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Europe diary: Spheres of influence

24 May 2007

BBC Europe editor Mark Mardell considers the rising stars in the European firmament and the delicate political dance around the controversial EU constitution.

The diary is published every Thursday. To see the latest edition, please click here.


There is a new alignment in the heavens, a conjunction of spheres that will create a new reality here on Earth. Or at least there's a huge temptation among journalists to read Europe's horoscope as planets Sarkozy and Brown hurtle onto the scene, joining the still newish Merkel. Will Brown be able, or want to resist the powerful tug of the other two?

New French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner
Bernard Kouchner: One of Mr Sarkozy's boldest appointments
Sarkozy has made a dazzling start. He's pulled off a political masterstroke by appointing the most popular socialist in France as his foreign minister. Bernard Kouchner, the founder of Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF), was one of the few people in France to back the Iraq war, although he's been scathing about its aftermath. His appointment and expulsion from the Socialist ranks leaves that party gasping.

Sarkozy, who was continually accused of pandering to the hard right's voters, trashed the National Front in the election campaign and now has reached across and past the centre in an attempt at dominating the political spectrum. His Europe minister is also a former left-winger, and he's mopped up ministers from the centre ground too. He fulfilled his promise to give half the cabinet posts to women and the team includes the first ever cabinet minister of North African origin. Gesture politics perhaps, but flamboyant gestures can speak louder than a thousand policy documents.

So, for very different reasons, France and Germany have, in effect, governments of national unity, led from the right, with a strong if occasionally suspect commitment to economic reform. Gordon Brown of course is mustard-keen on this sort of reform, but probably less keen on taking the party out of party politics: I don't expect him to appoint [Conservative ex-Chancellor] Ken Clarke to his cabinet.


Sarkozy's main action in the first weeks of power has been on the European stage. His first test will be the sort of role he plays in the "not the constitution" saga. He wants a pretty firm deal on a new European treaty in June. One insider described the idea of doing a full deal in the summer as "fanciful dreaming", but there are high hopes that much will be agreed. The detailed work would then be left to a conference in the run-up to Christmas.

UK PM-in-waiting Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown faces tough talks on the EU constitution
But Sarkozy wants to strike while the iron is hot and the French streets are not. His brand-new mandate and that inclusive cabinet probably means he can ignore those who demand a referendum. I'm told he doesn't care much what is in the treaty as long as there is one. While sympathetic to the British position (less is more), he may incline more in the end to the more baroque German approach.

I have a confession to make. I was on holiday last week and wrote the diary about Brown before I left to sun my self in southern Italy. I was slightly nervous because I knew one of the chancellor's key lieutenants was publishing a booklet on the EU around the same time, and was hoping it wouldn't contradict my musings - because this is an important statement. Ed Balls is probably closer to Gordon Brown than any other politician. He was the chancellor's special adviser before he became an MP, is now a treasury minister and a shoo-in for the first Brown cabinet. So his pamphlet Britain and Europe: A City Minister's Perspective, published by the Centre for European Reform, perhaps should be retitled "The Brown Perspective".

It also gives Brown's approach a name: "hard-headed pro-Europeanism".

In Downing Street they think that translates as "tougher than Tony" and they're slightly miffed. This is compounded because The Sunday Times carried an article based on the essay and headlined it: "Europe doesn't need a treaty".

While Mr Balls may be perfectly happy with this "hard-headed" interpretation of his words, what he actually wrote was:"We do not need a constitutional treaty that fundamentally changes the relationship between member states and the EU," which is a lot less definite. I strongly suspect that one little word "fundamentally" provides an awful lot of wriggle room, particularly as he appears to accept the need for some "institutional reform".


Beyond the traditional Brownite nose-thumbing at Mr Blair (what will they do without him?) "hard-headed pro-Europeanism" means having "the confidence to put our national interest first and to sometimes say 'no'", rejecting "a vast programme of harmonisation" , "the old integrationalist agenda" and pressing for more co-operation between governments, rather than "centralisation and European state-building". Unsurprisingly Mr Balls thinks the EU should concern itself with "full liberalisation" of telecoms, post, gas and electricity. Reform of the EU budget and an end to spending so much on agriculture are also high on the agenda. It's doubtful if either the new French leader or the German chancellor would be quite so "hard-headed": on the continent the ruthless pursuit of national interest is usually diluted with a dose of starry-eyed rhetoric. More seriously they appear to believe that economic reform can only be pursued alongside further political integration.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Mr Sarkozy was quick to refuel the Franco-German motor
The latest wheeze for getting Britain to sign up to "not the constitution" is offering Britain yet another opt-out, similar to those on the euro and border control. Many other countries and the European Commission are desperate to drop the veto, the automatic right of any country to stop moves in the area of policing and criminal justice. The commission tried to push this through last year but were stopped by the Germans, who want it to be a key measure in the new treaty. This is one of those ideas floating around without obvious parents. The Brits say no formal offer has been made, but it's a logical step. The commission say the Germans haven't offered it. Others think the UK is floating the idea itself, in hope and expectation. In any case the devil would be in the detail: how permanent is the opt-out? Will they still be able to opt in if they want to? Will it be enough to calm fears at home?

I'm told that there is about a 50-50 chance of a deal being done in June because there are few domestic advantages for Brown or Blair. As one source put it, "there won't be dancing in the streets" at the signing of any new treaty. You may want to take this with a pinch of salt: it suits negotiators to get a hardline message out there, and if there aren't good domestic reasons there are very good diplomatic ones: no one wants to have Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel grabbing an arm each and twisting, and a new prime minister won't want to earn the enmity of the two biggest European players. I'm told Gordon Brown has listened hard to the argument that if he can line up with Merkel and Sarkozy he will be in a unique position for a British Prime Minister. Still, the domestic difficulties can't be downplayed.


Another sign of the shifting planets was perhaps the Russia-EU summit. Such international get-togethers tend to end up with sweet, diplomatic words on all sides. Not this one.

Gazprom HQ in Moscow
The EU remains nervous about Russian gas supplies
Putin was said to be visibly annoyed that German leader Angela Merkel weighed in on the side of demonstrators who were having difficulty making their voices heard. It has long been the fear of the European Commission that their approach is undermined by national leaders trying to establish a "special relationship" with Vladimir Putin. But those keenest on this approach, Berlusconi, Schroeder and Chirac, are all now history. The summit took place against a dark background, a dispute about Polish meat, rows over energy supply and concerns about Russian interference in Estonia.

People have talked about the lowest ebb in relations since the Cold War, but it is hardly surprising that the European Union's relations are strained. It's such a big change from the old days: now all the members of the Warsaw Pact are within the EU's embrace and so are three former Soviet republics. At least two others would like to join. Russia's sphere of influence has shrunk in the last decade and Barroso's message was uncompromising: that all EU states must be equal in Russian eyes. By implication they should have no different relationship with Poland than Portugal. This is perhaps unrealistic, but when powerful states talk about protecting the rights of their "national minorities" in neighbouring countries it makes good Europeans shiver.

Please use the post form below to comment on any of the issues raised in the diary.

In response to Ronald's message about living standards - many of these higher living standards have been brought about by heavy public borrowing which has given many countries, including Belgium, unsustainable levels of public debt. We have a model where we have what we are able to pay for. Many European countries chose to ask future generations to pay for what they are enjoying now. But that cannot last. Let's talk again in about 20 years.
Jonathan, London, UK

Mr Barroso and the EU should be less hypocritical over Russia's treatment of Estonia. When the EU enforces equal treatment of 'national minorities' in its own member states, I will take him more seriously. At the moment I cannot think of one member state where racism not only does not exist but is seen not to exist.
Nigel Myall, Casares, Spain

With a trio made up of Brown, Merkel and Sarkozy we could finally start on the road of progress, united instead of becoming a lame duck and uncompetitive in this global world. If everyone gives and takes a little we will gain far more then seeking our own interests all the time. Europe needs to look hard at its reliance on Russian energy, far better to invest in "how to use less" and R&D to find alternatives to oil, gas etc. Russia's trump card is oil and gas, without it they would be weaker. If Europe spent more on R&D then we would prosper economically through the subsequent spinoffs and lessen the power of the Bear. Let's hope this new trio pulls on the same rope. If not we all fall in different directions.
D.Goyvaerts, Antwerp, Belgium

Not so long ago the idea of an EU Constitution was 'dead'. But no, 'non' doesn't mean no anymore for the Euro federalists of France, Germany and their various cheerleaders. The EU is not democratic, it is incredibly wasteful. The CAP is criminal, but we can't do anything about it because if we try the French government will have to block it or risk national unrest form their militant cheese producers. The wastefulness and over-regulation in the EU is what really disgusts people from the UK. Yes it is a problem in the UK too... But at least our government recognises it, in Brussels they don't. No amount of quoting of national statistics on who has nicer countries will change that Mr Gruenebaum of Brussels. You can keep Belgium by the way.

As for Russia, they can see that all this talk of EU unity is a sham, they know that the states within the EU ultimately act in their own interest. The Germans are doing all kinds of deals with Putin and I am sure every other nation-state is too... The EU is a lie, there is no Unity in the Union.
Jack Molloy, UK

The nations of Europe face a clear choice. With a Russia that's regaining its confidence and strength, and an America that seems stuck between belligerence and isolationism, there are two options: A return to the cold war, where we pick sides and play vassal to the one or to the other, or a closer co-operation amongst ourselves so that we might have the strength to remain independent. The EU needs reform, yes - not because it threatens our sovereignty, but in order to safeguard it. The last part of Mr Mardell's article shows this well...
Filip Van Roosbroeck, Brussels, Belgium

Much as I like Mr Sarkozy's push for institutional reform, I find it very hard to accept his fierce opposition to Turkish membership and his lack of will to slash the Strasbourg parliament seat. The EU parliament's travel circus hurts not only the EU's image, but also the general perception of France. The June summit is an excellent opportunity to discuss some of the major flaws of the union, such as the CAP, the British rebate, energy solidarity, foreign policy, qualified majority voting and the size of the commission.
Mikkel Jensen, Copenhagen, Denmark

Maybe Mark Mardell can explain why Giscard and his "Convention" deemed it indispensable to include all the previous treaties in the Constitution. Once you take them out, they still remain valid and you have the mini-treaty Sarkozy spoke about or something very close to it.

I can't understand the people who whine about the EU's weakness vis-a-vis Russia and refuse more integration that would give the EU more clout in dealing with Putin. The most amazing thing is everybody is impressed by "Russian gas deliveries" when the gas Russia now exports to the EU actually comes from Turkmenistan. Russian real gas production is actually on the decline due to lack of investment in production and all that clout is virtual.
john s, brussels, belgium

Giving up the right to veto is essentially giving up your national sovereignty. This is a question that cannot possibly go without a national referendum. I for one do not want politicians from other countries making laws for the Netherlands. Therefore I shall vote no again. But first, I shall demand a referendum.

In the 20th century we had two ideologies in Europe who completely disrespected national boundaries (communism and fascism). Why is it that politicians today think they can just surrender national sovereignties without asking their electorate? There is a word for it actually, and it sounds like tree-son.
Marcel, The Hague

"Irish Neutrality" may basically be translated as "We get all the benefits of Nato defence while paying not one cent". Oh yes, it also seems to give some Irish people the right to pass moral judgement and then stand aside. The Estonian perspective is that the Soviet Union expunged their independence in 1939/40. The subsequent invasion by Germany was greeted by some as a liberation. Some Estonians fought the Germans. The monument - sorry, "Anti-Fascist Statue" - that Mr Rafferty refers to is a standard Red Army memorial. They are as common as wedding confetti across Central and Eastern Europe. The Estonians regard their "liberation" as a return to Soviet oppression. Unlike Mr Rafferty, they lived through it. How they wish to deal with their history is their business. I would hope that Irish people would understand the Estonian situation, as a small country next to a much larger bullying one. There are a lot of parallels between the Baltic Republics/Russia and Ireland/UK. If Mr Rafferty's response to Russia's bullying is "Sorry, we are neutral", then I presume he'll have no problem giving back all the EU money?
David Mac Artain, Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic

The main difficulty that any UK prime minister has with regard to the EU is that the majority of the population wishes Britain to remain a free and independent country and not part of the US of E. It has nothing to do with misunderstanding how the EU works or hating foreigners or national insecurity. The EU has cost Britain tens of billions of L, in net cash flows and increased food prices and about the only supposed advantage that enthusiasts are able to give is the lack of a war between the EU members. We like our neighbours just fine - but we don't want to move in with them. Probably the majority of the populations of Germany, Sweden and Denmark feel the same way.
James Hurling, Granada Spain

I also think Mr Mardell is the right man to be covering Russia. Excellent journalism, really incisive analyses and well written. The EU is slow-moving and others could deal with it. Get Mardell onto Russia asap!
Toby Stewart, Zurich, Switzerland

RE: Roger Rafferty, Dublin, Ireland. Dear Roger and all who think this way. I understand that living here on a green island far away from Central Europe doesn't help understanding the complicated post-war history of Estonia, Poland, Czech etc. For me it's perfectly clear. I'm Polish and I can tell you how it really was. Russians did fight against Germans but what you see as freeing Estonia from Nazis is the beginning of Soviet Occupation, yes they removed Germans but they didn't give freedom to Estonia, they treated us (and them) as a reward for a well done job. For 50 years countries of Warsaw Pact were ruled against their will by a foreign country. Now from that perspective moving that statue doesn't mean removal of an anti-fascist symbol, it's removal of an anti-freedom symbol because for me and for citizens of all Warsaw Pact countries the Red Army soldier, Red Star, sickle and hammer are all symbols of the anti-democratic system in which we were forced to live.
Ana, Dublin, Ireland

Mark - I agree with the other respondents that your last story was the most important of the article. Russia's increasingly aggressive foreign policy and willingness to use oil supplies and cyber terrorism against EU members is a worrying development. With the weakness of the political opposition within Russia this nationalistic movement could be facing the EU for some time. The collective response, even if relatively weak at present, is welcome, as only through the EU members working together through, say, a common energy policy can each member guarantee its long-term security.
Steve, London, UK

Ronald from Belgium: please don't tar EVERYONE in the UK with the same eurosceptic brush. Some of us actually feel that the EU is a force for good and that we are being extremely short-sighted with our stubborn refusal to be more European - ie adopting the euro, joining in more and saying less "non".
Ian, Hertford, UK

Well, it didn't take long for the press to warm to Mr Sarkozy. As summer approaches and the banlieue residents face diminished prospects as they seek to actually benefit from the economic possibilities of living in France, let's hope that Mr Sarkozy offers more than insults. He has already shot down Turkey's bid to join the EU with the dismissive observation that Turkey is "in Asia Minor". Never mind the nation also borders Greece and Bulgaria, both of whom are members.
Carolyn Abernathy, Glenham, NY USA

With regard to the 'non-constitutional treaty', the British public have learnt to identify and scorn weasel words, whether from the EU or New Labour. As for Russia, what leverage do EU countries really have? It seems to me that the EU needs Russian energy and markets more than the Russians need the EU. 'Soft power' may work in the case of Macedonia (former republic of etc) but is about as effective as a limp stick of celery against a resurgent bear.
Max, Warks.

Mark, wonderful articles. Reading your little analysis of the Russia-EU summit at the end left me wanting more. That is, it left me wanting more coverage of Russia from you. I know it is not in the EU but people will benefit greatly from reading about the consequences of Russia's actions on the EU and vice versa - many of which are often not obvious. Though not part of the EU I do believe it is very important for people to be better informed about this very important state in Europe. And what better man to do the informing...?
Luka Gakic, London

Barroso's comments that difficulties with one EU member state are a difficulty with all can only mean that the converse is true also, i.e. that member states of the European Union are collectively responsible for the actions of fellow members. We who are proud of our neutrality in Ireland were never sold that one when asked to vote in referenda on EU membership, and indeed were assured that our neutrality was not being compromised. Barroso says that an attack by Russia on Estonia's removal of a monument to commemorate the Red Army soldiers who fought and died against fascism is an attack on the entire EU. What say do other EU members have in the ill-advised adventures of another EU member state? States retain sovereignty over internal affairs and their own foreign policy. So are we to row in behind the Blair and Brown lunacy in Iraq? Or the deeply disturbing actions of the Estonian government in dismantling an anti-fascist statue and exhuming the remains of Red Army soldiers, who drove the German Nazis out of Estonia?
Roger Rafferty, Dublin, Ireland.

Frankly, I have stopped caring about the British attitude towards "Europe". It's always the same story, whether it is Thatcher, Major, Blair or Brown. Many Britons and most English consider themselves superior to the continental Europeans and they are perfectly able to maintain this view as they can't be bothered to inform themselves about the EU and the countries that make it up. Not speaking languages is of course also very helpful in this respect.

Of course, the actual truth is that many continental European countries are better organised and governed than the UK and real living standards (not some idiotic GDP statistics) are higher. Healthcare, environment, education, transport - there is not a single area of civil life where I would want to move to UK standards. As the famous saying goes: The oak isn't bothered when a pig rubs itself against it.
Ronald Gruenebaum, Brussels, Belgium

Powerful states 'protecting' the rights of 'national minorities' in neighbouring states may well make good Europeans shiver. Think 1939 and 1992. 2007, anyone?
Robert Morgan, Cairns, Australia

I think we have an opportunity now to really focus on what is needed in a constitution and not some sort of philosophical 'grand projet'. We need freshness in the approach to the EU - let's see if Brown, Sarkozy and Merkel can fulfil our potential.
heather roy, Brussels

Bravo, Mr Mardell! I particularly like the last part about the EU-Russia summit. The Russian Federation is going down a more than suspicious road. National minorities should be protected from persecution, including of course Russian minorities, but it is not a one-way street. Russia has the EU over a barrel when it comes to energy: perhaps the EU needs to do some very fast re-thinking indeed - but not dancing to the Russian pipe, rather looking for alternative energy sources. Britain could be very helpful here in correcting the traditional German tendency to 'love' Russia in order to make up for nasty old history. Putin himself is hardly to be trusted, in my opinion - ex-KGB? Come on!
D. Fear, Heidelberg, Germany

No way can Brown get away with playing the 3 card trick and not allowing us a vote on the proposed EU Constitution by pretending that now it will be described as a Treaty and can be introduced by the Government on its own.
jean shaw, malvern UK

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