Friday, 4 February 2011
An embarrassing day for Ashton and Van Rompuy
This is actually the first European Council (the summits of European heads of government) that I've covered. Since my beat is environment, there hasn't been an occasion so far where the leaders have had an environmental issue on the agenda important enough for me to spend the day here. Today was supposed to be different. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, now one year into his newly created position, called for this summit dedicated to energy last year. But as the European debt crisis has raged on, in the past two months it became clear that the seemingly non-pressing issue of energy security and sustainability was going to take a back seat to the crisis. And now that a revolution is underway in Egypt, by yesterday few were expecting to see anything significant come out of this council in the way of energy - even though that was still purportedly the main subject behind today's meeting.
Sure enough, at noon today we received a very short list of conclusions on energy by the council - and there was little to really sink your teeth into. I'm told the leaders spent just an hour talking about energy before moving on to the Egypt issue. Essentially they just looked over the pre-agreed conclusions and signed off on it. Ah well, it did mean I could file my story earlier and be done with it!
But considering that the topic of energy was basically dropped in order to focus on Egypt, what emerged from the leaders by way of a conclusion on Egypt was pretty weak. A one-page declaration was issued this afternoon, essentially just reiterating the hesitant statements issued so far by the EU institutions. The declaration calls the aspirations of the protestors legitimate but says "all parties" should show restraint and avoid further violence. The declaration stops far short of the Obama administration's effective calls for Mubarak to step down. The leaders offered their support to Egypt in any upcoming "transition process," but such a process has already been agreed by Mubarak when he announced this week he would not seek reelection in September. The resolution will likely do little to deflect the criticism that Europe is simply following the lead of the United States during this crisis, developing no distinct foreign policy position of its own even after the creation of the new EU foreign relations service the EEAS.
So it seems that the new EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton was unable to convince the leaders to commit to a stronger, more substantial declaration. And without all of their their unanimous backing, her hands are tied – she cannot issue an official EU foreign policy position without all of their agreement.
Similarly, it seems Van Rompuy's efforts to make this a summit focused on energy have also been resisted by strong-willed member states. Given that most of this day was spent discussing the Eurozone crisis, the agenda was once again led by France and Germany. Van Rompuy's role seems to be quickly fading into irrelevancy as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy make the decisions about what is to be done to save the euro. This was in evidence today when the leaders broke for lunch and the only briefing was the joint press conference by Merkel and Sarkozy announcing a "competitiveness pact." Here's video below of the press conference they held here at lunch time.
Merkel and Sarkozy are setting out new proposals for tighter economic and fiscal coordination in the EU countries that use the euro. They unveiled their proposal at lunch, and now we are just waiting to see what the other member states have to say about it, along with the other measures for the Eurozone floated by Merkel and Sarkozy. One imagines the other eurozone states will probably give the pact their backing with few questions asked (particularly because some of the most disagreeable member states – Britain, Denmark and Sweden, are not in the eurozone and wouldn't have much to say on this issue). Where is Van Rompuy in all this? You tell me. He certainly doesn't seem to be setting out the agenda. And come 5:30, I can bet that the bulk of the journalists won't be heading to the final briefing by Van Rompuy and Barroso in the press room. They'll be crowding into the elevators to go upstairs to attend the briefings by Merkel and Sarkozy.
Who's really running this show anyway?