday 4 January, France, Germany and the UK openly criticised the media law saying it is “incompatible” with European press freedoms. Peer pressure in the EU is not new but direct and public interventions like this is a new departure for Member States and we should expect to see more of it during the course of 2011.
Prime Minister Orban admits that the criticism over the media law, foreign taxes and new citizenship rights for ethnic Hungarians has over-shadowed the start of the Hungarian Presidency but this should not cause any embarrassment for the EU. The rotating presidencies are over-rated – they last just six months, inherit a pre-existing agenda and have no executive powers. Post-Lisbon, it cannot claim to preside over the EU when a new Council President has been appointed on a more permanent basis.
What matters most to the success or otherwise of the EU is not so much the behaviour of the rotating President of the European Council but the political dynamics between the big Member States – in particular the Big 3 – Germany, the UK and France.
George Osborne’s message to G20 counter-parts meeting in Paris on Thursday 6th January has rankled with some EU Member States. To some, Mr Osborne’s warning to Eurozone members that they need to following the UK’s lead and introduce swingeing spending cuts, sounded like hectoring and was reminiscent of the tone that Gordon Brown had taken when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. However what was most telling was Mr Osborne’s line about the Eurozone needing to adopt more economic governance measures to support the Euro (even if he did not put it in those words). Is this a sign that the UK is not just relaxed about a two-speed Europe but actively willing it? Maybe his advice is sincere. Eitherway, I predict that the UK will have a demonstrably more arms-length relationship with the EU in 2011 even if it means losing influence and its position as one of the leading three member states.
Other predictions for 2011? Well looking at the Commission’s work programme, it will be a busy year for the Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier. He will be driving forward new regulations for Credit Rating Agencies, a new framework for bank crisis management, applying new bank stress tests, amending capital requirement directives, reviewing the Market Abuse directive and more besides. Watch out too for a new initiative on the posting of workers and another revision of Working Time rules. There will be proposals for Smart Borders to set up an entry / exit system for immigration control. There will be new rules on EU procurement, a new 10 year plan for transport, new measures on economic governance and, of course, a settlement on the next round of EU spending 2013 – 2020.
It is a heavy regulatory agenda and will force Member State governments to make some of the far-reaching decisions which they have managed to avoid in 2010.
The big policy themes for 2011 will be closer economic convergence, better scrutiny of EU spending and even a direct EU tax – just what the EU needs to make itself popular! Well, of course, it depends on who will be taxed. Besides, there will be a few populist measures aimed at making the consumers life a little easier. 2011 might not be the year when everyone starts to love the EU but it might be the year it is disliked a little bit less. Let’s see how the year ends but the start of the year suggests it’s not quite going to be business as usual.