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Oettinger feels the heat over climate remarks

4 February, 2014 - 14:29

Pressure is growing on the German energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, over remarks he made at a BusinessEurope conference last week criticising the EU Commission's 2030 climate and energy package, which he himself helped to design and launch.

Oettinger told an audience of European employers he doubted that a planned 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved and branded those who believed it could "save the world" as "arrogant or stupid".

That has led several figures in the upper echelons of Europe’s energy utilities to condemn the Commissioner’s words, with one describing his preferred 35% target for CO2 cuts as a "catastrophe", and another calling for his dismissal. 

“His speech was absolutely intolerable,” one senor industry source said, on condition of anonymity. “The style was unacceptable, and its content undermined the Commission’s energy policy commitment.”

“Really it was so appalling that he should not be allowed to continue in his job any longer,” the source added. “It is important that President Barroso acts on this.”

Oettinger has few friends among the EU’s ‘progressive’ business sectors and has increasingly positioned himself as a champion of energy intensive industry.

“I know where Mr Oettinger is coming from,” Peter Botschek, the environmental director of the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC) told EurActiv. “We are also very concerned with this [greenhouse gas reductions] proposal and we share his doubts. He is doing whatever he can to represent European industry.”

The Commissioner argues that high energy prices have helped reduce the bloc’s industrialisation level to 15%, some five percentage points below an EU target for 2020.

Speaking at a conference of Europe’s electricity associations yesterday (3 February), Oettinger declined an invitation to repeat his BusinessEurope remarks, and backtracked slightly on his stated climate target-scepticism. 

“I am in favour of a 40% [greenhouse gas reduction] target and not an ‘at least 40% target’ because that brings expectations that we cannot fulfill,” he said, referring to a Eurelectric manifesto he was presented with at the meeting.

Renewable energy target

Oettinger also spoke out against making a proposed 27% target for renewable energy's share in the energy mix by 2030 binding on member states. It would translate as a 45% share of the electricity market, he claimed.

“I am not sure if 45% is acceptable when you are looking to France which has 75% of its electricity from nuclear,” he said, adding that: “75 +45 is more than 100%. It's quite complicated.”

“We need a coherent approach,” he added.  

But energy industry officials said that it was Oettinger who risked incoherence, as he had changed his mind several times over support for energy efficiency and renewable energy targets.

“I think Commissioner Oettinger is not the most reliable source,” one senior business association official said. “Business needs stability and a clear and long term perspective, and that is not what we have got for the last two or three years.”

‘Catastrophe’

Others were more outspoken. “It would be a catastrophe if we did not reach the 40% greenhouse gas reductions target,” one industry figure told EurActiv. “It is the minimum that is acceptable for us and it would put us in a huge position of weakness to arrive in Paris in 2015 [for the UNFCCC climate summit] with a 35% target, in terms of our positioning towards the US and China.”

By 2015, Oettinger will probably have left the Commission, following EU parliament elections later this year. Under EU rules, he will not be able to take a job in industry for at least 18 months. But that has not doused suspicions that he could eventually end up in a high-profile position. 

Research by Corporate Europe Observatory shows that six of the 13 departing EU Commissioners in President Barroso’s first administration, subsequently took up positions in the business sector or with lobbyist firms.

Key to Oettinger’s position is an oft-repeated saw that “in the EU we have to pay higher energy prices – by a factor of three for gas, and a factor of two for power,” as he put it at the BusinessEurope conference. “This is not acceptable,” he told that audience.

Environmentalists say the commissioner’s figures are suspect because US natural gas prices have tripled since April 2012 and show no sign of slowing.

“We’re not talking about multiplying the price by a factor of three or four anymore, just two,” said Antoine Simon of Friends of the Earth, “and the trend shows that the ratio will keep on decreasing.”

Collective responsibility

The commissioner’s office insists that Oettinger has not broken ranks with the Brussels consensus in his speeches, just maintained that a 40% CO2 cut is ambitious.

“Of course he supports the decision of the Commission and as Commissioner for Energy he will design energy policy in a way that contributes to the achievement of the targets in a cost-effective manner,” a spokesman for Oettinger told EurActiv.

Straws in the Brussels wind suggest that Oettinger had been admonished in a phone call by a prominent German minister for undermining EU principles of ‘collective responsibility’. A diplomatic source would only provide the commissioner with the most tepid of support.

“Mr Oettinger is independent and of course has his own views of energy policy, and he has been sharing these views - collectively - with the public in the recent past,” the diplomat said. “He does not in any way get instructions from Berlin.”

Jo Leinen, a German MEP and former chair of the European Parliament’s environment committee said that it was not in Germany’s interests for the EU to have a “feeble and half-hearted energy policy” because of Berlin’s ambitious ‘Energiewende’ programme of transitioning to a renewables-led energy system. 

“I am sure there have been indications to our German commissioner Mr Oettinger not to block a CO2 target - and even not to block a renewables target,” Leinen said. “I am also sure that in the Parliamentary debate on 2030 targets in Strasbourg [on Wednesday 5 February], MEPs will criticise Oettinger for undermining or watering down the compromise that was agreed.”

But NGOs raised questions about the Commissioner’s commitment to collective responsibility, given his willingness to oppose a policy that he had been tasked with advancing.  

“One would expect all Commissioners to respect the decision they made collectively,” said Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network. “Given that the EU’s impact assessment report indicates the feasibility of the 40% target as well as of higher targets, one could seriously raise questions about his real intentions,” he told EurActiv.

EuroConference 2014 - Save the Date

4 February, 2014 - 11:24

Russian nuclear plant divides Hungarians ahead of election

4 February, 2014 - 09:40

Hungary’s centre-left opposition is mobilising support against a deal between the government of Viktor Orbán and Russia to build two additional reactors in the country’s only nuclear central. Parliamentary elections are due on 6 April.

Many Hungarians have expressed anger at the government's decision to expand the nuclear power plant in the central city of Paks without consulting the people. Hungary's left-wing opposition parties are promising that if they win the elections they will hold a referendum on the deal by the Orbán government.

Last month, Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed that Russia would build two new reactors at Paks, and provide a 30-year loan of some €10 billion, covering 80% of the costs.

The Soviet-constructed plant now supplies around 40% of Hungary's electricity.

Politicians in a left-wing electoral coalition, including former prime ministers Ferenc Gyurcsány and Gordon Bajnai, said on Sunday at a rally that voters deserve more information about the deal and accused Orbán of selling out to Russia.

Many of the protestors said that they were not against nuclear energy, but that they were reluctant to become energy dependent on Russia.

However, the Parliament, where Orbán’s Fidesz party has a super-majority, approved the deal yesterday (3 February). Economy Minister Mihály Varga was quoted in the Hungarian press as saying that a financial agreement with Russia would be signed within a few weeks.

Varga added that the new reactors would fulfill the energy demands of the Hungarian economy and the public “in a cheap and competitive way”.

Pressed in parliament by the opposition to say why did he sign the “secret contract” without prior authorisation by MPs, Orbán said that there would be a renewed agreement between the government and opposition Socialists on the Paks plant when the dust had settled after the elections.

In view of the elections, left-wing forces in Hungary have built an alliance including Gyurcsány's Democratic Coalition, the Egyutt (Together) formation of Bajnai, and former lawmaker Gabor Fodor's new liberal party.

However recent opinion polls suggest Fidesz enjoys a comfortable lead over the individual alliance parties combined.

The ruling Fidesz government has recently announced a cut of gas prices by 6.5% from 1 April, less than a week before the elections. According to some experts, Russia may have agreed to reduce gas prices as part of the package including the two new reactors at Paks.

Lamy: Social model distinguishes Europe from the rest of the world

4 February, 2014 - 08:58

The core of European integration is what a layman would call a ‘European way of life’, a specific economic and social model that defines European societies and distinguishes them from the rest of the world, former WTO chief Pascal Lamy has said in web chat organised by EurActiv and the Notre Europe think tank.

Pascal Lamy is honorary president of the Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute. He was director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) from September 2005 to August 2013, served one term as EU commissioner for trade in 1999-2004 and served as chief of staff to Jacques Delors, then president of the European Commission, in 1985-1994. He spoke to EurActiv’s editor-in-chief Daniela Vincenti.

This interview is a selection of questions raised in the ‘citizen web dialogue’ organised by Notre Europe in partnership with EurActiv. You can watch the full video below.

Much has happened since you started your term as WTO director general. Some EU countries rejected the constitutional treaty; the sovereign debt crisis revealed cracks in the core elements of the EU integration; worries about sustainability of public finances and a lack of competitiveness rose and shifted the attention from Central Europe to the Mediterranean countries. In this context, what struck me is that you said at several occasions that you are a committed European. I wonder what this means: being a committed European in 2014?

After eight years at the WTO – outside of the EU institutions – I am even more a committed European. Europe itself is much clearer when you watch it from outside of Europe, than when you watch it from within. What you see is a specific model, what a layman would call a ‘European way of life’. Translating this into economics, it means a specific economic and social model, a Sozialmodell Wirtschaft.

This is my identity, and I think it is what unites Europeans. If they agree with [this model], it is quite easy to understand that we won’t get there on our own. If Europeans believe in what Europe is all about – a civilised version of globalisation – they have to fight for it.

A considerable number of Europeans see the EU as the reason for the crisis. What are the main social and economic advantages that we, Europeans, need to capitalise on to promote our model of development, especially when aiming for sustainable development?

I think what explains the current surge of populism or euroscepticism, is the economic and social crisis. If you look at European history for the last 200 years, each time there has been an economic and social crisis, it created political turbulences.

Now, there is a long-term issue too, notably that many Europeans feel the EU institutions are not politically legitimate enough. They feel we don’t have the same influence on what happens ‘up there’. As long as Europeans do not share this feeling of belonging to the same community, the legitimacy of European power will be weak.

Le Parisien had a cover story recently in which French Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg was posing with the French flag, a [French] Michel Herbelin watch and a Moulinex blender. It read: ‘Made in France’. In times of economic pressure: how can one find the right balance between protectionist pressures and free trade?

There are protectionist pressures; there always have been. Because some people still believe that dropping your imports is a way to sustain your employment. But ‘mercantilism’, which is the old mantra that imports are bad and exports are good, makes no sense in today’s world.

A Moulinex blender is not really made in France. It is made in many parts of this planet and assembled in France. And that is great: it shows that France can add value to something that is for the most part produced elsewhere.

If you target your imports, the immediate consequence is that you deteriorate the competitiveness of your exports and the value addition of your economy. The sum of your value addition is your Gross Domestic Product (GDP) so restricting your imports is the best way to shrink your GDP and exactly the contrary of what we have to do to reduce unemployment.

The EU has done quite a lot to boost new jobs and try to train manpower in fields that require high quality workers. In many such fields, jobs are still vacant. What can we do to fill such posts?

A lot of that depends of the quality of domestic policies. Education will not be europeanised; it works in local and national systems. But if we pull our resources, we will be better off together than each of us alone.

Research is a good example: in biotech, nanotechnology or digital economy, investing together leads to much better results. You increase the chances to progress on innovation if many researchers work on it. Let’s keep investing in cross-European programmes, like Erasmus, and let’s pool what we do.

In the past, the Franco-German leaders have often pushed for progress on further European integration. Right now, these two take different approaches on how to integrate. When do you think the French and German leaders will come up with shared initiatives?

Well, if you look at the past sixty years of European integration, the Franco-German axis is crucial for European integration. When this engine works, Europe works better.

This is because they are the two biggest countries, and probably the two most different countries. They have different views; a different economic and social system in mind. If this converges, it could mean a big step towards [further] European convergence.

We know the terms of the trade-off [between Paris and Berlin]. The French have to become more serious about the economy, and Germans have to become more serious about foreign policy.

French spend most of their time wrangling about how to share the cake without considering how to increase it. And Germans are good at increasing the cake, but globally believe that, if there is no war with Russia and France, there is peace in the world. Well, this is not peace in the world, and if Europe wants to increase its weight in the world, it needs to care more about the rest of the world.

This basic trade-off needs to happen. It would bring this thinking to the fore of mainstream European thinking. If these two do the job, it is easier for others to join this consensus.

One participant in the online web dialogue asks: What is your next step? Jacques Delors has promoted you as a potential next Commission president in the past.

Jacques Delors is a great friend of mine who has thought me most of what I know about politics. But he just forgot that I am 66 years old. At my age, it is not reasonable to pitch for high responsibilities.

Now, I have a few passions and Europe is one of them. Sometimes passion can trump reason. But in politics, this is decided by elections. My political family has a candidates, Martin Schulz, [for the Commission presidency. After May’s elections, there is a process in which the European Council nominates a candidate taking into account the results of the elections, and we will see. For the moment, I am fighting with and behind the leader of my camp.

Rumour has it that the next Commission president could very well be someone who is not amongst the single candidates.

Being old has many disadvantages, yet one advantage is that you don’t care about rumours. 

Greek manufacturing activity grows for first time in over four years

4 February, 2014 - 08:54

Greek factory activity grew in January, a survey showed on Monday (3 January), marking its first expansion since the country's debt problems came to light in 2009 and plunged the eurozone into a crisis from which it is still recovering.

It is the latest in a series of positive economic data which suggest Greece's six-year economic slump may be bottoming out.

Markit's purchasing managers' index for manufacturing, which accounts for about 10 % of the Greek economy, rose to 51.2% in January from 49.6% in December, its first time above the 50 line dividing growth from contraction since August 2009.

That came days after data showed Greek retail sales rose in November for the first time since April 2010, while construction activity grew in October for the first time in two years.

Greek stocks welcomed the data with the benchmark share index .ATG gaining 2.01% to 1,201.88 points.

Still, Greece remains locked in difficult negotiations with its EU and IMF lenders and is expected to require further debt relief and more bailout aid before it can put its debt crisis behind it. Analysts said it was too early to call a turning point.

"Before we go from extreme pessimism to extreme optimism we need to be cautious," said Ilias Lekkos, an economist at Greek lender Piraeus Bank. "Macroeconomic data has started to stabilize and appears slightly improved - but compared to very low levels previously."

Greece's economy has shrunk by a quarter since a recession took hold in 2008 and, in part, deepened due to fiscal rigor demanded by the European Union and International Monetary Fund in return for bailout funds to rescue it from bankruptcy.

Athens and its international lenders expect the 183 billion euro economy to pull out of recession this year, projecting GDP growth of 0.6%, while the country's central bank sees it growing by 0.5%.

Greece, which has been bailed out twice by the EU and the IMF, has been kept on a drip feed of funds totalling 240 billion euros but they have come at the price of unpopular austerity measures, including tax rises and cuts to pensions and wages.

Unemployment has jumped to record levels - at 27.8% t is more than twice the euro zone average - and thousands of businesses have shut.

For manufacturers, a second consecutive rise in incoming new orders in January boosted output levels across the sector, with orders from abroad also strengthening.

"A slight rise in new export orders contributed to the improved performance, though the data inferred that it was the domestic market that provided the principal boost," said Markit economist Phil Smith.

But despite expansions in production and new orders, manufacturers continued to lay off staff in January, with staffing levels having fallen every month since May 2008.

EU anti-corruption report stops short of 'naming and shaming'

4 February, 2014 - 08:53

The European Commission said yesterday (3 February) that its first anti-corruption handbook for the 28 member states showed that there were "no corruption-free zones", but officials declined to name and shame individual countries.

The Commission published yesterday (3 February) its much awaited 40-page anti-corruption report covering the overall situation in the 28-country bloc, coupled with individual chapters on each country, of approximately a dozen pages each. The package is supplemented by a 230-page special Eurobarometer survey on corruption.

The EU executive said that its rather modest ambition was to launch a debate on the corruption and identify ways in which the EU could help fight the scourge.

Corruption is estimated to cost the EU economy €120 billion per year. That amounts to about 1% of EU GDP and represents only a little less than the annual budget of the European Union.

The anti-corruption package has been in the pipeline since Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström announced the establishment of an EU anti-corruption reporting mechanism in June 2011, saying a first report would be published by the end of 2013 (see background). The publication of the report was delayed, she admitted, adding that the quality of the report was now better.

Malmström told reporters that the handbook assessed how each member state tackled corruption, how existing laws and policies worked in practice, and contained suggestions for how each EU country could step up the fight against corruption.

“The Report will hopefully provide everyone - politicians, the public, media and practitioners – with a useful tool for taking national corruption policy forward,” Malmström said.

Crisis increased corruption?

According to the Eurobarometer, a vast majority (76%) of Europeans think that corruption is widespread in their own country. Also, more than half of Europeans (56%) think the level of corruption in their country has increased over the past three years, an apparent indication that the eurozone crisis has impacted negatively on the fight against corruption.

The report shows the state of play in the member states om terms of legislation, institutional framework, and problematic areas for each individual country. “Good practices” are identified with suggestions for “future steps”.

The report cites an integrity programme in the Flemish region of Belgium as an example of good practice. Wallonia, the country's French-speaking region, has no such initiative.

The report also advises Belgium to increase the capacity of its justice and law enforcement system to prevent the statute of limitations on corruption cases from expiring during lengthy criminal proceedings.

Malmström strongly insisted that the Commission made no “ranking” of corruption levels in EU countries, saying that other organisations were engaged in this activity. The NGO Transparency International had ranked EU countries according to perceived corruption levels, with the “most corrupt” being Greece, Bulgaria and Italy, and the least Denmark, Finland and Sweden.

The commissioner was also careful not to speak of dividing lines and of major divisions between North and South, acknowledging only that Bulgaria and Romania were special cases, which required continued monitoring.

Too much diplomacy?

The Commission was also careful in the report not to mention countries by name. Sources told EurActiv that EU countries had rejected the option of "naming and shaming", and this had been the main reason for the delay of the report's publication by a few months.

The paper says that “in some member countries”, vulnerability to corruption in public procurement processes is the main problem, while “in others” political party financing is not transparent enough. Widespread corruption at the level of local authorities is another example, with “many healthcare patients" having to "pay under the table to receive proper medical care”.

“In one Member State, numerous cases of alleged illegal party funding at central or regional level were also linked to organised crime groups”, the report says, without mentioning Italy.

The report also shies away from naming individuals or parties. The report cites "investigations involving a former treasurer of a political party" in Spain. The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, last year became embroiled in a corruption scandal, saying that he made a mistake in trusting the former treasurer of his Popular Party, Luis Bárcenas.

Spain also witnessed another corruption scandal involving Princess Cristina, the youngest daughter of Spain's King Juan Carlos, and her husband Inaki Urdangarin.

Malmström said that the idea had been discussed to conduct a corruption investigation into the EU institutions but that it was decided that the EU executive could not do this independently.

EurActiv asked Malmström why the EU survey asked business representatives if corruption was bad for their business and not the other way around.

“As you can imagine, being responsible for law and order, we did not ask that question. But I think you’re right. I think a lot of companies actually make good business out of corrupt contracts,” she said. 

High-tech jobs offer more money and security: study

4 February, 2014 - 08:45

The high-tech sector has remained stable during the financial crisis with 19% higher wages and an unemployment rate consistently below 4%, according to a new study by the Belgian university KU Leuven (KUL).

The high technology business has grown two and a half times more than all other job sectors since 2000, says the study, High-technology employment in the European Union.

The report makes a number of policy recommendations to the European Commission.

Professor Maarten Goos, one of the authors, said at a conference organised by the economic think tank Bruegel that it was key for EU governments and institutions to pursue job creation, invest in high-tech skills and share knowledge across European regions in that sector.

The authors also stressed the importance of the “spillover effect” of high-tech jobs to other economic sectors.

The study defines high-tech jobs as “those involved in the production of high-tech goods and services or otherwise engaged in highly technical activities in other industries”, including “those employed in science, technology, engineering and math (also known as STEM occupations) in non-high tech industries.”

Education is key

“We estimate that the creation of one high-tech job in a local economy creates more than four additional non-high tech jobs in the same region, this includes workers across the skill spectrum, such as lawyers, physicians, waiters, taxi drivers, schoolteachers…”

Investing in high-tech skills means that policy-makers will have to focus on providing the population with the required high-tech education. That “education needs to be broader than just STEM”, the experts added, citing innovation, management, communication and problem-solving skills to help educate the labour force.

Investing in life-long learning is just as crucial as the sector is a rapidly-changing one and need for adaptation is constant.

Goos also warned that “retraining will have to happen several times in the course of a career,” leading to a “sense of insecurity" for the workers.

Policymakers, he said, should target that feeling of uncertainty by leading education and training programmes.

“The focus on high-tech jobs is key”, Goos concluded, cautioning that “high-tech employment creates more and better jobs as long as policy creates the necessary skills".

However the speakers made clear that it is indispensable to “modernise the curricula”. Lucilla Sioli from the European Commission's DG Connect, said coding courses “should become mandatory” in IT curricula. “Lots of jobs will require coding in the future, people will have to be able to program or modify a piece of software themselves,” she stressed.

Europe 'needs to be proactive'

European Commission officials unanimously welcomed the study, saying it “confirms that [the Commission] has been doing the right thing.”

Cornelis Vis from the European Commission's Bureau of European Policy Advisers (BEPA) told the audience that the EU executive had already done "a lot over the past four years” by taking measures at EU and national level to “develop an ecosystem for high-tech companies”.

A report to be submitted to the EU Council in March will take stock of the progress achieved so far, he said, but “news are disappointing, we are going backwards” he added, without giving further details.

“It will be up to the next Commission to plot the policy for the next period until 2020,” Vis said stressing that Europe will “have to be proactive" in the years ahead.

“Since policy has always lagged behind … Europe should not wake up when it’s too late with a social and economic shock.”

Vis said there are two important principles for both EU institutions and member states in the coming years. The first is research and development, on which “member states have been muddling for 15 years”, he said. The official accused EU countries of “resisting” any legislative attempt in that area from the Commission, rejecting targets “because they are afraid they won’t meet them.”

The second one is the modernisation of education, as stressed by the researchers.

Russia, West say new Ukraine government is condition for aid

4 February, 2014 - 08:26

The United States and the European Union are in preliminary discussions on possible financial assistance for Ukraine once a new government is formed, a State Department spokeswoman said yesterday (3 February). Russian President Vladimir Putin has also said Moscow would wait until a new government was formed before releasing aid to Ukraine. 

"This is a very preliminary stage. We are consulting with the EU [...] and other partners about support Ukraine may need after a new technical government is formed," spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a daily briefing.

US officials have emphasized that Ukraine will need an IMF-backed economic program to put its economy on a more stable footing. Psaki said any final decision on US financial support for Ukraine "will be guided by events in Ukraine and consultations with the new government after it is formed."

As the largest member of the IMF, the United States will have sway over how much funding and conditions are put into any IMF-supported program for Ukraine.

Ukraine's economy has been hard hit by more than two months of unrest, which followed a decision by President Viktor Yanukovich in November not to pursue trade and other deals with the EU, which would have brought Kyiv closer to Western Europe (see background).

Yanukovich is caught in a tug of war between Russia and the West. Russia committed a $15 billion (€11 billion) bailout for Ukraine after Kyiv scrapped plans for EU deals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would also wait until a new government was formed before fully implementing the agreement.

Also, the Ukrainian press announced on Monday that the country owed to Gazprom $3.3 billion (€2.4 billion) for gas imported in 2013 and in January 2014.

US confirmation of initial talks with the EU on a financial package follows comments at the weekend by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who told the Wall Street Journal that the financial help "won't be small".

She said the package, which she referred to as "a Ukrainian Plan" would not only consist of money but also contain "guarantees" or help on luring new investment. But other EU officials yesterday played down weekend comments from Ashton that Europe and the United States were working to offer funds to help Ukraine enact reforms to stabilise its political system.

Ashton arrives in Kyiv late today (4 February) for separate meetings on Wednesday with Yanukovich and opposition leaders.

Yanukovich will not use force, political ally says

Yanukovich will not use force to clear the streets and may challenge his opponents to early elections if they fail to compromise, according to reported comments by a political ally.

However, Yanukovich, possibly comforted by an opinion survey last week showing both he and his party topping polls with about 20% support in Ukraine's fragmented political system, may be ready to call the bluff of opponents who want him to quit.

A leading member of parliament from Yanukovich's Party of the Regions was quoted in local media late on Monday saying the president had told his allies he would not declare a state of emergency or use troops or other force to clear central Kyiv's Maidan protest camp or public buildings occupied by protesters.

"We have every possibility of liberating administrative premises and even liberating Maidan by force," Yanukovich was quoted as saying by lawmaker Yuri Miroshnichenko. "I will never do that, because these are also our citizens."

No comment was immediately available from the president and there was no immediate response from opposition leaders.

Miroshnichenko said there had been discussions recently within the party about declaring a state of emergency, a move that could, among other things, let the government use troops.

"There will be no state of emergency," he said.

The member of parliament went on to cite Yanukovich's willingness to hold a presidential election a year early, and a parliamentary election that is otherwise not due until 2017. Normally the presidential election should be held in February 2015.

"The president said that if politicians can't now come to an agreement, reach joint decisions and implement them, then the only democratic way of resolving the situation is early elections," Miroshnichenko was quoted as saying.

"And he [Yanukovich] said: 'Both you will face early elections and I will face early elections.'"

Tough choices

Yanukovich faces tough choices, caught between the West, which backs the protesters - though largely with words rather than deeds or cash - and Putin, who has given him a large, but conditional, economic lifeline.

Russia has suspended financial aid granted in November when Yanukovich turned down the EU deal. Moscow is waiting to see whom he now appoints as prime minister following his removal of Mykola Azarov in an attempt to appease the opposition.

The speaker of parliament, a Yanukovich ally, said on Monday the president still wanted to discuss the post of premier with opponents this week. Yanukovich may meet Putin on Friday at the opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia and he may hope to have named a new prime minister by then.

Some analysts say Yanukovich's allies among the business elite may also prefer loans from Russia to EU and IMF terms.

On his first public appearance since Wednesday, following a sick leave some saw as a tactical move to buy time, Yanukovich looked in fair health but confined himself to warning against the actions of radical protesters:

"We must say no to extremism, radicalism, the fanning of enmity in society, which is the basis of the political fight against the authorities," he said in remarks on video.

When parliament meets, opposition leaders want further concessions, including a broader amnesty for detainees than one granted last week and a return to an earlier constitution, which would curb presidential powers and give parliament greater control over the formation of governments.

Party allegiances in the single-chamber legislature have been fluid and it is unclear what majority Yanukovich commands.

Poll shows Italy's reform plan could favour Berlusconi-led centre right

4 February, 2014 - 08:24

A centre-right alliance led by Silvio Berlusconi would be the most likely winner if Italians were to vote now under a reform proposal currently before parliament, according to an opinion poll published on Monday (3 February).

Italy is attempting to change electoral rules blamed for a succession of weak, unstable governments that have struggled to revive a chronically sluggish economy or cut a public debt of around 130% of output.

The survey, conducted by the Ipsos agency for the daily Corriere della Sera, gave the potential centre-right coalition 37.9% of the vote, above the 37% threshold needed to obtain a large winner's bonus of seats and avoid the need for a second round run-off.

The centre-left was credited with 36 percent, while the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement got 20.7%.

The centre-right benefited from a recent decision by the centrist UDC to move back into its camp, having fought last year's election allied to former technocrat Mario Monti's unaligned Civic Choice movement, which has now all but disappeared.

UDC leader Pierferdinando Casini said in an interview with the daily La Repubblica on Saturday that moderate parties, including the UDC, Berlusconi's Forza Italia and the New Centre-Right, which broke away from Forza Italia last year, had to join forces against centre-left leader Matteo Renzi.

The UDC itself has the support of just 3.1% of voters, but they could swing the election in favour of the centre-right.

The poll shows that the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) is easily Italy's largest, with 33.5%, ahead of Berlusconi's Forza Italia, with 23.2%, and 5-Star with 20.7%.

But while the PD accounts for almost all the support for the centre-left, the centre-right bloc is bolstered by disparate parties attracting between 2% and 6% support, ranging from the pro-autonomy Northern League to the far-right Brothers of Italy.

The poll shows that, while the dynamic and media-savvy Renzi has grabbed all the headlines since storming to victory in a primary for the PD leadership in December, he cannot take electoral success for granted.

Casini's decision to switch back to the centre-right was panned as an opportunist move by many politicians and commentators, but Berlusconi was quick to distance himself from the criticism.

"I have always hoped for a return of Pierferdinando Casini to the area of the moderates ... His movement can offer a real contribution to a victory of the centre-right," he said in a statement on Monday.

Renzi would be expected to be the centre-left's candidate for prime minister, but the choice of centre-right candidate is far less obvious. Berlusconi is barred from public office after a conviction for tax fraud.

The electoral reform proposal, the result of a deal drawn up last month by Renzi and Berlusconi, aims to favour strong coalitions or parties by setting high thresholds for entry into parliament and giving a solid majority to the winner, with a run-off round if needed to decide the result.

The next election is not due until 2018, but with Prime Minister Enrico Letta's coalition under constant fire from both Renzi and Berlusconi, most commentators expect the vote in 2015 at the latest.

Athens visit exposes divisions among EU Troika investigators

4 February, 2014 - 08:15

A two-day investigation by the European Parliament into the Troika’s handling of the Greek debt crisis ended last week in a clash with the Greek leftist opposition Syriza party, exposing divisions within the EU team, EurActiv Greece reports.

In Athens, the two MEPs responsible for the Parliament inquiry, Austrian MEP Othmar Karas of the European People's Party (EPP) group and French MEP Liêm Hoang Ngoc of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), could only agree on the urgent need to bring more transparency and democratic accountability to the Troika.

The EU Parliament probe, launched in January, aimed to shed light on how the Troika – consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – managed the crisis in the four countries under its surveillance, Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Cyprus.

Speaking in the Greek parliament on Wednesday (29 January), Karas claimed that the leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, remained silent when asked about his party's proposals to guide Greece out of the crisis when the two met in Strasbourg on 11 December.

Syriza reacted angrily.  “These are false and slanderous allegations”, said party spokesperson Panos Skourletis, accusing Karas of taking sides with Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras.

The Austrian centre-right MEP reitered his statement about Tsipras during a press conference the following day (30 January) and defended himself, saying he was not in Athens to take part in internal politics. “I’m not here to evaluate the work of Mr Tsipras,” he said.

His colleague on the Parliament investigation team, Hoang Ngoc, centre-left, had a different view and attacked his colleague.

“It’s not true to say that Alexis Tsipras came in the meeting without a proposal. He submitted a document called ‘The Greek Rescue Plan’,” said Hoang Ngoc, showing the document to the audience.

“It’s a valuable text and we will use parts of it for the first draft of our report”, Hoang Ngoc said.

“Mr Karas maybe didn’t have the courage to reverse what he said about that meeting … but he has to publicly apologise,” Syriza added in a statement.

Divisions over the ‘timing’

Asked whether the European Parliament’s investigation into the Troika was “a bit late”, the two MEPs also diverged.

“I came for the first time to Athens on 21-22 March 2011. The European Parliament launched the procedure for the evaluation report and the enquiry committee regarding the analysis of the causes of the social and economic crisis. We proposed the submission of two reports regarding all the measures and initiatives that took place. So we were not late,” said Karas.

But Hoang Ngoc said the procedure was “too late” due to the EPP’s initial reservations.

“This report comes too late. Personally, my group called for a report very soon, at the beginning of the crisis,” he stressed.

“But in the conference of group presidents, the EPP was not in favour of an enquiry committee and we needed to negotiate this report for many years. Unfortunately this report comes just before the EU elections,” he continued.

Troika’s future

The Socialist MEP heavily criticised the Troika, repeating that the Troika had “no legal basis”.

> Read: Socialist MEP: 'The Troika in its current form must be dismantled'

“The member states took decisions with the gun on the head”, he noted, adding that the ECB was wrong when it refused the restructuring of Greek debt from the beginning.

Hoang Ngoc also blamed the Commission for proposing such strict budgetary consolidation.

“The time of the Troika is over. The Troika must be dismantled and be replaced by mechanisms which are democratically controlled”, he added.

Karas took a more moderate tone, claiming that the Troika should complete its programmes.

“The Troika does not end today. Its model died. Nevertheless it has to complete its programmes”.

Pesticides halve bees' pollen gathering ability, research shows

4 February, 2014 - 07:46

Bumblebees exposed to controversial pesticides collect just half the pollen they would otherwise harvest, according to new research, depriving their growing young of their only source of protein.

The work has been hailed as important by independent scientists because it sheds light on how the neonicotinoid pesticides can harm bees.

"Pollen is the only source of protein that bees have, and it is vital for rearing their young," said Professor Dave Goulson, at the University of Sussex and who led the study. "Collecting it is fiddly, slow work for the bees and intoxicated bees become much worse at it. Without much pollen, nests will inevitably struggle."

two-year EU ban of three neonicotinoids, the most widely used insecticides in the world, began in December, following research that showed harm to honey and bumblebees. The neonicotinoids are "systemic" pesticides, being applied to seeds so that the chemical spreads within the plants. Over three-quarters of the world's food crops require insect pollination, but bees have declined in recent decades due to loss of flower-rich habitat, disease and pesticide use.

Goulson's team tested one of the three, called imidacloprid, at low doses aimed at replicating those encountered by bees in fields. They attached tiny electronic tags to bees so their movements could be tracked and each bee was weighed on its way in or out of the nest.

Bees exposed to the neonicotinoid brought back pollen from only 40% of trips, while unexposed bees carried pollen back from to 63% of trips. Furthermore, exposed bees that did return with pollen carried 31% less than unexposed bees. Overall, the nests exposed to the pesticide received 57% less pollen. The ability of bees to collect sugary nectar did not differ significantly between the bees. The work is published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecotoxicology.

Hannah Feltham, at the University of Stirling and another member of the research team, said: "This work adds another piece to the jigsaw. Even near-infinitesimal doses of these neurotoxins seem to be enough to mess up the ability of bees to gather food. Given the vital importance of bumblebees as pollinators, this is surely a cause for concern."

Earlier work by Goulson's group showed exposure to neonicotinoids led to 85% fewer queens being produced. The new work suggests a reason why: because there is less food in the nest. Other work showed neonicotinoids seriously harmed bees by damaging their renowned ability to navigate home.

Goulson added: "It is unclear what will happen when the [EU ban] expires, as the agrochemical companies that produce them are in a legal dispute with the EU over their decision. Our new study adds to the weight of evidence for making the ban permanent."

Lynn Dicks, an ecologist at the University of Cambridge, said: "This is a very important study, because it provides further detail on how bumblebee foraging is made less efficient by exposure to imidacloprid at these levels."

But she added: "The important questions over what is a 'field-realistic' dose are not settled and they remain open. The [levels in this study], particularly the pollen level, are at the upper end of what is found in the field, and likely to be higher than what bumblebee colonies are actually exposed to, because they don't feed exclusively on oilseed rape."

Pesticide manufacturers argue that controlled studies do not replicate actual field conditions. Julian Little, a spokesman for Bayer, which makes imidacloprid, said: "It would appear the bumble bees are essentially force-fed relatively high levels of the pesticide in sugar solutions, rather than allowing them to forage on plants treated with a seed treatment. Real field studies, such as those being initiated this autumn in the UK will give more realistic data on this subject."

Researchers have argued that conducting properly controlled field trials is difficult, because neonicotinoids are very widely used and bees range over wide areas in search of food.

Merkel makes U-turn, backs Juncker for Commission job

3 February, 2014 - 16:37

In a surprise U-turn, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reportedly indicated she supports Luxembourg's former prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, as lead candidate for the European People's Party (EPP), EurActiv Germany reports.

“All the signs are green for him to be the candidate for the EPP", an official close to Juncker told the Financial Times (FT) regarding the former Luxembourg prime minister's position on the top of the party's candidate list in the upcoming EU elections.

As one of the highest-ranking conservative politicians in the EU, Merkel's support is crucial for the appointment of any EPP frontrunner.

Already in early January, Luxembourg's former prime minister and long-time head of the Eurogroup, Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed his willingness to accept the position of top candidate.

The EPP is set to officially select their lead candidate at a party convention in Dublin on 6 March, which is also likely to entail a nomination for the Commission presidency following the elections.

"Now we have to wait for the selection process to be completed, but I can assure you that Juncker is ready for the job and is ready to lead the campaign for the Commission presidency," an official told the FT.

Phone diplomacy

Until now, media reports indicated that it was doubtful that Juncker would gain the crucial support needed from Merkel, who leads Germany's ruling conservatives, the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), a member of the EPP European Parliament group.

> Read: Why Merkel doesn’t support Juncker for Commission president

The news may prove a gamechanger for Juncker. According to the FT, "Merkel phoned him directly to assure him of her support".

The account was confirmed by reports in the German press on Sunday (2 February): "The decision for Juncker has been made. Chancellor Merkel also wants Juncker to be top candidate in the European elections and supports his candidacy", the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag said, citing consistent accounts from "informed circles in Brussels and Berlin that are familiar with the deliberations".

As a result, Juncker is well on his way to becoming the EPP's lead candidate but, even so, there is still a chance that the Party of European Socialists (PES) could emerge as the strongest party in this year's European Parliament elections. In that case, Juncker could miss his chance of a top job in Brussels.

If the Socialists win in May, London intends to present Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny as an alternative to Juncker, Welt am Sonntag reported, citing high level EU sources.

Furthermore, there is a good chance that Juncker could become the successor of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, the German newspaper reported. "This would open up room for manoeuvre for Mr. Juncker in the coming years and is less stressful than the office of Commission president."

With a conservative as head of the European Council, the paper says, the head of the European Commission would likely have to be a Socialist.

Candidacy not likely for Lagarde

Meanwhile it seems that the chances for International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde becoming the EPP's potential frontrunner have fallen considerably.

Speaking over the weekend, German EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger voiced his opposition to Lagarde's candidacy in an interview for Germany's "Focus" magazine.

"Mrs. Lagarde has an outstanding position [at the IMF]. We can be happy that a European sits at the head of the IMF. I think, she is helping us the most from there," said Oettinger, leaving his own post-election future to be determined.

Ukraine's case illustrates the Eastern Partnership weakness

3 February, 2014 - 11:59

The stinginess of the EU towards Ukraine has brought in the collapse of the EU’s Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius and augurs for little success of this initiative, writes Alexander Okhrimenko.

Alexander Okhrimenko is president of the Ukrainian Analytical Center.

After the Vilnius summit the European Union Eastern Partnership Program (EaP) turned out to be in deadlock. The complex reason of such result lies not only in Ukraine's refusal to sign the Association Agreement (AA), but in the imbalance of political offers and economic support of the Eastern Partnership member states.

Already now the EU leaders have recognized that the political component of the Eastern Partnership has outweighed the economic component and, in fact, led to the rigid reaction of Russia. Moscow didn't make everyone wait long and showed its answer by strengthening pressure upon those countries of the EaP which were actively preparing documents for the AA signing. The first to leave was Armenia whose president Serzh Sargsyan declared in Moscow that Armenia suspends preparation to the AA with the EU and decides to soon join the Customs Union (CU) with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The EU's reaction to Armenia's demarche was limited to regrets.

After that, Ukraine found itself in the state of de facto the "trade war" with Russia, when the majority of its goods exported to the Russian Federation were blocked for various reasons on the border with Russia. The summer of 2013 for Ukraine passed under the sign of total blocking of the Ukrainian goods to Russia. Within a year the Ukrainian export to the Russian Federation fell to 25% which made up billions of dollars. The EU once again came down to political statements about support, leaving Kyiv without particular support. Should we then get surprised by the results of the Vilnius summit after that?

Which financial advantages were offered by the EU to the EaP member-states and whether they managed to at least partially become compensators of risks from the deterioration of relations with Russia? The European Union finances projects in the Eastern Partnership countries from the general budget by the articles "The European Neighborhood Policy Instrument" and "European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights Support".  According to the adopted financial plan of the EU for the period from 2014 to 2020, the total volume of these articles will make up about €17 billion. If we stretch it in time and the quantity of countries, then we'll get the assistance to 6 countries for 7 years.

According to Commission spokesperson Peter Stano, the total amount of funds for the period until 2020 will be similar to the sums allocated in 2010-2013: to Ukraine – €526 million, Moldova – €366,6 million, Georgia – €239,9 million, Armenia – €186,8 million,  Azerbaijan – €82,5 million, Belarus – €73,1 million. The final decision on the distribution of means will be made in the mid-2014. As Ukraine moves away from the EU after the Vilnius summit, the sum of the assistance for it on the side of the European Union will be significantly reduced. Thus, the maximum which Kyiv will be able to count on within the EaP is about €1 billion for 7 years in case the internal situation in the country doesn't aggravate. This sum of the assistance isn't crucial and won't be able to compensate any of large financial risks for Ukraine the part of which will for sure arise. Thus, from the point of view of simple mathematics, the financial assistance to Ukraine in the EaP program is extremely weak. If to consider the pressure factor from Russia as well, the Ukrainian power had a narrow field for maneuver on the eve of the Vilnius summit.

Within the assistance to Ukraine provided by the EU in the EaP framework the largest article of expenditure (€87 million) goes to the support of the introduction of Ukraine's Energy Strategy. But even this sum is extremely insignificant for the tangible effect in the question of reforming of the Ukrainian energy. For example, according to calculations of the academician Valeriy Geets, in order to save 1 billion euros on energy carriers consumption in Ukraine, it is necessary to invest €2,5 billion.

If we take calculations of the European party, for example, of the deputy director general of the European Commission for trade Peter Balas, to transfer Ukraine's economy to the European standards, Ukraine needs at least €1-2 billion a year.  But in no way €1 billion per 7 years, as the financing plan in the Eastern Partnership framework foresees. 

Anyways, the situation with financing even before the Vilnius summit could be resolved by the European and international banks, and the IMF. But the lack of clear arrangements from their side, and also Russia's financial counterproposal about the possible €15 billion credit led to the known completion of the Vilnius summit of the EaP.

Predicting the further development of the EaP program, we should note that the risk of financial weakness remains extremely topical. After Ukraine the strengthening of the Russian pressure should be expected upon Moldova and Georgia. Is the European Union ready to strengthen volumes of financial help to these countries for at least partial compensation of financial losses? As Greece and Italy will have presidency in the EU in 2014, there is a great risk of Europe's reorientation exclusively to the internal problems, including of financial and economic character.

In such situation, the Eastern Partnership will transform its format from political and economic into strictly declarative, and the program itself risks to receive the status of one of the loud failures of the EU foreign policy initiatives. I want to believe that euro-officials in Brussels understand this risk.

Catalan leader says Madrid cannot block independence referendum

3 February, 2014 - 08:58

Spain cannot block a non-binding vote on Catalan independence that could become the basis for negotiations on Catalonia's future, the president of the northeastern region Artur Mas said in an interview published yesterday (2 February).

"If I call a consultation, not to declare the independence of Catalonia nor to break with the Spanish state, but to know the opinion of the citizens of this country, a knee-jerk anti-democratic response from Spain would be pretty bad and disgraceful in the view of the entire world," Artur Mas told La Vanguardia, Catalonia's leading newspaper.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has pledged to go to the Constitutional Tribunal to block any Catalan attempts to hold a referendum, arguing sovereignty is a matter for all of Spain to decide, but Mas said there was another possible approach.

"It is what I call the solution tolerated by the central government. They let us hold the consultation, they don't get involved, and afterwards we go to Madrid to negotiate," he said.

Over the past three years the independence movement in Catalonia has gained force, with roughly half of Catalans saying they want independence from Spain and a much bigger majority saying they should have the right to decide.

Catalonia, which has its own language, has significant self-governing powers. But economic doldrums, public spending cuts and perceptions of unfair taxes and the concentration of power in Madrid have fed breakaway fever.

The independence movement has become a major headache for Rajoy, who is struggling to pull Spain out of six years of economic stagnation and unemployment of 26%.

"The unity of all Spaniards is what makes us great, and what the great majority of Spaniards want," Rajoy said on Sunday. "Those who don't agree with that must respect that desire, and respect the law."

Three positive steps

Mas, who only became a supporter of independence four years ago, set out a three-step process for Catalonia.

The first step of the process, taken in January, was to ask Spanish parliament to allow Catalonia to hold a referendum. Parliament, dominated by the ruling conservative People's Party, is expected to turn down that initiative.

The second step, Mas said, will be to hold a consultation without the express permission of the national parliament. He said the consultation would be legal under Catalonia's autonomy statute, which defines the region's powers.

The Catalan government has already set a date of 9 November for a referendum - two months after an independence vote in Scotland - and has decided on a two-question formula: Do you want Catalonia to become a state? If your answer is yes, do you want this state to be independent?

If the central government blocked a non-binding consultation, Mas set out a third step, which he said was not ideal, which would be to use the next election in Catalonia, which must be held by 2016, as a proxy vote on independence.

Mas is not expected to rush to call early elections because his Convergence and Union political alliance, known as CiU, has lost ground in the polls, while a more radical pro-independence party, the Catalan Republican Left, or ERC, would probably win a large chunk of seats in the regional legislature.

The Catalan president told La Vanguardia that he and members of his government had been engaged in informal talks with Rajoy's government through December to try to find a way past the deadlock over the consultation, but that there were not any talks now.

Rajoy has resisted pressure to engage with Mas and seek a political solution to the crisis.

The European Union has said that Catalonia would have to re-apply to join the bloc if it broke away from Spain, a difficult road because Spain could thwart the necessary consensus to accept a new member.

But Mas said Europe would have to respect a peaceful, democratic independence drive by Catalonia. 

The EU top jobs: Who's next?

3 February, 2014 - 08:51

On 22-25 May, EU citizens will cast their ballots to elect 751 members of the European Parliament. But MEPs will not be the only ones to perform a game of musical chairs: 2014 will also bring about change in many of the top positions in the EU executive.

Europeans across the 28 member states head to the polls in May to elect a new European Parliament for 2014-2019. The elections signal a change in the European Commission, while the mandates of European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also come to an end.

The Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force on 1 December 2009, strengthened the power of the European Parliament, including the power to elect the president of the European Commission. The 2014 elections are the first to be held under the Lisbon Treaty. Parliament is set to elect the Commission’s next leader on the basis of a proposal by the European Council, “taking into account” the results of the European elections (Article 17.7, TEU).

European parties want ‘presidential elections’

Over the past few years, Europe's main political parties have pushed to put forward their designated candidates for the EU Commission presidency. The European Parliament endorsed the idea in a report released in June 2013, in which it called on European political parties "to nominate their candidates ... for them to be able to mount a significant, European-wide campaign that concentrates on European issues".

Proponents of the initiative say this would foster a more open, democratic process in naming the person to lead the EU executive. "It gives the Commission president a dual endorsement," liberal MEP and former member of the Union of European Federalists (UEF) Andrew Duff told EurActiv. 

Offering voters the choice to elect, if indirectly, the next president of the Commission is also hoped to boost turnout, which was dramatically low (43%) in last EU elections, in 2009, and had dropped consistently since the first EU elections in 1979.

Yves Bertoncini, director of the think tank Notre Europe - Jacques Delors Institute, told EurActiv: "Putting ‘faces’ on the parties' campaigns makes the elections more personal. On a European level, this hasn’t really been the case so far. Having top candidates like Martin Schulz, Vivianne Reding or others go into debate: that’s what politics is made of."

The lead candidates - or "Spitzenkandidaten"  ​in German- will act as figureheads in the pan-European election campaigns. They will face each other in televised 'presidential debates' in the course of the campaign, adding to the momentum of this presidential race.

At this time, two debates have been confirmed. The Committee of Regions invites the candidates for a debate in Athens on 8 March, which will serve as a kickoff for the pan-European elections. The European Parliament hosts a debate in the last stretch of the campaign, on 14 May. Candidates will also face each others in other debates - yet to be confirmed.

So far, three parties have nominated frontrunners and others are in the process of doing so. This is the list of certain and likely figures to compete for the EU Commission top job in the campaign:

(List includes: Jean-Claude Juncker, Jyrki Katainen, Michel Barnier, Valdis Dombrovskis for the European People's Party; Martin Schulz for the Party of European Socialists; Guy Verhofstadt and Olli Rehn for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; José Bové and Ska Keller for the European Green Party; and Alexis Tsipras for the European Left.)

Unclear process

Parties' attempt to determine the next Commission president through single candidates is clear. But the procedure for the post-election negotiations is new territory, and has remained unclear so far.

Presumably, the figurehead representing the largest political group in the next Parliament will serve as a candidate designate. Parties could also agree on a coalition supporting a single candidate to put to the European Council, after the elections. Observers have spotted the likelihood of a coalition between Socialists, Liberals and Greens to circumvent the centre-right EPP, which is likely to remain the largest party in the European Parliament.

Paulo Rangel, Spanish MEP for the EPP group, is rapporteur for an initiative in the EU Parliament to clarify the rules of play. He said in a public hearing on the matter: "In the existing article (17.7, TEU) there is a link, but the question is how to materialise this link."

But many have cast doubts over this attempt to put forward single candidates prior to the elections. The incumbent European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, has expressed concern that putting forward single candidates could create false expectation among voters, and warned that it was not at all certain that this candidate would be nominated by the European Council afterwards.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that, according to the treaties, there is "no automatic link" between the party that wins the EU elections and the next Commission president.

According to Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, these single candidates would politicise the Commission leadership: "A captain of one of the teams cannot be a fair referee", she wrote in the Financial Times

Political reality meets practicality: 'Dark-Horse' candidates

Two practical issues cast a shadow over the parties’ attempts to raise the stakes and lure voters.

  • Sitting prime ministers or other prominent politicians could show reluctance to enter a race that’s highly uncertain, fearing being left out in the cold when top positions are given out. An example of this is Enda Kenny. The Irish Taoiseach (or prime minister) has persistently been named in Brussels as a possible contender but has debunked such rumours, stressing that he wants to remain head of government until Ireland's national elections in 2015.
  • The candidates will also need an endorsement from their national governments, as they will serve as their country’s commissioner in the next EU executive. This would require, for instance, the socialist Martin Schulz to secure an endorsement from the centre-right dominated German government, or for the centre-right Barnier to secure the nomination of the French Socialist government.

In post-election phase, all the pieces of the puzzle will have to fall into place, a process that could take some time (see Timeline). EU leaders and MEPs, notably, will have to reach an agreement on how political families and parties get their piece of the pie.

A trade-off may follow, in which dark-horse candidates could take centre stage:

(List includes: Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Dalia Grybauskaitė, Pascal Lamy, Christine Lagarde, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.)

Other positions as bargaining chips

These contenders are in the running for for the two most prominent, 'presidential' positions in the EU. In the deal on top jobs, many other high-level positions in the institutions act as leverage.

EU leaders hope to come up with balanced leadership in the Commission, Council and Parliament. Influential positions include:

  • The European Parliament presidency, currently held by Martin Schulz;
  • Commission portfolios such Trade (now Karel De Gucht), Economic and Monetary Affairs (now Olli Rehn), Home Affairs (now Cecilia Malmström), Justice (now Viviane Reding) and others;
  • The director-general positions in the Commission's departments (or DGs) or head-of-cabinet positions flanking the commissioners, which are negotiated when the new Commission takes office (read our previous LinksDossier on the subject). 

Member states usually look to secure such jobs for their national officials. The political balance is also key: top positions are usually divided between the two largest political families, the socialists and the centre-right, with liberals in third place to ask for top spots.

Some have set their sights on becoming the next secretary general of the transatlantic defence alliance, NATO. The incumbent secretary general, Danish liberal Anders Fogh Rasmussen, will leave office on 31 July.

Equally, Catherine Ashton ends her mandate as the first high representative for foreign and security affairs. The high representative is part of the Commission, and so the prestigious position is up for grabs when the new team is formed over the summer.

Amongst the candidates for these two positions, are:

(List includes: Radoslaw Sikorski, Pieter De Crem, José Manuel Barroso and Thomas de Maizière.)

Liberals back Verhofstadt to succeed Barroso

3 February, 2014 - 08:46

Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has been confirmed as the Liberals’ candidate for president of the European Commission, ahead of the European elections in May.

The majority of the delegates (79.3% votes in favour, 14.2% against with 6.5% abstaining) from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), meeting in Brussels on Saturday (1 February), has given Verhofstadt the baton to lead the elections’ campaign.

Verhofstadt, who currently heads the party group in the European Parliament, is one of the EU’s most avid euro-federalists.

In 2005, he published a book on closer EU integration, ‘The United States of Europe’, and he is one of the driving forces behind the Spinelli Group of federalist MEPs, launched in 2010.

“We have to be very clear to public opinion that these populist and nationalist eurosceptics have no solution for their problems. Look, if you want a future for your children on this continent, we need more Europe, we need an economic and fiscal union, a banking union, as fast as possible,” Verhofstadt said on Saturday.

The Belgian will lead the campaign with Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs.

The two reached an agreement on 20 January to lead a joint campaign. Verhofstadt will run for the post of European Commission president to replace the incumbent José Manuel Barroso, while Rehn wil run for one of the other senior EU posts in economic or foreign affairs.

“I hope we form a dynamic duo for the European liberal and centrist movement in this election. We are both campaigning in different parts of Europe,” Rehn said.

In a joint statement, the two liberals commented: “Liberals are strong when they stand united. In these European elections we have the chance to make Europe stronger. Together with our 39 member parties in the EU member states we will both fiercely campaign for reforming Europe where necessary and taking actions to create jobs and prosperity.”

The European elections will be held in all EU countries in May 2014.

The Lisbon Treaty states that the European Parliament shall elect the Commission president on the basis of a proposal made by the European Council, taking into account the European elections (Article 17, Paragraph 7 of the TEU). This will apply for the first time in the 2014 elections.

“Pro-Europeans are under attack in a number of Member States so it is all the more important that those who still believe in the European Union stand together to combat the reactionary forces of nationalism and populism that is spreading doubt and fear in the minds of Europe’s citizens,” Verhofstadt said.

“The Europe of today is clearly not delivering for the citizen. We must elucidate a new and positive vision for the EU of tomorrow that builds on what has been achieved over the past 60 years but works more efficiently and effectively," he added.

Germany weighs pros and cons of more robust defence policy

3 February, 2014 - 08:42

Germany's US and European allies welcome Berlin's promise of a more robust foreign and security policy, but with no appetite at home for troops to fight, it may mean little more than extra logistical help and tougher rhetoric.

At this year's security conference in Munich, where 11 years ago pacifist-turned-foreign minister Joschka Fischer told US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld "excuse me, I am not convinced" about the war in Iraq, Germany promised its knee-jerk reaction would no longer be a 'no' to overseas missions.

"In my view, to be a good partner Germany should get involved more quickly, more decisively and more substantially," said head of state President Joachim Gauck, in a message that was reinforced by the German foreign and defence ministers.

"Germany is too big to only comment on world politics from the sidelines," said Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Seven decades after the defeat of the Nazis, Germany still feels constrained by history, and public shows of patriotism like flags at football matches are a fairly recent phenomenon.

The Americans and Germany's close neighbours have long urged it to provide more decisive leadership for Europe - beyond prescribing austerity during the euro zone crisis - and play a more prominent geopolitical role, leveraging its trade relations.

"Leading, I say respectfully, does not mean meeting in Munich for discussions, it means committing resources," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the 50th annual Munich Security Conference this weekend.

Poland's Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, who said in 2011, "I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity", told Reuters in Munich that in the Ukraine crisis, "Germany is taking its role, I'm glad to say."

So far, that has involved Chancellor Angela Merkel issuing firm condemnations of President Viktor Yanukovich's crackdown on protesters and phoning Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A more robust diplomatic posture alone is unlikely to erase what U.S. Republican Senator John McCain described in Munich as the "embarrassing" moment in 2011 when Germany declined to help its NATO allies support the Libyans fighting Muammar Gaddafi.

McCain told Reuters Gauck's speech had been important but acknowledged that the president "didn't commit Germany to anything that was specific or large". McCain limited his expectations to a bigger military role in disaster and humanitarian relief.

One senior U.S. defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said German officials in Munich showed an interest in a more "expeditionary" international security policy.

The source cited the French-led intervention in Mali, where about 100 German military personnel provide support such as troop transport flights and training, and an upcoming European mission to the Central African Republic, where Germany has said it may again provide logistical support - but not firepower.

This is very much along the lines of all Germany's overseas military missions: almost 5,000 Germany personnel currently take part in nine international missions, including more than 3,000 in Afghanistan, mostly working on training local security forces.

Taking up the slack

Steinmeier said in Munich that with Europe increasingly hemmed in by conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, "Germany, with all its diplomatic, military and aid capacity cannot stand by when its help is needed".

It must also hurt German pride to be patronised by old rival France, whose Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius boasted in Munich that President François Hollande has proved he is willing to "do the job" in Africa and now Europe "has decided to come with us".

In global terms, demand for a stronger German and European presence in the world's troublespots mirrors worry about the Americans' growing reluctance to entangle their troops abroad.

"There's a realisation all over the world, including here in Germany, that the United States is withdrawing and is weaker and other countries are going to have to start to take up the slack," said McCain.

There are is also a party political explanation for the bold new German tone. Merkel's third term has begun with a whirl of activity from pensions to renewable energy, and the foreign and defence ministries do not want to be left out.

In the coalition deal between her conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD), the centre left did not get the finance portfolio so Steinmeier needs to beef up the foreign ministry, which lost influence at home and abroad under his predecessor.

At the same time the defence ministry has become the vehicle for Ursula von der Leyen's ambitions of becoming conservative leader for the 2017 election. She has visited German troops in Afghanistan and vowed to make the armed forces family-friendly.

But the president, who was a pastor and rights campaigner in the former communist East Germany, asked in his Munich speech if Germans were willing to "share the risks" with their allies.

The answer is: probably not. In opinion polls just over half of people approve of more engagement in humanitarian missions in Africa but two thirds oppose a bigger overseas military role.

"Gauck is preparing us mentally for the militarisation of German foreign policy," said Bernd Riexinger, head of the Left Party which opposes NATO membership and, like the opposition Greens, represents a strong pacifist strain in German society.

Merkel's conservatives and SPD allies also know that while their former World War Two foes have mostly got over their hang-ups about German militarism, the public tends to look inwards.

Hence Merkel's clear comment to parliament that any Central African Republic mission would "not be about a German combat force", but the Bundeswehr in its familiar supporting role.

Annette Heuser of Washington's Bertelsmann Foundation said Gauck had started a "desperately needed debate ... about a proper, more activist foreign and security policy".

But she cautioned that the notoriously cautious Merkel was "yet to become fully engaged on this issue".