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No Breakthrough On Climate, But EU Summit Clears Way For Reforms

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) appears to have lost out on the post of first EU president toDutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) appears to have lost out on the post of first EU president toDutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.

BRUSSELS -- As widely expected, the EU summit ended with a whimper, rather than a bang.

EU leaders approved a key concession to the Czech Republic that appears to clear the way for adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, thus paving the way for the bloc to create its first-ever president. Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, emerged as the leading contender.

But the summit was unable to agree on how to share the costs of action against global climate change. Poland led a group of largely Eastern European members who argued -- so far unsuccessfully -- that within the EU, the poorer states must be allowed to pay less.

Germany, meanwhile, resisted pressure for the EU to commit to any specific figure ahead of the Copenhagen global climate summit in December.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt put a brave face on what is effectively his heaviest defeat during his tenure as head of the current EU Presidency.

"I'm happy to say, very happy to say, that we managed today to reach an agreement," Reinfeldt said.

"The EU now has a very strong negotiating position when the countdown to Copenhagen now has started -- a position that enables the European Union to continue taking the lead in negotiations, a position which encourages others to deliver."

But Reinfeldt's words ring hollow, given that there is no agreement on how much the EU itself is willing to contribute, or how that money will be raised internally.

Rebecca Harms, leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, said in a postsummit statement that EU leaders have "shamefully passed up a golden opportunity to breathe life into flagging hopes for the international climate talks in Copenhagen" by failing to "put a clear figure on the EU's contribution."

It will now be very difficult for the bloc to convince other major industrial powers to jointly shell out the $22 billion-$50 billion Reinfeldt said must come out of government budgets around the world come 2020.

Similarly, the EU believes that a "fast start" budget to fight climate change is needed for the years 2010-12 -- but, again, without specifying where the money will come from. Reinfeldt said contributions will be "voluntary."

As a last-gasp effort to reach agreement within the EU ahead of Copenhagen, a working group was created to examine how the "less prosperous member states" could be accommodated.

Czechs, Slovaks Opt Out

Under the deal reached on October 29, EU leaders accepted Czech President Vaclav Klaus's demand that his country be allowed to opt out of the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is attached to the treaty. Klaus had sought the exemption to ensure that ethnic Germans expelled from the former Czechoslovakia after World War II could not reclaim their property in European courts.

The way Klaus forced the EU's hand caused a great deal of consternation in Brussels. After the deal, the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, said an exception was made for the Czech Republic in the interests of the greater common good.

"If you ask my personal opinion, it is clear, I don't like this kind of opt-out. Let us be absolutely clear, it would be much better for all member states to adhere to the Charter of Fundamental Rights," Barroso said.

"But, because we are a union of states and citizens, sometimes, we need to make some concessions and to recognize diversity in Europe."

The last-minute link Klaus made between the so-called Benes Decrees -- the laws used to strip expelled Germans of property rights in the late 1940s -- and the Lisbon Treaty could have caused a wider crisis when Slovakia initially announced it would follow suit and ask for an opt-out of its own.

Instead of Germans, however, Bratislava was concerned about the Hungarians who were expelled under the Benes Decrees. This caused an uproar in Hungary, whose relations with Slovakia are tense over the treatment of the large Hungarian minority in the country. The Hungarian government threatened to block both the Czech and Slovak opt-outs.

In the end, Slovakia had a sentence inserted into the summit conclusions saying the EU Charter of Fundamental rights only applies to "EU legislation" -- which the Benes Decrees are not.

The Czechs got a full-scale opt-out from the treaty, analogous to those negotiated earlier by Britain and Poland. The Benes Decrees are not named in the EU deal -- something highly important for Hungary, which does not want the EU to endorse them, however indirectly.

Battle Over First President

If the Czech Constitutional Court rules in the treaty's favor, which could happen next week, and Klaus actually goes on to sign the Lisbon Treaty -- something that no one in Brussels dares to take for granted, given the Czech president's maverick reputation -- a raft of reforms will be instituted.

Under the Lisbon Treaty, the EU will get its first-ever president. That job now looks increasingly likely to go Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, after former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, from Britain's political left, crucially failed to win the backing of Europe's socialists.

Current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown lobbied hard for Blair, arguing that the EU needs a strong leader with a global reputation.

But Luxembourg's foreign minister, Jean Asselborn -- himself a socialist -- said last night that Blair's close cooperation with then-U.S. President George W. Bush during the invasion of Iraq, when the European Union was split down the middle, basically rules him out for the EU's top job.

"There is a link, and there will remain a link for the coming generation, between Iraq, Bush, and Tony Blair. So its not easy, not easy," Asselborn said.

Brussels sources note, however, that Blair's star was on the wane long before this week, when it emerged that German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not support his candidacy.

Another key EU leader, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, virtually ruled out another top contender, Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, by letting it be known he did not think highly of Juncker's performance as head of the EU's "Eurogroup" -- the 16 countries that have adopted the euro, whose meetings Juncker chaired until early this year.

This has cleared the path for Balkenende, the conservative prime minister of the Netherlands, favored by Merkel. Before the summit, Balkenende was seen chatting convivially with Sarkozy.

If Lisbon is adopted, the bloc will also have a foreign minister -- called a "high representative" -- and new voting arrangements will be instituted that more closely reflect the size of the member states. National veto rights will be rolled back in many areas -- although foreign policy, direct taxation, budget, and defense policy will remain the preserve of the member states.

Many in Brussels see the leading candidate for the EU's beefed-up foreign minister's role as Britain's current foreign secretary, David Miliband. Although Miliband earlier ruled himself out of the job, it's thought he did so in order not to publicly torpedo the chances of Blair, since no one country may hold more than a single EU top job.

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