The Hearings Commence

The appointment of Donald Tusk as President of the European Commission, sees Ewa Kopacz become the second female Polish Prime Minister. She has promoted Schelyna, the speaker of Parliament to Foreign Minister ; this despite his limited experience in the area.
A dissatisfied Schelyna, who was Tusk’s main opponent within the Civic Platform, is calling for an internal party leadership election. The real test of Kopacz’s capacity to successfully lead them, is in November when local elections are to be held.
The Catalan Parliament presses ahead with their intended “consultation” on independence for the region. This will force the Spanish Government into court to endeavour to prevent the process taking place. Should the “consultation” proceed, it will be interesting to see if it is any more successful than Scotland’s attempt to break away from the UK.
The newly elected Minister-President of the Flemish Parliament has expressed the view that Europe is too big, and is seeking greater subsidiarity, stating that the EU’s urge to regulate everything must be controlled.
Ukrainian separatist are proposing elections later this year to provide legitimacy to their cause. President Poroshenko pulled back the Ukrainian forces, creating a 30km buffer zone as agreed with the separatists, which seemed to signal an acceptance of the ceding of the eastern segment of the country. He also set out a programme of reform last week to prepare the country to make an application for EU membership in 2020. While President Putin wrote to the EU warning that if the current Ukraine-EU association agreement is actioned, that Russia’s immediate retaliatory measures will commence. Parliament commences the new Commissioner hearings, as Nessa Childers has Big Phil clearly in her sights, but most pundits are of the view that, while he may have an uncomfortable couple of hours at the hands of MEPs, there is little doubt but that he will survive. The main focus will be on Timmermans, who is Juncker’s first Vice President. As some MEPs are critical of the proposed reorganisation of the Commission, particularly in areas of healthcare and the environment with the Industry Commissioner taking responsibility for pharmaceutical policy, while the environment seems to have suffered a down grade. This hearing, which is open to all MEPs, will provide the platform to allow members the opportunity to show their displeasure.

Far Right Gains Ground

Hearings by Parliament are scheduled from the 29th, with three hours provided for each of the 26 new Commissioners. The vote on the appointment of the full Commission is set for the 22nd October. MEPs called on the nominated Energy Commissioner to sell his Spanish oil company shares, which he has now done. The Spanish Socialist say they will vote against the Juncker Commission on the basis of its perceived economic policies. The governing agreement within parliament may be under strain and some fall out might be expected but who the casualty will be, is as yet unclear.
Juncker has committed to no new members of the EU during the coming five years, yet he does not rule out preparation for enlargement after the period. Juncker clearly intends Johannes Hahn, the Commissioner from Austria, who heads up the Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement portfolio, to negotiate with candidate status countries, during the current term, such as Turkey, Montenegro and Serbia. This time lag will provide these countries the opportunity to strengthen their economies in preparation for full membership circa 2020.
Juncker does not have to face the immediate question of admitting or confirming membership to Scotland following the referendum result. I’m pleased to say, I called the result 55 per cent ‘No’ vote correctly on Twitter 30 minutes after the polls closed. But Junker cannot sit back just yet. Catalans are set to hold their own referendum to cede from Spain circa 9th November. The Spanish Government is set to challenge the legitimacy of such a vote through their courts. But as we see in the UK individual regions throughout Europe are beginning to demand more autonomy over their own affairs.
While the new French Cabinet won a vote of confidence in Parliament in the last week, others have not done so well. Some electoral upsets have occurred with the rise of the right wing AFD in regional elections in Germany, and this is the cause of concern to mainline parties in that country. In Sweden, the centre right coalition was defeated in a result that sees the Social Democrats struggle to establish a new Government. There is general concern again as the far right Sweden Democrats gained 13 per cent of the vote more than double their 2010 performance. Both these far right parties have anti immigration and national identity as main policy platforms. These results reflect a trend across Europe. Putting up the barricades is not the answer to the plight of those fleeing Syria, Egypt, Sudan or the Palestinian territories.

The Team Togs Out

Juncker presented his Commission line up of 19 men and 9 women. His approach to portfolios and management has the appearance of freshness. He appointed six Vice Presidents along with Mogherini the Foreign Policy chief, who is an automatic VP since her appointment by the heads of state. These seven will now, in effect be an oversight committee supervising and directing on occasion the work of their fellow commissioners. These VPs will be the inner cabinet. A new departure and should provide a greater co-ordination within the Commission.
Mogherini herself will have to work closely with four of her colleagues, as she manages the external relations of the EU. Currently the department, which is headed by Lady Aston, is housed in a building separate to that of the Commission. This separation, added to Aston’s absence from meetings of the College of Commissioners, left her department closer to the heads of government and it was thought that did not reflect Commission positions strongly enough. Mogherini and her colleagues will draw together the interests immediately affected by external relations.
This new style department may have serious work to do should Scotland opt out of the UK. Juncker has said he is against expansion of the union during his five year term.
No issue arose when Germany was reunited as the community was not increased in number. Should Scotland cede from the union and seek admittance to the EU, their joining will entitle them under normal circumstance, a seat at the commission table. Should the EU agree to Scottish membership as a separate country, no matter how packaged, this will grow an expectation to membership and full participation in the EU on the part of for example, Catalonia, should they succeed in separating from Spain.
Such fragmentation of member states may just become small issues should the difficulties within Eastern Europe, the Middle East and particularly Syria and Iraq, not be brought quickly into check. The American proposal of air strikes on IS within Syria would appear to be an act of aggression against Syria, unless the Syrian Government invites the intervention or the UN provide legitimacy by way of resolution.
It appears unlikely that Russia will co-operate at UN level and Syria will hold out pending acceptance of their offer of joint operation with the US in addressing the problem. As these disputes continue, pressure is put on, particularly, the Mediterranean countries of the EU with increased numbers of illegal refugees seeking refuge from these conflicts.

Juncker’s Choice

Following the appointment of Donald Tusk to replace Herman Van Rompuy as President of the Council, Federica Mogherini the 41 year old Italian as VP and Foreign Policy chief, Jean Claude Juncker is now set to announce the line out of his Commission team.
There is considerable talent amongst the new commission. Our own Phil Hogan is viewed by EU watchers as amongst those of the middle ground. His chances of capturing the Agricultural portfolio improved with the late replacement by Romania from their Commission current member, the Agriculture commissioner, whom they had initially re-nominated. At the summit on the 30th of August, they offered a second name that of the female Socialist MEP Corina Cretu which Juncker plumped for. Expect to hear much of Ms Cretu over the life of the Commission.
But for Hogan, Dublin MEP Nessa Childers’s may have put the cat amongst the pigeons when she wrote to her parliamentary colleagues raising her serious concerns as to his suitability as a Commissioner.
Juncker will be reluctant to have a Commission nominee for any top spots come under too much heat when they attend before parliament to be questioned by MEP’s who will vote on their suitability for their role, as this may be a factor in the final decision as to the job given to Hogan.
Phil can count on strong support from the EPP and S&D. Both seem to be working in close co-operation in power sharing with an understanding on job distribution. Dublin MEP, Brian Hayes will be to the front in defending his Government’s nomination of Hogan. Brian seems intent on maintaining the high public profile he enjoyed as junior minister. SF MEP, Lynn Boylan was a member of an EU Palestine / Israel fact find mission. Missions such as this, are important in assisting members understand and identify with the people and issues of these regions. The EU policy makers must look outside its immediate area and be ready to respond to the needs of other regions.

Policies Under Pressure

With a leading authority on unemployment describing Eurozone polices as “stunningly destructive’, some noted world economists have again expressed concerns that the recovery, if any, is not long term and that recession in Europe may last well into the future.
The French economy is experiencing zero growth, and Germany’s has contracted in the last quarter, while Italy is heading towards a triple dip recession, with Premier Renzi rebutting suggestions that his Government is set to raise taxes and cut pensions to stay within the 3 per cent GDP limits. Germany’s financial daily, Handelsblatt, depicts France as the sick man of Europe as President Hollande calls for the Euro to be weakened. Some leading economists have launched quite an attack on current EU policies, warning that unless changed, they may result in a fresh debt crisis. All is leading to renewed speculation that Mario Draghi will retreat from the ECB’s long-term policies and opt for quantitive easing. Germany is still committed to low inflation, and Chancellor Merkel says it is difficult to manage a monetary system across 18 countries, when the sovereign parliaments refuse to implement the agreed policies of the European institutions. But she points out that crisis countries have cut their current account deficits and that lasting recovery is now obtainable.
The geo-political problems have yet to show their full effects. The effects of the “Ukrainian sanctions” have not yet worked their way through the economic systems, and analysis of their cost is awaited. The Russian counter sanctions have caused Dutch lenders to flag that their agri. sector will face liquidity problems. The Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia are all dependent on Russia for atomic fuel, for their nuclear reactors, on which they are reliant for electricity. The Greek Energy Minister is seeking EU support in the event of disruption in Russian gas supplies. Even before the sanctions, Germany’s trade with Russia was down 19 per cent in June. The Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yatsenyur complains that the rebels have purposely targeted vital infrastructure, so as to leave lasting damage and the economy now faces serious difficulties, even if the conflict is stopped immediately. So even if the Ukrainian crisis is resolved in the short term, there would appear to be serious fresh damage done to the EU’s direct economy, and to some of its trading partners. Also, account must also be taken of the economic impacts which may result from the conflicts in Gaza, Syria etc. The Eurozone has major problems to surmount.

So, The Summer Ploughs On

Jean-Claude Juncker still struggles to put shape on his Commission. His task is to deploy those nominated to the best advantage, while meeting the expectations (demands) of their nominating States. To add to his difficulty, five nominees are still awaited.
It appears that at best, there will only be eight females amongst the twenty eight Commissioners. This is a serious difficulty for Juncker, who was warned by MEPs that unless a Commission with at least ten female members was presented, it was likely to be rejected on block. Junker seems to have done as much as he could to encourage member governments to present women nominees, but with little success.
At the next meeting of the Council of PMs, he does have the opportunity to position the Italian Foreign Minister, Frederica Mogherini as the next High Commissioner and Vice President. There will still be strong opposition to her appointment. It is said she is inexperienced, which, when considering the mess those with experience have gotten us into, might be a major plus.
Her willingness to talk with Putin face to face and her visit to Kiev also shows that she was ahead of the curve and right at the heart of the action, while others fantasied of bringing Ukraine into the EU family and away from Russia’s empathy.
Italian women are no strangers to the Foreign Ministry, as Mogherini is the third woman to hold the office. This appointment to such an important role may be enough to appease parliament, and allow Juncker’s Commission slip through the vote.
Our own Phil Hogan is said to be lined up to land the Agricultural position. He may be in for a disappointment, as the current holder of that office is re-nominated and deemed to have done a good job and wishes to continue in that appointment. This portfolio will be in the eye of the storm, as Putin’s counter sanctions are set to have wide ranging effects across our farming communities.

EU Must Act On Ukraine

The downing of flight MH 17, with the loss of all 298 people on board brought the events in Ukraine into shocking focus for us all. The manner in which the crash site was dealt with let us see how little humanity exists in these war zones. This crisis in Ukraine seems set to continue for some time.
The EU response is to consider sanctions against Russia. They are considering moving to Stage 3 sanctions, which provides four main options. These are restrictions on access to EU capital markets for Russian state-owned financial institutions, embargo on trade in arms, restrictions on exports of dual use goods, restrictions on exports of sensitive technologies including in the field of energy. None of which, it seems will, if applied, have any immediate effect. Currently the EU member states are concerned to ensure that their country does not carry an unequal burden if any, should Stage 3 be embarked upon. The EU was fundamentally involved in the creation of this crisis. If the EU wants to play world politics, then they need to get their act together. The Foreign Ministers must decide on a real implementable strategy to end what is a totally unacceptable lawlessness, which if left unchecked, will only grow and spread to other regions. A hundred years ago this month, what on the day seemed to be a very small event, lead to a tragic World War. Let us not sleep walk back into history.

Europe Can’t Decide

Prime Ministers from across the EU convened last week to agree the appointments of the President of their Council, and that of High Representative, who will become a VP of the Commission and responsible for foreign relations. Mrs Merkel, celebrating her sixtieth birthday, said that it was logical that the position should go to a member of the socialist family, seemingly crushing the hopes of Bulgaria’s current Commissioner, and those of the Polish Foreign Minister, who are both from the centre right. In turn, the Italian, Frederica Mogherini’s Foreign Minister’s chances appeared boosted, not only by that statement, but also by President Hollande declaration “will necessarily be a woman” This, despite a rump of Baltic states and others who lined up to oppose her on the basis of what they say, is her relative inexperience and pro-Russian disposition. When appointed last February, her first trip was to Kiev and then Moscow, where she meet with President Putin. But Frederica does have the support of the Socialist block, which mandated France’s President Hollande to speak on their behalf in support of her candidacy. This 41 year old has real hands-on experience, having entered the Foreign Ministry in 2003, where she specialised in not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but also importantly the Middle East Peace process. It would take all those opposed to her nomination to combine together to stop her appointment, which is unlikely, even with Juncker expressing quiet opposition stating that someone of experience is required. There is speculation that Poland will soften their position, in an effort to secure the Council Presidency when the Council reconvenes on the 30th August. Juncker may also, at that stage, decide to embrace Ms Mogherini as this would assist him in achieving gender balance in the Commission College.

Irish MEP Elected To Top Post

Midland’s North West MEP Mairead McGuinness, has been voted in as one of the new Vice Presidents of the European Parliament.
McGuinness was elected as one of the 14 Vice Presidents of the European Parliament last week. First elected to the Parliament in 2004 she represents the Midland’s North West constituency for Fine Gael who are members of the EPP Group in Europe.
Over the coming weeks, President Juncker will put together his Commission. He has to work out how to place the nominees of each country to best administrative and political advantage. This is much like selecting a cabinet just on a bigger Chess Board. But in this case, each Commission nominee will also be individually presented to the relevant committee of the Parliament, who will put them through their paces and issue a recommendation to Parliament on the nominees’ suitability for office and the position they are nominated for.
There were calls for a committee hearing for Ireland’s nominee before they get their ticket for Brussels. Enda Kenny did not take kindly to the suggestion and it not going to happen.
There are calls from current Commission office holders that at least ten of the members of the Juncker Commission should be female. Membership is dependent on those nominated by the Member Governments. Jean Claude had better hope that a reasonable number of females are nominated, or he may run into another controversy when he presents his line up to Parliament whose members must vote to approve or reject the appointment of the entire Commission.

Shaping Europe

The trade-off of positions continues. Martin Schulz P&S was elected President of the Parliament, for the next two and half years, with the support of the EPP and ALDE groups. Jean Claude Juncker (EPP) is due to be elected President of the Commission next week and will take up office in November.
The UK appears set on the road of an In/Out referendum. Cameron says he is in favour of staying in, subject to reform. While some in Brussels paint the UK as trouble makers, there are many countries who empathise with their general point of view.
Juncker is faced with managing the Commission and of responding to increasing calls for reforms. These reforms may not sit easily with Jean Claude’s own inclinations. As a practical politician, he knows he must move, not only from the nomination process, but that he must now make the system work. He says the Commission portfolios will be assigned on merit and if member states want key positions, they must nominate persons of ability and experience. So it is up to each Government to decide if they want their nominee to be a player or not. Juncker has also said he is prepared to work to find solutions to UK issues.
Yet, things may be a little tense at meetings of the Council. The post of President of the Council is still to be filled. If whoever is appointed is to ensure that all member states move forward together, the new President must have skill, experience and diplomacy. We have suggested in the past that an Irish nominee may well be best suited to the role at this time. We understand the UK and we are popular in Europe coupled to which we are good mediators. Kenny’s meeting with Merkel last week will have discussed the position. The question is has he got the nod for the green jersey to play.