Sniping mars EU image and unity

February 24, 2010
Herman Van Rompuy

Herman Van Rompuy

The European Union seems to have developed a habit of shooting itself in the foot.

The latest self-inflicted wound was an attack on Wednesday by a euro-sceptic British member of the European Parliament who dismissed Herman Van Rompuy, the new EU president, as a “damp rag” who had no legitimacy and threatened democracy. 

The former Belgian prime minister sat just metres away in the assembly,  fiddling awkwardly with his tie.

This unseemly scene followed an attack on EU leaders this week by Greek Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, who is frustrated by the EU’s handling of his country’s debt crisis.

 “The question is what the quality of leadership is and the quality of leadership today in the Union is very, very poor indeed,” Pangalos told BBC World Service radio.

He harked back to what he clearly regarded as better times at the EU by praising former European Commission President Jacques Delors, late French President Francois Mitterrand, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

 ” I don’t think the situation would be what it is today if that programme (to tackle Greece’s economic problems) had been discussed with Jacques Delors, Mitterrand, Thatcher and Kohl. This is another level of leadership which we don’t have today, most unhappily,” he said.

The outspoken criticism followed a spat this week over the appointment of a little-known official to the high-profile position of EU ambassador to Washington that so outraged Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt that he circulated a letter criticising the opaque way in which the appointment was made.

 A spokesman for new foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton says she was behind the appointment of new Washington envoy Joao Vale de Almeida, but others see the hand of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in it. They point out that Vale de Almeida used to work as Barroso’s chief of staff and both are Portuguese, and suggest Barroso undermined Ashton.

Others simply complain that Vale de Almeida lacks the stature and experience of his predecessor,  former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton.

The dispute is likely to raise eyebrows in Washington at a time when the EU is still smarting from President Barack Obama’s decision last month not to attend an EU-U.S. summit in Madrid in May. 

For Ashton, it is just the latest setback after criticism over the EU’s perceived slow response to the Haiti earthquake and pointed comments about her that were attributed by media to Frenchman Michel Barnier, the European commissioner responsible for financial regulation.

All this is going on as the EU tries to prove its leadership credentials and maintain unity in its handling of  Greece’s economic problems. 

It also does nothing to further the EU’s cause of enhancing its global image. Institutional reforms carried out under its new Lisbon treaty were supposed by now to have improved the EU’s global standing. But the 27-country bloc, which represents more than 500 million people, is weighed down by its own problems, looking inwards at least as much as outwards.


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