Saturday

24th Jul 2021

EUobserved

Political open season

  • Barnier: Not so much throwing his hat into the ring, as furtively placing it there (Photo: European Commission)

The political season has opened. A full six months ahead of the European elections. Yes everybody who’s anybody – and some people who aren’t – are looking to new political horizons.

How’s this for a bombastic pitch. “I am the common denominator. Neither the highest, nor the lowest. The middle.”

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So says Michel Barnier, internal market commissioner, and apparently – though it's not entirely clear from this statement– seriously keen on taking over from Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.

He already positioning himself as the compromise candidate - the one EU leaders turn to in exasperation. Such aspirations.

“The EPP should win but will have to forge an alliance. I have more pluses than the Socialist Martin Schulz to get people behind me. I am more acceptable to the liberals, the socialists and the greens than he is to the EPP.”

He is, as Coulisses de Bruxelles tartly reminds us, one you might be tempted to listen to with just half an ear. However he has been, in some capacity or another, around for the last 15 years. And keeps popping back up. (Twice EU commissioner, Europe minister and foreign minister.)

Meanwhile over in the Liberal camp things are heating up. The Benelux liberals have thrown their not considerable weight behind Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian PM, for the post of commission president.

On the other ideological end of the liberal camp stands Olli Rehn, current EU economic affairs commissioner. Debt mutualisation and United States of Europe tomorrow (with a frothy delivery) versus austerity, incremental steps and football analogies. Liberals will make their choice in February.

And expect to be kingmakers after the May elections so it is not entirely without consequence.

Which brings us neatly to Jean-Claude Juncker. After all this time – two decades – those who write about these things will have to get their pen out of the habit of tacking Luxembourg Prime Minister on to his name.

But while he may have reluctantly given away the keys to the Grand Duchy, he is not completely gone. How could he be when he has, by one account outlasted 167 EU governments during his reign. So expect him soon on a billboard near you touting his commission president qualities.

Greenhouses

It’s always dangerous to be holier than thou. Especially in politics. So it was with an arched eye-brow that Irish people learned that Germany’s Social Democratic party, chest thumping critics of Ireland’s tax regime, had – how to put it – ‘availed’ of this same system.

Yes, while trying to balance Germany’s book way back in 2005, Hans Eichel former finance minister (social democrat), with a little investment banker advice, hit upon some financial wizardry that involved German pension funds and letterbox companies in Ireland.

In better economic times, fun might have been had with that little gem.

But, as we all know, Ireland may be exiting ‘cleanly’ from its bailout but caveats and a German development bank abound. So debt-ridden silence for now.

Legalese

Now, is the Financial Transaction Tax illegal or is it not? There shall be no definitive answer. There shall, instead, be two. One from one side of the road. And one from the other. Literally and figuratively. Eleven states are apparently in favour of the tax, so long as they don’t have to think too hard about how to implement it.

Thank goodness then for the in-house lawyers of the council who earlier concluded that the FTT would actually contravene EU law. Luckily the commission – who very much favours this tax – has its own stable of lawyers. And they are just as adept at interpreting the law as their legal brethren across Rue de La Loi. They naturally found that the tax is wholly compatible with EU law.

Agenda gods

The gods of the EU presidency agenda were having a laugh, weren’t they?

Yes Greece will take on the six-month job in January, spending €50 million they can ill afford on trying to chivvy difficult legislation through European parliament and being ignored on the issue they most want to talk about – migration.

All the while having their domestic budget scoured by grim-faced international lenders.

It shall be a Spartan presidency when it comes to the budget and an Athenian one when it comes to values, says one official.

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