Winding Down

The EU Summit that starts today will probably be the beginning of a general wind down period for the EU as a whole, a bit differently than the EU leaders had expected.

Everyone had already started talking about this period after the August break – when all EU work grinds to a halt – as the general run-up to the year 2009, when both a new EU Parliament and a new EU Commission is to be selected. Logically, neither body would have any interest in starting any new huge undertakings as they would not know whether or not they would be able to finish them.

Some Commissioners will likely re-appear. Chairman José Manuel Barroso, for example, makes little secret of his wish to be re-appointed, and seems to have enough political support from e.g. Germany to see a second term in office. And Ms Androulla Vasiliou is so new on the job that she has little time to mess things up, at least, enough to be removed.

Others will certainly not. Vice president Margot Wallström, for instance, has made it clear that she is not seeking re-election. That is to all intents and purposes a preventive statement in order to save her the embarrassment of being ousted, not because she is doing a poor job – on the contrary, she is generally held in high esteem – but because she is a Social Democrat. So was Sweden’s only other Commissioner to date, Anita Gradin. But the current Swedish government is not. They will be little inclined, to say the least, to continue nominating representatives of their main political arch rivals, especially since they won the last election with promises including a reform of the nomination process to public top jobs, where Social Democrats – who have held governmental power for all but eleven of the last 76 years – for some reason have had a notorious habit of being appointed.

I’d be rather surprised if they didn’t put Carl Bildt in there instead, but I’ve been wrong before.

However, apart from that general slowdown, the current Summit will have to throw all plans to address pressing current issues such as galloping food and oil prices out the window, and instead embark on another endless crisis management tour in the wake of Ireland’s no to the Lisbon Treaty.

Another deadlock, from which there is no known escape, just before the slowdown time, while interest rates are creeping upwards, economy downwards, and stagflation is looming around the corner. Not to mention what to do with the EU’s ambitious climate targets, which might help delay global warming for a few years (until China’s and India’s emissions have made up for the balance), but will eat into the world’s already scarce food resources and continue to trigger famine, especially in poor countries. And I haven’t even started with the need to do something about the EU’s gigantic Common Agriculture Policy in order to make it help feed us all instead of just making matters worse.

This is when Brussels would have needed to take some tough decisions. But, sorry to say, don’t hold your breath.

Verhofstadt For President?

Gearing up for the election of a new President of the European Commission next year, the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt is emerging as a candidate who might have strong support.

Little has been said so far in public about whom the member states will appoint to head the EU’s executive body (there are no public elections to this powerful entity), and the current holder of the function. José Manuel Barroso, is expecting re-election.  But now, it seems that three-time Premier Verhofstadt might be one of the favourites.

Mr Verhofstadt, a Liberal, enjoys the backing of the Socialist party group in the EU Parliament, Metro writes quoting Le Soir, and the group, second largest in the EU Parliament with 215 out of 785 seas, is hoping to forge a centre-left coalition to support his candidacy. Mr Verhofstadt’s ideological friends, the Parliament’s liberal group, seem less enthusiastic, but will not rule out supporting him.

We shall see what will happen once the mightier movers of the Union such as the French and German governments have put forward their opinion, and Mr Verhofstadt himself has not commented or disclosed if he would be available as a candidate at all. But holding together the increasingly disparate nation of Belgium under the recent crisis might prove good exercise for anyone who would want to make 27 nations pull the same direction.

It Stinks

Here’s the latest gossip on why Commissioner Günter Verheugen will be able to break the EU regulations, lie to half a billion taxpayers about it – and get away with it.

Word has reached me that the talk of the town in Brussels is that even though the Commissioner has broken the Code of Conduct by having an affair with his Chief of Staff, Petra Erler; even though it seems that this might have influenced the decision to hire her for her current job; and even though the Commissioner is blatantly lying about it, the reason why he will get away with it all is that Ms Erler is good friends with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Forget that the Commissioners are supposed to be completely independent from all instructions from member states. The world of realpolitik speaks a different language.

Commissioner Verheugen’s boss, José Manuel Barroso, is said to be keen on securing a second term in office as President of the Commission, as his first term expires in 2009. Therefore, the rumours go, he does not want to get into any trouble with the German chancellor, and therefore, the same rumours have it, he will turn a blind eye to the breach of regulations carried out by Commissioner Verheugen and the German chancellor’s good friend.

Thus, the Commissioner and the Chief of Staff can continue breaking the EU regulations as happily as they wish.

If all this is true, which I cannot attest to or validate in any way, then the German chancellor is as involved in all this as anyone else. Then she is both assisting in violating the rights of 500m European citizens to have their tax money spent according to the rules – AND making new, fresh violations of a number of EU laws and regulations herself.

In the US, it would have been impossible to get away with all this, as history has proven, since the United States has once and for all very wisely established fundamental power-sharing and checks and balances in its Constitution. In the EU, however, there are no such control mechanisms. Once in office, the EU Commission answers legally to no-one.
Morally, they answer to us tax payers, but there is no legal way to demand this responsibility.

Thus, the Commissioner can continue lying and continue demanding that we all believe in his fairytales. “This is a private matter…” – thus speaks the arrogance of power.

This leaves me with the question: If “pro” is the opposite of “con”, then what is the opposite of “constitution”?

Liar Liar

This is the face of a man who seems to be about to lie himself out of a job.

It became only too clear on Thursday, as fresh new information about his – EU Commissioner Günter Verheugen’s – affair with his chiefof staff Petra Erler became public. German media have quoted a party colleague saying that he confessed the affair to her, and you can find a picture of Mr Verheugen and Ms Erler hand in hand here. Click here for another picture of the two, which is said to depict Mr Verheugen leaving Ms Erler’s home in the early morning of August 2 this year.

And yet, the Commissioner has the NERVE to maintain the same story as always: I have nothing to say… my marriage is a private business.

Excuse me, Commissioner, but while your MARRIAGE may be private, your RELATIONS with your STAFF is not. Especially if they turn out to have affected their appointments to their jobs.

That is something I and several other journalists pointed out to the Commission’s spokespeople at Thursday’s press conference, only to be met but the usual stonewalling, a number of variants of the old “No Comments” line.

At least, we finally got them to repeat Mr Verheugen’s statement that he did not have an affair with Ms Erler “at the time of her appointment”. (No word on whether that happened before or after.)

That means that he has now nailed himself to his story, which is becoming increasingly impossible as details surface. There are pictures and witnesses to tell a different story already, and there will probably be more to come. His wife has publicly admitted that she is leaving him.

(The latter fact made Mr Verheugen’s story even more hollow, as he clung on to the statement “I and my wife have agreed not to discuss this in public”. Well, newsflash: Your wife just did. Doesn’t that make you a liar once again?)

“He won’t survive this”, a German-speaking journalist remarked to me as we were leaving the press conferece. For it is becoming increasingly apparent that Mr Verheugen is lying half a billion Europeans straight to their faces

I and my fellow journalists (and European citizens) do not intend to hold any moral tribunal here. If Mr Verheugen is having extramarital affairs, it technically has nothing to do with his job. However, if he is having an affair or has had an affair with his chief of staff, it most certainly has everything to do with his job. Moreover, it is also a blatant breach of the Code of Conduct laid down not by us, but by the European Union itself.

The Commission’s President Barroso now faces the following choices:

1) Either he believes his Commissioner’s version. Then he is sadly gullible, and risks his own job if proven wrong.

2) Or he chooses to disbelieve him. Then he must sack the Commissioner.

3) Or he knows that Mr Verheugen is lying. Then he is also lying to you and me and everyone else, and equally arrogant in the notion that he or they will get away with it. Then he SHOULD lose his job.

I’m sorry for sounding enraged. But I cannot tolerate the sheer arrogance of someone shoving lies down my throat and expecting to get away with it. And the arrogance – once again, the arrogance – of how the Commissioner has so far responded to the allegations is unworthy of someone whose salary is paid forby me and half a billion other Europeans.

Do the right thing, Commissioner. At least former President Clinton had the guts to confess to his similar extramarital activities, which saved him by a hair’s breadth. If you could at least have the same courage, you might escape this sorry mess slightly less battered than what will probably now be the case.

The alternative is that you risk your job – and the rest of the Commission’s jobs as well.

Say Hi To Bono From Me

Unbelievable!

Only one day after I put a video clip with Bono on this site, I get to hear that he’s in town to meet EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso – and there’ll be a press conference later this evening.

I was hovering around in the EU Commission’s press centre trying to think of some excuse to attend that press conference – that would have required an intelligent connection between what I cover (the food industry) and what these gentlemen would be discussing (certainly not the food industry) – when the next thing happened: my computer’s battery ran flat.

Nothing unusual, not at all. But when I was to plug it in and recharge it… I found that I’d for ONCE forgotten the cable at home.

So there wasn’t much else to do than pack up and go home.

Yesterday, I found out on arrival at the EU quarters that I had forgotten my pen and note pad. Easypeasy, thought I, sailing down to the news agent around the corner from the Council… only to find that I had forgotten my credit card as well. I had just enough cash on me to buy a pen, but had to leave the note pad behind (I never take a lot of cash if I can avoid it).

This is worrying.

Brainstorming Storm

…as I was saying, before we were so rudely interrupted, yesterday offered some of the usual, amusing stonewalling amusement that only the European Union can muster. This time, the attempt was to rein in the monumentally mishandled “mini-summit” that the Commission’s chairman José Manuel Barroso called the day before.

On Wednesday, it was announced that Mr Barroso was to invite a few select heads of government to his native Portugal on 12-13 May, to look into the future and discuss a few issues of one kind or another. (You might suspect this to be a euphemism for “looking into a glass with an ice cube-cooled beverage by the poolside in sunny Portugal”, but that is of course unsubstantiated slander.)

However, a number of other heads of government were not invited, which immediately triggered questions such as “What criteria did you have when selecting the lucky charter passengers sorry, conference attendees”, or “Is this another step towards a ‘two-speed EU'”, with some members being, eh, more members than others, which the union has tried to avoid in recent years.

Amusingly enough, the outcry thus produced made Mr Barroso swiftly change his plans and strike a few people off the guest list. All of a sudden, only a few people with slightly more defined importance for forward-looking issues were now on the shortlist, such as the heads of government for the countries next in turn to take the rotating chairmanship. You could almost hear the groaning of the other ones grumpily unpacking their sunscreen tubes and swim shorts.

Of course, Mr Barroso’s spokesman, our favourite gatekeeper Johannes Laitenberger, was pressed about all this by journalists who wondered whether or not they should bother booking a flight ticket or so. (They always send him forward when they know something controversial’s coming up.) Mr Laitenberger tried his best to convince us all at the daily press briefing that this was not a “mini-summit”, merely “brainstorming”.

“What”, one reporter eventually asked, ” do you say to those heads of government, like for instance the Belgian Prime Minister, whose brains were not considered important enough to storm”?

“Mr Barroso holds ongoing talks with all kinds of people”, Mr Laitenberger responded, adding:

“I can assure you that all brains will be stormed”.

All brains? Yeaouwch. Remember this, next time you have a sudden headache: it might be the EU storming your brain. Watch out for little men in black. Look carefully under your bed before going to sleep,