Peter Spiegel

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Thus far, Belgian authorities have disclosed only four men were involved in the plot: Khalid at the metro station and the two suicide bombers at the airport, as well as a third man who has become known as the “man in white” who accompanied the two bombers at the airport and is still on the run. But most plots of this sophistication only happen with the help of a broader network of suppliers and enablers, meaning its unlikely the Belgian investigation ends with the four. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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A Belgian soldier patrols the grounds of Brussels airport on Tuesday morning

Belgian authorities this morning are still hunting for a man they believe is on the run after participating in yesterday’s attack on Brussels’ international airport, and have been focusing their investigation on the city’s Schaerbeek neighbourhood after a raid there turned up an explosive device, chemicals and an Islamic State flag. Late last night, the federal police posted new photos of the two other suspects in the airport bombing, who federal prosecutors said are believed to have killed themselves in twin suicide attacks, which has left at least 14 dead. [UPDATE: Belgian broadcaster RTBF has identified the two suicide suspects as brothers Khalid and Brahim El Bakraoui.]

According to Dernière Heure, a Brussels legal tabloid that broken several key angles in the investigation, police were led to the Schaerbeek flat by the taxi driver who unwittingly drove the three attackers to the airport yesterday morning. The paper also says it was the same driver who led investigators to a third, unexploded bomb in a suitcase at the airport; he told police that the three men had carried a lot more bags than just the two that had blown up.

Less is known about the bombing of a metro at the Maalbeek station in the Belgian capital’s EU quarter. Thus far, authorities have released little information other than that at least 20 were killed in that attack, which occurred about an hour after the initial bombs went off at the airport. Eyewitnesses said the explosives went off just as the train was pulling into Maalbeek and survivors had to pry open the doors to get out of the carriage. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu speaks to reporters upon arrival at the EU summit Friday morning

Turkey’s prime minister arrived in Brussels last night for what is expected to be an extremely difficult final round of negotiations with EU leaders on a deal that would allow Greece to return of thousands of refugees arriving on its shores to Turkey. The talks are due to begin this morning between Ahmet Davutoglu and three EU leaders – the European Commission and European Council presidents as well as Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister who holds the EU’s rotating presidency – but diplomats last night said they remained unsure whether Ankara would agree to the EU’s terms.

After five hours of talks in a summit last night, the EU’s 28 leaders agreed a common negotiating line that was not much different from a proposal tabled by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, the day before. But those terms include potential poison pills that Ankara has indicated are unacceptable. Foremost among those are measures Turkey would have to implement to completely overhaul its asylum system – including widening the nationalities that received protected status. Currently, only Syrians are given protections similar to those required under the Geneva Conventions, and the new EU negotiating line, seen by the FT, insists all migrants returned to Turkey be treated in compliance with “international standards”. Ankara has signaled it is unwilling to be lectured by Brussels on how it treats refugees. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Tusk, right, arrives in Nicosia for meetings with the Cypriot president earlier this week

At a meeting of all 28 ambassadors to the EU late yesterday, aides to Donald Tusk, the European Council president, circulated a new three-page draft of a migration deal with Turkey that will serve as the basis of two days of summit talks aimed at securing an agreement with Ankara by Friday.

We got our hands on the draft and have posted it here. Much of the text reflects the emerging consensus of European officials that has emerged over the last week, be it on the legality of the mass return policy of migrants from Greece to Turkey or on the sticky issue of getting Cyprus to sign onto any pact.

Because many of the issues are couched in opaque diplomatese, Brussels Blog hereby offers an annotated version of the key parts of the text:

 Read more

Peter Spiegel

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A Russian government photo of Syria-based military aircraft returning home yesterday

Once again, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has caught nearly everyone with their guard down. Yesterday, as promised, he began withdrawing Russian forces from Syria, complete with cinematic videos of Sukhoi fighter jets departing Hmeymim airbase for home, posted to the defence ministry’s webpage. The Tass news agency quoted senior Kremlin officials saying anti-aircraft systems would remain, however, raising questions everywhere fromWashington to Brussels to Damascus about whether this amounted to a full stand-down or, as frequently happened in Ukraine, a temporary move that could be reversed.

At home, Mr Putin’s move is being hailed as a great strategic victory. State TV declared the deployment had completed its mission of “exterminating the terrorists” and stabilising the region. But western analysts were less convinced, noting that while Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and close Kremlin ally, has been shored up, the country’s second city of Aleppo remains out of firm regime control and the fighting has ground into an uncertain quagmire rather than a clear victory. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Anastasiades, right, chats with Britain's David Cameron at the EU refugee summit last week.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president who has been attempting to broker a deal to stop the influx of refugees into the EU, has flown to Nicosia for a meeting this morning with Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades. For a man who spent the week before the last EU migration summit travelling to seven different capitals in four days, the fact that Mr Tusk is making Cyprus his only stop ahead of the next two-day gathering beginning Thursday is telling: the small island nation may prove the most difficult needle to thread in Brussels’ nascent deal with Turkey to take back thousands of migrants now washing ashore in Greece. [UPDATE: Mr Tusk has tacked on an evening trip to Ankara at the last minute.]

Cyprus has long been one of the biggest complicating factors in EU-Turkey relations, so objections from Nicosia to the demands being made by Ankara– another €3bn in aid, a visa-free travel scheme, opening of new “chapters” in EU membership talks – may have been expected. But the small group of EU leaders who brokered last week’s deal, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, seemed to have forgotten that Cypriot objections this time around are far more consequential: the country is in the middle of delicate talks that diplomats believe are the best (and perhaps last) chance to reunify an island divided since Turkey invaded and held its northern half in 1974. For Mr Anastasiades, making concessions to Ankara now without any compensation would not only cost him politically at home, but could wreck reunification talks altogether since the Greek Cypriot community he leads would likely abandon him. Like all other 27 EU heads of state, Mr Anastasiades can, on his own, veto the Turkey deal. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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A protestor holds up a copy of Poland's constitution during Thursday's demonstration

Almost since the day it retook power in October, Poland’s Law and Justice government has courted controversy over policies party boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said are part of a plan to “fix” the country. At the centre of the squabbling has been a law passed in December that overhauls the way Warsaw’s constitutional court operates, changes that critics say limits its ability to strike down government policies it finds objectionable.

The law has drawn scrutiny from Brussels, which launched its first-ever review of a member’s government for possible violations of the EU’s “fundamental values” after the measure was passed. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which was asked to review the law as well, came down hard on Warsaw in a draft decision that was leaked to a Polish newspaper. This week it was the turn of the court itself, which ruled that the laws curbing its powers were unconstitutional. But in a decision that stunned many, Poland’s prime minister, Beata Szydlo, announced she would not allow the court’s ruling to be officially published, meaning it will not be enforceable. “This is not a judgement, it is a political position,” said Poland’s foreign minister. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Happy European Central Bank monetary policy meeting day! It’s the time of the month eurozone economy watchers crowd around their desktop livestreams to find out what new plan Mario Draghi has concocted to revive the region’s growth, since the latest one still doesn’t seem to be working. The problem is that the arrows in Mr Draghi’s economic stimulus quiver are running out, and those that are left all have significant limitations once they’re fired.

Let’s start with a central bank’s most basic tool: lowering interest rates to spur borrowing and investment. In normal times, cutting borrowing costs is a no-brainer. As of December, however, Mr Draghi lowered the ECB’s deposit rate to negative 0.3 per cent. In theory, a negative deposit rate would spur bankers to lend, since leaving the cash in ECB accounts means they’re actually losing money. But so far, there’s been little evidence that logic has taken hold.

Negative interest rates are also difficult politically in the ECB’s host country of Germany, where thriftiness is next to godliness and savings accounts and insurance policies are viewed as important income generators. Lower rates mean lower returns on savings, and cuts in ECB rates are treated with the kind of purple prose and blaring headlines in German tabloids that are normally reserved for celebrity divorces and grisly murders in similar newspapers abroad. Even before the ECB met, the German banking association was out with a statement yesterday saying further interest rate cuts would do “more harm than good.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Merkel, right, with CSU chief Horst Seehofer, her most high-profile critic on migration policy

Did Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, engineer her surprise summit deal with Ankara to bolster her chances of winning three key regional elections this weekend? That was the question some of the more cynical European diplomats were asking themselves yesterday as they licked their wounds from what one called a “brutal” 12 hours of summit negotiations, where Ms Merkel essentially rammed through a bilateral deal she reached with her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, on the gathering’s eve.

If Ms Merkel had hoped the unexpected agreement – which would have Turkey take back potentially thousands of refugees washing up on Europe’s shores in return for €6bn in aid and a visa-free travel scheme – would be hailed at home and win her political points before the Sunday vote, then she appeared headed for disappointment. Horst Seehofer, head of Ms Merkel’s Bavarian CSU sister party and her most prominent migration critic, was cool to the plan and other nominal allies were even more critical. Marcel Huber, a prominent CSU leader and secretary of the Bavarian regional government, said the visa liberalisation scheme would face “massive resistance” and was “not a matter for consideration”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes the criticism even came from within Ms Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu, left, at a post-summit press conference early Tuesday morning

It has become customary to assume EU summits aimed at tackling the ongoing refugee crisis produce much rhetoric but little meat. But last night’s gathering of European leaders with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, may prove the one that broke the rule.

In talks that went on for 12 hours, the two sides emerged with the outlines of a deal that, if finalised next week, is as sweeping in its implications as it is in its substance. The German-engineered plan would allow the EU to turn back almost all migrants washing ashore in Greece and return them to Turkey. But the price will be high: in addition to billions of additional European aid to Ankara, the EU would expedite a long-dormant visa liberalisation programme that could provide Turkish nationals visa-free travel into the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone as soon as June.

That a significant deal was in the offing was clear late last week when Donald Tusk, the European Council president, travelled to Ankara and received strong signals that Mr Davutoglu was open to a massive programme of refugee returns. But the plan now on the table is significantly more ambitious than the one Mr Tusk was considering. It was driven almost entirely by Mr Davutoglu and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, with the help of Mark Rutte, her Dutch counterpart and holder of the EU’s rotating presidency. The EU’s nominal leaders (Mr Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president) were almost entirely cut out of the deal-making, which began in earnest when the Turkish, German and Dutch leaders held a pre-summit meeting on Sunday. In her press conference, Ms Merkel acknowledged as much, saying Mr Davutoglu presented new demands at the Sunday meeting – and she endorsed them wholeheartedly. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Ahmet Davutoglu, centre, meets with his German and Dutch counterparts ahead of the summit

EU leaders gather in Brussels today with Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, to once again attempt to sort out a deal that could stop the massive influx of refugees crossing into Europe from Turkish shores. This time, however, rather than high-minded rhetoric, there appears to be a workable deal on the table: Mr Davutoglu has signalled his readiness to agree a scheme that would allow the EU to return tens of thousands of non-Syrian migrants trying to enter Greece back to Turkey. Add in a new Nato mission that was yesterday given the authority to operate in Turkish waters and will help Greek and Turkish authorities hunt down human smugglers, and the pieces of effective response may finally be falling into place.

There’s one small problem, however: the UN isn’t sure the plan is legal under international law, which prohibits “pushbacks” of potential asylum seekers, who under the Geneva Conventions must receive a fair hearing first. Vincent Cochetel, who is leading the UN refugee agency’s response to the European crisis, hinted EU courts would find the tactic in violation of EU laws which incorporate the Geneva Conventions. Human rights groups also question its legality. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Cypriot finance minister Harris Georgiades, left, with eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem

And then there was one. If all goes according to plan, eurozone finance ministers will bid a fond farewell to the Cypriot bailout on Monday, making the island nation the fourth of the five countries that were forced into a rescue programme at the height of the crisis to exit. Only Greece remains.

In many respects, the Cypriots have been model bailout students. Nicosia only spent about €7.5bn of the €10bn originally allocated in the programme, and its economy returned to growth last year, a full year earlier than the bailout’s architects anticipated. Indeed, it has out-performed on almost every major economic indicator: its debt levels are lower than originally forecast, its projected budget deficit isn’t a deficit, and its current account is almost in balance.

Still, not everything is so rosy. Most importantly, the bailout will end without the Cypriot government completing all the reform tasks it was supposed to – the privatisation of the state telecommunications operator proved too politically radioactive so close to parliamentary elections, so won’t be done in time. As a result, Monday’s eurogroup meeting will be a farewell, but not a formal closure of the programme. That will happen at the end of the month when the three-year rescue just expires. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Tusk stops in Athens Thursday morning to meet with Greece's Alexis Tsipras en route to Ankara

If it’s Thursday, it must be Ankara.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is halfway through a four-day, six-country tour ahead of Monday’s emergency EU summit on refugees that culminates in Turkey. He will meet prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu today in Ankara and cool his heels most of tomorrow morning awaiting an afternoon meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. On almost every stop on his way to Turkey, Mr Tusk has signalled he still isn’t happy with the country’s efforts to stem the migrant flow despite the much-debated bilateral deal in which Ankara was supposed to crack down on migration in exchange for €3bn in EU aid. Tusk has promised to raise the issue with the Turks.

New numbers released by the UN’s refugee agency show that daily arrivals in Greece peaked at more than 3,600 last week, which is not much lower than it has been for the last two months. Overall numbers for February were slightly below January, but EU officials have been reluctant to concede on any Turkish requests – like a new programme to resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey into Europe – unless those numbers fall more significantly. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Kenny does some last-minute campaigning in Dublin ahead of today's general election

Elections are held in a onetime bailout country, and the incumbent party wins – but without enough support to cobble together a governing coalition. It happened in Portugal back in October, in Spain in December, and it seems the most likely scenario to play out today in Ireland, where voters go to the polls for the first time since Dublin emerged from its eurozone rescue two years ago. The Irish Polling Indicator, a daily tally of opinion surveys, has the Fine Gael party of prime minister Enda Kenny at just 28.5 per cent, with coalition partner Labour at 6.5 per cent. “Hung Dáil looms,” declares the Irish Times.

Given Ireland’s unusual political history, finding parties for Fine Gael to partner with (other than Labour) is no easy task. Unlike most Western European democracies, Ireland’s modern party system didn’t really develop on a traditional left-right spectrum. Instead, it’s more of what political scientists term a “centre-periphery” model, originally defined on Ireland’s relationship with its former masters in London. During the Irish Civil War, those who backed the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave Dublin independence, went on to become Fine Gael; those who thought the treaty didn’t go far enough (mainly because the new Irish Free State didn’t include Northern Ireland) eventually became Fianna Fáil.

For those historical reasons, a “grand coalition” of the country’s two main political parties would be an anomaly – despite narrow policy differences (indeed, the Irish Times recently posted a video entitled “What’s the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?”). To this day, Fine Gael is seen as the party of Dublin’s professional elites, and that division has been exacerbated in the post-bailout environment, where Dublin has thrived but the countryside has failed to rebound. The FT’s Ireland correspondent Vincent Boland has a look at those divisions in his pre-election report from Limerick. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Orban announcing Hungary's migration referendum in Budapest on Wednesday

Now it’s Hungary’s turn. Viktor Orban, the polarising Hungarian premier, announced yesterday that his country would be holding a referendum on whether it should be forced to take in refugees as part of EU policies to relieve Greece and other overwhelmed frontier countries suffering the biggest influxes of migrants from the war-torn Middle East. By our count, that would make five countries holding referenda on EU policies in the course of about a year: Greece’s “oxi” on a the terms of a third eurozone bailout; Denmark’s “no” on opting-in to EU policing and judicial policies; an upcoming April Dutch referendum on the EU integration deal with Ukraine; Britain’s June plebiscite on EU membership; and now Mr Orban’s migration poll.

Throw in two more referenda – an Italian one in October on a non-EU domestic reform issue, and the always referendum-happy (but non-EU member) Switzerland – and you have a continent that seems to have gone delirious for direct democracy. As Tom Nuttall, the Economist’s Brussels-based Charlemagne columnist, pointed out in January, it’s not as if referenda are a new phenomenon. But when political leaders begin applying it to EU policies – which are always the product of multilateral horse-trading in Brussels – it could grind the already slow-moving European legislative machine-work to a halt.

In some ways, the rash of referenda is a bit of birds coming home to roost. Founders of the European project were overtly elitist about how they went about integration. “I thought it wrong to consult the peoples of Europe about the structure of a community of which they had no practical experience,” Jean Monnet, the intellectual godfather of the EU, once famously said. In more recent times, referenda results were either worked around – after France and the Netherlands rejected the EU’s “constitutional treaty” in 2005 it was largely rebranded the “Lisbon treaty” with tweaks that made plebiscites unnecessary – or re-run. Ireland voted twice on both the Nice and Lisbon treaties after rejecting them the first time around. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Other than David Cameron’s deal renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU, the only major decision taken at last week’s Brussels summit was to hold yet another emergency summit on Europe’s burgeoning refugee crisis. With a regularly-scheduled summit already on the calendar for March 17, why would leaders need to reassemble again in the first week of March? According to several EU diplomats, the new gathering will be held at the request of Chancellor Angela Merkel because of a major political event happening in the interim: March 13 regional elections in three large German states.

Increasingly, those elections – in wealthy Baden-Württemberg; neighbouring Rhineland-Pfalz; and eastern Saxony-Anhalt – are being seen as referenda on Ms Merkel’s migration policy. And with UN figures showing refugee arrivals in Greece back up above 3,000 per day, there’s a good reason for the chancellor to be in a bit of a panic. Recent polls show the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party making significant gains in all three länder, particularly in Saxony-Anhalt, where a survey published yesterday by the mass-market Bild newspaper had AfD at a stunning 17 per cent, ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats. In Baden-Württemberg, whose capital of Stuttgart is home to automaker Daimler, Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats – who have dominated the state’s politics for decades – fell behind the Greens in the same poll. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says “it looks bleak” for the CDU in the region. In Rhineland-Pfalz, AfD has risen from nothing in the 2011 elections to 8.5 per cent.

The atmospherics have not been helped by events on the ground, which appear to be further radicalising the electorate. Last week, videos emerged of an anti-immigrant mob besieging a bus filled with migrants in the small town of Clausnitz, near the Czech border. That was compounded by another video showing police dragging a frightened boy off the bus as the mob raged outside. Just days later in Bautzen, another small town near the Czech border, onlookers cheered as a building meant to house asylum seekers burned to the ground. Much like the new year’s attacks in Cologne, the incidents have set off another round of German soul searching over just how welcome the country is to immigrants. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Britain's David Cameron leaves the EU summit building at 5:30am on Friday morning

If you’re reading this morning’s note to find out if David Cameron sealed his “new settlement” deal to change the UK’s relationship with Brussels at last night’s EU summit, you’ll have to wait at least a few hours more. The first night’s debate over the British prime minster’s renegotiation plan was more contentious than many expected and left leaders deliberating into the early morning hours, with the session breaking up just before 2:30am.

After the summit ended, Mr Cameron went off for a private conversation with Donald Tusk, the European Council president who has been brokering the deal, to decide how to proceed at today’s session, which is due to start at 11am – though officials warned that could slip since the summit’s dinner debate on migration went on for more than five hours, longer than organisers had planned. Mr Tusk was to have separate bilaterals with France’s François Hollande, Belgium’s Charles Michel and Czech premier Bohuslav Sobotka before leaders reconvene, and sherpas and lawyers were working away through the morning to draw up another draft text for summit’s second day. “We have made some progress, but a lot remains to be done,” a tired-looking Mr Tusk said before heading off to his meeting with Mr Cameron.

The FT Brussels bureau’s Brexit watcher Alex Barker has pulled together all the blow-by-blow colour from last night’s session, including Mr Cameron and Mr Tusk frightening of the assembled leaders by warning talks may last into the weekend. Alex’s story relates how Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister who is no stranger to marathon summits, was among the more annoyed premiers in the room, wondering aloud why they were debating the nuances of the phrase “ever closer union” when the EU was at risk of “disintegrating” over its mounting refugee crisis. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Crews prepare the EU summit building for Thursday night's high-stakes gathering

Ever since Donald Tusk, the European Council president, began chairing EU summits just over a year ago, they have frequently been far shorter and more tightly-scripted affairs than those run by his predecessor, Herman Van Rompuy. Sometimes gatherings scheduled to run two days are cut short by an entire day, something that never happened under Mr Van Rompuy. So it is a measure of the two-day summit that begins today – where leaders are hoping to finally lock down an agreement on Britain’s renegotiated relationship with the EU – that on the eve of its commencement, those running it are still not entirely certain how the schedule will unfold. “We still don’t actually have a set-in-stone running order,” lamented one EU diplomat involved in the summit’s planning.

Mr Tusk’s ultimate goal is to get all 28 national leaders to agree the “new settlement” demanded by David Cameron, the British prime minister, by Friday morning over what one senior EU official only half-jokingly termed an EU “English breakfast”. That could enable Mr Cameron to announce the date for his referendum on Britain’s EU membership back in Downing Street that very afternoon (most now expect it to be held in late June). But how Mr Tusk is actually going to get to a Friday morning agreement will be partially improvisational.

The one thing organisers do know is that the “British question” will be the first thing on the agenda, shortly after the presidents and prime ministers arrive at 5pm. After a “tour de table”, officials said Mr Tusk expects to take stock of where negotiations stand and then task lawyers and sherpas to start drafting any revisions to the current text he has prepared. The senior EU official said there will be a “war room” filled with lawyers who will attempt to get any political deal into legally-binding language. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Ukraine's Arseniy Yatseniuk speaks during last night's "no confidence" debate in parliament

Amidst the ongoing refugee crisis, and the more recent fever over Britain’s efforts to renegotiate its relationship with the EU and avoid Brexit, the crisis that once dominated the European agenda and threatened to plunge the continent into another Cold War disappeared from the headlines. But mounting accusations of rampant corruption in Kiev have thrust Ukraine back into the spotlight, culminating with yesterday’s call by President Petro Poroshenko for the resignation of his erstwhile ally, prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.

Last night, the Ukrainian parliament failed to comply, coming up 32 votes short of the 226 needed to pass a no-confidence motion that would have left the country in a state of suspended animation, stuck between choosing a new technocratic government or early elections. Despite that failure, the fallout from the split between Mr Poroshenko and Mr Yatseniuk – who head the legislature’s two largest parties, which are both part of the governing coalition – is likely to make an already unstable situation even shakier.

The current crisis was sparked by the resignation earlier this month of Aivaras Abromavicius, the government’s reform-minded economy minister who stepped down after accusing the government of condoning corruption and cronyism akin to the disgraced regime of Viktor Yanukovich, the onetime president topped in the 2014 Maidan revolution. The International Monetary Fund, which is still leading a $40bn Western bailout of Kiev after the Russian-instigated civil war plunged the Ukrainian economy into an abyss, piled on with chief Christine Lagarde warning the programme could not continue without a “substantial new effort” to invigorate reforms. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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David Cameron, left, is greeted this morning by EU Parliament president Martin Schulz

It has become something of a newfangled tradition for European prime ministers facing a spot of trouble on the EU stage to make a ritual appearance before the European Parliament to explain themselves – though some seemed to be holding their noses even as they did so.

The precedent was set by Viktor Orban, the Hungarian premier, who in 2012 travelled to the parliament’s second home in Strasbourg to counter criticisms his government was becoming increasingly authoritarian following a new media law and judicial reforms that critics charged improperly consolidated power in his own hands. Just last year, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, made the Strasbourg pilgrimage at the height of fears his bailout brinkmanship would lead to Grexit. And Poland’s new leader, Beata Szydlo, agreed to appear last month following criticism her new media and judicial laws were following an Orbanesque trajectory.

Which is why many in the European Parliament expected David Cameron would turn up to make his “new settlement” case to them ahead of this week’s high-profile summit, where he hopes to emerge with a “reform” deal he can sell to the British public ahead of an expected June referendum on EU membership. Mr Cameron’s reasons for courting the parliament are not just symbolic, as they were for Mr Orban, Mr Tsipras and Ms Szydlo. He needs MEPs to approve many of the migrant benefit restrictions he has won in negotiations with EU leaders, since they will have to be finalised through the EU’s normal legislative process.

But when Mr Cameron arrives in Brussels today, it won’t be to appear before the entire parliament meeting in plenary session. Indeed, it won’t even be a meeting with the parliament’s conference of presidents – which was the original plan, until someone in Downing Street realised the conference includes leaders of all the parliament’s’ political groups, including those headed by archenemy (and UK Independence party leader) Nigel Farage and French ultranationalist (and National Front leader) Marine Le Pen. Read more