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- Juncker beats rival in centre-right race for EU presidency
- posted Fri, 07 Mar 2014 17:38:35 +0100
The European People’s Party (EPP) nominated Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday (7 March) as its candidate to lead the EU election campaign and become the next president of the European Commission.
Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg, will lead the EPP's pan-European elections campaign following a vote by party affiliates at the party's congress in Dublin.
The former Luxembourg premier won 382 votes against 245 for his rival, the French EU commissioner Michel Barnier, in what the party called “A historic moment". 629 out of 812 delegates had cast their ballot.
Juncker addressed the crowd in Dublin, saying “I’m very proud to be the top candidate for this marvelous European People’s Party.” He will be the EPP’s candidate to lead the Commission for five years in case the centre-right wins the largest number of seats in the European Parliament elections on 22-25 May.
“On 25 May, we will celebrate a victory, all together. We will win these elections,” he told party delegates in Dublin.
Joseph Daul, president of the EPP, said: “In the coming weeks, our candidate will explain our project – we’ll also need you [the national party delegations] to do this. 25 May will again be the date that the EPP will take the lead as biggest party in Europe.”
“We will catch up with Mr Schulz and the socialists very soon”, Juncker said, referring to the short lead enjoyed by the socialists in the latest opinion polls.
Juncker confirms his lead
The centre-right party’s electoral congress was organised in Dublin on Thursday and Friday (6-7 March). 812 party delegates were allowed to cast their vote for the EPP’s common candidate. The German delegation is the largest, with 101 votes, followed by the Italian delegation (79 votes) and the French and Polish (both 68 votes).
Juncker was considered as the frontrunner in the race, as German chancellor Merkel had endorsed him in early February. The Luxemburger also got the endorsements of the third horse in the race, Valdis Dombrovskis, who withdrew his candidacy on Wednesday (5 March) in favour of Juncker.
His rival Michel Barnier had the endorsement of his own UMP party of France, the Hungarian Fidesz party, and the Slovenian NSi party.
Closer than expected
While Juncker clearly appeared to be in pole position, the vote ended closer than expected. On Friday morning, Barnier’s campaigners were busy rallying votes before the polls opened. Both candidates also got the chance to convince delegates with campaign speeches.
“In this difficult period [of economic crisis], we have been the party of responsibility. We have taken the difficult decisions that really mattered,” Barnier told the audience. “I believe we can propose a new horizon to the people of Europe. We need to deepen the eurozone; consolidate the single currency and single market.”
“Today, Europe needs a vision and – if you want – I think I can help deliver this,” Barnier added.
Juncker relied on his experience to convince the EPP members, outlining his long experience of EU affairs and national politics.
“There are more than 5 million unemployed in Europe. Our first job is to give them hope,” he stated. “Europe needs to focus on the important, social questions.”
“I offer my experience, my determination and my enthusiasm,” Juncker said, before winning the vote to serve as candidate to succeed José Manuel Barroso at the head of the EU executive.
No more back-room decisions?
After the Greens, the EPP was the second party to stage a contest for the party's lead position. The Greens organised an online vote for their sympathisers, from November to January.
Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, was the only contender for the socialist party’s top spot. And in the liberals’ race, EU commissioner Olli Rehn agreed to a compromise to let Guy Verhofstadt campaign as frontrunner.
The initiative has been a topic of discussion amongst EU pundits for months now. The treaty of Lisbon empowered the European Parliament to elect the next president of the European Commission, and requires the European heads of state to “take into account” the results of the elections when nominating him or her.
Political parties took the initiative to nominate their candidates within their own parties. The idea was to give a face to the campaigns, they argued, and would overcome the traditional backroom deals between EU heads of state on who leads the EU institutions. But EU heads of state haven’t always been keen on endorsing the parties’ initiative.
>> Read our LinksDossier: The EU top jobs: Who's next?
Enda Kenny, Taoiseach (PM) of Ireland, told EurActiv that he will accept the candidate put forward by the largest party, after the election. “People decide all over Europe and out of that we have our list of candidates,” he said. “I don’t speak for the Council, but obviously when there is a process of selecting the candidates, then that is what follows.”
“If we want to be serious about this – be credible about this – we should stick to the candidates we have now,” Valdis Dombrovskis, former Latvian prime minister and contender for the EPP top spot until Wednesday (5 March), stressed to EurActiv.
Start of pan-European campaigning
With some ten weeks to go before EU citizens cast their votes on 22 to 25 May, the top candidates for the main European parties will start campaigning across Europe.
According to Alexander Stubb, Finnish minister for European Affairs, this could boost voters’ interest in the nation states: “When this candidate comes to Finland, I’m sure most people will know him,” he told EurActiv.
“This is what politics is about,” said Stubb. “For the first time we have these top candidates traveling around Europe, campaigning. They might not incite as much emotion as national politicians will do, but they’ll be well received.”
Televised debates in preparation
The contenders will face each other directly at several occasions in the coming weeks. The European Broadcast Union (EBU) is organising a debate on 15 May; more debates are likely to be held on 28 April and other dates.
The two leading contenders for the European Commission presidency could even debate each other in a face-off, just days before the elections – though parties are divided over having such a ‘showdown’ debate.
Speaking to EurActiv, Jean-Claude Juncker said he envisions “at least two debates” between the two top candidates, which he called “very interesting discussions”. Observers have stressed the need to invite debaters from the right to raise the stakes. But Juncker dismissed such ideas, saying “I have enough debates with the main candidates. And I haven’t received any invitations [to face right-wing candidates] so far.”
- EU blamed for mishandling Ukraine trade pact agreement
- posted Fri, 07 Mar 2014 17:32:54 +0100
EXCLUSIVE / The EU finds itself in the embarrassing situation of having mishandled a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the Ukraine’s landmark Association Agreement, and the new Kyiv government is furious, EurActiv has found.
At their summit held yesterday (6 March), EU leaders decided to sign “the political chapters” of the Association Agreement (AA) with Ukraine “soon”, before the Ukrainian Presidential elections scheduled on 25 May.
But the fate of the signature of the AA itself hangs in doubt, because EU leaders had promised Russian President Putin to overcome “different interpretations and misunderstandings” on this pact, EurActiv has learned.
The European Commission refused today (7 March) to explain why EU leaders had decided to disassociate the “political chapters” of the EU-Ukraine AA.
Commission spokesperson Alejandro Ulzurrun repeated the statement pronounced by European Council President Herman Van Romuy at the end of the EU summit, namely that the heads of state and government of the 28-member Union would sign “as a matter of priority” and “very shortly” the political chapters, specifying that this would happen before the 25 May vote.
But he didn’t give any indication as to when the signature of the AA itself could take place.
Such uncertainty is not without risks. As Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizov recently told EurActiv, Moscow believes that a pro-Russian majority in the country has a chance of winning the 25 May elections. An eventual pro-Russia majority in Ukraine could scrap the AA altogether, or more realistically, call a referendum on its signature, the result of which a pro-Russia government could easily manipulate.
Since Moldova and Georgia, which finalised their AAs much later than Ukraine, are due to sign before the end of August, Ulzurrun was asked if this timeframe applied also to Ukraine’s AA. He declined to respond.
One explanation as to why EU leaders opted to diassociate the political chapters from the AA was provided by Bulgarian Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, who spoke to journalists after the summit.
Asked by the correspondent of the Bulgarian National Radio why the economic chapters of the AA requited more time, Oresharski answered: “They require more time, because there is an agreement between the European Commission and Russia that all economic aspects of EU association are discussed before,” he said.
Oresharski obviously referred to the last EU-Russia summit held on 28 January, where the two sides agreed to pursue bilateral consultations at expert level on the Eastern Partnership Association Agreements, and on economic consequences on both sides.
At that time, Ukraine’s AA was still hanging in doubt, as the then-President Viktor Yanukovich had put it on hold, while the Union had already promised to Moldova and Georgia a signature of the agreements by summer.
Ulzurrun said no expert group dealing with “the misunderstandings” and “consequences” of the AAs had been established as a follow-up to the EU-Russia summit.
The official EU position has always been that EU-Ukraine association is a bilateral issue. But Putin, apparently, has played his summit cards better, if he has effectively been able to keep the EU-Ukraine AA hostage to a working group that could never meet. According to information obtained by EurActiv, the new Ukrainian government is enraged by the situation.
Speaking to the press at the EU summit yesterday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk was asked on three occasions when the signing of the AA will take place. He provided no answer and looked furious.
Ukraine’s top diplomat in Brussels recently said that his country wanted to sign the AA and the accompanying Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) on the occasion of the 20-21 Spring EU summit. But the Commission mysteriously said “pedagogical work” was needed first, to counter the campaigns that had been conducted in the country to denigrate the pact in the recent past.
- Brussels rings French deficit alarm
- posted Fri, 07 Mar 2014 16:12:01 +0100
The European Commission has issued a warning about imbalances in France's economy. But an excessive budget deficit threatens to expose the country to first-time sanctions.
France and Slovenia are the only two countries to have received a specific recommendation from the EU executive on public deficits.
During the presentation of its country-specific analysis of macroeconomic imbalances on 5 March, the Commission has used “a new instrument to attract the attention of two eurozone member states, namely France and Slovenia on the risk of non-compliance with the recommended budget target for this year.”
Already under an excessive deficit procedure, France pledged to reduce its annual budget deficit under 3% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) after having been granted a two-year delay in May last year.
But this week's assessment gives little hope that France will deliver on its commitment, making the Commission recommendation sound like a serious warning.
The French government pledged to reduce its annual deficit to 3.6% of GDP in 2014 and hopes to lower it further to 2.8% in 2015. But in its latest macroeconomic forecast, published on 25 February, the EU executive is much more pessimistic, expecting a deficit of 4% of GDP by the year’s end, and 3.9% in 2015.
Paris claims the difference can be explained by the Commission's lack of consideration of its latest economic reforms. “For 2014, the Commission’s forecast remains surrounded by many uncertainties,” the French ministry of economy and finances said in a statement.
But the view from Brussels is quite different. “The French government has a tendency to overestimate the impact of its reforms and its savings plans,” says an EU expert who argues that the EU executive has already taken into account a number of recent reforms announced by Paris in its budget estimates. Those include the tax credit for competitiveness and employment, and all the implemented reforms except the recently-announced “responsibility pact” which is not considered sufficiently detailed.
The pact was announced by President François Hollande and plans to cut €30 billion of employers’ contributions by 2017.
“We’re looking forward to be able to analyse the details,” the EU economic and monetary affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn said at a press conference in Brussels.
Now that the alarm has been raised, France’s options look limited. The objective of bringing down the annual deficit to 3% of GDP by 2015 does seem not renegotiable at the moment, particularly because of pressure from Germany.
France still has the option of adjusting its effort on structural reforms. “France can possibly offer a new path to reduce its deficit,” an expert concedes. However flexibility is limited, and there is no guarantee that the Commission is prepared to review its recommendations.
In any case, the Commission can now make decisions quickly on the French deficit. Spelling out a new recommendation is one of the options, but the use of sanctions is not off the table. This would be a first under the growth and stability pact.
If the structural effort by France does not comply with the Commission’s objectives for 2013 and 2014, the EU executive is required to make a recommendation to the Council by proposing sanctions. The 28 member states must then approve the recommendation with a reverse qualified majority, meaning a qualified majority of member states have to vote against the recommendation in order to reject it.
On the macroeconomic imbalances front, the Commission pins down 14 member states: Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In three countries, those imbalances are considered excessive: Croatia, Italy and Slovenia.
In France, despite the measures taken to boost competitiveness, “the cost of labour remains high and weighs on companies,” Olli Rehn said. “To meet the competitiveness challenges, France needs to improve the business environment and strengthen competition in services,” the Commissioner recommended.
The EU executive should spell out more detailed recommendations for each member state in early June, after countries submit their mid-term budgetary plans.
Despite tightened surveillance by the Commission, which is calling for “decisive measures” to correct French imbalances, Paris is still under the "preventive arm" of the EU budgetary surveillance procedure. It will therefore not be possible to switch to the corrective arm when the Commission reconsiders its recommendations in June.
Headlines from BBC News
- Stand-off over at Crimea army base
- Fri, 07 Mar 2014 23:47:57 GMT
- A stand-off involving pro-Russian soldiers outside a Ukrainian military base near Sevastopol in Crimea reportedly ends without incident.
- Turkish ex-military chief freed
- Fri, 07 Mar 2014 23:52:32 GMT
- Turkey's former army chief Ilker Basbug is released from prison in Istanbul after a local court overturns his conviction for plotting a coup.
- Sochi ready for biggest Paralympics
- Fri, 07 Mar 2014 10:36:13 GMT
- Russia will welcome the sporting world back to Sochi on Friday when the opening ceremony takes place for the Winter Paralympics.
Europe Headlines from NYTimes.com
- For First Time, Kremlin Signals It Is Prepared to Annex Crimea
- posted Sat, 08 Mar 2014 04:06:30 GMT
- Leaders of both houses of Russia’s Parliament said that they would support a vote by Crimeans to break away from Ukraine, ignoring sanctions threats and warnings from the U.S. and other countries.
- Russia’s Move Into Ukraine Said to Be Born in Shadows
- posted Sat, 08 Mar 2014 03:20:16 GMT
- The Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly as an emotional Vladimir V. Putin acted out of what officials called a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the West.
- Snowden Says He Reported N.S.A. Surveillance Concerns Before Leaks
- posted Sat, 08 Mar 2014 01:43:29 GMT
- Edward J. Snowden said that he initially told officials of his concerns about the National Security Agency’s surveillance operations, but that none “took any action.”
News from the European Commission
- EU innovation is on the way up, but gaps persist, says report
- posted Wed, 05 Mar 2014 12:00:00 MET
Europe is catching up with the US and Japan in terms of innovation, but big gaps between countries need tackling, according to an EU report.
- Equal Pay Day highlights need to tackle gender inequality
- posted Fri, 28 Feb 2014 12:00:00 MET
For the second year in a row European Equal Pay Day falls on the last day of February, marking the fact that women effectively work the first 2 months of each year for nothing, given the stark difference between women and men’s pay.
- EU economic forecast – recovery gaining ground
- posted Tue, 25 Feb 2014 12:00:00 MET
The European economy continues to recover in most EU countries, though at a different rate and strength. However, the legacy of debt and fiscal consolidation from the financial crisis mean the recovery will remain fragile.
Headlines from European Voice
- European renewable energy lobby liquidated
- Fri, 07 Mar 2014 17:38:02 GMT
- The dissolution of EREC after a decade in existence comes as the Commission has proposed to scrap renewable energy targets after 2020.
- Jean-Claude Juncker elected as EPP candidate
- Fri, 07 Mar 2014 15:29:02 GMT
- Former Eurogroup chair defeats Michel Barnier, European comissioner for the internal market.
- No way to open Europe’s borders
- Fri, 07 Mar 2014 13:56:15 GMT
- The United Arab Emirates wants visa-free travel to the EU, but is denying dissidents a chance to travel, says Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch.
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