Saturday, December 1, 2007

Justice prevails for journalism

Principles before personalities

“Facing the press is more difficult than bathing a leper.” -Mother Teresa, 1990

“The press is the enemy” -Richard Nixon, 1969

The above two quotes sum up the ongoing drama in Europe today. Mother Teresa with humility accepted the fact while President Nixon expressed the inherent fear of being exposed.

In Europe, justice prevailed last week when the European Court of Human Rights upheld the right of German journalist Hans- Martin Tillack to protect his sources. The court ruling ordered Belgium to pay him 10,000 Euro in damages and 30,000 Euro for court expenses. “The right of journalists to keep their sources secret ... is a true attribute of the right to information which is to be treated with the utmost regard,” the Strasbourgbased court ruled in a judgment handed down last Tuesday.

The European Court of Human Rights, which is not a European Union body, said that the ability of journalists to protect the identity of sources “could not be considered a mere privilege to be granted or taken away.”

The judgment also noted that the claims against Tillack were based on “vague and un-sustained rumours” and that the authorities were unclear whether the sums said to have been paid amounted to 8,000 Euro or DEM 8,000.

Welcoming the judgement Tillack told New Europe, “I was very happy about the judgement in Strasbourg, but I’m shocked that nobody in OLAF and the EU Commission seems to want to learn the lesson from that.

“What we need is a full investigation of how EU Commission and OLAF had prepared the action against me and how they convinced the Belgians to act according to OLAF’s wishes.

“The EU-Commission and OLAF still have to learn to accept that press freedom implies that they may read embarrassing news about themselves in the press. In this case, OLAF officials have been caught misleading the European Parliament, Public Prosecutors and the EUOmbudsman. One should not allow them to do that again.”

Commenting on the ruling Aidan White, the general secretary of the European Federation of Journalists said “At last, this shocking violation of journalists’ rights has been rectified.” White had been instrumental in calling for an investigation into the action against Tillack.

The European commission washed its hands off the episode as Johannes Laitenberger, a spokesman for the European commission pointed out that Belgium, rather than the European Union institutions, had been found at fault.

But at the press conference with journalists later, Alessandro Buttice, Head Spokesman, Communication and PR Unit of OLAF along with his deputy defended OLAF actions that saw Belgian police raid the home of a journalist. Buttice also laid the basis of the case on a then European commission official calling that a “qualified witness” who had given them “demonstration” in writing that “probably” an EU official had been paid to provide the information but OLAF had admitted getting its information from a European Commission official who said he had been told secondhand of the alleged bribe.

Defending the action of OLAF as acting on the principle of “zero tolerance,” as “what any police in any EU country will do to transfer it to judiciary” and “after that what judiciary does according to their national laws,” said Buttice, adding, “We don’t have a choice if there is information of a crime.”

During a raid on the house of Tillack in 2004, Belgian police had seized documents, two computers, four portable telephones and a filing cabinet. The authorities had said they were acting on claims that Tillack had paid an official to provide confidential documents, which is an offence under Belgian law. Tillack denied having done so, and no charges have been made against him. Belgium, however, changed the law in 2005 to protect journalists’ sources.

“The law of protection of journalistic sources would not allow these raids now,” said Annaik de Voghel, the spokeswoman of Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx was cited in media as saying. But she clarified that raids were now only allowed at the request of an investigative judge if the information was vital to prevent someone being harmed, such as to prevent a bomb or to find a kidnapped child.

In 2002, Tillack had written a series of articles about alleged financial irregularities at the European Union’s statistics arm Eurostat with headquarters in Luxembourg. Working for the German weekly Stern, Tillack had reported that the OLAF was dragging its feel while trying to root out illegal activities but that set the OLAF on a hunt to trace down Tillack’s source.

Coming back to the articles that provoked all this trouble for Tillack and made other journalists take note of the situation, are yet to see fruits of the toil as no charges have yet been filed over the Eurostat fraud allegations, according to the OLAF. But OLAF announced two dossiers have been sent by an examining magistrate to the prosecutor in Luxembourg, and a separate judicial investigation is still under way in Paris.

The journalists were treating the case as a precedent test of the rights of reporters to keep sources confidential. In replying to a journalist’s question about the future course of action in similar cases of leaks whether the OLAF will investigate the journalist, the OLAF spokesmen said, “If there is a crime or corruption, yes but just for leak no.”

An earlier ruling in October 2006 from the European Union’s Court of First Instance in Luxembourg had dismissed Tillack’s claim for damages, saying it had no reason to get involved. Moreover, the European Union Ombudsman, in a report two years ago, ruled that OLAF’s suspicions were based merely on rumours.

Summing up the comments of the participating journalists at the press conference, Lorenzo Consoli, President of International Press Association put two points in perspective:

First, the journalists were surprised that the OLAF did not clearly welcome the judgement from ECHR and which would have been a way to distance itself from the unacceptable behaviour of the Belgian police in the case of Tillack.

Second, the fact that they were criticised for basing the demand for Belgian authorities to act on the two alleged crimes, corruption and leakage of secrets which were based on only one “demonstration” of one person who was just reporting rumours and was not a direct witness.

The question arises: Why didn’t they go further in depth in internal inquiry in order to substantiate the allegations before involving Belgian authorities?

Last but not the least the journalists demanded that Franz-Hermann Bruner, the Director of the European Anti-Fraud Office should come at a press conference in immediate future to clarify the (OLAF) position on these two points.Belgium is the host of major international institutions like NATO and is capital of European Union with its executive European commission having headquarters along with European Parliament and European Council here and there are thousands of lobby groups.

With the clarity dawning on the case and in the light of new Belgium law passed in 2005, which reinforced the rights of journalists and would not permit this kind of raid today, it seems its time for the OLAF, the Anti-fraud agency to concentrate on real matters of fraud and benefit from writings of the journalist as whistleblowers.

Dimas outlines Bali Agenda: The Earth’s last chance

EU maps climate change plan to halt global warming

European Commissioner Stavros Dimas is in the driving seat of European Union’s leading role in guiding international efforts to combat climate change, caused by emissions of greenhouse gases and one of the gravest challenges facing humanity.

Commissioner Dimas in a exhaustive interview with Tejinder Singh explains his vision to meet the environmental challenges both at home within the European Union and internationally to provide pragmatic and feasible progress with call for new environmental technologies development and promotion throughout the EU.


You must be very happy with the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore as he symbolises the fight against climate change today. What is your reaction?


I sent my warmest congratulations to Al Gore immediately after the announcement by the Nobel Committee. Scientists and politicians have known about climate change since the 1970’s but it is only over recent years that it has risen to the top of the international agenda here in Europe and increasingly in the United States.

Al Gore’s vision of how we can prevent catastrophic climate change has taken us closer towards a global agreement on cutting greenhouse emissions. Any meaningful solution needs a global response and at the heart of this must be the full involvement of the United States.

Al Gore’s work has shifted American opinion decisively and the European Union is already working with several US states to share our experience in reducing emissions. I look forward to the day, which I am sure will come soon, when the US administration joins in this common effort.

With your immediate attention on the upcoming UN climate conference in Bali, will you like to elaborate on your Climate Change Strategy for the EU?

There are two months left for the Bali, Indonesia meeting in the beginning of December about the United Nations’ Convention on climate change. The meeting is of great importance because the European Union expects there to agree on status launching of 2012 negotiations. This is the objective but there are also certain items for discussion after launching of negotiations.

What are the approaches that you have in mind?

Regarding climate change there is a two-pronged EU approach: international part and domestic approach.


The international part is how to exploit up to Bali the possibilities that the EU has in various possibilities in international fora like G8, Plus 5 or the unofficial meeting in Bogor in Indonesia for climate change and various bilateral meetings that the EU has with US, China, India and other bilateral meetings in order to prepare the ground for Bali.

In Bali the EU expects to agree:

*Launching of emissions for after 2012 regime because then the first period of Kyoto is expiring On certain building block elements that the new agreement should contain. These elements are:
* A common goal to be achieved by 2050 for reduction of carbon dioxide. According to what science tells us we need 50 percent reduction in global levels in comparison to 1990. This should be the goal for all members of the UN members of the Convention.

* How much the developed countries will take to reduce? What obligation the participants including the EU will have for the reduction of carbon dioxide after 2012? This will be a binding obligation.

*The participants will ask developing countries to contribute because after a few years fast developing countries like China, India, Mexico, Brazil will contribute more to the greenhouse phenomenon than the whole of OECD countries. They have to commit also that they will in the common but different negotiated way the reduction of emissions. This can be done by reducing the rate of growth of emissions. This is the difference with the developed countries. The developed countries have to have absolute reduction while developing countries have to reduce rate of growth of emissions up to 2020 and this can be done with measures like energy efficiency for example which is going to be good for saving money because they will rely less on imported fossil fuels.

* The fourth building block is investment in more research, in development, deployment and transfer of technology especially towards developing countries.

* Development of a global carbon market and the use of market- based instruments in order to achieve reduction of emissions in the most cost-efficient ways.

* Inclusion of aviation and maritime sectors in the new global agreement.

* De-forestation: to fight deforestation and find ways to promote anti-deforestation measures because deforestation contributes to about 20 percent of global Carbon emissions. It’s very important and at the same time avoiding deforestation is very good for biodiversity.

* Adaptation is very important because climate change is already occurring. We are already about 0.7 percent above pre-industrial times. We have an increase of temperature so we have to take right measures in order to avoid disasters and catastrophes which could be caused by the warming of the planet.

We have seen we have increasing droughts, water scarcity, diseases from neo-tropical disease coming up North for example – Blue Tongue disease first time seen in Britain and this is a tropical disease coming from Africa, went up to Southern Europe and now to Northern Europe. Another example also from United Kingdom is the floods a month ago and the destruction that was caused there.

The forest fires in Southern Europe that we had this summer. In Greece, we had four heat waves which had never happened before.

In Africa, water scarcity and droughts are causing havoc with movements of populations generating social problems leading to political problems like in Darfur, Somalia. Hence, adaptation is essential.


The domestic part is very essential because what we preach internationally, we need to do at home in the European Union otherwise we will not have credibility at the international negotiating tables.

Here we have the energy and climate change package which was approved at the beginning of the current year. There we have set targets 20 percent reduction in the carbon dioxide in the European Union or 30 percent if we have an international agreement by 2020. So we have a 20 percent target to deliver and we have to take all the measures and legislation necessary in order to implement this. The other target is 20 percent renewables target for 2020 and also we have a 20 percent energy efficiency target.

How are you going to achieve these targets?

We have a series of proposals that we are going to bring by the end of the year hopefully.

* Renewables directive which is going to be from Potochnik but it’s very important because if there is an increase in renewables and if a target of 20 percent is reached in the total consumption of energy, it means there will be less carbon dioxide and there will be a reduction in import of fossil fuels: oil and gas.

* Second one is a Burden Sharing Agreement regarding the reduction of carbon dioxide in which it will be detailed how to distribute among 27 member states of the EU. What reduction each country will achieve in order to have a final result of 20 percent reduction.

* Review of emissions trading system, the carbon market that we have established in the European Union which is the instrument by which we achieve the reduction in carbon dioxide and also the instrument by which you encourage investment in renewables.

These three aforementioned proposals are interlinked and support each other. There is a fourth piece of legislation which is called Carbon Capture and Storage. This is necessary in order to enable use of coal without the production of carbon dioxide. For example, in a power station, if one produces electricity from lignite, one gets emissions of carbon dioxide which will be captured, transported and stored in land, say former oil fields where there is space and one can put it there and seal it and it stays there.

Do you have any more proposals in addition to these?

In addition to these four legislations, we already have inclusion of aviation in emission which is in co-decision procedure; oil quality directive which is also in co-decision procedure. Then we are going to have carbon dioxide and cars: how to reduce carbon dioxide emitted from cars by establishing efficiency standards in cars. This can be seen from the point of view of emissions from the car or by the energy used by the car. This is very important as transport contributes 21 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the EU and passenger cars are responsible for 12 percent of these emissions.

We are going to propose legislation which will limit the carbon dioxide emitted from cars to 120 grammes per kilometre by 2012. These are series of measures and there are more like revision of directive on labeling of energy efficiency of vehicles with a label on the car: what is the consumption of the car which is important because the buyer/consumer will be informed about the efficiency of the car and how much they will spend.

What are your objectives that you want to reach with these proposals?

All these are aiming at the following objectives:

* Reduction of carbon dioxide and contribution in the achievement of our targets

* Fuel and energy security which is very important in the EU with less dependency on imported oil

*Less expenses for fuel/electricity for consumers

* Creation of growth and jobs through innovation for example by developing, deploying clean technologies and in this respect, the EU is world leaders for example wind mills and power generation through wind energy and solar energy.

It’s not just cars, but pesticides, nuclear power, biofuels, coal and politics

How much support do you have across the EU for your efforts?

We have full support for our targets and a mandate from the European Council in which all the 27 member states agreed to the decision which was reached in March this year. We also have support in the European Parliament and in the Environment Council.

Of course, regarding the domestic measures and implementation, we are going to have discussions and we are going to take into account the concerns of the various member states regarding their individual commitments, For example, some have doubts about renewables, some have nuclear in their energy mix which other member states do not have, so each member state has its own concerns and its own potential. We are trying to take into account all these concerns so that we will have an equitable solution for all of them. The European Council has given the directions and now the implementing measures are being prepared.

You mentioned implementation and you know that is a tough part. How much optimism you have about this phase of implementation?

We are going to explain to Member States taking into account their views and the consensus already arrived at the European Council in March. We have to reach our targets in a way that will be fair for everybody but I agree that implementation always poses problems.

You mentioned an international part of the strategy. Although the US federal government has not ratified Kyoto Protocol, there are a large number of American cities which are working towards its implementation. Are you aware of this and if there is already any cooperation in this field with them?

In the United States there are several levels, the federal level in which President George W Bush had a conference in Washington of 16 major economies. At the cities level, there is a coalition of more than 600 cities and towns in the US and they are cooperating and taking individual and collective measures to fight climate change at the city level.

There are also states like California and Governor Schwarzneger plus other states like New York and Florida which are taking equally important measures. For example, with California we are in close cooperation as they are planning to establish an emission trading system from 2009 onwards which will be similar to ours and because of our experience and knowledge of emission trading system, there is cooperation to not only help them in setting it up but also to make it compatible with ours. We are also in cooperation with other states on the North-East and West coasts of US which are also planning to launch emission trading mechanisms.

There is great interest at local level and state level and we hope that from the debate and dialogue that is going on in the US, we are going to have better cooperation from federal level as well. There are a number of bills in the pipeline about launching of an emission trade system and very recently the US House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid have written a letter to President Bush asking binding reductions for introduction of a capital trade system similar to ours and also to have more cooperation to bring on board other countries. So we do see a movement going on in US and, of course, there are efforts by Al Gore to raise awareness among citizens about emission trading scheme and negative impacts of climate change. With so much debate in the US, we hope that the issue will come up with concrete measures.

Do you see a shift in the behaviour of EU citizens?

The citizens not only in the EU but also in the US are acting in two capacities: voters and consumers. Politicians are interested in voters and businesses are looking for consumers. This is the reason we have seen the businesses offering greener products because consumer choices are changing. There is a social shift towards greener products and we see it everywhere.

Even your choice of a car was governed with green factors?

Yes, I have a Toyota Prius. In order to get an objective opinion, I asked WWF as they have a list of top ten projects which are top ten products in various categories. I asked them to tell me a recommendation for a car. Using the studies of an environment and energy institute in Germany, they came up with a list and the one that was most recommended as energy efficient and less carbon-dioxide emitter was the car that I got. This is the official car and I do not have a private car as I prefer walking as Brussels is not a big city.

In the energy mix of the member states, there is a thrust on nuclear energy which is talked of as low carbon dioxide emitter but the handling and storage of nuclear waste coupled with safety requirements raises doubts. What is your opinion on the subject?

The European Commission is neutral when it comes to nuclear issue because this is a matter for the Member States to decide how they will compose their energy mix. Some countries do use nuclear energy, for example, France where 80 percent of the electricity comes from nuclear power; there are countries like Finland which are introducing nuclear energy and still some others have nuclear energy but they are phasing out while some do not have nuclear at all. So this is a matter for the member states to decide what energy mix they will choose.

Yes, nuclear energy has problems that you mentioned like what to do with radioactive nuclear waste, questions of safety and security and also decommissioning of the installations at the end of their life span. These concerns have led quite a few member states not to choose nuclear option.

There is a recommendation from the European Parliament to reduce pesticides use in the EU by 25 percent in next five years and 50 percent in next 10 years. How is the European Commission going to monitor it as it seems there is no reference level for present usage?

There’s a lot going on in the field of pesticides currently. The Commission has made proposals, which are now being discussed in co-decision, in particular a regulation introducing new procedures for the authorisation and placing on the market of pesticides, under the responsibility of Health Commissioner Kyprianou, as well as a framework directive and a thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides, under my responsibility. The latter pieces are new in the legislative arsenal concerning pesticides. They fill the current legislative gap regarding the use-phase of pesticides. Their aim is to reduce the risks linked to the use of pesticides and therefore to address negative impacts on health and the environment from pesticides use. They will play a key role in the environmental acquis as they have a significant impact on environmental compartments (ex., soil, water bodies, air) and environmental issues (ex., biodiversity, climate change, etc.) The European Parliament will have its First Reading vote on these proposals on October 22 in Strasbourg.

With farmland moving to energy crops, biofuels, there is intensive agriculture taking over which is set to affect climate change and water management as set aside land is also being used. What are your comments on this development?

Biofuels is a very important development taking place. Everybody forgets what we have said about biofuels and the direction the European Council gave is that biofuels should be sustainable.

When talking of sustainable biofuels, there must be respect for environmental concerns and social factors. Biofuels can be causing various problems like bringing down rain forests to cultivate in third countries because of the demand that will be generated in Europe or elsewhere. If more biofuels are needed, more rain forests could get destroyed in third countries.

Regarding the set-aside land, there is not so much criticism as it is the agricultural land that is coming back but it will require more water and this should be looked into carefully because of water scarcity and droughts that we had. There are also social problems generated by cultivating more crops for biofuels as it means less goes towards food sector thus creating competition between food and fuel thus raising the prices not only in least developed countries but also in Europe. Recently, Italy observed a day without pasta as prices keep rising and even meat prices shot up as crops were channeled towards fuel production. As these problems are felt more in least-developed countries there is a social impact of biofuels. We need to move carefully and bearing always in mind that biofuels should be sustainable, Sustainability has two criteria: environment and social. Sometime ago there was an enthusiasm about biofuels but it’s going down due to these negative impacts.

While looking at biofuels we need to look at the whole cycle of production and look at the positive carbon dioxide and accordingly decide on its sustainability. Some biofuels are really good and they contribute a lot towards better environment.

In China there is one coal-fired new power plant going on line every week. With China saying it needs these to feed its insatiable hunger for energy, how do you plan to engage the Chinese in constructive dialogue to check its impact on environment?

Coal is playing a vital role in production of energy in countries like China and even in some European countries. This is why one of the legislations that we are proposing as mentioned earlier is Carbon Capture and Storage. This technology needs to be developed and commercialised so that we can have production of electricity from coal without the negative impacts on climate. Coal produces normally a lot of carbon dioxide and the fact that these plants are engaged for quite a number of years in future if you start a coal-fired power plant now.

With this in mind, we are encouraging the Chinese to go for Carbon Capture and Storage technology and we are going into partnership with China. There is an EU-China partnership on zero carbon dioxide emission plant which will be established there with our financing and UK financing and we hope it will be up by 2015. It will be a demonstration plant and we are also considering 12 demonstration plants in the European Union as well till 2015.

Interview with: European Enviromental Commissioner Stavros Dimas
14 October 2007 - New Europe, the European Weekly, Issue : 751

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Journalists take a dig at Belgium scenario

Belgium, a linguistically-divided country, seems to come alive after each national election with politicians dragging their feet over the formation of incoming governments and this year is no different. While day-to-day governmental duties are still handled by the outgoing administration of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, the need for the new rulers is increasingly felt to chalk out fresh policy initiatives such as drafting the 2008 budget.

Last week, months since the June 10 elections, surpassing a previous record from 1998, the election winner and would-be prime minister Yves Leterme was still trying to broker a coalition alliance between four main political parties.

With the deadlock grinding on, the media, especially the foreign press corps based in Brussels to cover European and international institutions, came under fire for speculating on the ongoing political tug-ofwar leading to a Belgium split as political divisions between the Dutch-speaking Flemish, who make up 60 percent of the population, and the French-speaking Walloons kept widening.

In a lively press debate titled, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do - Media’s Role in a Divided Belgium,” on November 22, moderated by Aidan White, EFJ General Secretary, the journalists presented pros and cons of the ongoing coverage.

Agreeing on the fact that the balance of power in the country has shifted in last six decades in favour of the Flemish camp while Wallonia lost the competitive edge with the fading of the industrial age’s coal mines, there were different opinions on the hoax News Flash “Bye Bye Belgium” from the public broadcasting company RTBF, announcing the country’s separation as the Flemish region supposedly declared its independence.

Beatrice Delvaux, Editor-in-Chief of Le Soir, called “Bye Bye Belgium” a taboo subject in the ongoing history of the country, pointing out that international press played a major role in bringing out the subject. She stressed that there are social factors in play with a glaring need for reforms evident in the socio-economic fabric of Belgium.

Labelling it as a “gross example of intoxication,” Filip Rogiers, political reporter for De Morgen, wondered if it was not a “quite strange way of starting a debate.” Going down memory lane, Rogiers, who started his journalistic career in the 1990s defined the Belgian state as a compromise historically and lamented missed opportunities of the 1930s to introduce bilingualism.

Nawab Khan, a foreign journalist from India and member of API-IPA (International Press Association) countered that India with different states with completely different languages makes it mandatory for the students to learn three languages: Hindi, the national language; the concerned state language and English, thus bringing “Unity in Diversity” in pragmatic terms.

Michael Stabenow, a Brussels-based correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a member of API-IPA, highlighted the importance of Brussels, the capital of Europe for the international press corps calling it the “second most important place,” after Washington globally.

Stabenow lamented the fact that the international journalists get their quota of local Belgian news from second-hand sources while in the case of the European Union and other international institutions there is availability of first hand news coming out.

On the same subject, I pointed out a lack of press releases from the Belgian government to foreign journalists accredited to Belgian government and it’s a missed opportunity, as in all other countries, the governments make full use of such contacts, updating journalists on ongoing developments with the views of the governments.

The speakers agreed that independence comes from controlling the purse strings of financial coffers and autonomy demands originate in regions with bulging tax revenues, letting political parties play the mathematics of permutations and combinations, but, at the end of the day, the political parties have an obligation to take stands and be the true representatives of what the Belgian population wants.

Belgium’s parliament, including a majority of Flemish representatives, last week rejected an initiative by the radical Flemish Vlaams Belang party to divide the country between its Dutch- and French- speakers.

Earlier calling for an end of the governmental crisis, thousands in Brussels demonstrated for the unity of Belgium’s constitutional democracy.

Last, but not least, it must be reiterated that instead of blaming the foreign media as the root cause of the fallingapart scenario of Belgium, the incoming government will do well to provide first-hand news to the thousand foreign correspondents in Belgium instead of closing the existing channels like “Focus on Flanders”, as it “provided the Foreign press with a timely access to simple translations - in French, English and German - of articles and commentaries from the main Flemish newspapers. It was a useful tool enabling foreign journalist to have a more balanced view of the reality of the country and the relations between its two main communities,” according to API/IPA.

Euro rally worries EU

ECB to take action; Merkel, Barroso express concern

Money is talk of the town and money, “The social lubricant” with a near free-fall of the US dollar, is sending ripples across the globe affecting all quarters of life. The steady fall of the American dollar against other global currencies and the meteoric rise of the nascent European currency, the Euro, is making financial pundits act and react.

Acknowledging the reemergence of tension in money markets, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced, “To counter the re-emerging risk of volatility, the ECB intends to reinforce in the upcoming main refinancing operation, as well as in the following ones for as long as it is needed and at least until after the end of the year, its policy of allocating more liquidity than the benchmark amount in main refinancing operations.” The benchmark amount is an estimate of the liquidity needed by banks to fulfil their minimum reserve requirements.

“In line with its communication of October 8th, the ECB will continue to closely monitor liquidity conditions, consistently with its aim to limit the volatility of very short term rates around the main refinancing operations minimum bid rate,” the bank in a move aimed at financial markets said.

Reiterating faith in the earlier ECB actions as “effective and flexible,” ECB president Jean- Claude Trichet said, “Looking ahead, and in line with its previous communications and actions, the ECB will continue to steer very short term interbank rates close (to) the minimum bid rate.”

Commenting on the strength of the Euro becoming a problem for some European exporters, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told N24 television on November 22 that the strong Euro and high oil prices pose a risk to the country’s economy — Europe’s largest. “We are pleased that Europe has a strong currency, but this obviously also creates problems for exports,” she said adding, “We are working on an international level to balance currency imbalances reasonably.”

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso echoed her sentiments last week. Speaking on the side lines of an EU-ASEAN Summit in Singapore, Barroso said, “It’s true that the very strong Euro is becoming a concern to some export sectors in some parts of the European economy.”

The European Commission this month cut its forecast for 2008 Eurozone economic growth to 2.2 percent from 2.5 percent.

In related fallout in the industry, Airbus CEO Thomas Enders said the Euro has now “crossed the pain threshold” and that the rate of the dollar’s fall “hardly leaves room for reasonable adapting.” “That is lifethreatening,” he was quoted by Der Spiegel magazine as telling the company worker’s council in Hamburg on November 22.

Although the company is expecting a record number of orders, it still must reckon with “tremendous losses,” he said. But the German economics ministry reacted the next day saying it is up to the aircraft maker Airbus and not the government to estimate the impact of the strong Euro on the company’s performance. “Only the company itself can assess how threatening such a development is for the company,” said an economics ministry spokeswoman. “Only the company can say to which degree the Euro has contributed to its development.”

Moreover, there is a flip side of the strong Euro as was pointed out by Merkel’s deputy economics minister. The rising Euro is damping the effect of rising oil prices, noted Bernd Pfaffenbach, who is also Merkel’s advisor on the Group of Eight industrial nations’ issues.

Recalling the worries during the birth of the European currency that Euro will even stay weaker than the Deutsche Mark, Pfaffenback welcome the news that China has announced plans to shift its currency reserves into Euro adding, “This shows a growth in faith in the European currency.”

Although burdened with strikes and transport chaos at home and silent directly on the rising Euro, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was about to address the currency issue during talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing.

According to media reports, a senior French official was cited as saying that Sarkozy will make proposals for an “equitable and fair” relationship among four major currencies - the US dollar, Euro, Japanese Yen and Chinese Yuan.

The common currency for the 13-nation Eurozone is hovering close to the USD 1.50 mark against the American dollar, breaking all records.

Bakoyannis’ pragmatic ideas

Greece paves way for European prospects of Western Balkans

The citizens of the Western Balkans need a specific vision to feel welcome into the fold of the European Union while the concerned governments need to embark on specific road with a goal none other than the EU, according to a Greek package with five specific proposals on giving a new impetus to the European course of Western Balkan countries.

After presenting the proposals to the European Union’s General Affairs Council in Brussels on November 19, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis said that Greece took the opportunity of tabling a very specific new initiative on the European prospects of the Western Balkans. She said that the time is very difficult for the Western Balkans and there is an urgent need for a specific vision and a specific goal than can be none other than the European vision.

Calling on the governments of 27 member states and the executive arm, the European Commission to explore the possibility to charter a path of specific moves to implement the Greek proposals, the Greek foreign minister stressed the need to convey a loud and clear welcome message to all the people of the Western Balkans.

“We believe that we will be having the possibility of discussing this proposal in more detail in December at the EU summit,” she said. Bakoyannis added that the initial response by her European counterparts, and by Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, was very positive. “We all realise that it is a difficult period that requires a substantive, aggressive and effective European policy on this issue,” she said.

Recalling that in 1999, Greece had formulated a comprehensive policy, the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) and in 2003, the Thessaloniki Agenda took it a step further along the elements inspired by the enlargement process, the Greek Foreign minister Bakoyannis reiterated the need to take “some new courageous decisions on the Western Balkans.”

Lamenting today’s EU accession prospect for the Western Balkans appearing distant and even uncertain, Bakoyannis said, “A clear prospect of membership is the most important and perhaps the most effective tool at out disposal, to help the countries of the Western Balkans overcome state weaknesses and political, social and economic challenges, and catch up with the rest of Europe.”

Answering journalists’ questions, Bakoyannis said, “We need to send a positive message to the whole region that they are not left alone there and we must do it by giving practical and tangible signals.” “We need to have a specific road map for moving from today’s position to further.”

Presenting the fivepoint proposal package also nicknamed “Thessaloniki II” to the journalists, George Koumoutsakos, spokesman of Greek foreign ministry summarised it as follows:

- Within this framework and as a first step, the EU should immediately sign Stabilisation and Association Agreements with Serbia and at the earliest with Bosnia Herzegovina: the two countries remaining within which internal problems haven’t permitted such a positive step so far

- Serbia, in the first place, followed by the rest of the countries that would have a SA Agreement but no candidate status, should be encouraged to apply for membership. The Commission could present the avis on the application in the fall of 2008. The December European Council of 2008 could decide about granting the candidate status to any applicant country

- A date for the start of Accession negotiations will be decided later on, depending on the progress on fulfillment of specific benchmarks that will be set. Any additional step in the accession process will depend on each country’s progress in meeting the specific and tailormade requirements set by the EU in full application of the principle of conditionality

- However, in order to have, through the European perspective, the effect we desire, we should combine it with measures that would translated this perspective into something practical and tangible for the peoples of the region. Something that corresponds to their basic requests. Already in Thessaloniki we declared, “We were aware of the importance the peoples and governments of the region attach to the perspective of liberalisation of the visa regime.” We had promised to help the countries to deal with these issues to make such a move possible. Following the visa facilitation agreements, that we signed this year, the EU should not provide the countries of the region with a road mal that would eventually lead to the visa liberalisation: A series of concrete and measureable benchmarks and an outline of the necessary steps with an indicative timetable

- Additional financial resources will also be necessary. Within out actual budgetary obligations, we should make full use of the “principle of flexibility” in order to guarantee that any additional available fund will be directed, as a priority, to the region of the Western Balkans. Furthermore and in the light of the net financial perspectives, we should explore all possibilities that would allow a substantial increase of aid, in an effort to meet the increasing needs and serve our own priorities, in this sensitive region at this very delicate of time.