Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Wishful thinking

So, according to The Times, the French are mourning their loss of power in the commission. Actually, it is the French socialist party that is making the running on this, with Francois Loncle, a socialist MP complaining that "France is being wiped out in Europe's institutions" – all because Chirac's mate, Jacques Barrot "only" got the "relatively minor" transport portfolio in the commission.

But then the socialists would complain wouldn't they… anything to have a go at Chirac and to cover up their own lacklustre performance as an opposition party. The only odd thing is that the centre-right Le Figaro, an ally of Chirac, seems to be going along with the fiction – but then it is the silly season.

And fiction it is. Transport is by no means a minor portfolio, relatively or otherwise. For a start, the transport commission is in charge of much of the implementation of the Trans European Network, Delors' dream which committed member states and the EU to expenditure of over 400 billion euros over term, making it the biggest public works project in history, outstripping both the Marshall Plan and the "New Deal" in breadth and cost.

This project alone gives Barrot enormous scope for patronage, and access to huge funds, as he is able to dip into the EU's own structural funds and the massive lending power of the European Investment Bank. Not least he can ensure that a sizeable portion of the funds disbursed reach French firms, or consortia with which they are allied, giving aid and comfort to his country's ailing economy.

DG Transport is also in charge of the EU's aviation policy, which means it has the ultimate say over the allocation of lucrative landing slots in the major airports in Europe, with further scope for patronage and horse-trading. And, as head of the DG, Barrot is well-placed to protect his ailing flag carrier, Air France. Then there is shipping, and the commercial port system, in which France has vital national interests.

If that was not enough, the DG is also in charge of the EU's space programme, and is the commissioning authority for the Galileo satellite positioning and navigation system. France has a huge financial interest in these areas, accounting for up to 60 percent of all expenditure on the European space programme, and is anxious to expand EU funding of the sector (see previous Blog). With Barrot in place, the French space industry is ideally placed to ensure that it continues to benefit disproportionately from the generous funds available.

All in all, therefore, DG Transport is a dream portfolio for the French. Compared with the supposedly more prestigious trade portfolio given to Mandelson, there is no contest. In trade, Mandleson has very little control over EU funds, has next to no scope for patronage and is firmly under the thumb of the Council, with the French watching his every move.

Then, in the broader context, the commission acts on a collegiate basis, with every major legislative proposal and policy initiative discussed by the full commission, in the manner of the government Cabinet – which in a very real sense it is. At the meetings, usually held weekly, Barrot can fight his corner, looking after the French interests across the whole range of commission activities.

Thus, to suggest that France is in any way suffering from a loss of influence in Brussels, merely on the grounds that Barrot has been awarded DG Transport, is to underestimate the importance of the portfolio to France, and to misunderstand the way the commission works. The glee with which The Times apparently recounts the story reflects nothing more than wishful thinking. France has done very well indeed, thank you very much and is very much up there, in the running.

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