Barroso did good.
No, it´s not me bucking the trend and suddenly feeling the need to revalue what sort of a Commission President José Manuel Barroso was.
It´s the UK Parliament, House of Lords, who says.
(Who would have thought…)
”Smaller but better” was the promise of Commission President José Manuel Barroso gave us for his second term.
Barroso didn´t give us smaller or better, he gave us more and sometimes really sloppy legislation.
…and that can be a good thing, says the House of Lords.
(I choose to believe them because a) They are legislators too, so understand the matter,
b) They have gone through the legislation in question thoroughly and
c) They gain nothing from praising the former EU Commission.)
”In that context, the sheer output and workrate of the Commission is to be admired”, says the report. (The context being in this case “…the daunting and unenviable task that the Commission faced in responding to a once-in-a-generation crisis.”)
The House of Lords forgive the Commission for rushing through things and not getting everything right because in post-2008, the biggest-crisis-in-their-lifetime, you didn´t hang about. You got things done.
But was the legislation pushed through any good?
I think this quote says it must have been:
“We find that the bulk of the new regulatory framework was necessary and proportionate, and would have been implemented by the UK even if action had not been taken at EU level.”
High praise indeed.
Still, now that things have slowed down a bit, it is time to go over what was done post-2008 and fix things that were done sloppily.
Among the 41 larger financial regulations and the 400 or so technical pieces rushed through, there´s lots that need to be tweaked.
Now, Barroso with his promise to do smaller but better is gone. In his place we have Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who promised something just as silly as Mr Barroso.
“The EU needs to be big on big things and small on small things”, said Juncker and promised the European Parliament to “not intervene in small problems” and not be “technical but political”.
No, no, no. Forget big or small, political or technical and just do your job – give us a legislation that works for 28 countries cooperating.
Listen to your second-in-command, Mr Juncker. As foreign minister of the Netherlands, Mr Frans Timmermans used to be the champion of “EU must not meddle” and “EU must stay out or this-and-that.
After less than 6 months in Brussels as Commissioner, Mr Timmermans has made a U-turn.
These are some of his recent messages:
“Red tape doesn´t all come from Brussels but it´s very easy to blame us when something goes wrong and take credit when something goes right.” (tweet 29 Jan)
“Better regulation doesn´t necessarily mean less regulation.” (tweet 29 Jan)
“All political parties call for the EU to cut red tape but when we try to do it then people say: Not my red tape!” (tweet 8 Jan)
Toughen it out, don´t pay attention when mr Timmermans´ replacement accuses you of meddling (he will, at one point) and in the end you may get praised by the Lords!
(And if you have a moment to spare, read the report. I would especially recommend the bit about separating banks´ speculation from safe business.)
Simply no good, the new EU rules on genetically modified organisms.
I can see why the EU commission felt the need to propose new rules, seen as the current ones are not working at all.
Over and over, refused proposals to approve a new GMO crop have boomeranged back to the commission which more or less has the obligation to see these products through the system (soon as they have been deemed not-hazardous by the EU food agency).
What to do?
Well, something, obviously. The EU commission was prodded into action, being sued for being too passive by the American producer DuPont Pioneer.
Unfortunately, the new rules are no better.
It may be all right for the eight or so EU countries that want to grow GMO crops on their land (the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Portugal, Romania and Slovakia and the UK).
So far there is only one GMO product used in Europe (an American one) but now the 8 willing can look forward to a heap of varieties to choose from since the Efsa has kindly given the green light to 45 products already (28 of them American. Yes, it matters.).
But all the other EU countries?
Those countries that do not feel it is good enough science saying: “We haven´t found any hazard with GMO crops…yet”?
Since EU environmental policies are governed by the precautionary rule, there should be room for precaution, right?
Well, they will have the option to ask the GMO-producers nicely not to sell anything to them.
Or else, they could ban the products on basis of any of six motives, but NOT over the true motive which is a potential environmental risk.
Does it matter why they ban GMOs?
Yes, it does.
And here is where we get to why the new rules are no good:
The EU adheres to the world trade rules – a fine thing, I`m sure – and a WTO panel declared in 2006 that the EU may not ban GMO products for environmental reasons unless they have solid scientific evidence for doing so.
This, the EU does not have.
Science has not (yet) found evidence that GMOs are unsafe.
You can see that the WTO ruling invalidates the Article 174 (2) of the Treaty (All Community policy on the environment shall be based on the precautionary principle).
And, of course, it invalidates the new GMO rules. It doesn´t matter which of the six possible motives the anti-GMO countries picks, they can still be sued.
Any hope that a GMO- ban will not end up in court?
Very slim, I would say.
As we´ve seen, the US took the EU to WTO over the European GMO ban in 2006.
The US has then used the WTO ruling to threaten a number of countries in the world over their GMO reluctance (Sri Lanka, Croatia, Serbia, among others).
Also, law suits are part of the corporate strategy for the largest GMO producers, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. As we speak, Monsanto is attacking the Mauis in court for banning GMOs on their land. Vermont and Oregon are attacked in court for wanting to at least label products which contain GMO. A large number of other GMO cases are ongoing in court all over the world.
Why the aggressive policies to get everyone to use GMO crops?
Maybe because Monsanto and DuPont already cover 90-95 % of the American market for crops and find it really hard to expand elsewhere.
Europe has been a struggle for these companies. Russia has a ban in place. China has a ban for GMO imports. Every country in Africa except South Africa has a GMO ban.
Not only is hoping to avoid court cases over GMOs unrealistic.
Even before going to court, all EU countries will have to face the American demand to allow GMOs in the course of the ongoing free trade negotiations.
The new EU rules on GMO let the EU commission off the hook.
But they leave the member countries dangling.
It was sort of funny to watch the heads of European states pushing and shoving to get a prime spot in Sunday´s march in Paris.
Nicholas Sarkozy, in his own eyes the next French president, elbowed his way to the top of the train but was firmly ordered to stand back. Sarkozy came out talking tough after the massacre on Thursday with a “France is now at war” which showed how way off the mark he is with his people.
British Prime Minister Cameron then got off the bus and confidently placed himself to the left to the man of the day, President Hollande.
But Jean-Claude Juncker sneakily nudged himself in between the two and with his back turned to Mr Cameron stood his ground, pretending not to notice Mr Cameron at all.
Mr Juncker only lasted a short while in this brilliant position for a photo op, being asked to move over for the massive president of Mali, Mr Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Mr Keita had earned his place in the spotlight for two reasons, first for fighting islamist terrorists in his own country alongside the French army and second, thanks to the humblest of his compatriots, 24 year old Lassany Bathily.
Mr Bathliy was only yesterday yet one of those oh-so-common young, male, black faces we see in press photos of refugees trying to get in to Europe. This particular young man managed to get in, to get a job in a Jewish grocery shop and had the presence of mind to save a group of shoppers when attacked by a terrorist.
Obviously Mrs Merkel claimed the best spot, on the right side of Mr Hollande, and obviously this went uncontested throughout the march…except for a short moment, when Mr Donald Tusk felt he would be nicely placed right smack in the middle of the French-German couple.
This was quickly attended to and Tusk disappeared completely into the background when instead Mr Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine was asked up front, to walk next to Mrs Merkel.
This resulted in commotion on the other side of Mr Hollande where all of a sudden Mr Netanyahu of Israel brusquely elbowed his way towards the very front and positioned himself on the left of Mr Keita (a man not easily pushed aside).
Mr Netanyahu then had to be reminded several times that he was not leading the march and he was to let Mr Hollande walk in front.
And David Cameron?
He kept sliding further and further out on the left until the cameras lost him completely, only capturing for a short shot how he grasped the arm of Danish Mrs Thorning-Schmidt, the only one who seemed to acknowledge him.
My own Prime Minister, Mr Lofven was on camera only for a split second, rushing across so as not to disturb the mightier persons present.
He took his place behind them in the slightly disturbing company (for a Socialist) of Prime Minister of Turkey, Mr Ahmet Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister of Russia, Mr Sergei Lavrov, the King of Jordan, Abdullah II and the President of Ukraine, Mr Petro Poroshenko.
Still, with all their posturing, the politicians overall had the decency not to intrude too severely on the “rassemblement” which this day was for the people, by the people, a day when the French declared that their nation is built on ideas – those being, as we know: Liberté, égalité et fraternité – and that if you shoot at this remnant of the 68-movement, that is so often critized for being vulgar and provocative or just silly, you are aiming at the very hart of France.
Yes, liberté means just that, the freedom to be silly and vulgar and provocative.
Along with emotions and tears, this day also offered us at least two ”Charlie Hebdo-moments” to be savoured.
The first one, wonderfully ironic, was when the African muslim refugee Lassany who had saved a group of Jewish shoppers from being killed by an Islamist terrorist only to have to throw himself on the ground, hands in the air, in front of shouting policemen who believed him to be part of the attack seen as he was just as black as the terrorist, innocently declaring his reasons for risking his life for the Jewish shoppers, on TV:
“We are all in the same boat”.
The second Charlie Hebdo-moment occurred when the French President Hollande – so often ridiculed and attacked in Charlie Hebdo – went over to the survivors and family members of victims of Thursday´s massacre to express his sympathies.
Apparently stunned by the whole surreal experience, maybe of having been transformed from being – just a moment ago –a struggling, leftist satire magazine that not many read anymore and a lot more critizes for being in the wrong, into a symbol representing the whole nation,…
what was left of the of Charlie Hebdo watched how a pigeon picked this very moment to shit on the President.
So Charlie Hebdo.
And they were lost for a moment in hysterical laughter.
I understand that the British Prime Minister David Cameron has dropped Norway, as a model of the
future relationship between the UK and the EU.
Wise choice, Prime Minister.
The Norwegian model was never a good idea.
The Norwegian deal with the EU is basically that Norway gets in on the single market in return for
paying a fee and accepting what the EU decides for the single market.
The Norwegian parliament adopts something like 1 to 2 legal EU acts daily. No adapting, no remodeling,
just stamping the rules straight as they come from Brussels.
Not so appealing, is it? And there´s still the fee to pay – around 5 bn Nkr yearly, not very far from
the amount that EU member Finland pays.
Your people, Mr. Cameron, have sometime mentioned the Swiss way as a possible model for the UK.
They don´t mention it so much anymore.
Since the Swiss voted to limit EU immigrants in February, the relationship between the EU and
Switzerland has been if not frozen, then distinctly cold.
The Swiss government has been trying to negotiate with the EU over free movement of people but
the answer from the EU commission has been short and sweet: It´s in or you´re out.
That may be the reason why Swiss model is not being talked so much about in London lately.
Today we learn (from the Financial Times, often trustworthy) that you´ve got your Foreign Office
thinking of Denmark as a model to a future British relationship with the EU.
You may well find that Denmark´s way is not optimal either.
True, Denmark managed to obtain four big opt outs from the EU treaty in 1993:
– Union citizenship (I know, it doesn´t exist but what can I say, the idea offended them.)
– Defense and security issues
– The euro
– Justice and home affairs
They did this in order to get their citizens to approve of an EU treaty that was rejected in a referendum.
It worked! So far, so good.
There are a few shortcomings to the Danish model, however.
Firstly, the Danish opt-outs weren´t valid for any existing EU rules, only for future ones.
That may not be good enough for the UK, if I´ve understood Mr. Cameron right.
Secondly, it turned out that sometimes Denmark really hates being out.
Denmark could not, for example, join in the European peacekeeping mission to Bosnia
or Macedonia back in the days. Or, if there was to be one, to nearby Ukraine.
This becomes slightly weird since Denmark is fine sending its soldiers to less-of-peace-more-of-war-missions
to Iraq and Afghanistan, under US command, UN, Nato or what have you – as long as it´s not the EU.
The on-going EU operation to protect European ships from pirates off the Somali coast is a no-no for Denmark.
That hurts because Denmark has a large merchant navy to protect.
Your vice Prime Minister Nick Clegg, once called the Norwegian model “Democracy By Fax.
Ah, Denmark should be so lucky!
You see, Denmark has to keep really busy in order to be able to opt into things they want to be part of.
For some time, on average ten new legislative proposals on Justice and Home Affairs has been
tabled every month in Brussels.
You can imagine the paper work.
Then for every major opt-in, it takes a parallel agreement with the EU, an agreement which must of course be identical
to the EU decision it refers to, when it´s adopted by the Danish Parliament.
(Out of five demands from Denmark, the EU commission has said no to 2 parallel agreements.)
Sometimes, Denmark even has to take things to a referendum in order to opt in. No, not necessarily
the big stuff.
Did you know that the Danes had to vote on whether their country should participate in the European Patent?
Not sure they cared much one way or the other but the government got a yes out of them.
But here´s the real snag:
Denmark cannot influence EU decisions even if Danes intend to opt-in on them, since they´re sort of out,
when the deliberations take place.
Take the Dublin convention that makes it possible to send refugees back to the first EU country they arrived
to. Denmark wants very much to be part of that, otherwise it has no way to get – say Greece
or Italy – to accept people the Danes want to be rid of.
Now, there´s a clause in the Dublin convention that Denmark hates, that´s the part when the sending back
can be held up because the actual first country is not treating refugees right.
Hate it or not, Denmark has no say in the matter.
The country can only opt in to what the rest of the EU has decided, you see.
Much as the Norwegians… and the Swiss… and everybody else that does not like an EU membership
but still wants to benefit from it.
There´s your hitch, Mr. Prime Minister, with the Danish model.
And the Norwegian model.
And the Swiss model.
 Government review 2012 says over 6 000 legal acts plus 175 laws related to EU decisions betw 1992-2011.
 Norwegian fee is appr, 0.11% of GDP. Finnish fee 0.17% of GDP.
I really don´t know about this Tusk guy.
Will he be able to control the inflated egos and calm the hot tempers of heads and states in the European Council even half as cleverly as did the “grey and civil servanty” Van Rompuy?
I should admit to a fault in my character – I´m quick to judge people. But I´ve learnt over the years that I have to give people in power their first hundred days before coming down on them – they sometimes turn out quite differently than I expected them to.
And I don´t know much about Mr. Tusk except that he´s fought tooth and nail for keeping his coal mines going (never mind the climate).
I know he comes from a country where a compromise is no good unless it´s preceded by a good, hard fight.
I will admit that my prejudices may be hardened by the fact that in Sweden, when a situation declines into everybody yelling very loudly, we call it a Polish Parliament.
(Sorry about that, Poles, it´s an old saying. We still scare our children with …”or the Russian will get you”, as well. That´s history for you.)
Still, I was open minded (ish) about Mr. Tusk until his tweets started flying about on his first day of office. The tweeting: “Thank you, looking forward to working with you”, was fine the first time, the second time and the third time but then it was becoming a bit much.
Mr. Tusk will be working with scores of people, he´s not going to submit us to a “Looking forward to…” for every one of them, is he?
Then it was: “Had a good phone call with Matteo Renzi”.
Good heavens, are we going to be tweeted to every time he picks up his phone from now on?
I´m so unfollowing this guy!
Even if that means I´m going to miss out on his video for the “Handover ceremony” (that he tweeted) and the video “Backstage on my first day at office” (that he also sent us a tweet about).
For a brief moment, I was tempted to not grant Mr. Tusk his hundred days before judging him.
I never needed a hundred days for Jean-Claude Juncker. With him, we knew exactly what we were getting.
Mr. Junker’s been a master at wheeling and dealing for decades in the European circles.
I expect nothing less from him.
But last week Mr. Juncker surpassed himself, getting himself out of not one, not two, but THREE hot spots with no more than a few bruises to show for it.
First he skillfully dealt with the accusations of Luxemburg being a tax haven under his reign. He said – mainly to national politicians and others preaching that the Nation comes first – that he only did what he did to save his country from economic decline. (That took the wind out of their sails, I tell you.)
Then he continued – now addressing European politicians and anybody else believing that European solidarity is a better way forward – that from now on, he will fight harder than anybody against tax competition. (Not much choice but to unenthusiastically give him the benefit of the doubt.)
That took care of the vote of confidence in the European Parliament where Jean-Claude Juncker now can brag he has got even better numbers than before (461 supported him as opposed to 422 when he was elected).
Secondly, he masterly got out of the imprudent promise to deliver 300 bn euros to kick-start the European economy.
Now, where was he going to get that kind of money, seen as the Commission basically has no money at all, the EU budget being controlled down to the last cent by Member States?
Oh, but Mr. Juncker found a way.
By using a measly EUR 6 bn (or was it 12…or 21? I´m confused), put on the back of the creditworthiness of the EU and then making the EIB borrow the rest form the private sector… or something… and hey, presto!
There´s your 300 bn.
You´ve got to hand it to him. We may all suspect is rubbish but we won´t know for sure until a year or two from now. By then there will be all sorts of changes in the economic environment to blame for the money not appearing.
A stroke of genius, that one.
Thirdly, was Mr. Juncker or was he not going to fine France and Italy over not following the rules of the stability pact?
On the one hand, how can he not? He´s been the first to preach about what the market will do to us all if we don´t establish credibility to the euro and the EU.
On the other hand, a few weeks ago both France and Italy bowed down to the supremacy of Brussels in these matters. (That had to hurt, after all the hard talk that Hollande and Renzi had been coming out with.)
Can Juncker really start his stint as head of the EU Commission flexing his muscles at some of the biggest EU countries after they´ve publicly humiliated themselves?
Trust Mr. Juncker to find a third way.
He did not accord France and Italy the delays they´d asked for but he gave them until March to clean up their acts.
It´s not the prettiest of outcomes. But it does the job. The EU did not back down without Mr. Juncker kicking Paris and Rome in their teeth.
And all this in only one week!
Now, Mr. Tusk… I suppose I will have to give him his hundred days, before final judgment.
But if he doesn´t stop tweeting about the fact that he exists, I think it´s only fair to warn
that in my book, he faces an uphill struggle.
 He´s practiced at that, you know, – Luxemburg´s been accused of being a tax haven every time the subject of taxes has come up for decades.
I have moments when democracy doesn´t seem such a bright idea. And who doesn´t?, when you see the politicians this system brings us.
If only we could find one political party that is daring enough to base their political work on facts instead of myths. (and I´m thinking specifically of you Mr Cameron, and you Mrs Merkel, and you Mr Rutte sprouting your rubbish about EU migrants being benefit scroungers when all evidence points at the exact opposite and the Court has had to come out and enlighten you on what should have been a well-known fact for anyone in your position, that EU rules do not open for scrounging.)
And then I go and find the answer to my prayers in the Court of Auditors Report for 2013!
This is a document that all of us journalists decided was dead boring already after having seen the press release which informed us that things stand much the same as last year and the year before that.
And the year before that. In case you were wondering.
You have to read all the way to the end of Chapter 10 to find the sexy stuff.
It´s hidden far behind scores of tales on how people have misinterpreted the procurement rules or put their signatures on the wrong page (… allright, I confess, I didn´t read it all, someone pointed me to Chapter 10).
But there it is, the very simple but oh, so pertinent question:
Do EU projects deliver results?
See the beauty of that?
If we could have the auditors, the European ones as well as the national ones, auditing whether policy measures or projects actually deliver the intended result – then we could start having intelligent political debates on what works and what doesn´t work.
We could spend money trying to resolve youth unemployment and at the end say that this way works.
Or doesn´t work. Or works to such a small extent that it is costing us too much.
Our politicians wouldn´t get away with half as much rubbish.
It would make it easier to vote for sensible people.
Democracy By Auditing.
I like it.
But the faint-hearted attempts of auditing of policy attainments by the European Court of Auditors will not do.
They do mention in their report (at the very end of Chapter 10 again, who does their communication policy?!) that the rules in the Treaty are already in place for carrying this out.
“Sound Financial Management” (an obligation, no less!) in the words of the Treaty equals: Economy, efficiency AND effectiveness.
The Treaty (Art 30) even spells it out: “Effectiveness” is about the attainment of intended results.
So go for it, ECA, audit away!
As it happens, the whole set up today makes an audit of results almost impossible. DG Sanco, for example, has set the objective for EU-funded projects as “to foster good health in an ageing Europe”.
Try to work out if every project has managed to achieve that one!
We need to reform our thinking here. We have a new Commission in place, a new Parliament – the time is right.
Spending money before the end of the fiscal year, spending money evenly between member countries, even spending money according to all the rules (Yes, important. I agree. But not to be made priority Number One anymore) must take a backseat to the most vital question for democracy:
Does it work?
Do we get the results we were aiming for?
This way we can move forward, by actually learning from our mistakes.
Be bold, ECA, be bold!
There´s something about watching a person losing it in public.
It´s fascinating, hard to look away. You feel sorry for the poor bloke but at the same time slightly guilty for being a witness to a social train wreck taking place.
You can see some of that discomfort lingering if you watch national briefings after last week´s EU summit when Prime Ministers are asked by their national press about the behaviour of David Cameron at the second day of the summit.
The British Prime Minister threw a tantrum in front of his peers and they´re visibly embarrassed and feel sorry for him at the same time.
They needn´t be.
Mr Cameron went on to shout and wave his arms about in front of the British press afterwards. He was not embarrassed.
Him pretending to be off his rockers was just a bit of theatre, meant for the home audience so as to convince them they don´t need to vote Ukip, because…look, see! – your Prime Minister hates the EU just as hotly as Mr Farage.
Do you now, feel even more embarrassed for Mr Cameron, having to resort to such awkward methods to make an impression?
I think we may not need to worry about Mr Cameron´s feelings. If you think about it, his behavior is rather consistent with British politics towards the rest of us, only ramped up to a slightly mad level.
Mrs Thatcher, if you remember her, discussed in the mid-80s the mechanisms for financing the common European cooperation, the overall amount of resources and its appropriate redistribution in terms of:
“I want my money back”!
Was she embarrassed? Not a bit.
(But the others were, for her.)
Was the UK Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin embarrassed in 1950 to demand a place in the negotiations to the runner up of the EU (the ECSC ), then using it to try to alter the plans even when his government had decided beforehand to not participate?
Not at all.
Mr Bevin was quite proud of himself.
Was Mr John Major blushing in 1991, having participated in the historic moment of adapting the EU to a reunited Europe that had lived for decades cut in two halves, when he was quoted in the British press describing the results as the UK beating everybody else? In his words: “Game, Set and Match”.
No, he wasn´t.
Were Margaret Thatcher in 1984, John Major in 1994 and Tony Blair in 2004 embarrassed about being the only one in a room of European heads of governments and states turning down a candidate for the Commission President job that everybody else in the room agreed on?
Not so much.
So why aren´t the British bothered about being the odd man out or embarrassed about negotiating important decisions in terms more fitting to a skirmish in a playground?
Why, I ask myself, is Mr Cameron not mortified having lost it in front of his peers?
My guess is that Mr Cameron doesn´t feel he lost it in front of his peers.
I think that Mr Cameron doesn´t see the other European heads of states and governments as his peers.
I suspect rhetoric has much to do with it. Nothing innocent about words. They are a way of organizing your thoughts that will influence your convictions and in the end also your actions.
We can see the consequences of spouting any kind of rubbish no longer only in the pub but echoed by people in power, in the way that most European countries currently are falling prey of their own negative rhetoric on immigration.
So the Brits have made it something of a national sport to make fun of foreigners.
They´re usually both spot on AND really funny when they doing this.
The British inbred skepticism of Europeans and of…basically anything that Europeans set out to do, has actually served the EU really well over the years.
It has tempered the enthusiasm of some and the final compromises become sturdier for it.
Somewhere along the way, however, the jokes turned into ridicule.
Mrs Thatcher was haughty at Europeans summits and felt sure public opinion would like this.
Mr Major was slightly contemptuous and was convinced he was in line with public opinion.
Nowadays, the British are no longer the only ones to ridicule the EU.
Others have followed, and with a vengeance. Will others follow when Mr Cameron now has taken things even further yet?
In that case, I fear for the chances of making Europe work.
Mr Cameron´s throwing a tantrum instead of politely pointing out that he would prefer to pay these commonly agreed upon fees over a longer period – which obviously nobody would object to – comes from his conviction that this is where the British public opinion is at today.
This belief can only come from taking in the current rhetoric in British debates on Europe. The EU is no longer seen as funny-weird, not only as ridiculous.
It is now painted as being downright evil.
I hope “Angry Dave” has got the public opinion wrong.
If not, we – seriously and urgently – need to find a different way to discuss politics in Europe.
It would seem the French President Hollande spotted a hole and calling for a spade, jumped right in.
He did have a decent chance this time, to present a budget for 2015 including some of the sorely needed structural reforms he has talked about for so long.
It would probably not have been very popular in France but then he is already the most unpopular President that France has had in modern times.
He may as well do unpopular things in the 2015 budget.
Already in 2016 it will be too late, seen as he has Presidential elections coming up in 2017.
But President Hollande didn´t take this opportunity. Instead his government presented a budget that reforms very little, that cuts very little spending and that ends up being the 41th French budget in a row with a deficit (of 4.3% as it happens, if the French predictions for 2015 hold water which they usually don´t.)
The French parliament got to look it over on Tuesday, “exercising their sovereignty” as Finance Minister Michel Sapin puts it.
Except of course, that it isn´t a French sovereign right anymore to adopt budget with a large deficit. France signed away that right already when they joined the euro 14 years go.
And President Hollande confirmed this state of affairs, ratifying the Treaty of Growth and Stability in 2012.
This is why soon-to-be Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, if he looks to the right will see a rock and if he turns left, will find a hard place.
The European Commission must turn the French 2015 budget down and send it right back to Paris.
The rules stipulate that there should be fines to pay, if the French do not comply (on a tangent note here, how will that play out for a country already in economic difficulties?, I would really like to know).
Or the Commission could grant Paris extra time (again!) to adapt its affairs. By 2019, according to the French calculations, will the house be in order.
But Juncker would then of course severely dent the credibility of the whole euro area, a credibility it is trying so hard to regain after the global financial crisis.
He would be doing so at a time when many experts claim there´s a new crisis brewing.
He´ll of course ruin his own credibility at the same time, and that of the new Commission.
If Berlin and the German government were firmly on the side of the rules here, this could be a no-brainer. Chancellor Angela Merkel called for everybody sticking to the rules only yesterday, in a speech before the Bundestag.
The French government however, seems to believe that they have Berlin on their side.
They sent Prime Minister Manuel Valls over to charm Mrs Merkel in September. He caught the German interest enough to set up a German-French inquiry of what reforms would be good (presumably French) and what investments (presumably German) could be useful.
Also, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel have booked a meeting with French Finance Minister Michel Sapin on the 20th October to discuss the same topics.
Schäuble is being asked even from within Germany to hold back on the austerity and start spending a bit since the German economy is also showing signs of slowing down.
Paris seems to believe that Juncker would be up against Berlin as well as Paris if he decides to stick to the rules.
Right or wrong (I kind of think….wrong), Jean-Claude Juncker is put to the test in the hardest way possible.
And he doesn´t even get the politicians customary 100 days of benefit-of-the-doubt.
Are the hearings in the European Parliament an excellent exercise in democracy as many have been saying last week? Maybe.
But they are boring.
After following so far 21 hearings, each consisting of three hours listening to a would-be commissioner I´m tempted to say that they are reeeeally boring…
You see, these Commissioners-To-Be are mostly experienced politicians that know better than to slip up or give anything away.
Also, they´ve been prepped by Team Juncker on what they can promise or not promise.
They can promise: Transparency, Cooperation and to be Happy-To-Look-In-To-It.
This, they do promise. Over and over, as an answer to most questions.
They cannot promise: Anything else.
Which makes it all rather boring to listen to.
All the same. After having heard the former French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici being asked for the umptenth time why we should trust him in his new job to go after EU countries which don´t try to fulfill the economic criteria that the EU has agreed upon, when he didn´t seem to try very hard himself, in his last job, I have picked up on something.
I´ve picked up on the fact that he doesn´t have an answer to this, no matter how fluently, elegantly and patiently Mr Moscovici responds every time.
Watching Phil Hogan take a question on whether he has used his position to bully people into silence, I can see for myself that he most likely is a bully.
Following the questioning of EU rookie Margrethe Vestager, I feel quite confident that she is going to be a no nonsense competition commissioner and not be swayed by arguments as to why this particular case, and that particular case is different and merits an exception to the rules.
Hearing Elzbieta Bienkowska declare that she is “lobbyist fool proof”, I´m happy that Juncker has promised that all his Commissioners will have go public about who they meet in the context of the legislative process.
They are still sort of boring, the hearings. But useful.
As it happens, at this very moment a new government is taking shape in my own country. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has presented us with his team of 24 ministers.
Most of them, I don´t know much about, it´s been eight years since we´ve had a Socialist government so most of the familiar faces are gone. And we´ve never had any Greens in government before.
At least eight of the new ministers, I´ve never even heard of.
I won´t have the advantage of following any ministerial hearings to get to know these ministers. I have to fall back on the media to find out who they are.
This part of installing a new government – you know the part where the media outs all skeletons in their cupboard – has become so standard that unbidden, the Prime Minister and his new Ministers trot out their misdemeanors (“I have two speeding tickets”, “I did not pay taxes for my nanny in the 70s”, “I have smoked marijuana. Once.”)
Obviously, the press won´t give up that easy. They dig deeper.
So I learn that the new Minister of Culture is “a Disney Princess” and that the Housing Minister, it would seem, is all about defending young Muslims fighting in Syria.
That´s all very well but still not enough. I do not get to see for myself if our new Culture minister has matured over the 25 years that have passed since she was a TV presenter for children’s programs.
I can´t judge if the remark of the Housing minister that an unnamed blogger has picked up on, is characteristic of the minister or if it´s taken out of context.
I think I would have liked hearings of the new ministers. Three hours of relentless questioning from (political) friends and foes makes for a pretty clear picture of what sort of politician and person we have in front of us.
Are they convincing? (As was Kristalina Georgieva)
Are they maybe too smooth? (Dimitris Mavropoulos said all the right things and yet…)
Do they crack under pressure? (Cecilia Malmström got surprisingly angry when questioned about the weird American e-mail)
Do they know their stuff at all? (Gunther Oettinger for one, did not)
A bit boring, I grant you, if you need to sit through it all in one go but most people don´t have to, they can pick and choose, thanks to the Internet.
No, the hearings really are democracy in motion.
The second week of parliamentary hearings is coming up. Bring it on!
Wasn´t this a clever way to go about things, dragging the fiercest critics of EU inside the tent to have them pissing out, instead of vice versa!
Good choice to put Camerons´ buddy, British Mr Jonathan Hill, in charge of regulating the financial markets and the City.
Who better to send back to London to explain why this needs to be done and counter the the British argument?
And French Finance minister Pierre Moscovici will no longer be coming to Brussels to argue why the French must be allowed yet another – the third one, I believe? – exception to EU budget rules.
Instead, he will be travelling to Paris explaining why the French need to follow the rules, like everybody else.
Well, that takes care of, as we all can see, the tiresome arguments of the French and the British government that “Brussels” doesn´t understand their special circumstances.
Poor Mr Cameron and Mr Hollande thought they were getting a gift from Juncker…which just goes to show how new they still are at the game of politics.
Also, on the theme of the tent and pissing out or in – there´s putting Mr Frans Timmermans in charge of the EU always regulating in an efficient and less burdensome way.
One of the loudest critics of “Brussels doing too much”, who would be better to handle the task of explaining why this and that actually needs to be done at the EU level?
Juncker sure knows what he´s doing.
Some people worry (and some hope) that the austerity-averse Mr Moscovici and regulation-averse Mr Hill will profit of their new won positions to bend EU policies their way.
Mr Juncker has them under his thumb in the shape of a couple of Vice Presidents with the right to stop any initiative taken by Commissioners that they supervise.
Mr Hill will accordingly be supervised by Mr Dombromskis (Not heard of him? He took over as Prime Minister of Latvia when the country was broke in 2009, turned the economy around and soon had it joining the Euro).
Not one but two austerity hawks will be looked after Mr Moscovici, that is Mr Katainen of Finland, a stickler for EU rules, and again, Mr Dombromskis.
Giving the Vice Presidents a veto over Commissioners within their area also comes in handy when solving a solve a different issue.
Mr Juncker did not get enough women candidates from the EU governments, he ended up with 9 out of 28 altogether which is of course pitiful. But he has managed to turn that situation around a lot better than could be expected.
Not only has he given women some of the most powerful portfolios; Swedish Mrs Malmstrom got trade, Danish Mrs Vestager got competition, Polish Mrs Bieńkowska got the single market, etc…
He also gave three out of seven Vice President posts to women.
So you will have Slovenian Mrs Bratušek supervising a number of men with responsibilities that fall within the Energy Union. You will have Mrs Georgieva overseeing the EU budget and staff. And of course Italian Mrs Mogherini will supervise anything and anyone to do with Foreign affairs.
By the way, Mr Juncker was not joking, was he?, when he said this will be a more political Commission ( by which I take he means trying to influence things a lot more), he´s made Mrs Mogherini move across the street and have her set up office next to his.
And just look what he´s accomplished at the same time, in way of drawing in Central and Eastern European member representatives to where the real power lays.
On top of it all, Mr Juncker has managed to put the three biggest and most vociferous EU countries firmly in their place – the German, The French and the British Commissioner are all to be supervised by a Commissioner (or two) from the smaller countries.
He may not get away with every nomination in the European Parliament, but I expect he knows exactly where his weakest cards are and probably already have a backup plan.
Well played, Mr Juncker!