Europe’s Game of People and Politics in Full Swing

It looks very much as if early October will be the time for Ireland’s second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. This is certainly what the ALDE leader Graham Watson assumes after talking with Taoiseach Brian Cowen in Brussels last week. It also reflects recent comments by Europe minister Dick Roche.

An earlier vote – for instance to coincide with European elections in June – could go negative, caught up in a surge of feeling against Cowen’s government and against the background of a worsening economic situation.   Even the delight over Ireland’s rugby Grand Slam victory may have worn off by then!

Europe’s game of politics and people is now in full swing, with the result of Ireland’s new vote a critical factor. Parliament president Hans-Gert Pöttering wants the July 14 EP inaugural session to confirm the new Commission president in the light of the elections outcome, while also dealing with “upcoming legal, political and personnel questions”, which would presumably cover eventualities with and without Lisbon.

At the end of his speech  to the March 19-20 summit Pöttering said that a new Commission must be able to take office before the end of the year. He also had comforting words for Ireland.

Gordon Brown has already expressed British support to Barroso as president of the new Commission (he evidently has no doubts that the EPP will be the dominant group in the new Parliament!). Angela Merkel also seems supportive, whereas President Sarkozy wants no decision until the autumn.

Everyone has their own agenda, but it is classic French policy to make a package of the top international posts. If Lisbon is ratified, there will be two key posts to be filled in addition to Commission President: the President of the Council, and the High Representative, who will have the unenviable task of sitting at two tables – Commission and Council.  It’s no surprise that France wants to keep its powder dry.

NATO does seem to be sorted. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen is expected to be appointed at the April 3-4 NATO summit to succeed Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer when he steps down at the end of July. That’s one contender whom we can take off the list for EU top jobs.

Then there is the British Conservatives’ departure from the EPP. I am intrigued to know whether this will have any impact on the balance of power in a newly elected European Parliament. Will the Conservatives vote with the centre-right bloc?

There’s every indication that the Conservatives will do well in the June poll, reversing the UKIP (UK Independence Party) successes of 2004 and riding high on the Labour government’s unpopularity. They should substantially increase their number of MEPs, although whether they have any chance of forming a new group with the required 25 members from seven countries seems highly doubtful without inviting in some dubious bedfellows.

Cameron’s confirmation that his party will leave the EPP can only be interpreted as a pre-emptive strike against UKIP and the BNP (British National Party) in advance of the European elections. That’s politics. But it will also have a self-fulfilling prejudice against selection of pro-European candidates, which I find a depressing prospect.