Wednesday

29th Jan 2020

EUobserved

When Barroso dared to take on Berlin

  • Barroso and Merkel: The commission chief broke silence on trade surplus (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Oh what it is to be the most powerful state in the European Union. For one, nasty messages from Brussels don’t come out of the blue. They are heralded and wrapped in velvet well in advance.

Rumbling about Germany’s trade surplus has been going on for some time - it has been over EU limits since 2007. But does it or does it not, given the pain of peripheral euro countries, need to be corrected? Brussels has avoided taking a position on the subject for months.

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On Wednesday it slithered off the fence. It will now formally think about the question very closely. The ruminations are expected to conclude in Spring next year.

There was much preparing of the ground in advance.

Olli Rehn, economics commissioner, took to the pages of the Germany's centre-right FAZ newspaper at the beginning of the week to venture that there really ought to be no taboos. He said the same on his blog for good measure.

It was a tricky PR problem indeed. How to chastise a state for having the strongest economy in the EU?

On decision day itself, the method was to throw a slew of conciliatory statements at the country. Then tack on a plea about peripheral states.

Essentially: the commission loves everything about German competitiveness but, and accounts vary on how serious the "but" is, Berlin needs to do more for others.

The answer from Berlin was a morally outraged harrumph. But a short distracted one. Attention soon turned back to government negotiations.

It’s so much easier to kick a big economy when it’s down - France needs to up its game everywhere was the message from Brussels. And that is just for starters.

The same robustness of language was missing at the youth unemployment summit.

EU leaders - most of them anyway - got together once again on Tuesday to wring their hands about the Union's lost generation.

There were no new initiatives. Still, the politicians on the podium proved one maxim: The less there is to say, the longer people take to say it. And there is always the next jobs summit to prepare - providing work of sorts for someone.

In any case, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso is set to attend just two, at a stretch three, more summits before he steps down as President.

Yes, after months of being coy about whether he would attempt a third term as head of the EU executive, he has finally conceded that there wasn't the remotest possibility he would be chosen for another stint.

"Ten years is already a lot," he said, which is more or less the same thing.

Meanwhile, the potentially huge proposal of this week was that Germany might in future hold referendums on major EU decisions - think economic governance, enlargement.

Just as the implications of all that direct democracy was sinking in - think no more economic governance, no more enlargement - Berlin let it be known that the idea is in the process of being "un-floated."

But some ideas refuse to go away. They lurk and then go public in The Hague.

So it was that Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders met in the Dutch city Wednesday to forge a loose anti-EU, nationalist group. But it’s not all plain sailing on the anti-ness front.

There is some disagreement about whom it is OK to dislike. Immigrants are definitely in the hate bag. But best to gloss over where exactly everyone stands on Israel. And gay people.

Over at the European Parliament, MEPs have decided they will launch an inquiry into the troika, whose representatives from the ECB, the EU commission and the IMF tell broken euro countries how they may spend their remaining pennies.

It's been brewing for some time. But finally there has been a collective realisation that no one actually knows who these officials are; who supplies them with their data; and why so many of their predictions have been off the mark.

That's an almost Rumsfeldian order of unknowns.

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