A rare display of EU common sense on the G20

Regular (or obsessive) readers will be familiar with my exasperation at the EU’s inability to rationalize its presence in the G20, G8 and similar loose-knit multilateral forums – this would be much easier to achieve than, for example, altering the EU presence in the Security Council.  During the economic crisis, EU members have gone the other way, with numerous European leaders trying to squash into the G20.  So hurrah for Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso, who have managed to work out a mechanism to streamline their respective roles in these forums:

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU Council chief Herman Van Rompuy have decided who will speak on which subject when they both represent the union at international meetings such as the G20. “The two presidents have decided that the EU delegation will be composed of both presidents in one single delegation. That’s quite normal, as their roles are complementary,” a spokeswoman for the European Commission said during a press briefing on Thursday (18 March).

One of the novelties introduced by the EU’s new treaty is that the permanent president of the EU Council, former Belgian premier Herman Van Rompuy, also represents the bloc abroad in foreign policy and security matters. But in other areas, such as climate change, President Barroso will speak on behalf of the 27-member club. In areas where the two overlap, for instance energy, which is both a security and a commission policy area, they will decide on a case-by-case basis who will take the floor.

There’ll surely be tiffs on these “case-by-case” divisions of labor (and where does Catherine Ashton fit into this picture?) but this is a common sense approach. And common sense hasn’t been the leitmotif of Europe’s attitude to the G20 so far…

Still, the news could have come at a better time.  The very idea that Europe can speak with a single voice on global economic governance has been shaken up by the growing controversy over how to bail out Greece.  A key theme in recent G20 meetings has been how to reform the IMF – but now European capitals are fighting over whether the IMF should help Greece.  The G20’s ability to coordinate the big economies is also in doubt.  This week, the NYT reported on China’s attitude to one G20 pledge:

Last September, President Obama, President Hu Jintao of China and other leaders of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing countries agreed in Pittsburgh that all the G-20 countries would begin sharing their economic plans by November. The goal was to coordinate their exits from stimulus programs and prevent the world from lurching from recession straight into inflation.

The G-20 leaders agreed that the I.M.F. would act as intermediary.

But two people familiar with China’s response said that the Chinese government missed the November deadline and then submitted a vague document containing mostly historical data. These people said that China feared giving ammunition to critics of its currency policies at the monetary fund and beyond. Both people asked for anonymity because of China’s attitudes about its economic policies.

If this sort of thing continues, G20 discussions are going to lose the air of panicked collegiality of 2009, and get a whole lot nastier. It’ll help if the EU has a clear, single line on such controversies… That’s a bit of a pipe dream, given the Greek controversy, but kudos to Van Rompuy and Barroso for a small step in the right direction.