Between a Rock and hard woman in Brussels
Gordon Brown is in Brussels today. Some are saying “about time too”.
As Chancellor, Mr Brown was known for his distinct lack of enthusiasm for coming to meetings here, and a marked tendency to lecture people on how to run their economies when he did.
As Prime Minister, he’s done little to dispel either perception. But this time he might find himself between a Northern Rock and a hard place: on the receiving end, if not of lectures, of stern looks and careful listening from a woman know as Nickel Neelie.
Mr Brown has been to Brussels as Prime Minister. It was directly after the signing of the Lisbon treaty, which he managed to miss by a few hours.
He hasn’t made a trip since then. Quite a contrast to Merkel and Sarkozy, who arrived within a day of becoming leaders of their respective countries.
Those with Britain’s interests at heart point out this is not a matter of respect, or kowtowing to those at the heart of the European Empire, but of Britain punching its weight.
Brown’s views on the economy are pretty much in line with those of the President of the Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and the majority of the commissioners.
But there are those, notably President Sarkozy of France, who want a little less free trade and a little more European Patriotism or, as we used to call it, economic protectionism: perhaps taxation and trade barriers to protect European goods, and not even the sort of cross-border competition within the EU that threatens big French firms on their home ground.
One commission official who feels the visit is welcome but very overdue told me that there was a need for Gordon Brown to “pull on the rope from the other end” and provide vital life support for the commissioners who feel under pressure.
They see Brown speaking up for this economic agenda as “real and important” and they want more of it and hope this is a new beginning.
But those close to President Barroso disagree that Brown has been disengaged in policy terms. He held a meeting with Merkel, Prodi, Sarkozy and Barroso in Downing Street last month and they felt it was pretty useful.
They’re not rude enough to put it like this but the impression I get is that they feel Brown is a little politically clumsy about the niceties; absent when he should be present, most notably at the signing of the Lisbon treaty; relying on officials who seem to have two modes, neither of them very attractive.
They are seen to either hector and lecture, like Mr Brown in his days at the finance ministers’ meetings, or come over all tight-lipped and taciturn, perhaps also faithfully reflecting their master’s voice.
Fly on the wall
It sounds as if the meetings will be packed.
First, his old chum, Peter Mandelson. The two men loathe each other so I would love to be a fly on the wall, watching body language rather than listening to their accord that the Doha trade round has to be brought to a successful head.
Then Barroso. There will be some discussion of the role the European Union can play in failing states and world crisis. Brown thinks that the EU can fill a gap providing civilian advice and police backup.
This fits neatly with the view among some top brass in Brussels that while the UN can keep the peace, and Nato can kick ass, the EU can do both and the bits in-between.
There will be quite a lot on international development, one of Brown’s real passions, and where the EU spends serious money.
But top priorities are the environment and the economy. Fine details of the commission’s plans to give the lead in cutting greenhouse gasses are being nailed, rather painfully, in place and the Prime Minister may have suggestions about a European carbon bank.
But it’s real banks that give the most concern.
Politicians all over Europe are not surprisingly itchy about the financial turmoil that could spell disaster for their economies and the end of their careers.
All politicians have a tendency to want to do something, come up with a new initiative, at least to show they are not twiddling their thumbs.
The commission and Mr Brown together are bound to come up with some sort of blueprint, or at least a blueprint for a blueprint.
I expect the Prime Minister will back a plan for two new commission studies to examine whether the EU needs to act.
The commission is particular worried about huge movement of capital from the Middle East. It looks as if they are quite a long way off any concrete plans, but this could be the centrepiece of the Spring get-together of Prime Ministers and Presidents in mid-March.
But the most difficult meeting may be over lunch. It’s with nine commissioners.
Among them, Neelie Kroes, the Commissioner for Competition.
She has a reputation for toughness. The Daily Telegraph describes her as a Dutch Thatcherite. She used to be a minister for the most pro free market party in the Netherlands and is apparently known, not as the Iron Lady, but Nickel Neelie.
I write “apparently” because I’ve never heard anyone call her that, but it is in all the newspaper cuttings.
Whatever her metallic make-up she has given a provisional thumbs-up to the rescue plan, but Mr Brown has to show her the detailed plan by 17 March, to make sure it doesn’t fall foul of EU rules which are aimed at stopping state aid giving companies an unfair advantage.
As apparently it’ll cost each of us British taxpayers an average of £3,500 there ought to be some advantage in it.
But Mr Brown, so keen on lecturing fellow ministers, might not feel so happy having to explain himself, like an errant student, to a tough Thatcherite bureaucrat, who could decide that his wheeze is illegal.