Late last week, blogs and Twitter accounts belonging to the Financial Times became the latest news outlets to be attacked by hackers claiming to be part of the so-called Syrian Electronic Army, a band loyal to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Since then, the FT has been forced to lock down both this blog and its associated Twitter account, @FTBrussels.
As editors in London get on top of the problem, we are gradually reopening our blogs and official Twitter accounts. So while the hiatus here at the Brussels Blog is finally coming to an end, security restrictions remain, meaning our blogging may be less frequent for a few more days. But please have patience – we should be back at full strength shortly. Read more
Tax evasion was put on to the EU summit’s agenda two months ago but the US Senate probe of Apple’s tax dealings in Ireland has pushed corporate tax avoidance to the forefront of leaders’ attention. Peter Spiegel and James Fontanella-Khan report from the summit meeting in Brussels.
The latest wrinkle in the affair – in which a close friend of Dalli’s has been accused of soliciting a €60m bribe on Dalli’s behalf – was sparked by Malta Today, the island’s weekly newspaper, which obtained the confidential report on the Dalli investigation conducted by Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud office, and posted it on its website.
Although the report, which Commission officials confirm is authentic, says Olaf found “no conclusive evidence” of Dalli’s direct participation “as instigator or as mastermind” of the bribery scheme, it is full of ill-timed phone calls and secret meetings between Dalli and Silvio Zammit, his friend and accused bribe solicitor – enough, Olaf found, to conclude he may have violated the code of conduct for European commissioners:
[T]here are a number of unambiguous and converging circumstantial pieces of evidence gathered in the course of the investigation indicating that Commissioner John Dalli was indeed aware of the machinations of Mr Silvio Zammit and the fact that he was using his name and position to gain financial advantages.
Cypriot European Parliament member Takis Hadjigeorgiou protests during the bailout debate
Connoisseurs of the Brussels Blog, Cyprus and various forms of edible fruit will remember a tempest in a teapot that erupted last week over leaked documents we posted which appeared to show the total cost of the Cypriot bailout growing from €17bn to €23bn after the chaos following rejection of the first €10bn programme.
The dispute centred on whether the €17bn figure, used to determine the amount of new money Cyprus needed to pay for government operations and shoring up its teetering banking sector on the night the first bailout was agreed, was comparable to the €23n figure, which was included in documents produced after the second deal was signed.
Famously, Olli Rehn, the EU’s economic chief, said comparing the two numbers was akin to “comparing apples with pears and coming up with oranges”. But he didn’t detail what the reason for the discrepancy was. We took another look at the documents and figured that, if you compare apples to apples, the new figure was probably €20.6bn, for a €3.6bn difference.
Well, thanks to a senior European Commission official who walked us through the numbers – and the Dutch finance ministry, which recently posted updated programme documents on their website here, here and here – it turns out we were close. It’s actually €20.2bn. How do they get there? A quick rundown: Read more
France's Laurent Fabius, left, and Britain's William Hague co-authored the letter to Cathy Ashton.
[UPDATE] During Monday’s appearance with Kerry, which includes a town hall meeting with European Commission staff, Barroso is expected to announce a new “comprehensive package” of EU humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, according to officials briefed on the initiative.
This weekend’s announcement by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, that Washington is prepared to double the amount of non-lethal aid it is sending to the mainstream opposition in Syria kicks off what is expected to be a busy week in Brussels on the issue.
Still, the Monday EU foreign ministers’ meeting will be the latest venue in the ongoing Franco-British effort to lift the EU’s arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. EU diplomats said they do not believe a definitive decision will be made at the meeting, but it comes just weeks before the entire sanctions regime is set to expire at the end of next month, so the deliberations are likely to become even more spirited.
For those looking to read up on the topic ahead of the Monday meeting, Brussels Blog has got its hands on the joint letter Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, and his British counterpart William Hague sent to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, last month arguing for a change in policy – we’ve posted it here, in both French and English. Read more
Rehn: critics of Cyprus bailout are "comparing apples with pears and coming up with oranges."
During a debate in the European Parliament this morning, Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic chief, got roughed up by MEPs lambasting the handling of the €10bn Cypriot bailout by the so-called “troika” of international lenders, of which the Commission is a member.
Jean-Paul Gauzés, the French conservative who led the debate for centre-right parties, called it “disastrous”; his centre-left counterpart, Austrian Hannes Swoboda, dubbed it “neo-colonial” and called on Rehn to disband the troika altogether.
A month before this famous weekend, €17bn was necessary in order to render Cypriot debt sustainable. Now we found at last week it’s €23bn. Just a slight mistake, a comma here or there. Those who carry out the forecasts and estimates for you, are they incompetent…or was it: well, we’ll play around with the figures to make sure reality looks better than it really is?
Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff have had a bad day. The two economic historians’ research, which implied that public debt overhangs can hamper economic growth, was perhaps one of the most cited pieces of work in recent years. Their advice that high debt-GDP ratios – particularly above 90 per cent – are harmful to growth, has become a widely used point in discussion. And it’s under attack by a trio at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst – Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin.
As FT Alphaville has noted, the issue is about one of Reinhart and Rogoff’s most heavily cited papers on the importance of debt. This paper has been accused of being the victim of fat-fingered Excel coding, as well as selective use of data and odd weighting of how different episodes are weighted, which seemed – to the authors – to make little sense.
Robin Harding posted Reinhart and Rogoff’s original reply here. Overnight, the authors have worked through the numbers – and have put up a pretty robust defence of their work. They do admit the first error – there was an Excel blunder:
…Herndon, Ash and Pollin accurately point out the coding error that omits several countries from the averages in figure 2. Full stop. HAP are on point. The authors show our accidental omission has a fairly marginal effect on the 0-90% buckets in figure 2. However, it leads to a notable change in the average growth rate for the over 90% debt group.
They are, however, resisting the second issue – the selective use of data.
HAP go on to note some other missing debt data points, which they describe as “selective omissions”. This charge, which permeates through their paper, is one we object to in the strongest terms. The “gaps” are explained by the fact there were still gaps in our public data debt set at the time of this paper.
Google’s three year tussle with Brussels over its search business is almost over. Our report today outlines the substance of its pre-charge settlement with the European Commission. Once formally adopted, it will allow Google to avoid a fine, any admission of guilt and a lengthy legal battle. But the price is accepting legally binding restrictions on how it can present its search results. Google has never yielded ground to a regulator on its prized core business before.
Given the space confines, we didn’t lay out all the details of the pact in the news piece. Some of it, as will become clear, is highly technical and not ideal weekend reading. For specialists we thought it would be useful to run through the full settlement taking each of the Commissions four concerns in turn:
THE SEARCH BUSINESS:
The concern: The Commission investigators provisionally concluded that Google was potentially diverting traffic to its own specialist, or vertical search services — like Google’s finance, news, shopping and weather sites — potentially to the detriment of consumers. Brussels alleged it 1) did not to inform users clearly when it was favouring its own in-houses services and 2) did not give proper visibility to rival search engines that may provide more relevant results.
The solution: As a principle Google promises to ensure its own in-house services are clearly labelled and demarcated from the general search results. Users should be “clearly aware” they are Google in-house services, not natural search results. Read more
Given the fact Cyprus’ two main banks have been either shuttered or drastically restructured as part of its €10bn bailout, it may now seem a moot point, but the 34-page draft “memorandum of understanding” between Cyprus and bailout lenders (a copy of which we’ve gotten our hands on and posted here) is holding Nicosia to the promise.
On page 6 of the MoU, Cyprus agrees to go forward with the audit, as well as an “action plan” to make clearer just who is behind the “brass plate” shell companies that offshore entities use to take advantage of the island’s low corporate tax rates: Read more
Prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho addresses the nation Sunday on Portugal's faltering bailout.
Although Cyprus has pushed its way back into the news, the main event at Friday’s meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Dublin is expected to be a decision on whether to give Ireland and Portugal more time to pay off their EU bailout loans.
We at Brussels Blog got our hands on the 12-page options paper prepared for the ministers by the so-called “troika” of international lenders – European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – and staff of the eurozone’s €440bn bailout fund, and have posted it here. The document contains five different options: extend the payment schedule a few months; by 2.5 years; 5 years; 10 years or more; or a compromise of 7 years.
As we reported earlier in the week, the debate is now centred on the document’s recommended option, the 7-year extension plan, though there are still reservations in Berlin about moving forward.
Beyond the options themselves, however, the document contains a very revealing analysis on the state of Portugal’s €78bn bailout, which has recently suffered some setbacks. As one official who will participate in Friday’s meeting put it, the topic of Portugal will be “more exciting than would have been a week ago”.
Although the document doesn’t address it directly, it makes clear that Portugal will have a very hard time avoiding a second bailout, since its financing needs in 2014 and 2015 – its first years after bailout funding runs out in July 2014 – will be substantially higher than they were during the pre-crisis period. Read more
Peter Spiegel is the FT's Brussels bureau chief. He returned to the FT in August 2010 after spending five years covering foreign policy and national security issues from Washington for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, focusing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He first joined the FT in 1999 covering business regulation and corporate crime in its Washington bureau, before spending four years covering military affairs and the defence industry in London and Washington.
Joshua Chaffin is one of the FT's EU correspondents, covering areas including policies on trade, the environment and energy. He has worked in the FT's Brussels bureau since late 2008 and before that was an FT correspondent in New York and Washington DC.
Alex Barker is EU correspondent, covering the single market, financial regulation and competition. He was formerly an FT political correspondent in the UK and joined the FT in 2005.
James Fontanella-Khan is FT's Brussels correspondent, covering media, telecom and internet regulation as well as justice, employment and social affairs and its impact on eastern Europe. He was formerly an FT correspondent in India. He joined the FT in 2006.