President Van Rompuy Proves he is a Man of Vision

Labour Party

You may be forgiven for all the misconceptions you probably have about Herman Van Rompuy, the newish President of the European Council.  He didn’t get much coverage in the UK when he was Prime Minister of Belgium, and most of that written and said about him since becoming President has been negative, sometimes even insulting. 

 President Van Rompuy spoke to the Socialist and Democrat Group this morning, and believe me he is far from lightweight.  His knowledge of economics is outstanding.  What is more, he is capable of strategic thinking and has a genuine vision for Europe, a vision much more in line with British views than you may expect.  President Van Rompuy sees the EU as a grouping of sovereign states with certain common objectives.  I’d certainly buy into that, as I’m sure would the vast majority of people in the UK, except perhaps those on the extreme margins of politics.

 The President showed a rare degree of radicalism this morning, all the more surprising as he is from the centre-right EPP family.  It was his support for the tax on financial transactions which finally convinced me that he is a man we could do business with.  When answering a question from fellow Belgian, Marc Tarabella, it became clear that President Van Rompuy not only supports the “Tobin” tax in principle, but as Belgian Prime Minister he implemented it on a national basis.  You may also be interested to know that the G20 is looking at such a tax and the IMF is preparing a report.    

 The economic issues obviouly revolved around the current downturn.  The President was unrepentant about the EU’s policy of protecting the internal market and the euro and the pursuit of inflationary measures.  He was, on the other hand, clear that we all need to return to balanced budgets in order to pursue social goals such as sustainable pensions and improved health care.  While I would not necessarily support his contention that we need balanced budgets to carry out a social programme, the President does, at least, believe in the social dimension of Europe.  He was also clear that the EU needs to ensure that the new EU 20:20 strategy is successful, unlike the previous Lisbon Strategy which did not achieve anything very much.

 Climate change was the other big topic.  Since Copenhagen has not moved anything forward, Europe needs to keep on working at this agenda.  There were several calls, including one from EPLP Leader Glenis Willmott, for green, sustainable jobs which President Van Rompuy supported wholeheartedly.     

Herman Van Rompuy is an engaging speaker, though like many Europeans he lacks some of the rhetorical flourish so beloved by the British. He gave his presentation in English, he then answered questions in French and understood German as well as his native Dutch.  I wonder how many of us are fluent in at least four languages.  He also listens and made a promise that he would take seriously all the points raised at the Group meeting.

 It’s a real tragedy for us that both President Van Rompuy and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, our own Baroness Ashton, get such a bad press in Britain.  They are both excellent at their jobs.  One socialist MEP said today that Herman Van Rompuy is the right person in the right place.  The same is true of Cathy Ashton, and we would do well to take a leaf out of the books of many other countries in the European Union and support our national appointees.  

 And finally… it was good to see former Labour MEP Richard Corbett sitting at the top table with President Van Rompuy.  Richard is now head of the President’s Cabinet.  Congratulatons Richard.  You deserve your success and we all know you will do exceptional work  for Herman Van Rompuy and, by extension, for all of us involved in the EU.

Post Lisbon Blues

Labour Party

Reading the Guardian today you may be forgiven for thinking we are all suffering from a massive dose of gloom at the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week.  To say nothing could be further from the truth would be an exaggeration; it’s more like business as usual with a bit extra doom thrown in for good measure.

Things are quite obviously not going to well on the big issues.  The economy across Europe is  in the doldrums with the current crisis in Greece making everyone very jittery.

To add insult to injury, the much vaunted Copenhagen summit on climate change held in December was little short of a farce.  Badly organised and lacking any sort of focus, it failed to produce any binding agreement.  Since the environment in general and climate issues in particular do not respect national borders and therefore require international action, this whole policy area is almost universally seen as Europe’s strongest card.  To come so unstuck at Copenhagen was therefore extremely bad news.

What is more, Europe’s internal, what EU jargon call “inter-institutional”, organisation is in a state of flux following the Lisbon Treaty.  There are now no less than four presidents:  Jose-Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, current holder of the six month rotating presidency.

You may recall that one of my reasons for supporting Tony Blair for as President of the European Council was to have one strong leader who would be above all the inter-institutional rivalry and cut down on the chaos.  Alas this wasn’t to be, to Europe’s immediate and, I believe, long term detriment.

President Obama recently cancelled his attendance at an EU summit due to be held in Madrid in May, allegedly because he doesn’t know who is in charge in the EU.  It looks suspiciously as if Obama is  following in the apocryphal footsteps of Henry Kissinger who apparently felt the same way.  Since this snub follows hard on the heels of the United States President’s failure to take much account of the EU at Copenhagen, Europe has much to think about.

The underlying and very real danger is that the world revolves once again around two super powers – this time the Unites States and China.  Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall we may be back to the same old alignment, capitalist and communist, west and east with the same potential for an aggressive arms build up.

The EU was perhaps never going to be strong enough to be the force countering these two massive countries with their huge landmass, natural resources and, perhaps more important, their overwhelming sense of national identity.  Yet we in Europe are in real danger of missing out on any meaningful influence.  While the EU remains riven with internal jealousies, unable to move forward, the chance of acting as a player on the world stage and being the counterweight to the USA and China lessens by the day.  Strength lies in unity not fragmentation.

Dan and David my fellow Socialist bloggers

Labour Party

Dear friends, I am in the process of revising my website and down on the left hand side you will see a new set of links. With links it seems as soon as they go up someone changes their address or stops blogging but I would like to draw to your attention the blogs of two of my Socialist and Democrat colleagues. Campaigning in London during the June elections I met many supporters from other European countries.  European blogs are readily accessible through tools like google translate.

Dan Jorgenson pictured on the left has a lively blog talking about domestic and European politics. Dan is an environment specialist and as you would expect he has plenty to say the Copenhagen climate change discussions. For a flavour of his style try this post ” Chill Out Lomborg” where he takes on Danish climate change denying author Bjorn Lomborg (do allow for the translation a little!).

From southern Europe my colleague David Sassoli features his blog on his homepage. To see all of it you have to click through to his blog archive. David is a foreign affairs expert and this is reflected in his posts. I note also that like myself he tries to give a flavour of Plenary session of the Parliament to his readers with news of votes as they happen in Strasbourg.  

I am charmed by how David addresses his readers as “Dear Friends”, perhaps the blogosphere in Italy is less robust and more courteous in Italy than Britain. This also works for him as he appears to not allow comments. I welcome the dialogue and feedback comments provide.

European Liaison Meeting with the House of Lords and the House of Commons

Labour Party

Top of the bill at the Tripartite meeting between the House of Lords, House of Commons and the European Parliament was the ever present climate change talks at Copenhagen.  This is undeniably the most important issue facing the world.  This did not, however, stop the two UKIP MEPs present coming out with what were rather feeble attempts to deny the man-made nature of the climate change we are currently suffering.

Although I don’t often attend these Tripartite meetings which are held two to three times a year, I strongly believe they are a good idea.  The meetings keep us all in touch and prevent the two parliaments occupying completely parallel universes where there is no contact whatsoever.

The debate on climate change was a case in point.  The MEPs were able to tell the Lords and MPs that Commission President Barosso intends to fund climate change to the tune of 30 – 50 billion Euros.  A lively debate followed, focusing on developing alternative energy sources and energy saving measures.  Although the economic downturn is making the former more difficult, it is probably helping the latter in which, incidentally, the UK has a good record.

The meeting moved on from climate change to the hugely problematic regulation of hedge funds.  80% of hedge funds in Europe are in the City of London, making this a substantially British issue.  The general feeling of the meeting was that since hedge funds only risk their own money, they are not a problem in the way the banks have shown themselves to be.

And finally, we looked at what seem to most people outside parliamentary procedures the arcane processes used in the European Parliament.  It is, of course, worth noting that since there is a high turnover of MEPs, over half the European Parliament elected earlier this year are new, and may also be struggling with some of these matters.

European Parliament Committees will, of course, be interviewing Commissioners in the middle of January, and there is no cast-iron guarantee that all Commissioners will be confirmed.  It will be made more complicated in that President Barosso has redrawn Commissioner portfolios to some large extent.

One of the main conclusions of this Tripartite meeting was that the Lisbon Treaty has changed the landscape.  Lisbon gives the European Parliament much greater power.  As one of the members of the House of Lords on the Committee succinctly put it, “The Lisbon Treaty has ended the democratic deficit at a stroke.”