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Britain’s administration is now in hibernation. The civil service has entered Purdah – a term derived from the Persian word for curtain and the practice of shielding a woman from prying eyes. In practice in Brussels the pre-referendum asceticism means British diplomats must doggedly stick to their pre-agreed positions, show no flexibility or original thinking and avoid socialising with foreigners. Some EU types may joke: has anything changed?

The polls are looking slightly better for the Remain side. But it is close and European leaders aren’t taking chances. As we report today, Plan B is being worked up: how should the EU respond to Brexit?

The topic has been raised at high levels in Hanover, Rome, and Brussels (all slightly different configurations). Discussions were expected on the sidelines of the G7 too (the communique has depicted Brexit as “a serious risk to growth”). A small group of leaders’ sherpas also met on Monday at the European Commission. And this wouldn’t be a crisis unless the Commission’s anti-populist Martin Selmayr had a Plan B locked in his safe – right next to the Grexit one that was never used. Read more

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What halted the main wave of Europe’s epoch-making migration crisis? Was it the fences of the western Balkans route? Or a transformative deal with Turkey? That is more than just an academic question as Europe wrestles with how to deal with Ankara, and the other policy dilemmas that stem from a world on the move.

This chart, inspired by some conversations with officials in Brussels, attempts to differentiate the two:

The first two lines show the political chain reaction triggered by the Austrians and others imposing quotas on their borders and effectively closing off the western Balkans route migration route. Read more

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By Mehreen Khan Read more

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Austria’s presidential vote on Sunday was billed as a political landmark for Europe: the first election of a far-right populist head of state since the second world war. Then thevote count started. The Freedom party’s Norbert Hofer may still end up in the Hofburg palace, elected for a party founded in the 1950s by a former SS general. But the result ison a knife edge and the Green party’s Alexander Van der Bellen could easily prevail. It’s down to postal votes. Vienna hosted two victory parties last night: a surreal end to a surreal campaign.

Regardless of the outcome, Mr Hofer’s rise is a reminder of some political chill winds in Europe. Other European far-right politicians have not yet come as close to power as the Freedom party. But if Mr Hofer succeeds, it would be possible to trace an arc of illiberal politics through Poland, Hungary (and to some extent) Slovakia and Austria that stretches from the Baltic sea to the gateway of the Balkans.

To varying degrees some of their ruling politicians share a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-EU message. And, for all the grumbling, there isn’t much the EU can do about it. The main question is where populists, the far-right or anti-establishment parties will make their mark next, be it in France, Holland or some day in GermanyRead more

Welcome to Friday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

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Welcome to Thursday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Gold prices down, sterling sharply up, bookies chalking Brexit at the longest odds since the campaign began (around 3/1). Has the Remain side in Britain’s EU referendum campaign made a decisive breakthrough?

Money is certainly moving against Brexit. A mini-trend of moderately better polls for the pro-EU side was buttressed on Wednesday by an ICM phone survey putting Leave 18 points behind. Referendum campaigns can break sharply as the public begin to seriously engage. Remain campaigners will be hoping this is that moment. Indeed after firing-off their big guns – the US president, macabre Treasury reports, Bank of England recession warnings – they may also be thinking: what took so long?

If a lead is sustained, two factors potentially play a role. ICM picked up a swing to Remain among Conservative voters, with around 60 per cent backing David Cameron’s position. They are still open to changing their minds, but for now the increasingly vicious Tory infighting seems to be encouraging a bit more loyalty to their prime minister. The second is that Remain are faring well on the economic argument – and that is where Mr Cameron thinks he will clinch the vote.

Now for the caveats. The Ipsos MORI poll on Wednesday could be an outlier. And even if it isn’t, why believe it? Pollsters called the last UK and Israeli elections dead wrong. Even pollsters are wary of polls these days. A debate over phone (better for Remain) versus online surveys (better for Leave) rages on in Britain. And in any event predicting behaviour in this vote is hard because there is no good quantifiable precedent. Read more

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Jean-Claude Juncker promised to lead a political European Commission and boy did he deliver. Compared to some politburo-like lifeless debates of the past, his college of commissioners have made a fair few touch-and-go decisions and late-turns (one mini-proposal on visas this month was commissioned and written within 12 hours of the meeting).

Today’s college clash over EU budget rules could be the most contentious yet. The issue is whether to start a process to fine Spain and Portugal for breaching their remedial deficit targets — a sanction never used since the creation of the single currency. What is at stake though is the Commission’s credibility as guardian of the EU’s fiscal regime. How far can it bend the rules?

There is little dispute over the economics. The vast majority of commissioners agree both countries took insufficient action to fix excessive deficits, a judgement that triggers a sanctions proposal. The question is when to announce it, and whether to signal that the fines, once set, may be tiny or indeed zero. Read more

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By Aleksandra Wisniewska

In March, Europe’s leaders gambled their political futures, diplomatic credibility and the lives of hundreds of thousands of migrants on a deal with Turkey.

After two months of raking over the terms of the deal, a simple question can be asked: has it worked on the ground? These four charts demonstrate the good, the bad and the ugly of the situation on the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis.

The refugee crisis, at least when it comes to the Aegean, shows signs of abating. Arrivals to Greek islands dropped significantly from an average of 2,000 per day to under 100.

This does not mean Europe’s migration crisis has gone away. Read more

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Is Recep Tayyip Erdogan bluffing? Almost every day this week, Turkey’s president has taken a crude swipe at the “hypocritical” EU. An EU-Turkey deal that has stopped the migrant boats looks in danger. He hasn’t quite repeated his past threat to arrange Berlin-bound buses for refugees. But Mr Erdogan has cast the coming months as a historic turning point. If the EU fails to deliver billions of euros in funding and visa-free travel rights, he warns, the migration deal will die and with it Turkey’s EU orientation.

Take this extract from Mr Erdogan’s speech on Thursday, where he lashed out over EU demands that he soften terrorism laws as a condition of visa-free travel:

“They believe they have the right [to fight terrorism] but find it a luxury and unacceptable for us. Let me say it clearly – the name for this is hypocrisy. A EU that tramples on its own values and principles will be worth nothing to its members, or the world …The visa business … we sorted it, we signed it … now they come with 72 conditions. They squeeze terrorism [reforms] in there. Where did that come from? Show me where that’s in the acquis, in the visa rules …. Did they demand it when South American countries were given visa-free travel? We know very well what the reason is – don’t let anybody be fooled. We’re waiting for this union’s warped and wary attitude to Turkey to end. In the near future we will either strengthen our ties with the EU, or we will find ourselves a new path. Our preference is to build new Turkey with our European friends. We’re waiting for their response.”

Where will this end? The positive scenario you hear in Brussels and Berlin casts this all as bluster. Mr Erdogan is brashly talking up his negotiating hand, tickling nationalist sentiment at home, while aiming to bag vote-winning visa rights to propel him in his real goal: an executive presidency giving him boundless power in Turkey. These officials think his bravado hides vulnerability. Turkey’s economy has weaknesses. And failing to deliver travel rights could also hurt Mr Erdogan at the ballot box. As Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, claimed: “that will be his problem.”

The EU side think a compromise is in sight if they hold their nerve. Read more

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BELGIUM-EU-COMPETITION-VESTAGER : News Photo

So she finally got to say no. Every EU competition chief blocks a handful of mergers; Margarethe Vestager’s first veto was on Wednesday and it was delivered with some relish, stopping a £10.5bn tie-up between the UK mobile arms of Telefónica and CK Hutchison. The FT’s Lombard column has the Dane dispatching the deal to Valhalla. But this was more than routine deal-killing – it arguably marked the start of Vestager 2.0.

First the deal. The consolidation-obsessed telecoms sector tried desperately to ignore the signals, but for more than a year Ms Vestager was all but breathing fire on mobile deals, making plain her fears that they can raise prices while not really helping investment. In part to draw a line under the more accommodating approach of her predecessor Joaquin Almunia, she wanted to make a stand over a Danish telecoms tie-up, but the parties pulled out and stole her thunder. Wednesday’s decision was no surprise, but it has left the sector in a tizzy.

More broadly this was a milestone for Ms Vestager’s term in office: a threat carried through, a final decision taken, and a distinct approach set on merger control. Now her challenge is to make her mark in the biggest antitrust and state aid cases. There she has set many hares running. But issuing charges is the easy part. She has to show she can close tough cases too, including on Google, Gazprom and the blockbuster tax fight over AppleRead more

Here we go again. The protesters are back in Syntagma square. The EU’s summer has officially begun.

Yesterday’s anger was easy to explain. Shortly after midnight, the Greek parliament voted through contentious pension cuts and income tax increases, covering the bulk of a €5.4bn package of austerity measures demanded by creditors. That sets the scene for a meeting of the Eurogroup today to decide how much more the Greeks still need to do.

The Greek parliamentarians already appear to have been shaving close to their own jugulars. Kerin Hope, the FT’s correspondent in Athens, notes that riot police had to block the entrance to the assembly after members of Poesy, their own union, tried to force their way past security guards.

But despite the successful vote, Greece is far from in the clear. Before closing a review of Greece’s bailout and providing Athens much-needed aid, the IMF and the German government are insisting Athens go a step further an legislate an additional €3bn in “contingency measures” in case the agreed cuts prove insufficient to meet budget surplus targets. Read more

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Another big Brussels week on migration is upon us. The flow of migrant boats to Greek islands has almost stopped, but Brussels is only in the foothills of the political trek to make the Turkey deal stick and the EU asylum system work properly. The European Commission will try to chivvy the pace on Wednesday with three contentious initiatives on visas, borders and asylum rules.

1. An overhaul of the Dublin asylum system

This revamp of the EU’s asylum rules is well-flagged but still hot politics. A Commission discussion paper last month raised two main reform options – and we understand the final proposal will be a blend of the two. So the first EU country an asylum seeker enters would still handle their claim (a crucial Dublin principle for immigration-wary northern states and the UK). But if a frontline state receives 150 per cent more claims than its set asylum capacity, a quota system automatically kicks in to distribute migrants around Europe (which is more to the liking of Greece and Italy). It is a halfway house that leaves plenty for EU states to fight about. There is perhaps even some fodder for Brexit campaigners (the question of whether Britain can stay in Dublin but remain exempt from automatic burden sharing will not be answered in the proposal). Read more

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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 quotasRead 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