What has become an increasingly touchy EU-Russia trade relationship took another tit-for-tat turn on Thursday when Brussels escalated a WTO case against Moscow over vehicle recycling fees.
The EU believes a recycling fee Russia charges on imported cars is less about good environmental policy and more a way to squelch foreign competition. The fee does not apply to cars built in Russia or its closest trading partners,Kazakhstan and Belarus.
Brussels complained to the WTO about the levy in July, marking the first case against Russia since it joined the global trade body with much fanfare in 2012 – 19 years after its initial application. On Thursday, the EU asked for a panel to rule on the matter after – to little surprise – settlement talks with Moscow proved fruitless. A result could take months.
“We’ve used all the possible avenues to find with Russia a mutually acceptable solution,” said Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner. “As the fee continues to severely hamper exports of a sector that is key for Europe’s economy, we are left with no choice but to ask for a WTO ruling.”
My big fat Greek presidency it will not be. When Athens takes the reins of the EU’s rotating presidency in January, the government will manage the event like a family throwing a frugal wedding.
That is only to be expected since Greece’s crisis-hit economy is now enduring its sixth year of recession, the public coffers are bare and unemployment is nearing 30 per cent. Dishing out huge amounts of cash to impress visiting diplomats would likely provoke outrage from a citizenry that is increasingly unhappy with the EU, as it is.
So how frugal is Greece planning to be? The government has set a €50m budget for the six-month affair, down from the €60m to €80m spent by predecessors like Ireland,Cyprus,Denmark and Lithuania. Officials say they are hoping that the final bill comes to even less.
The Greeks have found a few simple ways to cut costs. They will limit the number of ministerial meetings that will be held in their country to just 13 – keeping as much of the work in the EU’s Brussels headquarters as possible. All of the Greek meetings will be hosted in Athens.
Brussels and Beijing appear to be nearing a settlement in a trade fight over solar panels that is the EU’s biggest ever anti-dumping case – based on the more than €20bn in Chinese-made solar products shipped to the bloc in 2011. Sometime on Friday afternoon, EU officials are expecting to learn whether or not their counterparts in Beijing have taken their latest offer.
In theory, the two sides have until August 6th to haggle over a deal. After that date, provisional duties imposed by the EU will jump from about 11 per cent to an average of 47 per cent. The reality is that they have probably already missed that deadline, according to diplomats, given the amount of legwork that Brussels must do to translate an agreement and circulate it among national governments. Hence, the next few days are crucial.
Günther Oettinger, EU energy commissioner, proposed tweaking the biofuels policy last year
Among the EU’s less successful policies, the one governing biofuels looms as a particular case study in unintended consequences.
Five years ago, member states agreed to binding targets requiring each country to derive 10 per cent of all transport fuel from renewables by 2020. Those targets were meant to speed the adoption of environmentally-friendly biofuels and were part of a broader campaign by Brusselsto claim the lead in the fight against global warming.
These days, that policy is a mess. The increased demand for crop-based biofuels – made from corn, rape and soya, for example – has been blamed for a surge in world food prices. It also appears to contribute to deforestation as farmers in far corners of the world chop down rainforests to plant biofuel crops.
The EU is now seeking to correct that. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, made a new proposal last year that aims to phase out crop-based biofuels in favour of cleaner ones derived from waste products and algae, among other substances. The European parliament’s environment committee last week voted through its own version of the draft legislation.
But it seems even the revised biofuels policy may have its own unintended consequences, including a brewing fight between Europe’s oleochemicals industry – the folks who use processed animal fats to produce everything from lubricants to lipstick – and their suppliers.
A few weeks ago, the EU agreed an historic overhaul of its troubled common fisheries policy, setting binding deadlines to end decades of over-fishing that have depleted stocks from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.
But just when it seemed safe to go back in the water, the European parliament’s fisheries committee threatened to take a bite out of the reform on Wednesday. By a 12 to 11 margin, the committee approved an amendment allowing the use of up to €1.6bn in EU funds to help build new fishing boats.
The subsidies fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that the EU’s 83,000-vessel fleet is already far too large, and in need of a drastic cut – some say by half – in order to allow stocks to recover.
“For anyone with a brain this is completely outrageous and very difficult to understand,” said Markus Knigge, a fisheries advisor to the Pew Charitable Trust, citing estimates that the money could result in 19,000 new boats.
A report in Der Spiegel about US snooping on the EU has thrown a very big spanner into trans-Atlantic relations. As we reported in today’s FT, some EU officials – and members of the European parliament – are already warning it could have grave implications for a pending EU-US trade agreement.
But to those committed to the European project, the news is not all bad. As Martin Schulz, the parliament president, noted in an interview on Sunday, the revelations – if proven true – offered an unintended measure of validation for the EU on the international stage.
Someone may well have been drinking absinthe when they decided it would be a good idea to pack up an entire parliament once a month and shuttle its members and their assorted aides and documents to a second home 400 kilometers away.
On Wednesday, members of the European parliament, meeting in their Strasbourg quarters, will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with absinthe, the spirit renowned for its green tint and supposedly psychedelic properties. Specifically, they will be voting to determine just what absinthe is.
Their decision could escalate a brewing fight between northern and southern European makers of the spirit, which gained fame in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a favoured drink for bohemians and artists including Rimbaud, Degas, Hemingway and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Hamburger anyone? Getty Images
There is never a good time for a food chain scandal in which people across a continent are suddenly informed that what they thought was beef lasagne was actually horsemeat of unknown provenance.
But there is an added wrinkle of awkwardness to the EU’s horsemeat scandal, since it coincides with the launch of free-trade negotiations with the US in which food safety standards will be central.
The EU-US effort to forge a trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement was announced with great fanfare on Wednesday afternoon in Brussels by José Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, and Karel De Gucht, the bloc’s trade commissioner. The press conference was the culmination of more than a year of diplomatic spadework between the two sides and decades of dreaming by free-traders, business groups and Atlanticists.
The politics and rituals surrounding the selection of a new pope are even more opaque and mysterious than the back-room negotiations over a long-term EU budget (a recent source of obsession at the Brussels Blog).
Herman Van Rompuy, the European council president, has added to the sense of papal mystery surrounding the resignation announced on Monday by Benedict XVI with the release of a terse, two-line statement.