EU Commission

Jim Brunsden

By Mehreen Khan in London

The International Monetary Fund’s latest recommendations on Greek debt relief have leaked.

Yesterday, ahead of the latest meeting of eurozone finance ministers on May 24, the IMF repeated it would take part in Greece’s €86bn bailout only if its European partners could prove “the numbers add up”.

A key part of this calculation is for the fund to be fully assured that Greece’s debt mountain is finally placed on a sustainable downward trajectory. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Britain: 2016

Should an extraterrestrial land on Earth tomorrow and decide to base his decision on where to live solely on economic forecasts provided by the European Commission, there’s a fair chance they’d pick the UK.

In country-specific recommendations published yesterday for almost all EU countries, Britain comes out looking pretty good, with a “dynamic” economy, “strong” household balance sheets and a banking sector whose resilience “continues to improve.” Even the risks to the economic outlook are presented as being contained, or mitigated by the government’s “wide-ranging” reform agenda.

All well and good. The only perplexing thing is, how does this fit with the altogether less peppy assessment that the EU Commission made this time last year? What could be happening to change their view? Read more

The three EU chieftains– Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, and Martin Schulz – swapped the corridors of power in Brussels for the halls of Rome’s Capitoline Museums on Thursday night, but the magnificent setting only seemed to deepen their gloom about the state of European integration.

The trio was in the Italian capital ahead of Friday’s ceremony to deliver the prestigious Charlemagne award to Pope Francis at the Vatican. But first they had to debate the future of Europe at a time when it appears to be in serious jeopardy amid the rise of populism, weak economic growth, and, the migration crisisRead more

Peter Spiegel

This is Tuesday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

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

Christian Oliver

This is Monday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Margrethe Vestager, the Commission's competition chief, and her mobile phone

It often seems that the European Commission’s only real game plan regarding Brexit is to hope that there won’t be any unfortunate spats involving the UK right in the middle of campaign season. That won’t be possible, and there is every sign an imminent decision over whether to allow consolidation among British mobile phone network operators could turn into a political football.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU antitrust chief, has been known to argue that cutting the number of players from four to three in any one market saps competition and, in the case of telecommunications, allows companies to increase phone bills. Her hard-line stance on a 4-to-3 Danish telecoms merger last year suggests she’s also looking to block the £10.5bn purchase by CK Hutchison’s Three of Telefónica’s O2. Or at the very least, she will impose stinging concessions.

In less combustible times, the politics would be more navigable. Ofcom, the UK regulator, has already announced it is hostile to the deal. Just this morning, Britain’s competition and markets authority weighed in, writing to Ms Vestager that the merger a “significant impediment to effective competition” in the UK’s mobile phone market. Ms Vestager could quite easily argue that she represents the sort of “more competitive Europe” that David Cameron, the British prime minister, says he wants. She could argue she is simply protecting the little guy from big corporates who will put his phone bills up. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Mr Moscovici, right, chats with Mr Juncker. He will present the new tax measures next week.

Next week, the European Commission will take its latest step in its ongoing quest to move beyond the LuxLeaks corporate tax avoidance scandal that has periodically dogged President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s tax policy chief, is set to unveil a flurry of proposals aimed at tackling so-called base erosion and profit shifting: in other words the aggressive tactics used by multinationals to shrink their tax bills by as much as possible. This morning, we’ve done a story about the new proposals, which we obtained. But we’ve also now posted them here for others to read.

The so-called LuxLeaks revelations emerged shortly after Mr Juncker became commission president in November 2014, and dogged his early days in office. They documented how during his two decades as Luxembourg prime minister, up to 340 multinational companies, ranging from Ikea to Pepsi, funnelled profits through the tiny country to lower their tax bills to as little as 1 per cent.

The commission has embarked on a wave of regulatory changes to close loopholes, including making a renewed push for the longstanding EU goal of having a common consolidated corporate tax base for companies. It is also pursuing high profile competition cases against tax deals Luxembourg and others struck with multinationals such as Apple, Amazon and Fiat.

Most recently, the European Commission ordered Belgium to recoup about €700m from 35 multinational companies that have benefited from the country’s generous fiscal incentive scheme.

Mr Moscovici’s plans, which are outlined in a 13-page summary posted here, enshrine international agreements reached by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development into EU law, and in some cases go even further – notably when it comes to restricting the ability of companies to shift of profits from parent companies to lightly taxed subsidiaries. Read more

Duncan Robinson

After weeks of waiting, Gunther Oettinger has replied to a letter from the Polish justice minister that compared the German commissioner’s criticism of Poland’s media reforms with. . . the Nazi’s crimes of the second world war.

The letter, which we’ve posted here, is surprisingly polite, with a perky hand-written “Dear Colleague!” to start. This marked a shift in tone from the original missive from Zbigniew Ziobro, who tartly complained last week:

You [Oettinger] demanded that Poland be placed under ‘supervision’. Such words, spoken by a German politician, have the worst possible connotations for Poles. For me, too. I am the grandson of a Polish officer who, during World War II, fought in [Poland’s] underground Home Army against ‘German supervision’.

But Brussels is determined not to get into a war of words with Warsaw. This tactic was tried and failed with Viktor Orban, the populist leader of Hungary, who was happy to spar in public with the commission over his reforms while becoming increasingly popular at home.

 Read more

Jim Brunsden

After receiving two pointed letters from Warsaw, Timmermans seeks a meeting with minister

For days, EU officials had been signaling they would only issue a strongly-worded démarche to Warsaw for its new laws that critics argue undermine democratic norms. But on Wednesday, the European Commission took the unexpected step of moving forward with a formal “rule-of-law procedure” to determine whether the two new laws – one dismissing the management of state TV and radio broadcasters, the other limiting the powers of the constitutional court – pose a “systemic threat” to European norms.

Frans Timmermans, the commission vice-president in charge of rule-of-law issues, announced the decision after Wednesday’s meeting of the 28 commissioners. But he also formally notified Warsaw in a letter that we got our hands on and posted here.

Mr Timmermans letter comes in response to two missives from Warsaw that were far more pointed – including a particularly invective-filled one sent by justice minister Zbigniew Ziorbro on Monday – effectively telling the Dutchman to butt out of Poland’s internal affairs.

EU officials insist that the decision to move forward with the review were unrelated to the impolitic letters. Instead, they say, commissioners felt the procedure would lend some structure to their dialogue with Warsaw; otherwise, it would have remained unclear how either side would proceed. Read more

Jim Brunsden

The revelations that Volkswagen was rigging emissions tests have left a trail of destruction in their wake: a once proud European champion has seen its reputation dragged through the mud, millions of owners of “clean diesel” cars have found out they were hoodwinked and – most importantly for Brussels – the EU’s current system for policing auto manufacturers has been exposed as deeply flawed.

EU officials and politicians now regularly lament that it was the US’s powerful Environmental Protection Agency, rather than any European authority, that revealed the company’s use of illegal defeat devices to cheat in emissions tests – even though the practice was going on right under everyone’s noses on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although most of the power to test and certify vehicles falls to national regulators, the European Commission has come in for its share of the blame in failing to better enforce rules in this area. As we reported last week, it is preparing plans for overhauling the EU’s moribund car approval system. But will they go far enough?

A draft of the measures, obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here, makes it clear that the commission views the VW scandal as a game changer. Prior to the revelations, the commission was planning a limited overhaul of EU requirements; much more far reaching options are now on the table. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Davutoglu, left, and Tusk embrace after last month's EU-Turkey summit in Brussels

During the height of the Donbass crisis, Ukrainian diplomats repeatedly managed to get President Petro Poroshenko into EU summit meetings even when he wasn’t explicitly invited – something that drove Herman Van Rompuy, then the European Council president, to distraction.

Are Turkish diplomats now trying to repeat the Ukrainian model?

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, is now scheduled to be in Brussels on Thursday – the same day the final two-day EU summit of the year kicks off – as part of a mini-summit of EU leaders hosted by Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann.

The gathering, which is to be held at the Austrian embassy, will include leaders of several countries who back an upcoming “resettlement” proposal by the European Commission, which would push EU countries to take anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 Syrian asylum seekers currently in Turkey.

Thus far, the attendees include Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the leaders of Sweden, Greece, Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. And now Davutoglu as well.

Donald Tusk, Van Rompuy’s successor as summit chairman, has made it clear that Davutoglu will not attend the summit itself, particularly since the Turkish prime minister was already feted at a summit of his very own just two weeks ago. Tusk’s displeasure is shared by several other countries who don’t think it is proper for other foreign leaders to gatecrash the EU party. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Since he took office a year ago as the EU’s financial services commissioner, Jonathan Hill has become renowned for his low key, calm approach – except when it comes to how he feels about car hire companies.

The details remain sketchy, but the demons of some previous holiday trauma seem to haunt this otherwise affable politician. Last week, he used the medium of Twitter to call on people to “Let us know your worst holiday car hire experience.”

A hearing he held last year with a committee of the UK House of Lords (of which he is also a member) become dominated by the issue of insuring rented cars, as peers took turns to let off steam about their encounters with unscrupulous rust bucket purveyors.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with Hill’s remit as the grandly titled European commissioner for financial stability, financial services and capital markets union?

The answer is: quite a lot, and this became clearer when the Commission published a policy paper on tackling the day-to-day financial irritants that people encounter when crossing borders, be it a lack of transparency on the fees you are charged when you transfer money abroad, an inability to take your health insurance policy with you when you move to another country or, yes, frustrations with ludicrously high insurance premiums on hire cars. Read more

Christian Oliver

Johan Van Overtveldt, Belgium's finance minister, has vowed to fight Vestager

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief, is regularly in the headlines for her corporate tax battles with big US companies: Google, Amazon, Apple and now McDonald’s. But don’t overlook her investigation into Belgium’s tax perks scheme for multinationals. A verdict appears to be imminent, and the repercussions will be felt well beyond the country of 11m.

Earlier this week, Johan Van Overtveldt, finance minister, told the De Standaard daily that Belgium was “highly likely” to have to claw back €700m from companies that have benefited from Belgium’s special tax incentives package.

Van Overtveldt is promising to resist Vestager’s tax justice campaign, but she isn’t a commissioner to change her mind too quickly. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Barack Obama speaks with Angela Merkel on the sidelines of the Paris climate summit

Now that the EU has signed a tentative deal with Turkey to help it stem the flow of migrants coming from the Middle East, Brussels appears to be turning to other allies for help – including the US.

According to diplomats, the Obama administration has for months been asking for a “wish list” from the EU on ways it can help, and in recent weeks it finally got that list from the European Commission. Brussels Blog got its hands on the five-page memo, titled “Potential areas of US political and operational support on international immigration and refugee crisis”, and has posted it here. (To give credit where credit is due, our friends and rivals over at the Italian daily La Stampa got their hands on it before we did.)

The document contains few surprises, including a lot of requests for US funding. But there are a couple of “asks” that are particularly interesting. First, the Commission is seeking Washington’s help in pressuring Sunni allies in the Gulf to both help with money and with the more politically combustible issue of accepting some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees that have been fleeing Syria. Or, in the words of the document:

 Read more

Christian Oliver

Does postponing her first trip to China for "important matters" mean tax cases imminent?

Danes are known for being fastidious about appointments. So it’s a really big deal that Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner, has cancelled her first trip to China. She was supposed to be there on Thursday and Friday.

The commission admits that something is up: “Due to important matters requiring her presence and full attention in Brussels, the commissioner will have to postpone the visit to China,” said a spokesperson.

We may be reading too much into these runes at the Brussels Blog, but there is a clamorous army of lawyers in Brussels simultaneously saying that we are reaching endgame in the landmark tax avoidance cases involving Fiat, Starbucks, Apple and Amazon. Read more

Christian Oliver

Oh dear. It’s like Fifa all over again.

How was it that the Americans managed to unearth all the rottenness in Volkswagen, Europe’s top carmaker? How come the Europeans were asleep at the wheel again?

That pretty much summed up the shame-faced mood at today’s session of the European Parliament’s environmental committee, where MEPs wanted lots of answers from the European Commission. And didn’t really get any.

Christofer Fjellner, a Swedish centre-right MEP, captured the spirit: “Of course it’s embarrassing that it’s the Americans that show us we have a problem. It could be telling that it is the Americans because in Europe, in member states, we are not up to the task of scrutinising our own heroes the way we should.” Read more

Christian Oliver

Margrethe Vestager, the EU's antitrust chief

Margrethe Vestager seems to be preparing for a marathon court battle.

At a parliamentary committee on Thursday, she gave a clear sign that she had the political will to issue tough landmark decisions on the sweetheart tax deals that EU countries have been issuing to multinationals.

But she also gave away a tell-tale clue that her officials are steeling themselves for a firestorm of litigation in what will become some of the defining cases of the Juncker commission. She won’t be rushed into a verdict before she has a “quality” case, she told the committee.

The Danish commissioner was appearing before the Brussels parliamentarians to give an update on four landmark tax investigations – Apple in Ireland, Starbucks in the Netherlands and Fiat and Amazon in Luxembourg.

Most critically, she robustly defended the commission’s revolutionary approach of treating “comfort letters” as state aid – effectively defining the letters (which are pre-emptive tax rulings, intended to reassure multinationals about whether their corporate structures aimed at to avoiding high tax bills are legal) as illegal subsidies. Read more

Peter Spiegel

On Tuesday, Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president who has been tasked with streamlining and overhauling the way Brussels operates, presented one of his signature initiatives – the so-called “better regulation” package aimed at scrutinising more carefully the rules Brussels imposes on businesses.

As the FT wrote after our hour-long interview with Timmermans, he is a relatively late convert to the Brussels reformist camp, having changed his view after a lot of soul-searching in 2005, when his native Netherlands voted against an EU constitutional treaty that he himself helped negotiate.

Perhaps Timmermans’ most notable contribution to the EU reform debate since then was a June 2013 Dutch government report he helped author that spelled out 54 different policy areas that should not be ceded to Brussels. Now Timmermans gets to practice what he preached – even more so, now that David Cameron, the newly re-elected British prime minister, has launched his attempt to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU focused on many of the same reform issues. Timmermans is widely expected to be the European Commission’s point man in those talks with London.

As is frequently our practice at the Brussels Blog, below we offer an annotated transcript of our interview. Timmermans’ responses have been slightly edited for clarity. We started with that 2013 Dutch report, since much of what Timmermans recommended back then appears to be part of his agenda now that he’s in Brussels – ideas that were also articulated in a November 2013 op-ed in the FT.

I didn’t know you would bring this up but you do because it clearly shows that what I think and what I want to do is more or less in line with what I proposed as foreign minister, and those who say, well, ‘He’s only doing this to appease David Cameron’ can see that I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time.

Actually, it all started with an op-ed that I wrote in your newspaper, and Jean-Claude Juncker picked up on that and when he asked me to do this with him, he referred to some of the ideas that I had written down in the Financial Times. So, this was very much part of his thinking and his programme, as it was in Martin Schulz’s thinking, and this is what they both brought forward in the electoral campaign.

 Read more

Peter Spiegel

Juncker, left, with Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras at last month's EU summit in Brussels

The Greek daily To Vima has a nice scoop this afternoon about a document they’ve been leaked purporting to be a new proposal from Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, on how to break the standoff between Athens and its creditors.

According to the To Vima report, the plan envisions a deal with Greece that completely cuts out the International Monetary Fund and releases about €5bn in aid to Athens from three different sources: the €1.8bn remaining in the EU’s portion of the current bailout; €1.9bn in profits from Greek bonds purchased by the European Central Bank back in 2010; and another €1.3bn or so in additional Greek bond profits the ECB will get in July.

In exchange, Greece would agree to adopt a relatively short list of economic reforms that are significantly narrower from those being sought by the IMF and a German-led group of hardliners within the eurozone.

The Commission’s spokeswoman responsible for economic issues, former Reuters correspondent Annika Briedthardt, has already distanced the Commission from the document, saying in a tweet that she’s not aware the proposal actually exists:

Other commission officials are similarly playing down its importance. “We have many documents,” said one, only half-jokingly.

Although nobody is admitting the provenance of the document, what it appears to be is one in a series of proposals going back and forth between the Commission and Athens in an effort to find common ground, rather than a full-blown “Juncker Plan” to cut the Gordian Knot. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Group photo, distributed by the European Commission, of "sherpas" at last month's meeting

The agenda for next month’s EU summit has the potential to become very full very fast. European leaders are already facing a fraught decision over whether to extend economic sanctions against Russia, which expire in July.

Then there’s the ongoing Greek fiscal crisis, which could come to a head in June, when Athens’ current bailout ends. And now David Cameron, the rechristened UK prime minister, has signaled he will launch his renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU at the same session.

Almost forgotten in this mix is eurozone leaders’ promise to revisit the future of their monetary union with a new “four presidents’ report” on how to fix the remaining shortcomings, due to be presented in June, too (the four presidents refer to the heads of the European Commission, European Council, European Central Bank and the eurogroup).

In preparation for that report, the so-called “sherpas” for all 28 EU leaders have been meeting periodically in Brussels under the chairmanship of Martin Selmayr, Jean-Claude Juncker’s influential chief of staff. Ahead of the last session on April 27, a summary of where the group stood was circulated to national capitals, and Brussels Blog obtained a copy.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, the document contains no mention of changing EU treaties any time soon, which will disappoint Cameron, who has included treaty changes as a pillar of his renegotiation campaign. Indeed, the clearest thing to come out of the five-page “note for discussion by sherpas” is that there is not a huge amount of enthusiasm for doing much of anything. Read more

Peter Spiegel

One of the more controversial actions taken by the Juncker Commission in its still-short life was January’s move to make the EU’s crisis-era budget rules more “flexible,” an announcement many took as a signal it was preparing to let both Italy and France off the hook for their recent fiscal transgressions. Which it ultimately did.

According to Commission officials, the so-called “flexibility communication” caused ructions among the 28 commissioners both because of its substance and the process by which it was agreed: the college was only allowed to see a hard copy of the highly-technical document for about a half hour before it was taken away, and then presented for adoption later in the day.

Among those who were angered by the way it was forced through the college over the complaints of some of the Commission’s budget hawks was Chancellor Angela Merkel who, according to our friends and rivals at the German weekly Der Spiegel (no relation), complained to Juncker that “her commissioner” – German Günther Oetttinger – had only received the document a few hours before it was to be approved. “Why ‘your’ commissioner?” Juncker reportedly replied coolly. “That’s my commissioner.”

Now it seems that Berlin is not the only place where objections are being raised about some of the decisions taken in the “flexibility communication”. According to a leaked opinion by the European Council’s legal service – which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here – last month, lawyers on the other side of Rue de la Loi appear to have decided a central part of the new guidelines might be illegal. Read more