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Will Sunday's referendum help or hurt Beppe Grillo, right, leader of the FIve Star Movement?
Referendums in Europe are often a blunt weapon against the establishment. Italians will be voting in one on Sunday and, of course, it could end badly for Matteo Renzi, the country’s restless centre-left premier. But more likely the result will buck the trend. Indeed this referendum may actually turn the tables and leave the anti-establishment Five Star Movement licking its wounds.
The issue is slightly obscure – oil and gas drilling rights – and the politics is far from straightforward. As the FT’s James Politi explains, Italians will vote on whether to stop renewing offshore licenses for facilities within 12 miles of the coast. The latest polls show the pro-ban environmentalists will win handsomely. But the critical question is whether they will come near the 50 per cent turnout threshold. That is where the real politics comes in.
Mr Renzi is firmly on the side of indifference. He says the referendum is a waste of time and has urged voters to not to bother. In an interview today with La Repubblica he calls it “a hoax”. This all conveniently helps him hedge his position and avoid looking too friendly with Big Oil and Italy’s energy giant Eni. More importantly, it also puts Italy’s leading populist party, the Five Star Movement, to the test. Read more
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© REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images
Back in 2005, it was Jean-Claude Juncker who caught the mood after Dutch and French voters spurned a draft EU constitution. “Europe is not in crisis: it is in deep crisis,” he declared. He has gone from Luxembourgish premier to European Commission president since then – and the Dutch are back to saying No. This time team Juncker relayed that the president was just “sad” about the rejection of the Ukraine trade deal. And for europhiles that pretty much sums it up.
This has been a long journey. Referendums on European issues, from the 1970s on, largely acted as a rite of passage: membership, enlargement, monetary union. They then morphed into more wide ranging political guarantees for eurosceptic voters (in Denmark, Britain or France) wary of where pro-European politicians may lead them. Some would call them a reality check.
More recently they have grown to be not just domestic political matters, but negotiating tools or instruments of coercion abroad. This is the weaponisation of referendums and a few EU leaders have been accused of the tactic: Greece’s Alexis Tsipras over bailout terms, Britain’s David Cameron to win a better deal, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban over migration quotas. Read more
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David Cameron has had a frustrating week. Since the Panama Papers revealed the offshore dealings of his late father, the British prime minister has vainly tried to stop questions over his family potentially benefiting from tax avoidance. He first politely parried and demanded privacy, then changed tack, clarified his position, challenged his critics to provide evidence, then clarified three times more. Today we know a great deal about what Mr Cameron does not own. But it still isn’t over.
Through this mini-ordeal, Mr Cameron enjoyed one advantage. He can point to a record of championing transparency and fighting offshore corporate dodges. But now even this defensive shield is looking a little shaky.
The FT’s Jim Brunsden has dug deep into a bygone Brussels legislative battle over corporate secrecy and uncovered Mr Cameron’s intriguing personal role. He indeed pressed hard to expose beneficial owners of shell companies. But there was a caveat. In an EU law to tackle money laundering and end harmful secrecy, he wanted special treatment for trusts, discrete legal vehicles Brits have used for centuries to manage estates and pass assets down generations. That now looks a little awkward. Read more
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The Netherlands votes today on the EU’s trade pact with Ukraine. Polls suggest the deal will be rejected. But what will it actually mean? For an answer to that, prepare to enter the topsy-turvy world of Dutch referendums.
Here are some of the contradictions to grapple with. The plebiscite is merely advisory. Most Dutch politicians support the Ukraine deal. Two-thirds of voters say they have no idea what was agreed with Kiev, according to I&O research. Even the referendum organisers were not particularly interested in the details. Yet, in spite of all that, this vote may have some real political consequences for the Netherlands and the EU. Read more
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Spring is coming and Italian politicians know that probably spells trouble. With the improved weather come the migrant boats to Italy’s southern shores and one fiendishly difficult political problem.
Attention in Brussels is still on the migrant flow across the Aegean and the controversial deal with Turkey to stop it. The first so-called “returns” of migrants to Turkey started on Monday, but the first batch included no asylum seekers and the jury is still out on whether the plan is legal, workable or effective.
Over in Rome, however, the concern is more whether the EU can repeat its Turkey trick elsewhere. Angelino Alfano, Italy’s veteran interior minister, wants Brussels to strike similar returns deals with African countries, the source of most migrants reaching Italy. “Europe was able to find the resources when it was urgent — I am referring to Turkey,” he told the FT. “It’s a matter of political leadership.” Read more
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So 13m German voters have spoken. Now starts the hard part: working out what they meant to say. Sunday’s regional elections in three states were billed as a verdict on Angela Merkel’s migration strategy. And at first sight the results look dreadful for the German chancellor. Her CDU party was punished. And an anti-immigrant right-wing party made its biggest gains in Germany since 1945. For establishment German politics, this is frightening stuff. But the conclusions are not all straightforward. There are some complex patterns to interpret in these results. Read more
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Europe is waking to news that Donald Trump has taken a huge, bounding leaptowards securing the Republican nomination for US president. It is not yet wrapped up; the Republican race will probably run through to the spring. But Mr Trump could barely have emerged in better shape from Super Tuesday and the Europe’s press are all a bit stunned. Before they could even deploy some withering headlines, Mr Trump beat them to the punch, blasting the bloc on terrorism and migration: “You look at Brussels, look at Sweden, you look at Germany – it’s like a disaster.” With an eye on the presidential race, he at least had the diplomatic courtesy to hold back on attacking Germany’s Angela Merkel, a leader he recently said would “be out if they don’t have a revolution”. Read more
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The British EU referendum campaign is barely a week old and it already feels like a war of attrition. For outsiders watching from Brussels, one of the most peculiar clashes is around the question of whether a vote to leave the EU actually means Britain will leave. It turns on arcane EU law – Article 50 of the EU treaty, the so-called exit clause – but it is high-politics. Will voters see an exit as a dangerous gamble, or a gradual withdrawal to a safer place? “A country invokes Article 50 to start exit negotiations, which would seem the obvious first step after a leave vote. But there is nothing mandating London pull the Article 50 trigger immediately, and some have suggested using the Leave vote to try to get better terms without an Article 50 break. The argument will run and run because, as often in politics, both sides rest their case on a kernel of truth.
The idea of “vote Brexit for a better EU deal” comes from theVote Leave campaign and some prominent Brexiteers, including for a brief but dazzling moment Boris Johnson, the London mayor. David Cameron tried to nix the concept by saying the British people “would rightly expect” an Article 50 exit to start “straight away” after a leave vote. That would start a two-year clock ticking on exit talks, opening the risk of British membership and trade arrangements ending overnight if talks turn hostile. The British prime minister added that to imagine other EU countries would negotiate a new UK membership deal was “for the birds”. He won support on Monday by Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister, who said the what-if game on future negotiations was “insane”.
A UK government paper on Monday followed up Mr Cameron’s salvo by explaining the divorce mechanics. Lots of uncertain scenarios are depicted – described by Mr Johnson as “baloney” – including a 10-year Brexit process subject to countless vetoes in Europe. But on Article 50, the paper just echoes Mr Cameron’s view of the public “expectation”. It did not say it must be invoked immediately. And nor did it say that Article 50 would cover every aspect of Brexit. Indeed it points out there would need to be a complex trade negotiation alongside and separate from the Article 50 divorce. (For the legal geeks, we have explained more in this annotated version of the Article 50.) Read more
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There are 20 European ministers in Vienna today for one of the most extraordinary meetings of the migration crisis – and there have been some pretty extraordinary meetings.
Austria has convened nine countries along the so-called western Balkans migration route. That sounds reasonable enough. Foreign and interior ministers will be present from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Missing from the guestlist, though, is the main migrant entry-point (Greece) and the main destination-point (Germany). That is either a rather big oversight – or an act of mutiny.
It caps a week where the dominoes have begun to fall in south-eastern Europe. Austria’s renegade policy – imposing asylum caps while waving through Germany-bound migrants – has triggered other national responses down the line. Vienna is even considering deploying troops to the Macedonia border. It is shaping facts on the ground that are fast eclipsing the prospects for a “European solution”, if ever it were possible. Read more
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“Let me tell you where I’ve got to, which is, um, I am, um….I’ve made up my mind.”
With these words, Boris Johnson bounded into the Brexit camp on Sunday, jolting Britain’s EU referendum campaign into life. A summit-weary David Cameron had barely caught up on his sleep on Saturday morning when the Mayor of London emailed to let his old pal know he would take the opposite side. There was no reply. Less than 10 minutes before going public, Mr Johnson sent the British prime minister a ‘courtesy’ text. The two men enjoy one of the most cut-throat, competitive personal rivalries in British politics (they have literally wrestled on the floor of Downing Street). That rivalry is now set to engross Britain’s June 23 referendum on EU membership. Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, tweeted “the country’s future had been reduced to uni chums arguing”. “Blond Bombshell” cried The Sun’s frontpage; “Boris Goes In for the Kill” said the Daily Mail; and “Out for Himself” declared the Independent.
Old Brussels hands know what it is to be trolled by Boris Johnson. Read more
We’ve got our hands on the final pre-summit draft of the UK’s “new settlement” deal, sent to member states by Donald Tusk, the summit’s host, in the early hours of this morning.
There are not many changes from Tusk’s first version, published two weeks ago. A lot of the political issues have been left to the summit of EU leaders this evening. We’ve annotated a version of the main text, which you can view here. We’ve also run through the decision setting up an emergency brake for non-euro countries, which is here. I’m afraid Tusk provided no track marks in these drafts, making it difficult to see where the changes were made, but we hopefully spotted all the main issues and revisions. There are two particularly interesting tweaks:
1. City of London safeguards go to the summit:
This was not the plan. The officials negotiating this text wanted to sort the section on economic governance — basically outlining principles for coexistence between euro and non-euro countries — so that leaders weren’t subjected to a deep dive on financial regulation. But they failed to agree a key part that marked out turf on financial stability issues between national, eurozone and EU authorities. Pity the leaders — this is complex stuff. More details in the annotations.
2. The European parliament trigger for the benefits “emergency brake”? (SEE UPDATE)
This change is arcane but politically quite important for Britain and the European parliament. The text is revised to suggest the European parliament may have a say on the decision to trigger the “emergency brake” allowing the UK to restrict benefits to EU migrant workers. (In the earlier draft, MEPs had power over the legislation that would create the brake, but the ability to trigger the brake was left to EU member states.) This is super important for the bigwigs of the parliament — and very tricky for London.
UPDATE: A diplomat called to set us straight on the EP role in the emergency brake. A reference to a Council implementing act — basically bypassing the parliament — was removed. The language is a red rag to the parliament so it is a qualified win for them. But a reference to Council authorisation for the emergency brake remains, which we missed on first reading. That suggests the trigger is still in the hands of member states. One caveat: this area of law is incredibly complex and MEPs are a creative bunch when it comes to their powers and prerogatives. They could, of course, insist that the emergency brake trigger involves their sign-off as a condition for passing the law. 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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© 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
Britain's David Cameron addresses the press on his way into the EU summit on Thursday evening
David Cameron is in a hole. His flagship policy to curb EU migration – a four-year ban on benefits for migrant workers – looks doomed. When it was announced more than a year ago, Cameron was told it violated a fundamental EU principle of non-discrimination. If the EU stands for anything, it is ensuring EU workers don’t pay a higher effective tax rate on the basis of their passport.
This was flagged up by British officials at the time. Cameron nevertheless ploughed on. While Downing Street were drafting the Conservative party election manifesto, aides suggested leaving out the four-year idea. He ploughed on. When Mr Cameron preparing a letter to other EU leaders on his reform demands, he was told by Whitehall and Brussels the four-year ban was all but impossible and should be dropped. He ploughed on.
The final reckoning may come this evening. Cameron makes a make-or-break pitch for the idea. Having spent far too long trying to understand how the problem will be fixed, it may also be my last opportunity to inflict a benefit reform listicle on Brussels Blog readers.
So while there is still time: behold the nine ways Cameron’s four-year benefits saga may end.
Britain’s €2.1bn EU budget surcharge is a subject of mystifying, mind-bending complexity. Not even the people who are supposed to understand seem to understand. After days trying to solve the budget puzzle, the Brussels Blog is going to attempt to explain the numbers. Right or wrong, it should at least help to confuse matters further.
First the claims. Last week, George Osborne boldly said he halved the UK bill and achieved a “real win for British taxpayers”. EU officials say the British payments are rescheduled but benefit from no additional discount.
The truth, as we understand it, is even more bewildering:
– Britain is down to make a gross surcharge payment well in excess of €2.1bn, but at a different time than originally demanded.
– Britain will receive most of the money back by the end of 2015, but it doesn’t know precisely when, and it will only be thanks to two automatic rebates.
– Osborne requested a bigger discount and was denied, but he may get an EU Christmas present nonetheless.
Now for the details: Read more
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star troops are on side with a vengeance. The Lithuanian stunt pilot is pledging loyalty. The Calvinist isn’t taking calls from British Tories bearing gifts. Even given the faltering efforts to woo the Irish cannabis campaigner, things are looking up for Nigel Farage in the wacky world of the European parliament group building. Read more
David Cameron and his wife Samantha after voting in last week's EU parliament elections
David Cameron’s anti-federalist group in the European parliament entered these elections looking a bit shaky. While anti-establishment parties were faring well, the polls for the ECR group were worrying. Cameron took a huge gamble when leaving the centre-right European People’s Party to form a eurosceptic bloc. Some ECR folk feared the group could unravel in the wake of the election.
Daniel Hannan, one of the ECR’s best known MEPs, dismissed the doom laden predictions from “half-clever commentators” (this correspondent included). He was correct; the speculation proved only half-right. The ECR have emerged in a solid position from the vote. It survived and its feathers are well preened for a beauty contest for the leadership of Europe’s eurosceptics. But the dynamics of the group are changing — and it poses some serious political dilemmas for Cameron.
1) The ECR is here to stay….
If it makes no new allies and loses no group members, the ECR will live on. The election results show it has cleared the rather arbitrary seven country official threshold to form a group (there are MEPs from at least 8 member states). At present though, their numbers are down. The ECR is projected to reach 45, a loss of 11 seats. The Tories and the Czech members both suffered at the hands of the electorate.
2) ….with reduced Tory influence
Perhaps as significant is the changing balance of power within the party. Read more
It is safe to assume that there are parts of the UK Treasury already in a tremendous froth over this leaked opinion from the legal advisers to EU finance ministers.
Remember the only thing that would make George Osborne, the UK chancellor, hate the Financial Transaction Tax idea more than he already does would be its extension to currency exchange transactions. Even the European Commission didn’t go that far.
For that reason this opinion from the EU Council legal service will cause a stir, at least in Brussels. It contradicts the Commission’s own legal service (they are making a habit of this on the FTT) and says that there is no law in principle preventing a joint levy on foreign exchange. This effectively reopens a debate that makes London very nervous. Read more