Global News Journal
Beyond the World news headlines
Try as it might, the European Union’s efforts to act like a bigger player in world affairs keep running into obstacles.
The latest setback is a report that President Barack Obama won’t be able to make it to the annual EU-U.S. summit this year, pencilled in for Madrid in May. A hectic domestic agenda and the fact the U.S. president made 10 foreign trips last year — more than any other president in his first year in office — means staying at home is the priority and the Europe Union will have to wait.
Spanish officials — Spain holds the rotating six-month presidency of the EU and is hosting the summit – say the White House has not officially withdrawn his attendance. As far as they are concerned Obama is still coming, even if the dates for the meeting have not yet been finalised.
But doubts about the trip have been sewn and soul-searching has begun in Brussels about whether Washington even cares about Europe. If Obama doesn’t come, goes the thinking, it’s a blow to those who believe the 27-country EU, with its impressive economic power, might one day stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Washington in international affairs, and act as a counterweight to a rising Beijing.
It’s not often that Finland takes the lead in calling for better trans-Atlantic ties, but as the Nordic country’s energetic foreign minister might say: there’s a first time for everything.
In a speech in London this week, delivered on the eve of the Afghan conference, which might perhaps have led it to garner less attention than it otherwise would, Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb laid out a bold five-point plan for closer EU-US relations.
When it comes to further sanctions on Iran, the clock is ticking relentlessly, even if those leading the drive – the United States, Britain, Germany and France — are giving little away in terms of timing or what might be targeted under any new, U.N.-agreed package.
Still, companies that do business with Iran appear to be getting the message that time is running out.
Much criticism has been heaped on the European Union — the vast majority of it by its own member states — for not being seen to do enough to help Haiti after the Caribbean state’s earthquake.
Never mind the fact EU states and the European Commission have promised a combined 400 million euros ($575 million) in aid and long-term reconstruction. In public relations terms, the sums have all but been eclipsed by images, beamed around the world, of volunteer U.S. firemen pulling victims from the rubble, and emergency aid workers from the likes of Israel and Brazil running much-needed field hospitals.
Catherine Ashton has signalled her intention of giving the European Union’s relationship with the United States more prominence in her new role as the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs.
How productive that relationship proves to be depends largely on how much Washington believes it needs the EU and how much it deals with the European Union as a whole, rather than with its member states one-to-one.
Euro zone finance ministers have failed to pick the next vice president of the European Central Bank, partly because they are not sure how to do it under the European Union’s new Lisbon treaty. The treaty, which came into force in December, gives the euro area finance ministers — the Eurogroup — legal status and is supposed to simplify decision-making in the 27-nation bloc. But the 16 euro zone ministers decided to ask lawyers how to choose a successor to ECB Vice-President Lucas Papademos, delaying the decision until February, one diplomat said. Vitor Constancio and Yves Mersch, central bank chiefs of Portugal and Luxembourg respectively, are running, as is Peter Praet of Belgium’s central bank.
The problem is uncertainty about how the Eurogroup should vote under the treaty.
In fact, the Eurogroup, which met on Monday as usual on the the eve of an Ecofin meeting of all of the EU’s 27 finance ministers, and is described in the EU treaty as an informal group, cannot take formal votes. But it can probably hold informal ones.
Formal votes are held at the Ecofins, but on issues concerning the euro zone only Eurogroup ministers vote. If they do, then what majority is needed? What if you have to choose from among three, not two candidates? In theory, the Eurogroup ministers could hold a vote on what voting rules to apply. But in that case, there is also no clarity on how to vote.
In the six days since a powerful earthquake struck Haiti, the world has responded with vast amounts of aid and promises of long-term reconstruction, something the Caribbean country’s creaking infrastructure desperately needs.
The World Bank and the United States pledged $100 million each, the United Nations promised $10 million and announced a “flash” appeal for $500 million more, and dozens of companies including Google, Microsoft and Bank of America committed $1 million a piece. Hollywood stars, rap singers and tennis champions all immediately raised money themselves or lent their support to encourage donations to the relief effort.
Every five years, the European Parliament gets an opportunity to show its muscle as it quizzes candidates for the next European Commission, the powerful body that enforces EU laws.
But rather than a forensic examination of the 26 nominees – the sort of in-the-spotlight inquisition the U.S. Senate puts presidential appointees through — the European Parliament has a tendency just to go through the motions.
In the United States, Senate hearings to confirm presidential appointments are a Big News Story, with scores of photographers, TV cameras and journalists cramming into the committee rooms to follow the event live.
The European Union — which has 200 million more people than the United States and is a larger trading bloc — has something similar, with hearings before the European Parliament to confirm nominees to the European Commission, the 27-person body that enforces laws across the EU.
Western responses to President Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal for a new European-Atlantic security body that stretches from Vancouver to Vladivostok have ranged from dismissive to lukewarm. None have been enthusiastic.
But some inside and outside Russia argue it would be unwise for Europe and the United States to reject the proposal out of hand, not least because, as one Russian official put it, this is one of the few occasions where Russia isn’t disagreeing but coming up with something constructive.