The Law of Unintended Consequences

Blog post by Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs. Originally published on (link here)

At face value, this week in Brussels has so far been dominated by two fairly weighty and portentous developments for the future, namely the antitrust case against Google’s Android to be launched by EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager and, the High Level Meeting on Excess Capacity and Structural Adjustment in the Steel Sector convened by the Belgian government and the OECD in Brussels. Both of which bode ill for the future. But before we consider each of these in turn, let’s tackle the ever present elephant in the room – Brexit and the Obama visit to the UK at David Cameron’s behest to bolster his campaign to remain in the EU.

Strictly speaking, it’s slightly unorthodox to crowbar talk of Brexit into a Brussels column but who are we kidding? Let’s be frank, between now and the result of the referendum: Brexit is the only game in town on both sides of the Channel. After all, this was the week that saw Pier Carlo Padoan, the Italian Finance Minister, declare that ‘’Brexit is a major threat to Europe’’. Even our very own dog-eyed ‘’capo di tutti capi’’, Jean-Claude Juncker, came out bemoaning the EU Commission’s insufferable habit of interfering in the life of the ordinary citizen. And all that with a straight face!

Fotolia_US_UK_EU_flagsThe crux of the Brexit matter this week surely has to be that if the British Prime Minister and de facto leader of the Remain camp, David Cameron, is monopolising the President of the U.S for three whole days, then both gentlemen must have some serious concerns about the direction the Remain campaign is heading in. The likes of Messrs Farage, Gove and Johnson are already smelling blood. Cries of ‘’Frit! Frit!’ emanating from the green benches in the House of Commons cannot now be very far off.

As a self-confessed supporter of the Remain camp, I couldn’t help but worry when I heard Lou Susman, former US Ambassador to the UK, say this week in reference to the President’s upcoming UK visit, that ‘’we want to do whatever Cameron thinks will help him win this vote but of course, it is entirely up to the British people which way they vote.’’ My compatriots outre-manche can be a contrary and bloody minded bunch at the best of times and I am not convinced that David Cameron basking in the reflected glory of President Obama will necessarily have the desired effect domestically speaking. Especially if the President goes into his hectoring professor routine. Brits don’t react well to the wagging finger of foreign leaders as history will attest.

Which brings us back to steel, Port Talbot, state aid and Tata Steel. The week began with UK Business Secretary Sajid Javid coming to Brussels to attend the High Level Meeting on Excess Capacity and Structural Adjustment in the Steel Sector and ended with Her Majesty’s Government declaring a willingness to take a 25% stake in any rescue of Tata Steel’s UK operations. Let’s just hope for the sake of the Remain campaign that EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager is kept busy with Google between now and 23rd June otherwise any untimely intervention on the merits of state aid could edge the UK electorate ever closer to the exit door. But I’d imagine Jean-Claude has already dispatched Jonathan Faull to nip that particular ‘’miscommunication’’ in the bud and make Margrethe an offer she cannot refuse.

As for Google, they seem to lurch from one crisis to the next in Brussels with apparent abandon. If the UK were to exit the EU after the UK referendum on EU membership in June 2016, then you can bet your bottom dollar that US tech companies will face even more problems in Brussels as British MEPs, Commission officials and the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU would no longer be a moderating influence on some of their more protectionist and privacy fixated continental counterparts in Brussels. If I were Mark Zuckerberg, I’d be whispering in my President’s ear before Air Force One touches down in Blighty.

Central Brussels: An Insight into My World

Blog post by Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs. Originally published on the Levick blog (link here)

I live in what is called the Pentagon: the centre of the city of Brussels. Not the EU quarter, but downtown in the heart of what was the medieval city. 10 minutes on foot, on the other side of the canal, is the Molenbeek. From my window I can see Molenbeek town hall in one direction and, in the other, the Hotel de Ville on the Grand Place.

It’s just after 10:40 CET here and sirens are wailing in my neighbourhood and the loud-hailers are sounding on police cars again. It’s been quiet since 9:00. The police seem to be going over the bridge into the Molenbeek in one direction and heading up to Gare du Nord in the other. Police raids I assume, but how can you be sure?

At about 8:30 there was a commotion at the end of the square where I live. No idea exactly what happened; woman screaming loudly in Arabic, loads of unmarked police cars with only the flashing blue lights to give them away whizzing around. Then some police vans arrived and released police dogs out into the streets. Police cars shooting off every which way in all sorts of directions.

After 15 minutes of intense activity, they all sped off and it was back to silence. All I could hear was the police loudspeakers in the adjacent neighbourhood but couldn’t quite make out what was being said.

The raids and cat and mouse game have been going on in my neighbourhood since November with periods of varying intensity. After a few months, you grow accustomed to it and you put your head down, keep your chin up, and carry on. You stay off of public transport and you keep a constant eye on those you love and care for.

Beyond that, what can you do?

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Vox populi, vox Dei?

At the time of writing, prior to the referendum result in Greece being known, an unreal atmosphere pervades Brussels as it swelters beneath Mediterranean skies and those working in government and public affairs struggle to come to terms with the potential ramifications for the rest of Europe stemming from Alexis Tsipras’ shock announcement to call a referendum last weekend.

The adjective ‘’momentous’’ is one much overused by political journalists but this week has been an exception to that rule. Events unfolding this week in Athens and Brussels around the long heralded Grexit, truly have been momentous. Developments are unfolding at such a breakneck pace that the media is having problems keeping up with reporting them as the opposing parties brief and counter-brief against one another as blame is attributed as to who bears ultimate responsibility for the negotiations breaking down.

It’s fair to say that most people in the Brussels village hope that the Greek people ignore their Prime Minister’s exhortations to return a ‘’No’’ vote but sadly that’s only so much wishful thinking.  Time and again since Syriza was elected by the Greek people, it seems that Brussels, the ECB, the IMF and Berlin have consistently misread the coffee grinds when it comes to second guessing Greece and its government.  When on Monday of this week the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, announced that he would travel to Greece to personally campaign for a ‘’Yes’’ vote, one couldn’t help but feel that Brussels still does not quite get it.

For now, the spectacle of a fast approaching Grexit has knocked talk of a possible Brexit off of the Brussels agenda but everyone within the Brussels Bubble knows that the respite is only temporary and more uncertainty lies ahead just around the corner. This week, the only game in town until next Sunday evening will be predicting the result of the 05th July Greek referendum. Whatever the result of either referenda, what does it say about the current state of the EU that the political leadership of two very different member states, feel they have no alternative but to consult their respective peoples on how to define the nature of their countries’ future relationships with the rest of the community?  However ambivalent one might feel towards either Syriza or the Tory party, surely something is profoundly amiss at the heart of the EU if it has come to this.

One cannot help but feel sorry for Jean-Claude Juncker when it comes to having to intercede between David Cameron and Alexis Tsipras, on the one hand, and the other heads of state, on the other. It must be a thankless task.  It all takes one back to the heady days of the inauguration of the Juncker Commission last November when the man himself declared that ‘’unless we get things right, we could be presiding over the last ever EU Commission’’. A claim that seemed overblown hyperbole at the time but, in retrospect, now appears perhaps eerily portentous. Let’s hope not.

Whatever one thinks of Jean-Claude Juncker, one cannot deny that the man has tried hard to embrace change since assuming the presidency of the Commission. The condemnatory tone Juncker adopted when delivering his verdict on Alexis Tspiras and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis this week behind closed doors to the EPP Group at parliament, whilst not diplomatic was a sincere reflection of the exasperation this old Brussels hand feels in the face of the two ‘’upstarts’’’ deliberate refusal to play the classic Brussels game and at least try to do things by consensus.

One cannot help but feel that something profound has changed in the way business is done in Brussels. Lessons urgently need to be learned from the handling of the unfolding Greek saga if the UK referendum is not to inadvertently end in catastrophe. The advice this Europhile Brit would give Mr Schulz would be to please stay put in Brussels and not cross the Channel to campaign however much his heart might be in the right place.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Also published on:

Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off

The last week has been portentous for the future of Europe. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time in recent decades when the continent’s political leaders were faced by so many weighty headline issues competing for their urgent attention. ‘’Europa in seiner schwersten Krise seit Jahrzehnten [Europe in its most difficult crisis in decades]’’ read the Bild in Germany this week. And for once, the tabloid could be forgiven for its hyperbole.

German tabloids are not alone in their angst. Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the President of the Eurogroup, said at the start of the week that the time available for a Greek request to extend the existing bailout package was running out, insisting that ‘’We can use this week, but that’s about it’’. At the end of the week, however, the Syriza government seems no more inclined to extend the bailout package, even despite pressure exerted on Athens by US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Germany vs. Greece: still 0-0

There has been much speculation in the European press that the profound personality clash between German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and his Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, could produce fireworks at today’s (Friday) third meeting of the Eurogroup in Brussels. Considering that on Thursday the German government rejected the letter Varoufakis had submitted to Dijsselbloem on Wednesday requesting a six-month extension of its Eurozone loan programme – instead of renewing the existing bailout deal – chances of a clash are not inconceivable.

What with the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland(AfD) party having won its first seats in a regional assembly in western Germany in Hamburg last weekend and a recent TV poll conducted by ARD television channel delivering a result of 41 per cent of viewers wanting Greece out of the Euro, Schäuble cannot afford to be seen domestically as a ‘’soft touch.’’ Worryingly, from a German perspective, it is no longer clear whether the European Commission and Berlin, as Greece’s biggest creditor, are on quite the same page following events this week.

Friends, foes and forgotten

The rollercoaster negotiations between the new Syriza government in Greece and the Eurogroup might have captured everyone’s attention in the ‘’Brussels Bubble’’, but from Mitteleuropa to all points east on the map, it was the question whether or not the new ceasefire in eastern Ukraine would hold that was more on people’s minds. As ever, the Bild newspaper captured the contemporary Zeitgeist in Germany with its overblown headline on “Der Russe oder der Grieche: Wer ist gefährlicher fur uns? [The Russian or the Greek: who are the more dangerous to us?]”.

Once again German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government have proved to be at the heart of those momentous events as the de facto leaders of Europe since the financial crisis began to bite Europe (if ever there was any doubt). Even more glaring, however, was David Cameron’s absence in diplomatic efforts to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroschenko. Some commentators both in London and Brussels have noted this week that the current Ukrainian and Greek crises give an unpalatable foretaste of what life might be like for the UK post-Brexit, with Britons having to get used to seeing their country being on the margins. In some quarters in Europe, the perception is that Britain has already begun its withdrawal from the continent.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Also published on:

10 years… and counting

There is something about the number ‘10’.  People make top ten lists; the pop charts focus on the top ten; 10 is the number Lionel Messi wears – as did players like Platini and Hoddle.  And for the rugby fans, your 10 is the man that should run the game.  Oh, and the Prime Minister of Dear Old England resides at No. 10.

This month, ‘10’ is a special number for Aspect.  We are now (cue drum roll…) 10 years old.  Difficult to believe if you are part of it, but we have been providing communications and advocacy advice to some of the world’s largest companies facing some of the toughest challenges for more than a decade.

What has changed?  Well, speaking at least personally, we are all a little older, greyer and fatter.  And wiser too, I dare say.  Ours is the type of job where you really do learn, if not every day, then certainly every project.  Not only because every client and every situation is different, but also because the world is a dynamic place.

10 years ago social media did not have the all-consuming relevance it has today.  No-one had ever knowingly used the word ‘austerity’ in public discourse.  The music was still playing so bankers were still dancing.  The world is probably a little less secure, a little more tense, and feels less prosperous than a decade ago.  Half of our decade has been taken up with the worst recession for a century.

But Aspect Consulting is still going strong.  Like every SME, we have our good years and bad – but we are entering our second decade in fine fettle.

On behalf of the management of Aspect, I have many people to thank.  Superb, loyal clients – who are the basis for everything else.  We have been fortunate to work for some wonderful people.   We have also enjoyed the support of some great suppliers and business partners, all around the world.  They too have been a part of this journey.

Our wives, husbands and partners have had to endure those good times and bad times, and they too deserve my recognition.  Only they know how important they are.

But my biggest thanks go to all those who work, or have worked, in Aspect.  One of our staff once signed off an all-office email with the phrase “Proud to be an Aspectonian”.  I am proud of all those who have played a role, larger or smaller, in creating the small, but perfectly formed history that is Aspect.  And I thank them all.

As the saying goes, here’s to 10 more years.  What stories will we tell in 2024?

Author: James Hunt, Founding Partner of Aspect Consulting, on the occasion of Aspect’s 10 year anniversary celebration at the BELvue

Reaction to new Juncker Commission approved by European Parliament

The performance Jean-Claude Juncker put in at parliament on Wednesday was marked not only by his usual deadpan wit but also by a surprising degree of candour when he presented his College of Commissioners and their programme for election; endorsing them to the house as ‘’the last chance saloon for the Commission to bring Europe closer to its citizens.’’ Such candour, however tongue in cheek, has to be welcomed. All eyes will surely then be back on Juncker in December for more forthcoming details about the €330 billion Investment Programme for Growth and Jobs which he said was ‘’so close to his heart.’’

We predict a busy time ahead, in particular, over the next 5 years for Frans Timmermans, Juncker’s Vice-President, who is responsible for Better Regulation and Inter-Institutional Relations given both his boss’s frank reassertion of the ‘’community method’’ to regulate EU decision-making internally and the fact that, externally, public affairs professionals are now presented with a newfangled conduit along which to channel influence at the highest level in Brussels.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Europe’s disquietude lifted but threats remain

Into the unknown

If last week saw the Brussels public affairs community collectively sitting on the edge of its seat in anticipation of Jean-Claude Juncker announcing the composition of his College of Commissioners; this week has been overshadowed by the imminent result of the Scottish referendum. Pundits have fallen over themselves to predict the results of both and many have gotten egg on their faces as a result. The impact on the EU of a potential ‘’Yes vote’’ in Scotland would have been more profound and far reaching for the community than the worst predictions foretold for Team Juncker by even the most ardent Eurosceptics.

A trawl of this week’s news in Europe gives the impression that we are living through a time of flux. Institutionally speaking, member states seem to find it increasingly difficult to react to these challenges in a meaningful and united way. How best to react to the prospect of Scottish independence being a case in point. This week saw Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, going out on a limb to rebuke the Scottish Nationalist case in the media across Europe placing articles proffering dire warnings for the future of the EU if a Yes vote in Scotland set a precedent for Catalan and Flemish nationalists. Not surprisingly, this unease filtered through to policymakers in Brussels.

The near abroad

This week saw the ratification of Ukraine’s association and free trade agreements with EU in the Strasbourg and Kiev parliaments. Yet the 14 month suspension in implementation of the agreement would suggest that something is amiss. The President of the Social Democrats, Gianni Pittella, certainly thought as much when he asserted in parliament that “this delay may be seen as a Russian victory in a Cold War climate.” What is clear is that EU member states are still not united on how best to respond to Vladimir Putin. The community’s lack of unity regarding future Energy Security policy for Europe perhaps being symptomatic.

The threat posed by ISIS to Europe received wide coverage too across Europe, adding momentum, if any were needed, for the EU to pursue a policy on Energy Security that is fit for purpose. The robust approach taken by the government in Kosovo this week who clamped down hard on radicals arresting 15 people, including clerics, allegedly involved in recruitment of volunteers for ISIS, served to underline the threat the organisation poses to Europe.

French and British navel gazing

Whilst events on the periphery of the Europe continue to play out, the attention of two of the EU’s main powerbrokers seemed firmly fixated on domestic concerns to the detriment of all else. France and UK continue to seem much distracted when viewed from Brussels or Berlin.

If the referendum in Scotland did not go its way, then Westminster could have gone into a tailspin of mutual recrimination at the end of this week. There was much speculation in the press as to the fate of David Cameron as Prime Minister if he presided over the death of the Union.

In France, despite the Valls administration recently surviving a ‘’vote of confidence’’ motion, government seems to lurch from one crisis to the next and events seem to favour the rise of the National Front as the Socialist party’s natural constituency deserts it in droves. On the very day that Pierre Moscovici’s nomination as EU Commissioner designate for Economic and Financial Affairs was made public by Jean-Claude Juncker last week, in Paris the French Finance Minister announced France would again breach EU deficit limits next year.

What the future impact will be both domestically and in Brussels of Commissioner Moscovici having to potentially rebuke his own government in Paris for failing to get France’s deficit under control, remains to be seen. Marine Le Pen for one, must be relishing the prospect. If a reinvigourated David Cameron decides to press ahead with plans for an EU referendum, if his party wins the next General Election in UK, then Europe could be in for even more uncertain times ahead.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting


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