EU leaders face flak as new president keeps low profile

(L-R) European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, Belgian Prime Minsiter Herman Van Rompuy and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker at a European Union summit. Incoming EU president Van Rompuy kept a low profile as the 27-nation bloc's leaders faced flak for picking him and a little-known British peer to lead a revamped Europe on the world stage.

(L-R) European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana, Belgian Prime Minsiter Herman Van Rompuy and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker at a European Union summit. Incoming EU president Van Rompuy kept a low profile as the 27-nation bloc's leaders faced flak for picking him and a little-known British peer to lead a revamped Europe on the world stage.

AFP – Incoming EU president Herman Van Rompuy kept a low profile as the 27-nation bloc’s leaders faced flak for picking him and a little-known British peer to lead a revamped Europe on the world stage.

Van Rompuy, the outgoing Belgian premier chosen to become the first European Union president at a summit Thursday, met with his cabinet and King Albert II to start the process of finding a successor, without talking to the press.

However the world’s press were talking about him and the second member of the EU’s new dream team, incoming foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

“The choice of two relative unknowns … dismayed those who wanted to give Europe more clout on the world stage,” the London Financial Times said.

“More likely the US president and Chinese premier will continue to work with Europe primarily through bilateral talks with Berlin, London, and Paris.”Related article: The EU’s new top jobs

The EU leaders chose Van Rompuy unanimously, and quicker than expected, at Thursday’s summit after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown dropped his insistence that his predecessor Tony Blair should be given the post, officially called the president of the European Council.

In exchange, Brown successfully put forward Britain’s EU Commissioner Ashton for the foreign policy supremo job, capping a dramatic rise for a woman who has never held elected office.

There was much back-slapping in Brussels after the pair were chosen, but international reaction was polite rather than effusive.

US President Barack Obama said the appointment of an EU president made Europe an “even stronger partner” for the United States.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called the nominations “another important step forward for European integration.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the appointment of the EU’s first president as a move to strengthen Europe’s efforts to bolster “peace, security, human rights and sustainable development.”

“The secretary-general looks forward to working closely with both Mr Van Rompuy and Ms Ashton in strengthening cooperation between the European Union and the United Nations,” a UN statement said.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow wanted to see a “stronger, more efficient” EU, adding: “We want the European Union to react more quickly to global issues, that it speaks with one voice.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy assured that Van Rompuy “is not a default choice,” but “an extremely decisive man who knows where he’s going, with a perfect knowledge of European politics”.

Others detected a conscious decision by Europe’s leaders not to be left in the shade.

“Clearly they didn’t want two people who scared the bejasus out of them or were going to overshadow their egos,” said Hugo Brady, a senior fellow at the Centre for European Reform.Profile: Ashton’s new job

“But look, it’s a sign of the times. A turkey doesn’t vote for an early Christmas.”

Van Rompuy has been in power in Belgium for a year and won praise for keeping the feuding Flemish and French-speaking communities relatively content in his coalition government.

Baroness Ashton is currently EU trade commissioner and has swiftly built up a reputation as a quiet but effective negotiator.

She was more vocal Friday, insisting she was the best person for the new job of EU high representative for foreign and security policy.

“Over the next few months and years I aim to show that I am the best person for the job,” she told the BBC.

“I hope that my particular set of skills will show that in the end I am the best choice.”

She will get the chance when she assumes her new role on December 1, at the head of a huge new secretariat, when the Lisbon Treaty which creates both jobs comes into force.

EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso, who recently received another five-year term, will then be able to put together the rest of the commission, from all EU member states, in which Ashton will be a vice-president.

While many observers said Van Rompuy and Ashton may turn out to be excellent choices, few expected them to hit the ground running, particularly in places like the Middle East where building trust is key.

“There’s a gap that is going to be filled by the big member states,” said Janis Emmanoulidis of the European Policy Centre.

Jean-Dominique Giuliani, chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation, criticised the choice of Van Rompuy and Ashton.

“To give the job to a Belgian, however respectable, is to make it above all a facilitator’s role,” he said. “It’s a bad sign, but Europe has shown it is stronger than that.”

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France cornered amid EU deficits charge

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde smiles before the start of an Economy and Finance Council meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels. France was cornered among Europe's big guns on Tuesday as it sought to avert a public slap from the European Union this week over ballooning deficit levels.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde smiles before the start of an Economy and Finance Council meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels. France was cornered among Europe's big guns on Tuesday as it sought to avert a public slap from the European Union this week over ballooning deficit levels.

The City & My Life|AFP France was cornered among Europe’s big guns on Tuesday as it sought to avert a public slap from the European Union this week over ballooning deficit levels.

The European Commission is to order France on Wednesday to bring its bloated public deficit — set to reach 8.5 percent of GDP in 2010 — back to within three percent of gross domestic product by 2013.

However, the French argued at talks between EU finance ministers in Brussels that 2014 is a more reasonable deadline, which would mean an extension of one year more than any other country can get under formal excessive deficit procedures.

“The French are being totally unreasonable,” said an EU source, adding that the cost of servicing France’s debt by 2011 “will be greater in the French budget than the education provision.”

Under European Union regulations, member states are bound to hold their annual public deficits to three percent of output — with Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Joaquin Almunia insisting “fair” treatment will be meted out to all, big or small.

Spain and Germany will also be given until 2013 to comply, although Britain will be allowed leeway until 2015 to fix its annual budget, and none of these countries has mounted rearguard action.

The EU official added: “The Germans believe in budgetary discipline, that’s the big difference … Some small countries are lining up behind France, but (Paris) won’t have the same clout as Germany.”

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, for her part, insisted that Paris was still “negotiating” with the commission over the deadline.

“Quite clearly 2015 is too far down the line. 2012 is too soon,” she said. “But between the two (dates), there is 2013 and 2014.

“It is obvious that 2014 already represents a fine effort — I think 2013 will be extremely difficult, that’s what I told my colleagues” at a meeting of EU counterparts in Brussels.

Twenty of the 27 EU nations have so far been warned for breaching guidelines designed to promote stability and growth across intertwined economies.

Only seven EU members — Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Luxembourg and Sweden — have respected the three percent limit.

Member states have formally agreed to start beating a retreat on unsustainable housekeeping by 2011 at the latest, ongoing recovery permitting.

Czech President Vaclav Klaus signs the EU’s Lisbon Treaty

Czech President Vaclav Klaus has signed the Lisbon Treaty for EU reform, he announced on Tuesday. He is the last of the EU’s 27 leaders to have done so, opening the way for the treaty to come into force in December or January.

 

REUTERS – Czech President Vaclav Klaus signed the EU’s Lisbon Treaty on Tuesday, bringing into force the EU’s plan to overhaul its institutions and win a greater role on the world stage.

Klaus was the last EU leader to ratify the treaty and his signature means the bloc of nearly half a billion people can pick its first president and a more powerful foreign representative to speak for it in global affairs.

The treaty is aimed at giving the EU a bigger clout on the world scene and making it more flexible. This is intended to match the rise of emerging powers such as China.

The staunchly eurosceptic Czech president signed the pact after the country’s Constitutional Court threw out a complaint against the treaty earlier on Tuesday.

“I had expected the court ruling and I respect it, although I fundamentally disagree with its content and justification,” Klaus told reporters. “I signed the Lisbon Treaty today at 1500 (local time),” he said.

Klaus had been banned by law from signing the treaty until the court had ruled on a complaint by his allies in the Czech upper house of parliament, the Senate, who argued the treaty would erode national sovereignty.

Arguments rejected

The court rejected the arguments. “The judgment was unanimous; none of the judges filed a dissenting opinion to either the judgment or its reasoning,” the court said in a written verdict.

The Czech parliament has approved the pact but Klaus long argued against it, saying it would turn the EU into a superstate with little democratic control.

“With the Lisbon Treaty taking effect, the Czech Republic will cease to be a sovereign state, despite the political opinion of the Constitutional Court,” Klaus said.

Klaus had said he would raise no further obstacles to the document after EU leaders agreed last week to give the Czechs an opt-out from a rights charter attached to the treaty. Klaus says the exemption is necessary to avoid property claims by Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War Two.

“It is now time surely that the European Union moves on, not talking about the institutional arrangements for years ahead, but talking about the vital problems that all of us face,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said after the court ruling.

“And that is creating jobs, creating growth, building a safer and more secure environment and building greater security for European people.”

After Klaus’s signature, the treaty will come into force probably in December, turning attention to who will be the EU’s first president.

EU leaders failed to agree at a summit last week in Brussels on who should take the job, whose powers are still somewhat unclear, and a special summit may be needed to reach a deal.

The chances of the once-favoured candidate, former British prime minister Tony Blair, seem doomed after he failed to win an endorsement from the European Socialists, his Labour Party’s allies.

No front-runner has emerged, but possible contenders include Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, former Finnish prime minister Paavo Lipponen and Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker.

Eurozone Ministers warn of recovery stall

Eurozone finance ministers are worried that economic recovery is being threatened by the shared currency’s strength against the dollar. At a meeting with European Central Bank officials in Luxembourg, the ministers also talked about ending costly stimulus programmes that have loaded countries with debt.

The ECB’s President, Jean-Claude Trichet, said it was important to start the “exit stategy” and structural deficits had to be reduced by more than 1% in many cases.

“Unfortunately that regards Germany and France,” he said. “They have to be treated in the same fashion, with the same rules, and the Stability and Growth Pact is our master.”

Europe’s economy is recovering slowly as consumers start spending again after a long freeze. But exports from eurozone countries fell by nearly a quarter in a year. It is harder to sell goods in the US when the dollar has lost a fifth of its value against the euro since the start of the year. Some suspect the Americans of deliberately keeping the dollar weak to boost US exports and kickstart recovery.

EU and US at odds over Afghanistan

When it came the call was loud and clear. US General Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, wants a major shift in strategy to battle the Taliban and he needs 40,000 more troops and equipment to do it.

But where are they coming from?

euronews channel-Its a dilemma for the Obama administration as the Europeans look to be stepping back from the fray as casualties mount, costs soar and public opinion begins to dip.

The US president held talks with NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen and made a clear point.

“This is not an American battle. This is a NATO mission as well. And we are working actively and diligently to consult with NATO every step of the way.”

Europe’s defence ministers are meeting in Gothenburg and what to do in Afghanistan is high on the agenda.

The blocs foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, indicated that the EU would wait for the results of the Afghan election before committing to any new Afghan plan.

As it stands 68,000 US soldiers are in Afghanistan backed by 35,000 from other countries, mostly Europe.

40 percent of US generals back the call for a 40,000 troop surge.

Europe wants 17,000 instructors to train 13,000 Afghan soldiers and 80,000 police.

Caught in the middle is President Obama while his top brass want extra firepower his main allies lean toward a training strategy.

General McChrystal gave his reasons for wanting a speedier end to a difficult conundrum.

“We need to reverse the current trend and time does matter. Waiting does not prolong a favourable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely, public support will not last indefinitely.”

He is not alone in his thinking, General Henri Bentegeat, who heads the EU’s Military Committee, says its not a problem of troop shortages but a lack of political will that is keeping Europe from deploying more military in the country.

EU Ministers are set to grasp this nettle again at a formal meeting in Brussels in November.

Brussels’ battle against bankers’ bonuses

A curb on bankers’ bonuses looks more likely after EU leaders agreed on a common stance ahead of a G20 summit next week.

The bloc’s presidency says rich nations have a crucial role in regulating to prevent another crisis.

Banks bailed out with taxpayers money, it says, must not take advantage of better results in the future.

The Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, current holder of the EU presidency, said: “The bonus bubble burst tonight. We cannot accept that bank profits are private gains and bank losses are the tax payers’ responsibility.”

Agreement was reached after France reportedly softened calls for a strict cap on bonuses, as long as other controls are adopted.

President Sarkozy said the sticking point was the “overall limit of the size of the bonus”, but insisted that was “not a problem in the framework of the European position”.

The EU leaders agree that the size of bonuses should be linked to long-term performance and boards of directors have to have oversight.

Also, if a bank’s performance deteriorates, the leaders agree that bonuses could be reclaimed.

Dublin admits “Yes” to Lisbon will be difficult

Ireland’s Foreign Minister today admitted his government faces a tough task getting the EU’s Lisbon Treaty ratified next month.

The Irish people are voting on the charter again, having rejected it last year.

Michael Martin’s warning comes the day after his ruling Fianna Fail party launched its campaign for a “Yes” vote.

Yesterday, he was reassuring voters about concessions obtained from Brussels.

Mr Martin said: “We intend to inform the public of the new guarantees that address the main concerns that were articulated last year at the referendum campaign back then, and that, since, these concerns have been comprehensively addressed as the European powers have listened and delivered,” Martin said on Thursday.

While the “Yes” camp is still ahead, a new survey in the “Irish Times” shows support for the treaty has fallen, with an incease in the number of undecided voters.

Analysts have warned the government’s deep unpopularity could trigger a protest vote.
Another “No” would derail the reform treaty, possibly for good, as it must be ratified by all 27 EU member nations.