SKETCH: FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE EU’s TOWER OF BABEL.

A timely Irish warning so often ignored

Squabbling while Europe drowns

One of the early 1960s movie epics had an end sequence in which Roman Senators squabbled about how to run the empire. As the camera moved above their heads and tracked backwards, the Ostrogoths were visible breaking through from the Roman suburbs. It’s a bit like this in the EU’s corridors of power at the moment.

Berlin spoke out yesterday about the lack of progress by Council President Herman Van Rompuy and his taskforce for economic governance. The is bad news for Rompuy, as the Germans have been his strongest allies until now. But Deputy German Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer told the media, “This dossier is too important to be treated on the basis of nebulous texts.” Germany backs the idea of a suspension of voting rights in the Council for states that break budget rules, which is likely to require treaty change. Britain won’t have any of that.

But Herman himself is occupied with other matters of far greater importance. Insiders accuse him of enacting a “power grab” over foreign policy – by supporting a French proposal to set up a “special task force” on strategic relations that would rival the Catherine Ashton’s new EU foreign office, the European External Action Service (EEAS). Catherine Ashton is due to announce the first 25 top diplomatic appointments and the budget for the EEAS later today. This must be why the Commission wants a bigger budget next year, but they have at last found a supporter: Berlusconi weighed in from his lofty pinnacle atop the Italian 135% deficit Everest to strongly support the budget increase. Urgent negotiations are under way among the Rumpuys to try and get Silvio to shut up about it.

In the light of Belgian negligence, influential German newspaper Handelsblatt reports that the European Commission will separately table a proposal on 29 September. This will demand fines be imposed on member states failing to pursue reforms to boost their economic competitiveness. Italy, France and Poland also have reservations about stronger sanctions. And once again, Britain won’t wear it. Allegedly.

If it’s unhappy with Herman, however, the German Government is mad with Manuel. Rheinische Post describes Commission President José Manuel Barroso as the “expenses king” of the European Commission, noting that he spent more than €730,000 on travelling and representation costs last year. Barroso’s new communication strategy will involve a team of photographers and speechwriters accompanying him around the clock. German FDP MEP Silvana Koch-Mehrin is quoted as saying: “Photographers and a personal camera team for Barroso? That is for me bordering on megalomania.”

France is bordering on some form of reality, but still stinging from the attack on its Roma expulsion campaign. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding yesterday said “this is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War. I am personally convinced that the Commission will have no choice but to initiate infringement procedures. French Europe Minister Pierre Lellouche is quoted in EUobserver saying: “This is not how you speak to a major power like France, which is the mother of human rights”.

He didn’t mention that France also has the mother and father of all deficit problems (the fastest-growing in the Union), but fear not fellow Europeans, for Christine LaGarde is on that case. She says it will be solved by growth, but she has at last tired of making growth forecasts with which the French economy takes issue – and thus turned to wider problems.

Christine now says that the eurozone’s drive for new fiscal rules and sanctions has run into “very difficult” legal obstacles and political objections from non-eurozone members in Eastern Europe. She said that, although there is scope under existing treaty provisions for the 16 eurozone members to draw up their own procedures, “We have the other 10 members asking ‘Why should you exclude me? Why am I not part of the club?’ The whole question of sanctions, the timing and pattern of sanctions, is at stake here.”

Actually Christine, I think most people decided some time ago that the stakes are considerably higher than that – chiefly because the standing of this bloated, pompous suprastate has never been lower. At the last count this looks to me like three different groups all aiming for EU-wide economic governance – but getting nowhere.

Awareness of this was confirmed yesterday when the EU suffered an embarrassing defeat at the United Nations: it pressed for rights already enjoyed by full UN members. Oddly enough, the Council there turned it down flat. Imagine that.