Peter Spiegel

Monday was supposed to be the day when eurozone finance ministers flew to Brussels for an emergency eurogroup meeting (just their first of 2016!) to agree a way forward on Greece’s star-crossed €86n third bailout. But despite weeks of intensive talks, negotiators are no closer to a deal then they were when they were sent back to Athens two months ago.

Last night, Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund chief, sent a letter to all 19 finance ministers ahead of the Monday meeting with her demands: drop all the talk about new austerity measures and quickly agree a plan for debt relief so that a deal can be met before a possible Greek default in July. We got a hold of the letter, and have posted a news story on its contents here. But as is our practice at the Brussels Blog, we thought we’d offer up an annotated version of the full text, sent to national capitals last night:

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Peter Spiegel

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Just 24 hours after Frans Timmermans, the European Commission vice-president who has overseen the EU’s response to the refugee crisis, confidently announced in Brussels that he was recommending Turks be granted visa-free travel to Europe, the Turkish politician who had won that very concession held a similar press conference 2,500km away to announce he was resigning.

The proximate cause of Ahmet Davutoglu’s departure as Turkey’s prime minister was his increasingly strained relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the powerful president who found his hand-picked prime minister to be far less pliable than originally hoped. But EU officials are worried that Mr Davutoglu’s outreach to Europe was a contributing factor. Ankara has been buzzing about a new political blog that began attacking Mr Davutoglu earlier this week, accusing him of “collaborating with the West” and betraying Mr Erdogan by striking deals with the EU. Many believe Mr Erdogan himself gave the green light for the blog’s accusations. Turkish officials said the president was seething after Mr Davutoglu was pictured chummily touring refugee camps with Germany’s Angela Merkel and other EU leaders two weeks ago in the border city of Gaziantep. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain's Labour party

Local and regional elections in Europe normally provide minor diversions for the political classes in between the titanic national clashes that pit a country’s most prominent leaders against each other. But over the last six months, it has been a series of regional votes that have sent shockwaves through some of the EU’s most well-established parties and reshaped national debates. In December, the far-right National Front finished first in six of France’s 13 major regions in the first round of voting, and was only denied victory in the second round when the ruling Socialists pulled out of multiple contests. Three months later, the equally anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland scored in double digits in three German länder elections, including a stunning 24 per cent in depressed Saxony-Anhalt, rattling the ruling Christian Democrats of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Today, it is Britain’s turn to hold local contests, and while the populist UK Independence party is hoping to score gains outside its English base, the real potential for electoral mayhem lies within opposition Labour, which is in the midst of a brutal internecine war over the leadership of left-leading party boss Jeremy Corbyn. In the most high-profile vote today, a Labour candidate is expected to emerge victorious: one-time Corbyn ally Sadiq Khan is heavily favoured to succeed Tory Boris Johnson as London’s next mayor. But Labour risks losing seats almost everywhere else in the UK, including in Scotland, where the once-dominant party is at risk of slipping into third behind the commanding Scottish National party and the revived Conservatives. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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EU economic chief Pierre Moscovici, right, with Portugal's new finance minister in Lisbon

There’s been a rare spate of good economic news for the eurozone recently, with Eurostat announcing last week that the currency union’s gross domestic product had finally returned to pre-crisis levels and was growing at a 0.6 per cent quarterly clip – enough to outpace the US or the UK so far this year. But growth remains uneven across the 19-member bloc, and the first quarter’s performance remains meagre by historical standards. As a result, it will likely not be enough to help eurozone countries currently finding it difficult to get their debt and deficit levels back under EU budget ceilings.

Those countries sparring with Brussels over such budget targets – France, Italy, Spain and Portugal – will be in the spotlight today when the European Commission issues its new economic forecasts, which will include predictions on whether any of them are making progress towards getting their deficits below the 3 per cent of GDP threshold or – in the case of Italy, which is already below the deficit ceiling – are cutting their debt piles fast enough.

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Peter Spiegel

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Labour's Ken Livingstone is swarmed by reporters after a BBC appearance on Thursday.

Even by the savage standards of British political combat, the scenes that played out in central London yesterday were extraordinary. John Mann, a longstanding Labour MP, tracked down former London mayor and left-wing Labour stalwart Ken Livingstone to accuse him of being a “disgusting racist” and “Nazi apologist”, a confrontation captured by cameras from, among others, Channel 4 news and the BBC’s political correspondent Vicki Young. Just an hour later, Mr Livingstone was suspended from Labour, a party which he joined nearly 50 years ago.

The scrap was just the latest in a bitter internecine war over senior party members making remarks which many consider overtly anti-Semitic. The Mann-Livingstone feud was sparked by the previous day’s suspension of yet another Labour MP, Naz Shah,after two-year-old social media posts surfaced where Ms Shah endorsed a “Solution for the Israel-Palestine Conflict” that would “relocate” Jews from Israel to the US, touting a minimal “transportation cost”. Mr Livingstone went on BBC radio yesterday morning to defend Ms Shah, arguing she was the victim of the “Israeli lobby” and that her comments were “over the top” but not anti-Semitic. “Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel,” Mr Livingstone continued. “He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” Mr Mann angrily shouted that those remarks amounted to “rewriting history”. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Enda Kenny, Irish prime minister, campaigning ahead of February's general election.

For most of the last two months, Enda Kenny appeared to be on the verge of becoming the latest political casualty of the eurozone crisis. After leading Ireland through a brutal three-year bailout, Mr Kenny saw his Fine Gael party drop more than 10 percentage points in February’s general election, meaning his coalition with the Labour party no longer had enough seats to return to government. A grand coalition with historic rival Fianna Fáil seemed out of the question, and it would be hard to survive as Fine Gael leader if the country was forced into another elections.

But now Mr Kenny is on the verge of returning as Taoiseach (Irish for prime minister) after all, striking an uneasy peace with Fianna Fáil that would allow him to head a minority government with some independent allies. If he succeeds, it would be a first in the bailout era: Portugal’s prime minister lost his job in elections last year, and Greece has seen two different prime ministers ushered out of office after two successive bailouts. Spain’s Mariano Rajoy, the only other bailout premier to face the voters, is headed back to new elections after failing to cobble together a coalition. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Dijsselbloem, in orange tie, with his Finnish, Belgian and Spanish counterparts last week

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chairs meetings of his 18 eurozone counterparts, had threatened to bring his eurogroup back to Brussels tomorrow for this year’s first unscheduled meeting on Greece – but only if bailout negotiators agreed on a new set of austerity measures with Athens beforehand. Last night, Mr Dijsselbloem announced that more time was needed to reach a deal, raising the risk that Greece’s bailout standoff could once again be headed for a period of bitter brinkmanship.

Many signs of a repeat of last year’s Grexit drama are present: irreconcilable differences between Athens and its bailout creditors; a looming July debt payment owed to the European Central Bank; angry denunciations by embattled Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. The risk of a rerun was underlined by reports last night that Mr Tsipras was due to call Donald Tusk, the European Council president, this morning and demand a special summit of eurozone leaders to hash out a way forward.

It’s unlikely eurozone heads of government will want to take up the Greek crisis right now, with a drop-dead deadline still months away and the prospect of another eurogroup meeting looming as early as next week. But differences between the major players in the Greek drama remain deep, and a deal among mid-level negotiators remain stuck on two primary issues:

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Peter Spiegel

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King Felipe, left, meets with Mariano Rajoy during coalition negotiations earlier this year

It’s been four months since Spanish voters went to the polls and delivered a result so inconclusive that most political observers – including incumbent prime minister Mariano Rajoy himself – have been predicting another round of elections almost since the results were first counted. Unless King Felipe can pull a rabbit out of the hat today when he meets the heads of the four largest parties for a final time, Spaniards are likely to head to the polls again on June 26 to have another try.

Would another election change anything? Recent opinion polls show that Mr Rajoy’s centre-right Popular party may gain a little more than the 28.7 per cent it won in December, and the second-place Socialists would lose a bit on their 22 per cent take. But the numbers have held pretty steady throughout the four-month drama. Which would suggest that the parties should hunker down and find a coalition that works rather than risk a repeat. But several hurdles have prevented any agreement, particularly within the Socialists and the far-left Podemos insurgent party.

The Socialists have resisted Mr Rajoy’s repeated entreaties to form a grand coalition, and one only need to look at what happened to the centre-left Pasok party in Greece to understand why: joining in a grand coalition in Athens led by the centre-right allowed far-left Syriza to claim the mantle of the left from Pasok, and the Spanish Socialists are deathly afraid of Podemos repeating the feat in Madrid. But Podemos has been equally resistant, blowing up the only long-shot coalition attempt that was seriously tried during the talks – a Socialist-led government with Podemos and the upstart centrist Ciudadanos party joining in – when its membership voted overwhelmingly to reject it earlier this month. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Barack Obama arrived last night in the British capital, where he is expected to give his full-throated support for the UK to remain in the EU – an intervention that is as highly anticipated as it is fraught with political danger. There is no set-piece speech the White House has engineered; instead, the US president has offered up an op-ed in today’s Daily Telegraph, and administration officials say he will speak “as a friend” if he is asked about the issue during his two-day stay. Which is something of a foregone conclusion, particularly with a Downing Street press conference set for this afternoon. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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There has been no shortage of reasons for outrage over last month’s refugee return deal between the EU and Turkey that, for now, has slowed the influx of migrants into Greece to a trickle. The UN believes the expulsion of migrants arriving in Greece may be illegal under international law. Human Rights Watch yesterday found the deportations “riddled with abuse”. Others have been more upset about the sweeteners given to Ankara in exchange for its cooperation in the crackdown, including €6bn in new aid and the unfreezing of negotiations over Turkish membership in the EU – which nearly upended Cypriot reunification talks and has given Brexiteers a new tool to scare UK voters.

But there may not be an issue as politically sensitive as the EU concession to provide Turkish nationals visa-free travel in Europe as early as June. Yesterday Dimitris Avramopoulos, the EU’s migration commissioner, said Brussels will issue a progress report on May 4 outlining how far Ankara has gone in meeting 72 benchmarks required before the short-term visits can be allowed. “No visa liberalisation can be offered if all benchmarks are not met,” he intoned at a midday news conference.

There is increasing nervousness in several EU capitals, including Paris and Rome, that Turkey may actually clear those hurdles – or, if they’re close, the European Commission will give Ankara a pass and force national governments to decide what to do about the visa deal. That would be awkward for domestic politics in several EU countries; critics are already complaining that a refugee crisis that has caused an anti-immigrant backlash in some quarters because of the high number of Muslims arriving in Europe will have to be solved with a Turkey deal that will allow even more Muslims to travel to Europe. Some governments have begun looking at measures that would allow them to hedge their promise to Ankara, including safeguard clauses, extra conditions or watered down terms. But Ahmed Davutoglu this week made it clear: if there’s no visa-free travel deal, “no one can expect Turkey to adhere to its commitments.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Draghi, left, and Schäuble, bottom right, at the IMF spring meetings in Washington last week

The European Central Bank holds its monthly monetary policy meeting tomorrow amid one of the most overheated political environments for Mario Draghi and his fellow governors since the height of the eurozone crisis. And despite the German government’s long-stated insistence that central banks should jealously guard their independence and not be pressured by elected officials into making decisions that are politically expedient, the most pointed criticism is coming from Berlin.

The most surprising broadside came nearly two weeks ago from Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, who publicly claimed to have told Mr Draghi that his loose money policy was to blame for about 50 per cent of the votes received by the ascendant anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party in last month’s regional elections. Mr Schäuble also called on the US, UK and the eurozone to band together in pressuring their central banks to “carefully but slowly exit” their economic stimulus policies. Hardly the model of respecting central bank independence.

Mr Schäuble’s remarks appear to have opened the floodgates. Hans-Peter Friedrich, a former interior minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and a member of the Bavarian sister party of her governing Christian Democrats, told the mass-market Bild tabloid at the weekend that Mr Draghi’s replacement “must be German” and respect the Bundesbank’s tradition of “monetary stability”. Axel Weber, the former Bundesbank chief who nearly beat Mr Draghi out for the top ECB job in 2011 before resigning, told the Wall Street Journal this week that more monetary easing would be counterproductiveRead more

Peter Spiegel

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The list of big American tech companies being investigated by Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, for either antitrust violations or sweetheart tax deals already reads like a “who’s who” of Silicon Valley: Google, Amazon, Apple. Her proclivity for going after US companies, particularly in her tax investigations (American non-tech groups like McDonald’s and Starbucks have also been targeted), has already raised eyebrows in Washington, where Treasury officials and members of Congress have accused her of an anti-American bias.

Ms Vestager has denied singling out US firms, and if she is at all chastened by the American criticism, she’s not showing it: as early as tomorrow, she is expected to roll out a second antitrust case against Google, this time accusing the California company of abusing its dominant position in smartphone operating systems to foist its suite of apps on unsuspecting consumers.

In a speech yesterday, the former Danish economy minister compared Google’s practices to the mother of all EU-US tech antitrust cases, the 1990s-era battle with Microsoft. The comparison is apt for two reasons. First is for the reason Ms Vestager intended: during the time when computing was dominated by PCs, desktops running Microsoft’s ubiquitous Windows operating systems would come “bundled” with a wide range of other Microsoft software, most importantly its Explorer internet browser. Such bundling gradually destroyed browser inventor (and onetime market leader) Netscape, since nobody needed its Navigator browser if your PC came with Explorer. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, in between meetings at his office last week

When Wikileaks published a transcript last week of a private teleconference between top International Monetary Fund officials discussing Greece’s bailout, the thing that got Athens the most worked up was a prediction made on the call by the IMF’s European chief Poul Thomsen: he forecast there would be no decision on the programme’s way forward until Greece ran out of money in July. Yesterday, bailout negotiators left Athens after yet another fruitless week of talks. And while they vowed to resume negotiations during the IMF’s spring meetings in Washington, which start on Friday, the differences between the main players remain so wide that Mr Thomsen’s prediction may not be too far off the mark.

For those who only follow the Greek crisis episodically, the fact that the eurozone is facing yet another make-or-break bailout deadline may seem baffling. Wasn’t the Grexit car wreck avoided last July after a series of all-night summits ended with a €86bn rescue deal? Yes and no. The July deal gave Greece €13bn of the €86bn almost immediately, after Athens agreed to quickly pass an overhaul of its value-added tax system and make cuts to pension benefits. But much of the heavy lifting was put off until the new bailout’s first quarterly review – including, critically, a decision by the IMF on whether to participate in the bailout at all.

Casual followers may read the words “first quarterly review” and assume that such a review would be completed at the end of the first quarter. Which, in the case of the new Greek programme, would have meant October. But it has become an unfortunate custom that “quarterly” reviews of Greek bailouts can actually stretch over several quarters – the fifth quarterly review of the second Greek bailout went on for nearly a year. The current “quarterly” review has now gone on for about six months after the first quarter ended. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Italian banks appear to be in trouble. Again. With €360bn in non-performing loans – by far the largest pile in the eurozone, and behind only Greece and Cyprus as a percentage of all outstanding loans – the market has been selling off Italy’s financial sector since the start of the year to where it’s now down about a third of its value since January. But their troubles have become acute again because of the struggles of one mid-sized bank, Banca Popolare di Vicenza, to raise the €1.8bn in capital the European Central Bank has demanded.

The share sale by Vicenza is being underwritten by UniCredit, Italy’s only systemically important bank, but last week UniCredit sought government assistance out of fear Vicenza’s shares wouldn’t be bought by nervous investors – and UniCredit itself would be left holding the bag. That, in turn, raised questions about UniCredit’s own balance sheet, where it already lags behind many of its peers in terms of financial health.

The Italian government isn’t in a place to help, however. First of all, it doesn’t have any money to throw at the problem; its national debt is already nearly 140 per cent of economic output, the highest in the eurozone outside of Greece, and there’s not a billion or two around to spare. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Rome did intervene, it would have to follow the EU’s new post-crisis banking rules, which require the government to force losses on private investors before any public money can be used to rescue a bank. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Spain's Mariano Rajoy, right, with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president

Next to Ireland, there have been few eurozone countries that have been touted as austerity success stories more often than Spain. Under the government of Mariano Rajoy, the centre-right prime minister who is still clinging onto office after indecisive elections in December, the country went through a series of wrenching reform programmes and came out the other side with relatively robust growth. In February, the European Commission said Spain’s economic output had grown 3.2 per cent last year, double the eurozone average.

But one thing Madrid can’t seem to do is get a handle on is its budget deficit. Originally, the Spanish government was supposed to get its deficit back below the EU’s ceiling of 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2013. When it became clear at the height of the eurozone crisis that was impossible, the deadline got extended by a year. But a year later, Madrid had made so little progress that it got a further two-year extension, to 2016. It appears things have gotten no better over those two years, however: yesterday, Spain’s national statistics office announced that the country’s 2015 deficit was nearly 5.2 per cent – even higher than Brussels estimated back in February. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Erdogan, Merkel and Obama at the November Group of 20 summit in Antalya, Turkey

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, shows up for a summit in Washington today, he’ll get something of a cold shoulder. Instead of a one-on-one with President Barack Obama, as Ankara requested, Mr Erdogan will instead be granted an audience with Joe Biden, the vice-president. The White House has tried to explain away the apparent snub as a factor of the 50-odd leaders who are descending on Washington for the gathering on nuclear security. But it is being seen in some quarters as a sign of strain in relations with the US over media freedom and Mr Erdogan’s aggressive military campaign against Kurds.

There have been no such outwards signs of squeamishness in Europe, however, where all 28 EU leaders have had three separate summits with Mr Erdogan’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to persuade him to stem the influx of migrants pouring into Europe from Turkey. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, went so far as to fly to Istanbul on the eve of Turkish elections to be photographed sitting in twin thrones with Mr Erdogan.

Which all makes the new diplomatic dust-up between European governments and Ankara all the more awkward. Yesterday, both Germany and the EU were forced to reiterate their support for a free press and free expression after Ankara summoned Germany’s ambassador to complain about a satirical video shown on German public broadcaster ARD that depicted Mr Erdogan as a dictator rounding up journalists and bombing Kurds. That diplomatic outburst came hot on the heels of an angry denunciation of EU envoys’ presence at an Istanbul trial of two prominent Turkish journalists charged with espionage. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Olivier Martins, right, speaks to reporters after a hearing on a terrorism case earlier this year.

A day after Fayçal Cheffou was freed by Belgian authorities after an investigative judge determined there was insufficient evidence that he was the third conspirator in last week’s bombing of Brussels airport, his lawyer Olivier Martins made the case in the court of public opinion about why he believes his client is innocent. Speaking on Belgian state television, Mr Martins said Mr Cheffou’s key alibi was his phone records, which showed he had made and received calls at home at the time of the bombing. “The judge carried out these checks [of phone records] immediately and, apparently, these checks proved to be exculpatory,” he said.

Mr Martins confirmed what had been reported in the Belgian press: that the main piece of evidence against his client was the testimony of the taxi driver who unwittingly drove the three bombers to the airport on the morning of the attack. Mr Martins said he challenged the identification, arguing that from airport CCTV footage it was clear the “third man” who was walking alongside the two known suicide bombers was wearing a hat and oversized glasses – a possible disguise. Could the taxi driver really recognise a man in disguise?

He also asked whether investigators had compared fingerprints or DNA taken from the baggage trolley the “third man” was seen pushing in the CCTV video. During the hearing, Mr Martins said the investigating judge acknowledged: “We have the trolley.” But the judge did not reveal whether investigators had compared fingerprints and DNA on the trolley with Mr Cheffou’s. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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What else could possibly go wrong? After days of revelations that Belgian intelligence had all three Brussels suicide bombers on their radar — or at least should have had them on their radar — well before they detonated their explosives, authorities seemed to be able to claim one significant victory: less than 48 hours after the attacks, they netted the last remaining big fish. The plotter known as the “man in white” or the “man in the hat” because of the cream-coloured jacket and floppy headwear he was wearing in Brussels airport CCTV footage was captured on Thursday evening right in front of the federal prosecutors office. Or so prosecutors thought.

Instead, an investigating judge ordered the man, Fayçal Cheffou, released yesterday after the initial evidence he was the third airport conspirator could not be corroborated by DNA and fingerprints. Instead, investigators are back where they started, appealing to the public for information about the man who appears in the grainy CCTV pictures next to the two already identified as airport bombers, Ibrahim El Bakraoui and Najim Laachraoui. After only releasing stills of the footage last week, Belgian federal police yesterday decided to put out the actual video on YouTube, showing the “man in white” nonchalantly pushing his luggage cart through the airport’s departure hall as he casually chats with Bakraoui and Laachraoui. The suitcase bomb on his cart never detonated, and he is believed to have fled the scene. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Is Fayçal Cheffou the “man in white,” the third conspirator captured on CCTV footage just before last week’s Brussels airport attack pushing a baggage cart next to the two suicide bombers? Belgian prosecutors are operating under that assumption after charging him with terrorist murders on Saturday, but they have yet to formally name him as the man who dropped off the largest bomb at Zaventem airport but later fled after it failed to detonate.

The Belgian press was filled with accounts of Mr Cheffou’s recent activities, including attempts to radicalise migrants who were seeking shelter at a refugee camp in central Brussels. Some accounts have described Mr Cheffou as a freelance journalist, but the only real evidence of that is a video posted to YouTube where he reports on Muslim detainees at a Belgian facility who were allegedly protesting over being given daytime meals during Ramadan.

The charges against Mr Cheffou were just one in a series of moves by law enforcement across Europe to roll up members of the Islamic State network at the weekend. Yesterday alone, Belgian prosecutors brought charges against a man for his role in a Paris terrorist plot broken up by French police last week; Italian police arrested another man on allegations he helped Isis terrorists obtain false residency permits; and just last night Dutch police rounded up a third man in Rotterdam on charges related to the failed Paris attack.

The FT’s security correspondent Sam Jones has a look at whether all the recent arrests are evidence that the Isis network in Europe is far bigger than security services originally believed. In its account of the Europe-wide manhunt, the Wall Street Journal reports French and Belgian authorities have sought US assistance as they attempt to map out the full breadth of the cell. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Belgian’s interior minister Jan Jambon has called it a double erreur – the failure of either the Belgian justice ministry or its Turkish liaison officer to properly handle information provided by Ankara about Ibrahim El Bakraoui, the Brussels airport suicide bomber.

Turkish officials say they deported El Bakraoui, a Belgian national, to the Netherlands in July after picking him up near the Syrian border and informing the Dutch government of his ties to extremists. Read more