Greece has become wearily accustomed to micromanagers in Brussels and Berlin telling it what to do. Last summer’s Greek bailout sought reforms in some remarkably specific areas, including the weight of loaves and the shelf-life of milk. (Bakeries and dairies were cast as symptomatic of the economy’s protectionism and uncompetitiveness). Read more
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Bar the shouting (and there will surely be some) the Brexit deal is almost done. We’re nearing the moment where the sherpas fade into the background, leaving their leaders to reach the summit when they gather in Brussels on Thursday. An agreement is pretty certain, clearing the way for a June EU referendum. But there are some Brussels beartraps still to avoid — and they’re not all obvious. One issue in particular could be a killer. Read more
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One side-effect of “crisis Europe” has been a surplus of bombastic political rhetoric. In a crowded field Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, stood out when likening the EU to the fall of the Roman Empire. Hungary’s Viktor Orban touched a nerve with his “no road back from a multicultural Europe” speech, which in turn built on his warning over the bloc “staggering towards moonstruck ruin”. And of course Fico is Fico. Read more
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Greece is not in Dublin. While this fact is pretty basic geography, it is also a crucial part of understanding why the EU’s response to the refugee crisis has been so chaotic. Read more
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© Getty Images
There are three existential issues stalking the EU: the eurozone financial crisis, the migration crisis and a (potential) Brexit crisis after the UK’s EU referendum. Each one poses potentially acute but largely distinct challenges. But is there a risk of a “perfect storm” bringing these crises together?
Greece is facing the brunt of two traumas. While the threat of Grexit from the eurozone has receded, hard fiscal decisions remain, especially over pensions. The political consensus in Greece is extremely fragile. And the potential for a nasty backlash will increase if worst-case scenarios on Schengen and migration play out. In the event that northern Europe panics and closes Macedonia’s border (hardly an improbable scenario), the social and political burden on Greece will be immense. Read more
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Once more to the breach, dear friends. Angela Merkel will be back in Turkey today for her second visit in five months. To put this in perspective, the German chancellor had been twice in five years before the migration crisis hit. And it is only five days since she last met Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish premier. This is urgent business.
Turkey is the lynchpin of Ms Merkel’s migration strategy and it is floundering. Even with rough seas, arrivals to Greek islands are still running at roughly 2,000 a day. With spring (and German state elections) approaching, there are just weeks left to avert a migration surge that forces Ms Merkel’s hand. That would leave November’s EU deal with Turkey – including bold promises of visa liberalisation and €3bn in funding – all but stillborn.
It took a while, but the penny has dropped in Ankara. Read more
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Mr Renzi, left, during his visit last week with Germany's Angela Merkel in Berlin
Sometimes it seems not a day goes by without Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, picking a fight with Brussels. For a while, it was his angry denunciation of its slow response to the refugee crisis. Then he accused the EU of a “double standard” on Russian gas pipelines. More recently, he held up a €3bn EU aid package to Turkey. And he’s been blaming new EU rules for his country’s mounting banking crisis. But the most critical fight he’s been waging was on full display yesterday: his attempt to get more wiggle room for Italy’s 2016 budget.
Pierre Moscovici, the European Commission’s economic chief, was the man in the firing line this time, since yesterday was his semi-regular appearance to unveil the EU’s latest economic forecasts. In the run-up to Mr Moscovici’s announcement, Pier Carlo Padoan, the Italian finance minister, laid down his marker: he wanted a decision quickly that would allow Rome more flexibility to spend a bit more than EU rules normally allow. But Mr Moscovici was having none of it. Mr Padoan would have to wait until May for a decision, along with every other eurozone minister.
In what appeared a fit of mild Gallic pique, Mr Moscovici also noted that “Italy is the only country in the EU” that had already been given special dispensation under new budget flexibility guidelines – it is able to miss its structural deficit target by 0.4 per cent in order to implement Brussels-approved economic reforms – and it was now coming back repeatedly for more. Read more
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Mr Kenny with Irish president Michael Higgins after formally dissolving parliament Wednesday
To date, no eurozone leader who has guided his country through a bailout has emerged politically unscathed on the other side. Portugal’s Pedro Passos Coelho was deposed as prime minister in November after inconclusive general elections. Earlier last year, Greece’s Antonis Samaras suffered a similar fate at the hands of leftist Alexis Tsipras. And Spain’s Mariano Rajoy is looking increasingly unlikely to win back the premiership in Madrid after informing King Felipe VI this week that his coalition-building efforts were going nowhere. Can Enda Kenny end the losing streak?
The Irish prime minister asked for parliament to be dissolved yesterday, setting the stage for a three-week sprint to election day on February 26. Mr Kenny is already touting his economic record, and to any outsider, that would seem to be enough to put him over the top. Ireland is expected to be the fastest-growing economy in the EU in 2016, which would be the third year running. Its unemployment rate of 8.6 per cent, while still high, is lower than the eurozone average and well below the 14.7 per cent rate when Mr Kenny assumed office in 2011.
Despite that record, opinion polls have stubbornly shown his Fine Gael party unable to get much above 30 per cent, a good-sized decline from the 36 per cent they took in the last general election. More troublingly for Mr Kenny is the demise of his coalition Labour party, which has seen its support cut in half. Without Labour, it’s unclear who Fine Gael would go into coalition with – which could produce a similar result to that faced by Mr Rajoy and Mr Passos Coelho, who emerged from their elections atop the largest party, but one too small to cobble together parliamentary majorities. Read more
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Donald Tusk, left, arrives at Downing Street for dinner with David Cameron on Sunday
There is a time in every EU policy debate when the technical becomes the political. That’s what happened yesterday when, after months of painstaking work by some of London and Brussels’ most seasoned mandarins, European Council president Donald Tusk published a 16-page “New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union”. The EU’s political leaders now have two weeks to decide whether they will sign onto the deal before a high-stakes summit where the agreement is to be finalised.
For those following the debate closely, there were few surprises. Critically, Mr Tusk’s proposal includes an “emergency brake” that will allow David Cameron, the British prime minister, a four-year limit on benefits to newly-arriving EU migrant workers – at least for a while, since how long he can keep that brake engaged remains to be negotiated. Also left unclear is the efficacy of a second “emergency brake” that would allow London to force eurozone decisions onto the agenda of an EU summit. How and when that brake can be pulled is a sticking point with France, which wants to make sure Britain cannot veto further eurozone integration efforts.
But by in large, the substantive fight is over and things now move into the realm of the political, both inside Westminster and in other EU capitals – most of which got their first look at Mr Tusk’s draft at the same time as the rest of the world. In London, the political hothouse that always develops over Europe heated up quickly. Even within Mr Cameron’s own cabinet, there were grimaces – and open challenges – among known euroceptics like Chris Grayling, leader of the House of Commons, and Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary. Avowed Brexiteers were less constrained. Steve Baker, leader of the Conservatives For Britain group, accused Mr Cameron’s Europe minister of being “reduced to polishing poo”. The reviews were about as kind in Britain’s popular press. The cover of the best-selling Sun tabloid shouts this morning: “Who do EU think you are kidding Mr Cameron?” The equally influential Daily Mail calls the renegotiation deal “The Great Delusion!” on its cover. Read more
Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s energy commissioner, will have to choose his words carefully next week.
On February 10, he will release the European Commission’s long-awaited “gas package”, and he must manage expectations among an unusually varied bunch of interests. There are eastern Europeans who want assurances that they will be safer in the face of any supply cut by Russia. The Norwegians need comforting too, looking for signs that there will still be EU demand for their gas in the years ahead. Environmentalists want Brussels to stress that the longer term trajectory is a greener, more efficient continent burning less gas.
According to an early draft of the plan seen by Brussels Blog, there appears to be a little bit for everybody – but not yet enough to keep everybody happy. Take Norway. It wants to want to maintain its status as the EU’s favourite gas provider. But their companies need assurances that Europe has a long-term appetite for gas at a time they’re looking to invest in infrastructure in the Barents Sea, above the Arctic circle. Just in case the message wasn’t getting through, Oslo wrote to Mr Arias Cañete about the issue again last week. Read more
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For most of Europe, the sharp decline in oil prices since the summer has been an economic boon, lowering costs for everyone from energy-intensive manufacturers to run-of-the-mill consumers. But the one place in Europe where the free-fall has been no boon at all has been the Kremlin treasury, where oil and gas sales account for more than half of revenues. Already, Russian officials have announced a 10 per cent cut in spending for this year’s budget, and have toyed with the possibility of aggressively hedging against future losses. Now comes word that President Vladimir Putin may be putting pressure on seven of Russia’s largest state-owned companies – including energy giant Rosneft and airline Aeroflot – to at least partially privatise as a way to raise funds. Read more
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It’s been a rough few months for US tech giants doing business in Europe. Apple is fighting a rearguard action to prevent EU competition authorities from ordering it to pay billions of back taxes to Ireland; Google has been accused by Brussels of abusing its dominant position in internet searching; and Facebook has faced a series of legal setbacks over its data privacy policies. Unless EU and US negotiators can sew up a deal in the next 24 hours, add another item to that litany: the disappearance of the legal agreement that has allowed tech groups to seamlessly move data on customers back and forth across the Atlantic.
In reality, that legal structure disappeared four months ago, when the European Court of Justice struck it down following disclosures by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that, the court ruled, meant the US wasn’t living up to its side of the “safe harbour” agreement — which is based on the assumption that privacy practices are relatively the same in both jurisdictions. But while the ECJ ruling came in October, European data protection agencies decided to give EU and US authorities to the end of January to strike a new “safe harbour” deal. In the interim, companies that regularly transfer personal data — be it payroll information or your latest posts on Facebook — were left in a legal limbo. They were not quite sure if their alternative measures would would suffer the same legal fate as safe harbour.
European Commission and US Commerce department negotiators spent most of a drizzly Sunday in Brussels attempting to strike a deal, but here we are on February 1 and none has been reached. Although the deadline has officially passed, negotiators can actually use today for one last push.Europe’s national data privacy authorities (DPAs) won’t meet until tomorrow to decide on their next steps. But absent a “safe harbour” deal, this meeting could trigger hunting season for the more adventurous DPAs, who will look to the US West Coast for some big game. Read more
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Mr Cameron and Mr Juncker at the prime minister's official country residence last year
David Cameron, the British prime minister, is due in Brussels today for a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker – a session so important that he cancelled a trip to Denmark and Sweden in order to sit down with the European Commission president in person. The two men have a famously difficult relationship – Mr Cameron actively opposed Mr Juncker’s election as president, and was one of only two leaders to vote against him at a 2014 summit. But it’s less than three weeks before a high-stakes EU summit where Mr Cameron hopes to get a renegotiation deal that changes the UK’s relationship with Europe. So Mohammed must go to the mountain.
For months, the main sticking point in the British renegotiation talks – which have taken Mr Cameron on a grand European tour from Berlin to Bucharest – has been benefits for EU workers in the UK. Mr Cameron wants to prevent EU migrants from receiving in-work benefits for four years, something that would appear to run directly counter to EU treaties’ non-discrimination requirement.
The latest option under consideration is actually one that has been debated for several months – an “emergency brake”. The original idea would have allowed Britain (and other countries) to limit immigration from other EU members if it can prove government services like healthcare or schools were becoming overwhelmed by the strain. As our Brexit watcher Alex Barker reports, the new twist is that the “emergency break” would allow countries to limit work benefits, rather than immigration. In the past, Downing Street has been lukewarm to the “emergency brake” idea, especially since it would likely need vetting from Brussels before the brake can be pulled. But with time running out, and alternate “Plan B” options limited, Mr Cameron may be warming to the idea. Read more
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The other shoe has finally dropped. After months of subtle and not subtle warnings, Brussels has taken its first step towards green-lighting border checks across Europe for up to two years – and pushing Greece towards a de facto suspension from Schengen. The European Commission’s report into Greece’s borders found “serious deficiencies” in how Athens manages its external frontier. Those two words – “serious deficiencies” – are key, since they are explicitly used in the code governing the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone if Brussels wants to dictate new border measures aimed at restoring “overall functioning” of the bloc. As with all EU rules and regulations, the process of moving from what happened yesterday to border checks is complicated and filled with further rounds of back-and-forth between Brussels and Athens. But the Schengen code also makes clear that such a report is the first step. Read more
Portugal's new finance minister, Mario Centeno
The complicated procedure and baffling code words that are part of the European Commission’s annual evaluation of eurozone budgets can sometimes make it seem like Brussels is intentionally obfuscating their views on national budgets.
But under the EU’s crisis-era rules, all spending plans must be submitted for approval by the commission’s economics directorate before they can be sent to national parliaments for consideration – one of the most powerful levers Brussels now had in its battle to get debt and deficits in the eurozone back under control.
That’s why the letter sent to the Portuguese finance ministry this week, filled with jargon and confusing benchmarks, is worth taking a look at. We got our hands on the letter and have posted it here.
Under EU rules, eurozone governments are supposed to submit their budget for review by mid-October. But that happened to coincide with last year’s Portuguese parliamentary elections, held October 6, which delayed Lisbon’s submission for months – nearly four months, to be exact. Its 2016 budget was only sent to Brussels last Friday. Read more
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Apple's campus in the Irish town of Cork
For the first time since the so-called LuxLeaks scandal broke more than a year ago – where documents leaked showing hundreds of multinationals had received extremely favourable tax treatment in Luxembourg – the issue of corporate tax avoidance has suddenly moved back into the spotlight thanks to actions taken by both London and Brussels to begin clawing back millions in allegedly underpaid taxes.
Tomorrow, Pierre Moscovici, the former French finance minister who now oversees tax issues for the European Commission, is due to unveil the latest in a series of measures aimed at cracking down on “sweetheart” tax deals. Mr Moscovici’s task today will be as much political as financial, since his boss Jean-Claude Juncker was Luxembourg prime minister when the LuxLeaks deals were struck and has suffered some political damage as a result.
Alex Barker, who long covered corporate tax issues for the FT Brussels bureau, has tallied up the windfall for treasuries thus far and asks whether the headline numbers, which seem big, are actually that big at all:
The long suffering European taxman is looking for redress. Over the past three months alone roughly €1.25bn has been clawed back from multinationals across the EU, led by the European Commission’s series of cases brought against companies in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, which Mr Moscovici will no doubt tout today. It all sounds impressive. But scratch the surface and an enduring truth becomes clear: tax collectors are usually more hampered by European politics than helped.
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Migrants attempt to enter Macedonia from the Greek side of the border on their way north
In many ways, it is a threat that has more bark than bite. Although Greece has been part of Europe’s Schengen bloc since 2000, it has the almost unique status of sharing no land border with another member of the passport-free travel zone (Iceland doesn’t, either). For that reason, suspending Greece from Schengen would probably have no direct effect on the unrelenting influx of refugees from Turkey’s shores into Germany and points north. Although the noise surrounding such a suspension has risen in recent days, only those who fly from Athens into the rest of Europe would find their travel disrupted, and there are not many migrants who have been lining up at the Aegean Airlines ticket desk to book an aisle seat to Munich. (The price of a plane ticket may actually be cheaper, but this video explains why refugees can’t fly commercial.)
That’s why newfound support for EU aid to Macedonia so it can beef up its border defences with Greece has suddenly become the hot topic within many interior ministries and the European Commission. It would achieve what governments up north have long wanted – to keep refugees inside Greece, where they can be processed and, if they qualify, relocated across the EU – while not broaching the politically toxic topic of Schengen expulsion.
In a letter sent yesterday, Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, gave his full-throated support to the Macedonia plan: “I welcome your suggestion,” Mr Juncker wrote to Miro Cerar, the Slovenian prime minister who has been driving the concept. Although legally, Brussels itself cannot currently send such aid to a non-EU member, Mr Juncker said individual member states should “support controls on the border with Greece through the secondment of police/law enforcement officers, and the provision of equipment.” Read more
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Spain's King Felipe VI, left, receives Mariano Rajoy on Friday amidst coalition talks
At the height of the eurozone crisis, it almost seemed on Brussels summit days that the EU gathering itself was not the most important meeting in town. Many focused instead on the pre-summit gathering of Europe’s centre-right political family, known as the European People’s party (EPP).
For a time, that assembly included not only the leaders of the Franco-German power axis (Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy), but also of the eurozone’s two other large economies (Spain’s Mariano Rajoy and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, and then Mario Monti). Almost every country under siege was there, too, including Portugal (Pedro Passos Coelho), Ireland (Enda Kenny), Cyprus (Nicos Anastasiades) and of course Greece (Antonis Samaras). For good measure, two of the most important non-eurozone countries were also represented (Poland’s Donald Tusk and Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt).
But after another weekend of fast-moving developments in Spain, when Mr Rajoy essentially gave up on his efforts to retain the premiership, that lineup could easily be reduced to Ms Merkel and a handful of leaders viewed either as quasi-pariahs (Hungary’s Viktor Orban) or far from the EU’s main power centres (Mr Anastasiades, Mr Kenny and Bulgaria’s Boyko Borisov). Read more
Mr Moscovici, right, chats with Mr Juncker. He will present the new tax measures next week.
Next week, the European Commission will take its latest step in its ongoing quest to move beyond the LuxLeaks corporate tax avoidance scandal that has periodically dogged President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s tax policy chief, is set to unveil a flurry of proposals aimed at tackling so-called base erosion and profit shifting: in other words the aggressive tactics used by multinationals to shrink their tax bills by as much as possible. This morning, we’ve done a story about the new proposals, which we obtained. But we’ve also now posted them here for others to read.
The so-called LuxLeaks revelations emerged shortly after Mr Juncker became commission president in November 2014, and dogged his early days in office. They documented how during his two decades as Luxembourg prime minister, up to 340 multinational companies, ranging from Ikea to Pepsi, funnelled profits through the tiny country to lower their tax bills to as little as 1 per cent.
The commission has embarked on a wave of regulatory changes to close loopholes, including making a renewed push for the longstanding EU goal of having a common consolidated corporate tax base for companies. It is also pursuing high profile competition cases against tax deals Luxembourg and others struck with multinationals such as Apple, Amazon and Fiat.
Most recently, the European Commission ordered Belgium to recoup about €700m from 35 multinational companies that have benefited from the country’s generous fiscal incentive scheme.
Mr Moscovici’s plans, which are outlined in a 13-page summary posted here, enshrine international agreements reached by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development into EU law, and in some cases go even further – notably when it comes to restricting the ability of companies to shift of profits from parent companies to lightly taxed subsidiaries. Read more
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Amid the doom and gloom surrounding the eurozone’s continued inability to shake off the funk that set in after the sovereign debt crisis started six years ago, policymakers have recently been able to latch on to a bit of sunshine that Brussels has dubbed “temporary tailwinds”. These “tailwinds” are not the kind of good news normally associated with a strong economic recovery, such as companies expanding or workers’ wages increasing. Instead, they’re called “tailwinds” because they make it easier for those things to start happening – a little wind at the back of those thinking about investing in a new plant or hiring more people.
For the eurozone, these tailwinds take three forms: lower oil prices, which fatten the wallets of consumers and energy-intensive industries; a weak euro, which makes European products cheaper to sell overseas; and “accommodative” monetary policy, which lowers interest rates and makes it cheaper for investors to borrow money and build things.
There’s nothing much EU policymakers can do to affect the price of oil, though lifting Iranian sanctions has contributed to the perception the world is now awash with supplies. But yesterday Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, did a whole lot for the other two “tailwinds” with just a few sentences of central-bank-ese. First, he described “heightened uncertainty about emerging market economies’ growth prospects, volatility in financial and commodity markets, and geopolitical risks” – by which he mostly meant recent market upheaval in China. He also noted that eurozone inflation, which is supposed to be running at about 2 per cent each year, remained “weaker than expected”. Then he unleashed the sentence that got everyone really excited: “It will therefore be necessary to review and possibly reconsider our monetary policy stance at our next meeting in early March.” Which means that his already-accommodative monetary policy is likely to get even more accommodative in just a few weeks. Read more