Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"What's the phone number for Europe?"

Henry Kissinger, who I guess was a eurosceptic, once famously asked when someone mentioned Europe, "Oh, what's the phone number for Europe?" That was 35 years ago. There still isn't a phone number for Europe, as Gideon Rachman of the FT explains below (3/26/10). (And dollars to doughnuts, neither Obama nor Biden have a clue who these two guys are.)

Barroso versus Van Rompuy

At European summits, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that the arguments are all about finding the correct policies or defending national interests. I suppose, sometimes, that is the case. But more often that not, it seems to come down to personality politics. I was struggling earlier today to understand why the French had been so reluctant to involve the IMF in the putative rescue of Greece. 

In my innocence, I thought it might have something to do with a French preference for a “European solution”. But then a French colleague explained to me. It’s simply that Nicolas Sarkozy sees Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of theIMF, as a potential rival in the next French presidential election. So he doesn’t want to agree to anything that might make Strauss-Kahn look good.

There is a similar ludicrous jostling going on between José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, and Herman Van Rompuy, the first appointee to the new post of president of the European Council. In theory, the two men work closely together. In practice, they are shaping up as bitter rivals. 

So, after today’s European summit, aides to the two presidents were busily trying to round up journalists for rival briefings - as each man jostled to show that he spoke for Europe. Now I am at the Brussels Forum of the German Marshall Fund, which is a big transatlantic conference. Barroso is speaking downstairs as I type. Then, over dinner, we get a speech by Van Rompuy. Sparkling stuff, in both cases, I’m sure.

Do these guys have any idea how ridiculous this makes them look? I suspect they probably do - they just can’t help themselves. In the lobby of the conference hotel, I just bumped into some official Americans who had been to see senior people at the commission. They had delicately raised the question of which of the two European “presidents” would represent the EU at future international summits. 

“Oh that’s all settled,” they were told, “they’re both going.” With enormous self-restraint, the Americans apparently refrained from laughing out loud, or banging their heads against the wall. Meanwhile European officials still maintain, with a straight face, that the Lisbon Treaty has “simplified” Europe’s structures.

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