State of the Union »

  • The Benelux strikes back against Blair

    October 6, 2009 @ 6:28 pm | by Jamie Smyth

     

    EU ambassadors met today in Brussels to begin working on the details of how to implement the Lisbon treaty. Following Ireland’s resounding yes vote it seems almost everyone in Brussels thinks even that most immovable of objects, Czech president Vaclav Klaus, can’t stop the eventual ratification of the treaty. 

    The most thorny issue that ambassadors are discussing is the exact role and responsibilities of the new post of president of the European Council. In my last post I mentioned the high profile candidacy of former British prime minister Tony Blair and how it could face stiff resistance from small member states.

     Well, today I got a look at a paper circulated to member states by the Benelux countries, which surprise, surprise, calls for a restricted role for the new Council president. As one source explained the paper to me “this new position is not a president of Europe job, it is a president of the council”.

     Small states cannot stop the Blair bandwagon alonebut with a decision on the Council president probably not due until the December summit (due to the constitutional court delay in the
    Czech Republic) there is plenty of time for a “stop Blair”  campaign to get rolling. Here is the full text of the
    Benelux paper….  

    BENELUX document Implementation of the Treaty of
    Lisbon 

    Introduction  

    The Treaty of Lisbon will make the European Union (EU) more effective, more democratic and more transparent. It will endow the EU with a single institutional framework, which provides for the creation of a permanent President of the European Council, a High Representative (HR) who will preside over the Foreign Affairs Council and be Vice-President of the European Commission, and of a European External Action Service (EEAS).  

    Anticipating the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, we will have to adapt the rules governing the functioning of the new legal framework with a view to ensuring that it functions well. These new rules will be reflected in the Rules of Procedure of the European Council, the amended Rules of Procedure of the Council. In addition, the decision establishing the EEAS should be prepared.  

    In the view of the BENELUX countries, it is more necessary than ever to ensure, once the Treaty of Lisbon has entered into force, the inclusive, orderly and transparent nature of the decision-making process, and to guarantee the maintenance of the Community method and the institutional balance of the Union that have been the basis of the success of European integration.
    To this end, the BENELUX countries believe that the implementation of the new measures should be based on the principles set out below.  

     1. The European Council and its President  

    The European Council shall provide the impetus for the
    Union’s development and shall define general political directions and priorities, whose transposition into legislation takes place in the Council. Despite the fact that the Treaty of Lisbon endows the European Council with the status of an institution, the legislative power remains the prerogative of the Council and the European Parliament (EP). Nor does this institutionalisation affect the Council’s capacity to take decisions on non-legislative questions.  

    Internal role The Rules of Procedure of the European Council will determine how its agenda is set and how its Conclusions are adopted.  

    The European Council meetings will continue to be prepared by the General Affairs Council and the other Council configurations through the usual preparatory bodies, so as to ensure a transparent and inclusive preparation of EU policies. The rotating six-month presidency will thus play a primary role in helping to ensure the coherence of the Union’s policies.  

    To this end:·        The rotating presidency will report at the opening of each European Council on the preparatory activities that have taken place in the different Council formations. ·        After consultations with the President of the Commission, with the head of state or government of the rotating presidency, and with the High Representative, the President of the European Council will draw up a draft annotated agenda. ·        After consultations with the President of the Commission, with the head of state or government of the rotating presidency, and with the High Representative, the President of the European Council will draw up draft Conclusions and, as necessary, draft decisions of the European Council. ·        The meetings of the European Council will continue to be prepared by the General Affairs Council; the annotated agenda, the draft Conclusions and, as necessary, decisions of the European Council will thus be submitted to the General Affairs Council (see below).·        If prevented from being present, the President of the European Council will be replaced by the head of state or government of the rotating presidency. ·        The President of the European Council will be consulted by the three member states that hold the presidency during this period in drafting the Council’s 18-month programme. ·        Regular meetings will take place between the President of the European Council, the President of the Commission and the head of state or government of the rotating presidency, or their representatives, so as to ensure the proper preparation of decisions and the continuity of the
    Union’s work.  

    External role
    The President of the European Council will also play a role in representing the Union abroad. He will represent the Union at the level and in the capacity that correspond to his position, without prejudice to the prerogatives of the High Representative, who will be responsible for ensuring the coherence of the Union’s external action in matters falling under the CFSP, and during bilateral and multilateral summits with third countries (accompanied by the President of the Commission in matters concerning the Commission). In representing the Union, the President of the European Council will put forward the priorities and general political directions adopted by the European Council and the decisions adopted to attain those objectives or implement those orientations.  

    The person – The President of the European Council must have the stature of a head of state or government. He must be someone who has demonstrated his commitment to the European project and has developed a global vision of the
    Union’s policies, who listens to the member states and the institutions, and who is sensitive to the institutional balance that corresponds to the Community method.  

    2. The General Affairs Council  

    The current General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be divided into two Council configurations: the General Affairs Council (GAC) and the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC).  

    The GAC’s task is laid out in the Treaty: it ensures consistency in the work of the different Council configurations and prepares and ensures the follow-up to meetings of the European Council, in liaison with the President of the European Council and the President of the Commission.  

    To this end:

    • It is responsible for the overall coordination policies; for institutional matters in a broad sense (i.e. including any questions that arise concerning subsidiarity, Better Regulation, relations with other institutions, etc.); for the financial perspectives; for multilateral trade policies (for instance, the WTO); for enlargement (although certain decisions can be dealt with in the Foreign Affairs Council – see below); and for all horizontal dossiers.
    • It shall draw up the annotated agenda of the European Council on the basis of a proposal submitted to it by the President of the European Council, after consultation with the President of the Commission, with the head of state or government of the rotating presidency, and with the High Representative (see above).
    • It examines draft Conclusions and other draft decisions of the European Council.
    • The Council’s 18-month work programme is submitted to it for approval.

    Presence at/representation on the GAC Each member state designates its own representative on the GAC. Preferably the representative will be someone whose position in its government will enable him/her to fulfil the policy coordination task of GAC.  

    3. The Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR)  

    The FAC shall elaborate the Union’s external action on the basis of strategic guidelines laid down by the European Council and ensure that the Union’s action is consistent.  The HR is Vice-President of the Commission and chairs the FAC. He conducts the Union’s common foreign and security policy. Through his proposals he contributes to the development of the CFSP and CSDP (common security and defence policy). He is assisted by the EEAS. In addition, he conducts political dialogue with third countries on the Union’s behalf and puts forward the Union’s positions in international organisations and at international conferences. Nevertheless, to ensure broad support for the CFSP it is important to guarantee the responsibility, involvement and visibility of the member states’ foreign ministers.  

    So as to guarantee the overall coherence of the Union’s action, the HR is responsible for acting in concert with the Union’s six-month rotating presidency, notably in drafting the FAC’s provisional agenda. It should be recalled in this connection that under article 30 of the Treaty on European Union, any member state may refer to the Council any matter relevant to the CFSP.  

    The HR may propose to the FAC that it appoints and mandates a special representative.  

    With regard to the FAC’s agenda:

    • The FAC is responsible for the whole of the European Union’s external action namely CFSP/CSDP;
    • Trade issues with regard to third countries shall be discussed and decided in the FAC (while trade matters related to the WTO shall be treated the GAC: see above).
    • Decisions with important foreign policy implications, for instance the opening or suspension of accession negotiations, can be dealt with in the FAC at the request of a member state.
    • The FAC also deals with development cooperation and humanitarian aid.

    If the HR is not able to attend the FAC, the FAC will be presided over at the HR’s request by a member of the Council.  

    The person In addition to presiding over the FAC, the H
    R wears two other hats. He is mandated by the Council to carry out the CFSP/CSDP; and as Vice-President of the Commission, he is responsible, within the Commission for external relations and for the coordination of other aspects of the Union’s external action. Finally, he is in charge of the EEAS.
    To ensure that the Union speaks with a single voice – through the HR – the HR, the President of the European Commission and the rotating presidency will consult regularly, especially in times of crisis. The HR must therefore have not only vast experience of Community action in the framework of the CFSP/CSDP and of the Union’s external policy, but also consensus-building skills.  

    4. The European External Action Service (EEAS)  

    The EEAS should enable the HR to successfully carry out his chief mandates: conducting the CFSP/CSDP, conducting (from his position in the Commission) the Union’s external relations, and ensuring the coherence of the Union’s external action.
    To this end, certain services should be transferred from the Council Secretariat and the Commission to the EEAS, and effective coordination mechanisms should be established for those services that remain under the authority of the Commission or Council Secretariat.  

    Composition and mandate
    The EEAS should be established step-by-step. At the same time, its mandate should be clearly defined from the outset and should indicate the final objective to be attained at the end of the transition period, as quickly as possible. It will also be necessary to agree the different steps and the corresponding calendar. It will be up to the HR to present a proposal for this purpose. As part of the HR’s proposal, measures should be outlined from the beginning to foster the unity, coherence and effectiveness of the
    Union’s action.  

    With regard to the EU Delegations, we should begin with several pilot projects, for example in Kabul, Addis Ababa and New York, where there are currently two separate Delegations (of the Council and the Commission) existing alongside each other.  

    The decision establishing the EEAS should also include a rendez-vous clause providing for an evaluation after several years of the EEAS’s functioning. It should be possible to modify the EEAS’s mandate if necessary on the basis of this evaluation.  

    The EEAS’s mandate should be defined on the basis of the following principles:

    • The EEAS’s geographical scope is global. All the country desks of the Council Secretariat and the Commission should be incorporated into the EEAS, which will thus become a decompartmentalised service (no duplication of Council Secretariat and Commission country desks).
    • In the interests of the coherence of external policy, some aspects of development cooperation policy – the country desks that currently fall under DG Development – should also be incorporated into the EEAS, as the EEAS provides more opportunities to carry out a better integrated European policy (as in the case of the 3D approach). It should be noted nevertheless that the specific goals of European development cooperation policy, such as the eradication of poverty, have been included in the Treaty, where they are presented as objectives of the
      Union.
    • Finally, a certain number of themes such as civilian missions, human rights and non-proliferation should be part of the mandate of the EEAS.
    • It is not expedient to include enlargement (and the programme planning of the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA)) in the EEAS’s remit, as accession negotiations are conducted exclusively by the Commission.
    • The same applies to trade policy. Cooperation between the EEAS and DG Trade should however be systematised.

    With regard to responsibility for Community funds and programmes, a mixed model may be advisable:

    • The HR is responsible for planning the financing of the Neighbourhood Programme, the Instrument for Stability, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights, and the CFSP budget.
    • The Commissioner for Development (and DG Development), working closely with the HR, will be responsible for the European Development Funds and Development Cooperation Instrument. AidCo/EuropeAid and ECHO will be charged with implementation.
    • The EEAS will support programme planning by the HR and Commissioner for Development.

    Legal status of the EEAS As the HR, and thus the EEAS, will be responsible for budgetary and personnel matters, the EEAS will need a legal status providing it with functional legal personality so that it has sufficient autonomy. This legal personality should also give it the capacity to act as necessary to carry out the tasks included in its mandate. Ideally the EEAS should be financed from the EU budget, within the ceiling set by the financial perspectives for 2007-2013, by means of a separate budget line (under administration, category 5) that underlines the EEAS’s sui generis character in relation to the Commission and the Council. The EEAS should in fact be a sui generis service, linked to both the Council Secretariat and the Commission without falling under either of these institutions.  

    EEAS staffing As soon as the HR begins work, he should have a support team made up of officials from the Council Secretariat and the Commission as well as a limited number of diplomats of the member states. This team will see to the establishment of the EEAS. A specially designated individual should be in charge of the organisational and financial aspects of the EEAS’s creation.  

    At the end of the transition period, the EEAS should consist in equivalent parts of officials of the Council Secretariat, officials of the Commission, and staff seconded from the national diplomatic services of the member states.  

            

  • Ireland paves the way for Tony Blair?

    October 2, 2009 @ 8:43 pm | by Jamie Smyth

     

    Well, polling day is finally upon us. Thank god because I’m not sure I could face writing another article about the intricacies of the Lisbon treaty. One contact in a political party in Ireland told me at 7pm tonight their private exit poll is for a 60 – 40 yes vote. I think it will pass ok, but I suspect it may be closer.

    I think Czech president Vaclav Klaus will also be forced to sign- it’s not easy to stand alone against 26 states when your own parliament has already ratified a treaty. This means Lisbon entering into force by January 1st 2010 and the nomination of the first European Council president.

    I’m just back from meetings with a few senior EU diplomats and a top commission official, who all say their money is squarely behind former British prime minister Tony Blair for the plum job. The British are pushing him hard. Sarkozy seems to be awestruck by the suave French speaking Brit and even Merkel is apparently softening her stance- in part because there are few other high calibre candidates.

    Personally I’m not so sure Blair will survive the horse trading that goes on in choosing any top EU job. But all the speculation begs the question would Blair he be any good at it?

    Blair is clearly talented and a wonderful communicator. He was instrumental in making the Labour party electable once again and everyone in Brussels remembers his fine pro-European speech to the European parliament at the start of the Britain’s EU presidency. But despite all the fine words about Europe when he was prime minister he never attempted to tackle euroscepticism in Britain. 

    Blair is a chameleon, according to people who have done business with him. “When you sit down with him he usually tells you exactly what you want to hear but whether you ever get what you want is another thing,” says one source. That’s probably one of the skills that helped him manage the peace talks in Northern Ireland, which must go down as his single best achievement to date. In fact, Blair as president of Europe would suit Ireland. He has done more for British-Irish relations than probably any other British leader. His wife and kids have Irish passports. And he even managed to apologise for the Irish famine! 

    But I’m simply not convinced he can be forgiven for teaming up with George Bush to invade Iraq. This decision cost hundreds of thousands of lives in Iraq and led to the deaths of thousands of British and American soldiers. It also deeply divided the EU and raises questions about Blair’s commitment to Europe.  He also has another Iraq inquiry hanging over his head in Britain. Will EU leaders risk giving such a controversial figure the first go at European Council president?

     The job is unelected but public opinion across Europe may not be quite as enthused about Blair as Europe’s current crop of leaders. A charismatic figure like Blair may stretch the mandate of the job, which is meant to be more of a figurehead than an activist president. This could be bad for small member states, which see the European Commission as their ally when it comes to defending their interests against the big 3- France, Germany and Britain.  

    Finally, would Blair be the right man when it comes to dealing with a eurosceptic David Cameron-led government? Some say he could act as the bridge to bring Britain back from the cold. But I suspect Cameron may find it difficult to make the type of compromises he will be called upon to make with Blair in the top seat.  Maybe the EU should walk before it starts to run with this job- forget the superstar and appoint a backroom boy like Balkenende, Gonzalez or Junker.

  • Media Manipulation- Verhofstadt style

    September 25, 2009 @ 9:15 am | by Jamie Smyth

     

    A new Irish Times opinion poll published today suggests that the yes side are still ahead in the second Lisbon referendum campaign but that the no side have made up a little ground. Some 48 per cent of people are likely to vote yes, 33 per cent say they will vote no and 19 per cent are undecided. This is good news for yes campaigners, although there is still a lot of nervousness at home and abroad.

    Take Guy Verhofstadt, for instance. The leader of the Liberal group in the European Parliament is coming to Ireland on Monday to campaign for the treaty. He is the man, who as former Belgian prime minister inspired the Laken declaration in 2000 committing the EU to be more democratic, transparent and effective. He also heads a group committed to the promotion of press freedom and civil rights.

    But this week he only agreed to be interviewed by The Irish Times on condition that he could ‘authorise’ the article before it went to press. The main reason cited by Verhofstadt’s people was the huge “sensitivity” in the referendum campaign and a fear that saying the wrong thing could in some way tip the balance towards a no vote.  

    Authorisation is a media control technique used mostly by German politicians, who often refuse to do interviews without asking to see the final text before it is printed and giving them leeway to edit parts.

    My newspaper has a policy not to accept these types of conditions placed on journalists. So no interview was granted, which is a shame because Verhofstadt was a key player in the talks to conclude the EU constitution and the Lisbon treaty. He probably could have added to Irish people’s understanding of the treaty before the vote next week.

    Perhaps he’ll open up a little when he goes to canvass in
    Ireland on Monday. Let’s hope so or his trip to Ireland will turn out to be a PR stunt rather than an important opportunity for an important member of the European parliament to explain and listen to people’s views.

  • Will UKIP’s ‘racist’ leaflet turn voters off?

    September 16, 2009 @ 10:41 am | by Jamie Smyth

    Here is the leaflet that the Freedom and Democracy group, whose leader is UKIP MEP Nigel Farage, plans to post to every house in Ireland.

     It is titled ‘The Truth About The Lisbon Treaty’ and will arrive in people’s letterboxes between September 17th and 21st. Reading over the six pages it is clear that the leaflet’s version of the truth is a bit like reading a novel by JRR Tolkien- full of fantastic fantasy figures that bear no relation to real life and a great evil, which in this case is the Lisbon treaty.

    Freedom and Democracy claims Lisbon will leads to mass immigration from Turkey (to get its message across it helpfully portrays a picture of a turkey with a medallion hanging around its neck saying “free movement for 75 million people”). It also asks a series of questions designed to place doubts in Irish voters minds such as: Will we get euthanasia? Do you want to become an EU province? Do you want to pay for the EU? Is your job safe? It also shows a wooden horse, presumably from
    Troy, with the letters CCCTB scribbled on it- a reference to the European Commission plan to harmonise the EU tax base.

    I predict a lot of confusion when the 1.5 million leaflets arrive in Irish households. But it is also quite likely that the majority of people will reject the messages precisely because it is so extreme. Irish MEP Marian Harkin has already said the leaflet is racist with its portrayal of a turkey representing the country Turkey and strongly criticised UKIP leader Farage, who designed the leaflet. 

      I’d be interested to see how readers of this blog react to it.

  • Is Ganley back from the dead?

    September 11, 2009 @ 7:22 pm | by Jamie Smyth

     

    He may be back you know. Declan Ganley, that is. 

     The snappy dressing no to Lisbon campaigner, who made his name running a slick campaign against Lisbon in the first referendum, has given a lengthy interview to the Wall Street Journal.

     He repeats many of the arguments that he made during his failed European election campaign in June and describes the second referendum as a “profoundly undemocratic” exercise to hold a second vote on the treaty.

     But even if you are a closet yes voter you have to admit the businessman-turned-politician-turned-businessman has some good lines.

     “The Irish people had a vote on the Lisbon Treaty. They voted no. A higher percentage of the electorate voted no than voted for Barack Obama in the United States of America. No one’s suggesting he should run for re-election next month,” he told the Journal.

     The big question everyone on everyone’s lips is – is he becoming a politician again and launching a new campaign?  The rumour mill in Dublin suggests Libertas may launch a campaign against the treaty on Sunday, although Ganley may not be leading the group’s campaign.

    Yes campaigners are publicly saying they aren’t worried. But behind the scenes there are real fears that a fired up Ganley could give momentum to a no campaign, which is rather lackluster and has few leaders.

     Sinn Fein seem to be going through the motions by opposing the treaty without committing too many troops on the ground. With a general election possible within the next few months it is unlikely they want to scare off any voters by being too aggressive.

     Socialist MEP Joe Higgins recently got caught misquoting the treaty while the right wing Catholic group Coir has made such exaggerated claims about Lisbon’s impact on the minimum wage that most people are dismissing them as cranks.

    Libertas certainly told a few porky’s first time around- remember Ganley’s claim about the EU locking up 3 year olds- but he is passionate and a fantastic communicator.

      But the real problem standing in the way of a Ganley comeback is his repeated comments to the media that he was bowing out of politics and wouldn’t oppose the referendum following his defeat in the European elections. An u-turn now would raise questions about his integrity. But then again if he is back to being a politician then performing a u-turn will probably be second nature to him.  

  • Keeping our commissioner without Lisbon

    September 6, 2009 @ 10:54 am | by Jamie Smyth

     

    I’ve just arrived back from an EU foreign ministers meeting in Sweden where it was clear that everyone is getting very nervous about the second Lisbon treaty referendum.

    I interviewed Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt- president of the European Council- on the fringes of the meeting where he admitted that the Swedes are working on a contingency plan in the event of a no vote. He also gave a frank assessment of what is likely to happen if we deal a final death blow to the Lisbon treaty. (interview here)

      According to Reinfeldt, a no vote would be respected by the Union and the Nice treaty would prevail. And, contrary to some of the exaggerated claims of yes campaigners, the sky wouldn’t immediately fall on Ireland’s head. It is the EU as a whole that would be damaged as the endless navel-gazing EU institutional debate continues to divert attention from other important issues such as climate change.

    But it was his comments on how to cope with the stipulation in Nice- that the number of commissioners must be less than the number of states in the next EU executive- that were most interesting. He said a “26 plus one” plan is favoured by diplomats and the probable solution. This would see 26 states retaining their commissioner and the 27th state getting the plum job of EU foreign affairs chief instead of a commissioner.  

    The political reality, according to Reinfeldt, is that no member state wants to lose its commissioner even if Lisbon cannot enter into force and the EU must continue with the Nice treaty. The “26 plus one” plan is likely to fly in the event of a no vote as many states would agree to swap their right to a low profile post in the EU executive, such as commissioner for multilingualism, to obtain the high profile foreign affairs job.

    Another interesting comment from the Swedish prime minister was that the political deal agreed last December on the size of the commission to allow all member states to retain a commissioner may not last forever. “We might in the future get back to this discussion. What if we keep on enlarging?” admitted Mr Reinfeldt, who warned that the question of the efficiency of the commission will re-emerge when there are 30 states or more in the EU.

     Reinfeldt is right on both counts, of course. But his Swedish frankness may not go down well with the Government, who are running their Lisbon campaign on a theme of “vote yes to keep your commissioner”. Revealing four weeks before polling that there is likely no immediate threat to an Irish commissioner, even if we vote no to Lisbon, is the type of honest political assessment so rarely displayed during referendum campaigns in Ireland.

      Scaremongering is emerging as a key tactic on both sides of the second Lisbon debate with yes campaigners arguing Ireland’s entire economic and political future is at risk while no campaigners warn Lisbon will introduce abortion and lead to a deluge of migrants. If only we could import a little bit of Swedish rationalism to our debates surely the quality of our democracy would be much higher.

  • Ireland’s wartime legacy and the EU

    September 1, 2009 @ 10:08 pm | by Jamie Smyth

    germany invades poland in 1939 

    Today is the 70th anniversary of the start of world war II and many EU leaders have gathered in Poland to commemorate the loss of 50 million lives. 

     The war ultimately led to the creation of the EU as politicians sought a way to bind France and Germany together to prevent the type of big power competition that so tragically dominated the first half of the 20th century.

     The significance of the commemoration in Gdansk was not lost on MEPs who returned from their holidays after the summer break. 

    “Thanks to the EU, we have witnessed 60 years of peace and prosperity,” said Joseph Daul, chairman of the EPP group in the European Parliament, who comes from the symbolically important city of Strasbourg on the French-German border.

     The critical role the EU has played in creating a stable and peaceful Europe is much appreciated in continental Europe, which suffered the worst of the ravages of two world wars. It also explains why countries such as France and Poland want to build up a strong common European defence policy.

    Back home in Ireland there is far less attention on the anniversary of the war, principally because Eamon de Valera’s Ireland chose not to take part. At the time the Irish secretary at the ministry for external affairs Joe Walshe explained the decision by saying: “small nations like Ireland do not and cannot assume a role as defenders of just causes except (their) own… Existence of our own people comes before all other considerations.”

     Staying out of the war was morally questionable while De Valera’s condolence call to the German embassy when Hitler died is still a source of national shame. But Ireland’s historical experience of British rule and subsequent strict adherence to neutrality still shapes Irish attitudes to the EU, which came to the fore during the first Lisbon referendum campaign last June.

     The traditional argument in favour of the EU as a peace building body simply fails to excite Irish people as its does the French or Germans. There is also public antipathy to any talk of building a common EU defence or increasing Europe’s military capacities to help it play a stronger global role.

     So it is no surprise that in the run up to the second vote on Lisbon on October 2nd the yes campaign is focusing on tangible arguments in favour of the EU such as jobs and investment while avoiding any talk of EU defence policy.

     Whether these arguments are strong enough to engender the type of emotional commitment to the European project that is seen in countries like France and Germany remains to be seen on October 2nd.  

  • Is war with Iran inevitable?

    July 11, 2009 @ 1:05 pm | by Jamie Smyth

     

    The G8 has finally ended and I’m sitting on an ATR 42- 500 Italian customs police plane, which is usually used to spot illegal immigrants crossing the Med to Italy from Africa, with President Barroso and his advisers flying back to Rome.

    It’s been a whirlwind three days of briefings, press conferences and long bus trips shuttling between the G8 conference centre and our hotel late at night and early in the morning. Due to security concerns and fear of earthquakes the Italians put all the journalists in hotels at least 1.5 hours drive from the conference centre in the shattered town of L’Aquila.

     Behind all the headlines on climate change, food security and world trade, a dominant theme at the meeting is the decisive shift in power to big developing countries China, India and Brazil.The key talks on climate change took place outside the G8, which includes only the industrialised states Britain, France, US, Germany, Canada, Japan, Russia and Italy. The five biggest developing states China, Brazil, India, South Africa and Mexico- in the format known as the G5- were all invited to take part on Thursday. This is a clear acknowledgement that no deal can be achieved without getting three of the top five emitters of greenhouse gases onboard. Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and Berlusconi all acknowledged at the end of the summit that the G8 is not a viable format anymore to deal with the big issues facing the world. But there is still debate over the right format to thrash out issues such as climate change, financial regulation and the economy.The French and Italians favour the G14. Merkel favours the G20 while the Japanese want to keep the G8 format – probably to keep their big regional rival China out in the cold.

    I don’t think the G8 will be disbanded anytime soon because it offers the main western powers a format within which they can engage in intimate, informal setting to discuss sensitive political issues such as Iran.

    I didn’t write a lot about Iran over the last three days but I’ve heard there was a very frank discussion on the first evening when Obama and Sarkozy tried to persuade Russia to get tough on Tehran.

    It was also revealed that Obama will convene a nuclear forum next March to discuss nuclear proliferation – a move that is destined to crank up the pressure on Iran over its ongoing nuclear programme.

    Senior diplomats I spoke to at the G8 said the US was not for turning on its opposition to Iran building a nuclear weapon. And its close ally Israel has already made it clear that it will take military action to prevent
    Tehran building a bomb.

    By extending the hand of friendship in the early days of his presidency Obama clearly wants a negotiated settlement. But if US overtures are rejected many G8 diplomats say military action is probably inevitable in the future.

    The prospects of a negotiated settlement don’t look good after the recent crack down by hardliners following the disputed election result. I suspect Iran will prove to be the biggest test for Obama’s foreign policy, which in so many fields has eschewed the Bush doctrine of igoring allies and going it alone.

    It will also be a major test for America’s allies, who may have to chose whether to join a coalition of the willing or risk a split with Obama over Iran.

  • Embedded with Barroso

    July 9, 2009 @ 12:58 pm | by Jamie Smyth

     

     I’m writing this post on a bus flanked by a police escort, which is speeding its way to the G8 meeting in the small Italian town of L’Aquila.

     This is the first group of eight leading economies (G8) meeting that I’ve covered and I’m lucky to have been embedded with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso for the three days of meetings. That means it is possible to avoid some of the logistical chaos that always surrounds meetings that attracts more than 30 world leaders- the G8 now includes side meetings with other world powers- 3,000 journalists and several thousands officials.

    There has been a lot of criticism of Italian organisation at L’Aquila, which only a few months ago suffered a massive earthquake. But to be fair to G8 host Silvio Berlusconi (who is well known for throwing a good party at his villa) the food and drink is good, plentiful and free for all.  

     Travelling with the president’s entourage means regular briefings from Barroso, who chatted to the four other embedded journalists and myself yesterday on board the chartered jet he took to L’Aquila (EC president doesn’t get a permanent plane like Air Force One). It also means I get a little bit of gossip on what the world’s most powerful leaders are saying.

    Yesterday the new kid on the G8 block President Barack Obama signed up to a target to restrict temperature increases from climate change to two degrees limit- a major step forward and a break from the past US administration led by George Bush.

    But he also told leaders privately that he faces real difficulties in getting any global climate change deal signed in
    Copenhagen later this year ratified in the Senate, where he needs a two thirds majority to carry an international treaty.

     This prompted French president Nicolas Sarkozy to remind Obama that the EU had to achieve unanimity among 27 states to sign up to its own climate change targets. In other words Europe expects him to deliver legislation to cut US emissions.

     There have also been a few lighter points at the meeting such as when Barroso got caught in a lift on the way to meet us for a breifing. He was later forced to brief journalists in a gym surrounded by exercise machines due to a lack of briefing rooms. There is no limit to his desire to get his message out!

    Obama has also been busy shooting hoops in between meetings at a specially constructed presidential basketball court. Berlusconi, beset by his own domestic and matrimonial problems, clearly wants to bask in the glory of the world’s most popular president and is doing everthing he can to keep him happy. Flanked with my Italian police escort everywhere I go I’m hardly going to argue with him. 

    I’ll try and write more later when I find some time to get to the serious stuff here at L’Aquila.

       

       

  • Will McCreevy lead the no campaign?

    June 26, 2009 @ 10:31 pm | by Jamie Smyth

     

    You have to hand it to Charlie, Ireland’s happy-go-lucky member of the European Commission. He’s certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to expressing his personal views on the Lisbon treaty.

    At his by-now regular Friday speech in Ireland today (which enables him to have a long weekend at home) he told a room of accountants that most Europeans would have followed the Irish example and thrown out the treaty if they were allowed a vote by their leaders.

      ”When the Irish people rejected the Lisbon treaty a year ago the initial reactions ranged from one of shock to horror, to aghastness and temper and vexation,” said McCreevy. “On the other hand, I think all of the politicians of Europe would have known quite well that if a similar question had been put to their electorate in a referendum the answer in 95 percent of countries would have been ‘No’ as well.”

    McCreevy, who is famous for telling the public during last year’s referendum campaign that “any sane, or sensible person” shouldn’t even attempt to read the Lisbon treaty, must have forgotten that the public in Luxembourg and Spain both voted for the EU constitution, the precursor to the
    Lisbon treaty.

      His broader message is probably correct: at least some electorates in Europe (the Danes, British, Dutch and maybe the French) would throw out the treaty if it came to a popular vote. But you have to wonder if McCreevy’s six monthly “shoot from the hip” outbursts on Lisbon are intended to give Taoiseach Brian Cowen heartburn.

     Just a week after Cowen persuades his EU partners to deliver the legal guarantees Ireland needs to vote again on the treaty up pops McCreevy questioning the whole democratic legitimacy of the Lisbon treaty.  

     This follows his effusive praise for Declan Ganley’s no campaign last December when he told Hot Press and the rest of the media that the Libertas founder had won the argument on Lisbon fair and square.

      Cowen must be wondering how to shut McCreevy up before he causes any more collateral damage to his government’s critical yes campaign for the Lisbon II referendum in the autumn.

     If only the Cheltenham racing festival could be brought forward to September. McCreevy never misses Britain’s premier horse racing festival, even managing to turn out when Europe’s financial markets are in meltdown.

     So a month-long September race meeting in Britain, or even better in Australia, may be the best way to provide a gaffe-free run in for Lisbon II. Otherwise, you may get short odds on McCreevy leading the no campaign in this autumn’s referendum on Lisbon.

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