EU

Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU trade commissioner, during a press conference last week

Meet the Miculas: two twin brothers, Ioan and Viorel, whose battle with EU law will be of interest to anyone following Europe’s fitful trade negotiations.

The duo’s battle to save their beer-to-biscuits food empire in northern Romania may not seem an obvious proxy for an increasingly bitter fight over the EU’s trade deals with the US and Canada. But it cuts to the heart of one of the most politically contentious issues surrounding both trade accords: the status of international investment tribunals.

The brothers, who also hold Swedish citizenship, have had a terrible start to the week.

On Monday, the EU said they would have to repay all the subsidies they received to build up their business in the poor northern Romanian county of Bihor, on the Hungarian border. Their factories, which produce brands such as Servus beer and Rony biscuits, depended on what Brussels ruled was illegal state aid. According to their lawyers, the pair had decided to invest in a region as impoverished as Bihor on the understanding that Romania would subsidise them. On that pledge hang some 9,000 jobs.

Their business model, which predated Romania’s accession to the EU, came unstuck when Bucharest decided to join the European club. Competition authorities no longer allowed this kind of state largesse. In 2005, Bucharest cut the funds to the brothers in Bihor. (Romania finally joined in 2007).

This is where things get interesting legally, and the trade aficionados will start to realise something is afoot.

As Swedish citizens, the Miculas took their case to an international tribunal and won. At the end of 2013, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes awarded a settlement of $250m from the Romanian government because of its suspension of the subsidies. It was one of the largest sums ever awarded by an international investment tribunal. To Brussels, the award of damages meant state aid was now effectively being paid “through the back door”. Read more

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at a cabinet meeting Sunday night in the Greek parliament

There has been lots of analysis on a new list of economic reforms that the Greek government sent to its bailout monitors over the weekend, including this incredibly comprehensive report from the Athens-based analytical website Macropolis.

But before everyone goes concluding that this is the final list that eurozone creditors will rule on, remember: nothing has been submitted yet to the eurogroup – the committee of 19 eurozone finance ministers that will ultimately rule on whether the reforms are sufficient to unlock the remaining €7.2bn in bailout funds Athens desperately needs.

And tonight’s “deadline” for bailout monitors to approve a submission, and then forward it onto the eurogroup, is nothing more than a self-imposed one; in reality, there is no deadline other than the date when Athens eventually runs out of cash.

People on both sides of the negotiations say that despite three days of talks, the list is not comprehensive as yet. “There was no such thing as an original list,” insists an official from one of the bailout monitoring institutions. “There were contributions, tables, pieces of paper.”

Indeed, on the Greek side, some involved in the discussions say a fuller, longer, and more detailed document is in the works. They argue the issue is not, as many among the bailout monitors claim, a lack of detail. The issue is getting all the details – some 72 reforms, according to one person in the Athens camp – into a well-organised document, in English, without mistakes in substance or politics. Read more

Tsipras, at right without tie, and Merkel, left in red, at Thursday's Greece discussion in Brussels

If you didn’t know what the standoff over Greece’s bailout was all about, Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, has provided an excellent primer in a letter sent a week ago to his German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he is scheduled to meet Monday night in Berlin.

Our story about the March 15 letter, which the FT obtained a copy of, can be found here. But as is our normal practice, we thought we’d provide readers of the Brussels Blog a bit more detail – including a copy of the letter, which we’ve posted here.

It’s worth noting that eurozone officials say a similar letter was sent to a select group of other leaders, including François Hollande, the French president; Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank chief; and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.

For those who are having a hard time following every twist an turn in Tsipras’ dispute with his bailout lenders, the letter is filled with a lot of jargon and references to multiple previous exchanges of letters, which can be confusing even to a Greek crisis veteran. For that reason, below is an annotated version of the Tsipras letter, which is our modest attempt to explain its intricacies to the uninitiated.

The letter starts off by referring to a February 20 agreement by the eurogroup – the committee of all 19 eurozone finance ministers which is responsible for overseeing the EU’s portion of Greece’s €172bn bailout. That was the meeting where ministers ultimately agreed to extend the Greek bailout into June; it was originally to run out at the end of February, and the prospect of Greece going without an EU safety net had spurred massive withdrawals from Greek bank deposits, which many feared was the start of a bank run. Read more

Protesters outside the Greek finance ministry in Athens during a visit by the troika in 2013

Among the issues plaguing deliberations over the way forward on Greece’s bailout is how the country’s international creditors can verify its economic and fiscal situation without sending monitors to Athens– which would look very much like the return of the hated “troika”.

Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, has declared the death of the troika – which is made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – but for now, the troika isn’t really dead. The re-branded “institutions” must still evaluate Greece’s reform programme and give it a signoff before any of the remaining €7.2bn in bailout can be disbursed.

But the new Greek government has resisted anyone from the “institutions” showing up in Athens; they were originally supposed to show up this week, but officials said Greek authorities blocked the visit. In a letter Thursday to Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister and eurogroup president, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, suggested an alternative to a return of “the institutions” to Athens: have them meet in Brussels instead. Wrote Varoufakis:

As for the location of the technical meetings and fact finding and fact-exchange sessions, the Greek government’s view is that they ought to take place in Brussels.

But Dijsselbloem’s response to Varoufakis on Friday, in a letter obtained by the Brussels Blog, suggests officials from the “institutions” may be showing up in Athens after all. Wrote Dijsselbloem: Read more

Dijsselbloem, left, speaks with Varoufakis during a finance ministers' meeting in February

During a 45-minute interview in his Dutch finance ministry office in The Hague, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chairman of the eurogroup, offered up a detailed recounting of his month-long negotiations with Athens to secure last week’s agreement extending Greece’s €172bn bailout by four months – as well as his views of what might come next.

Portions of that interview have been be published on the Financial Times website here and here, but as is our normal practice at the Brussels Blog, we thought we’d offer up a more complete transcript of the interview since some of it – including previously undisclosed details about the three eurogroup meetings needed to reach a deal – was left on the cutting room floor and may be of interest to those following the Greek crisis closely. The transcript has been edited very slightly to eliminate cross-talk and shorten occasionally long-winded questions from the interviewer.

The interview started on Dijsselbloem’s decision to travel to Athens to meet Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras just days after the January 25 elections – a visit that was overshadowed by a tension-filled press conference between Dijsselbloem and his Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, which spurred a market sell-off: Read more

Varoufakis (right) and Schäuble shake hands ahead of Wednesday night's eurogroup meeting

[UPDATE] In response to our post below, the Greek government this morning has denied it ever agreed to the text we got our hands on. “At no point in time did the Greek delegation give consent to the text that has been published,” said Nikos Pappas, the prime minister’s chief of staff. Our account is based on several sources from multiple delegations, so we stand by our story. However, Greek officials insist the text they agreed to Wednesday night was actually an earlier version than the final statement we published. These officials say the agreed draft was changed before it was to be issued at a late-night press conference by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the eurogroup chairman, prompting their veto. The drama continues…

Wednesday night’s breakdown in talks between Greece and the other 18 eurozone finance ministers happened at such the last minute that many of the participants in the eurogroup meeting – including Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful German finance minster – didn’t even know it had happened, since they had already left the building.

According to several officials involved in the talks, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, had agreed to a joint statement with his colleagues, a statement that was even signed off by Greece’s deputy prime minister, Yannis Dragasakis, who was also in Brussels for the gathering.

Once agreed, the eurogroup meeting broke up and Schäuble and several of his colleagues headed out the door. But officials said Varoufakis put in one last call back to Athens to inform them what he had just agreed to – and government officials vetoed the statement.

We at Brussels Blog got our hands on the statement and have posted it below. In many senses, it has a little bit for everyone. For eurozone officials, who were pushing Athens hard to request an extension of the current €172bn bailout, which expires at the end of the month, it leaves open the option to “explore the possibilities of extending” the programme.

For Varoufakis, there’s even the word “bridge” mentioned in the final paragraph – though not in the sense the Greek minister probably wanted, which is as part of a bridge financing deal. Read more

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks before the Greek parliament on Tuesday

One of the unmentioned problems looming over the current Greece standoff is the fact that Athens will need a third bailout, regardless of what happens in a week’s worth of Brussels meetings that start on Wednesday. Eurozone officials say that both Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, and his boss, Alexis Tsipras, have acknowledged that in private meetings.

Just four months ago, it appeared that Athens wouldn’t need another full-scale EU bailout and would be given a line of credit instead. That’s because at the time it appeared the Greek government was making progress in convincing private credit markets to fund its fiscal needs. That is no longer the case.

Eurozone officials are understandably reluctant to estimate the size of another Greek bailout – and not just for political reasons. Trying to guess how much Athens will need without digging through Greece’s books is a fraught affair, especially since tax revenues have reportedly begun to dry up and it’s been months since the troika did their last full-scale analysis.

But that shouldn’t prevent Brussels Blog from doing some spit-balling. According to a very quick-and-dirty back-of-the envelope estimate, a third Greek bailout could run as much as €37.8bn if Varoufakis’ plans are adopted in full. Are Greece’s 18 eurozone partners prepared to cough up that kind of money in the current environment? Read more

Cast your mind back to November.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the new European Commission president, was being pummeled by the European Parliament after a leak revealed widespread tax avoidance in Luxembourg while he was prime minister of the Grand Duchy.

Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, MEPs queued up during a failed vote of no confidence to declare themselves “shocked, shocked” that tax avoidance was going on in Luxembourg.

In a bid to quell the criticism, Mr Juncker said that a lack of tax harmonization within the EU was to blame. To combat this, the commission president said he would introduce legislation to force the automatic exchange of tax-rulings that affect companies based in other member states.

But, according to this leaked document from 2012, both the commission and member states have long been aware of the problem of cross-border tax-rulings – and had already looked into ensuring the automatic exchange of tax information.

The Code of Conduct Group, which looks at business taxation with the commission, came out with guidance in 2012 to encourage member states to “spontaneously exchange the relevant information” on cross border tax rulings. They then asked member states how feasible this was. Read more

Diplomats reported little progress in talks between foreign ministers in Berlin earlier this week

The new year has brought with it much talk of new diplomatic “windows” opening for talks between Europe and the Kremlin, thanks in large part to the sudden economic chaos Russia faces due to the plummeting price of oil and value of the rouble.

Such talk has come from a number of capitals, including Riga, home to the EU’s new Latvian presidency, and Brussels, in the form of foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. But critics point out that nothing has changed on the ground. Fighting continues, including a an attack on a Ukrainian bus this week which left 12 dead, and Moscow has made no progress in implementing the so-called Minsk agreement, the blueprint all EU leaders have cited as a pre-requisite to ratcheting down its sanctions regime against Russia.

Indeed, according to EU officials recent hopes of Russian acquiescence ahead of a proposed summit in the Kazakh capital of Astana have largely been dashed during diplomatic discussions with Germany and France because of refusals by the Kremlin to budge.

Still, the issue will gradually rise up the agenda in Brussels as the sanctions agreed last year begin to expire – the first in March, but incrementally towards the big economic measures which run out in June and July. It will take a unanimous decision of all 28 EU countries to renew the sanctions.

Despite the lack of progress with Russia, Mogherini this week circulated an “issues paper on relations with Russia” ahead of Monday’s meeting of foreign ministers that proposes a series of re-engagements with Moscow. Our friends and rivals at the Wall Street Journal were the first to report about it, but we’ve posted a copy of the paper hereRead more

Cecilia Malmström answers press questions about the EU-US trade deal earlier this month

One year ago, Karel de Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, asked people to write in and voice their concerns about the most contentious part of a landmark trade deal with the US.

It is his successor, Cecilia Malmström, who will have to take the results of this public consultation squarely on the chin on Tuesday. It’s going to be a big (and possibly bruising) day for EU trade policy.

All the furore hinges on clauses of the US-EU accord that would allow foreign investors to sue governments in international tribunals, bypassing national courts.

This is technically known as Investor State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, and has caused a huge international stink. It is probably the single biggest political obstacle to the EU-US deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is potentially the world’s biggest trade deal. Reservations about ISDS are particularly strong in Germany and Austria.

So what will this consultation show on Tuesday? As far as we know, more than 150,000 people have written in. The vast majority are unhappy. To give a scale of the feverish interest in this topic, the trade commission has never held a public consultation that garnered more than 1,000 responses before. Read more

An airport that loses €275 per passenger. A €16.5m runway that has never been used by the aircraft for which it was built. Another airport that receives 0.4 per cent of the travellers that were forecast.
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Juncker presents his €315bn investment plan to the European Parliament in Strasbourg

On the eve of two of the most momentous events of his young tenure as European Commission president – Thursday’s failed vote of no confidence against him in the European Parliament and Friday’s long-awaited decision on whether to sanction France or Italy for failing to comply with EU budget rules – Jean-Claude Juncker sat down for his first interview since assuming office with a small group of European newspapers in Strasbourg.

In addition to his just-unveiled €315bn plan to revive investment in the EU’s stagnating economy, the primary topics of the 70-minute interview were the ongoing controversy surrounding revelations that foreign companies were able to avoid large tax bills thanks to Luxembourg tax rulings, and how he intends to deal with the budgets from Rome and Paris. In addition to our story on the interview, we are publishing annotated excerpts online here.

The interview started with Juncker’s new investment plan and whether he had hoped there would be more public money in the programme. Under his proposal, the EU will contribute €21bn in guarantees, and all of the €315bn of investment would be private money, either raised by the European Investment Bank through issuing bonds or by finding private financiers to co-invest in new EU infrastructure projects:

I hadn’t a figure in mind as far as public money is concerned. I said in July this will be a combination of public money and private investment. We don’t have the money we need. We can’t spend money we don’t have. We took the money that was available, not without difficulty and without huge pedagogic efforts as far as the different commissioners involved in this financing structure.

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Juncker speaks to the press at last week's Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane

Just how does Jean-Claude Juncker plan on getting to €300bn?

With the formal unveiling of his highly-anticipated plan to stimulate growth in the EU just days away – officials say the Commission will decide on it early next week – politicians both in Brussels and in national capitals are abuzz about whether the financial engineering involved will make the €300bn credible.

Emmanuel Macron, the influential French economy minister, has already expressed concern, and in a meeting with a small group of reporters ahead of today’s announcement of his own stimulus plan, Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt, head of the European Parliament’s centrist Liberals, said he worried the programme would just move around existing funding.

As we reported earlier this week, the plan will take existing cash from the EU budget and the European Investment Bank and use it as seed money for new investment funds in order to attract private capital. The public money would act as a “first loss” tranche, taking the first hit if the investment goes bad, and giving private investors more senior status – something officials hope will “crowd in” all that private cash currently sitting on the sidelines.

The two questions that will be closely watched is just how much public money will be used – and how much new private capital the Commission will forecast coming in over the plan’s three-year period.

According to documents obtained by Brussels Blog, the answer to question one – how much public money will be used – will not only include EU budget and EIB money, but also funds committed by national governments. For instance, the €10bn in new public spending announced this month by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance ministry, appears to be counted in the €300bn plan.

How the limited amount of public funding can be leveraged is far more complex. And by nearly all accounts, the public funding will indeed be limited: the plan is explicitly seeking to avoid any new public debt, and officials acknowledge a significant part of it will involve more efficient use of existing public resources and maximising already-approved instruments. Read more

Britain’s €2.1bn EU budget surcharge is a subject of mystifying, mind-bending complexity. Not even the people who are supposed to understand seem to understand. After days trying to solve the budget puzzle, the Brussels Blog is going to attempt to explain the numbers. Right or wrong, it should at least help to confuse matters further.

First the claims. Last week, George Osborne boldly said he halved the UK bill and achieved a “real win for British taxpayers”. EU officials say the British payments are rescheduled but benefit from no additional discount.

The truth, as we understand it, is even more bewildering:

– Britain is down to make a gross surcharge payment well in excess of €2.1bn, but at a different time than originally demanded.

– Britain will receive most of the money back by the end of 2015, but it doesn’t know precisely when, and it will only be thanks to two automatic rebates.

– Osborne requested a bigger discount and was denied, but he may get an EU Christmas present nonetheless.

Now for the details: Read more

At a time when Mario Draghi’s style of running the European Central Bank is under question – there’s reportedly been grumbling he’s setting monetary policy in off-the-cuff public remarks rather than in consultation with the bank’s board members – it is easy to forget that Draghi’s most famous act as ECB chief was also an unscripted public utterance: “whatever it takes”.

The now-famous 2012 remark, which is widely credited with ending the hair-on-fire phase of the eurozone crisis by hinting the ECB would use its printing presses to buy up sovereign debt of besieged governments, has long been viewed as a masterstroke of market management, since the ECB has yet to spend a cent on such bond purchases.

But as the FT and other news organisations have reported, many on the ECB governing council were taken aback by the remarks because the issue wasn’t discussed more widely before Draghi declared it as ECB policy.

The Brussels Blog recently got its hands on yet more evidence that Draghi’s remarks – made at a conference in London in July 2012 – were inserted at the last minute without wider consultation: raw transcripts of discussions with Timothy Geithner, who was US treasury secretary at the time, about the eurozone crisis.

The 100 pages of transcripts we obtained are of interviews Geithner gave to assistants preparing his book, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises, which was published in May. Many of the recollections also appear in the book, but Geithner provides more detail and more bluntness – including a fondness for the f-word – in the pages we obtained.

This is particularly the case for the “whatever it takes” speech. In his book, Geithner mentions the remark was impromptu. But in the transcript, Geithner reveals his source for that passage: Draghi himself, who told Geithner he had decided to insert the words into his address after meeting with London financiers who were convinced the eurozone was on the brink of implosion. Here’s the section of the transcript relating to Draghi’s speech: Read more

David Cameron, with his Finnish counterpart Alex Stubb, at a summit in Helsinki Thursday

The much-anticipated “emergency meeting” of EU finance ministers David Cameron demanded last month to discuss the €2.1bn surcharge Brussels has levied on Britain begins today – though it is less “emergency” than Cameron may have hoped, since it’s actually finance ministers’ regularly-scheduled November meeting.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the Financial Times, Italy, the holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, will table a compromise plan at the meeting which would allow Britain – and the Netherlands, which has the second-highest bill, with €643m due at the end of the month – to pay the new EU tab in instalments.

This is unlikely to be enough for the UK, which is seeking both a delay in the due date and a reduction in the bill, but there are growing signs that its allies in the fight, including the Dutch, are inclined to support the plan.

Ahead of the meeting, Brussels Blog obtained a copy of the two-paragraph Italian proposal, and we’ve posted it here. The measure asks the European Commission to come back with an amendment to existing EU rules for paying such bills that would in “exceptional circumstances” allow countries to pay their surcharge in tranches instead of all at once on the December 1 due date. Here’s the key section: Read more

Renzi arrives at the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and quickly took issue with Barroso

If you read the EU’s budget rules, it appears to be a cut and dried affair: if the European Commission has concerns that a eurozone country’s budget is in “particularly serious non-compliance” with deficit or debt limits, it has to inform the government of its concerns within one week of the budget’s submission. Such contact is the first step towards sending the budget back entirely for revision.

As the FT was the first to report this week, the Commission decided to notify five countries – Italy, France, Austria, Slovenia and Malta – that their budgets may be problematic on Wednesday. Helpfully, the Italian government posted the “strictly confidential” letter it received from the Commission’s economic chief, Jyrki Katainen, on its website today.

But at day one of the EU summit in Brussels, the letter – and Italy’s decision to post it – suddenly became the subject of a very public tit-for-tat between José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing Commission president, and Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minster.

Barroso fired the first shot at a pre-summit news conference, expressing surprise and annoyance that Renzi’s government had decided to make the letter public. For good measure, he took a pop at the Italian press, which in recent days has been reporting that Barroso was the one pushing for a hard line against Rome, and implying he was motivated by his desire to score political points back home in Portugal, where he has long been rumoured as a potential presidential candidate after leaving the Commission:

The first thing I will say is this: If you look at the Italian press, if you look at most of what is reported about what I’ve said or what the Commission has said, most of this news is absolutely false, surreal, having nothing to do with reality. And if they coincide with reality, I think it’s by chance.

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Having trouble following the fight over the EU’s budget rules? You’re not alone. They are fiendishly complicated, particularly since nearly every eurozone country is at risk of violating a different part of them.

Is your deficit over 3 per cent of economic output? Then you’re in the “excessive deficit procedure”. Is your deficit under 3 per cent but at risk of going over? Then you’re in the “preventative arm”. What if your deficit is under 3 per cent, but your national debt is over 60 per cent of gross domestic product? Well, you can still be in an “excessive deficit procedure” if you don’t cut the debt fast enough.

There are so many iterations that the European Commission has an entire 115-page “vade mecum” – fancy Latin for “guidebook” – for those trying to figure out how they work.

The complexity of the rules has made it particularly difficult to judge the new Italian budget, submitted – along with all other eurozone countries, save bailout countries Greece and Cyprus – to the European Commission on Wednesday. Read more

Latvia's Valdis Dombrovskis was heckled by some MEPs at his hearing on Monday.

After six hours of testimony over the last week between Pierre Moscovici and Valdis Dombrovskis, some MEPs are still fuming that they have no idea which one will be in charge of ruling on national budgets as part of the EU’s annual review process.

Moscovici, the former French finance minister, has been nominated economics commissioner and is seen by centre-right MEPs as too lax on fiscal matters; Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister, will be vice-president for the euro and seen by the centre-left as a disciple of the EU’s austerity school of economics.

As we reported last week, going into their confirmation hearings it looked like the two men would basically share the role. But neither gave clear answers of how their division of labour would work at their hearings, leading French MEP Sylvie Goulard, the top Liberal on the economics committee, to heckle Dombrovskis: “So we don’t know?” she shouted after he failed to explain who would represent the eurozone at international fora like the IMF and G-20.

In an effort to gain clarity, the economic committee leadership on Monday sent a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming commission president, asking for further clarification. We’ve obtained his response, and posted it here. It doesn’t provide a huge amount of additional clarity. Read more

Pierre Moscovici arrives in Paris for the government's confidence vote earlier this month.

One of the most highly anticipated confirmation hearings in the European Parliament this week will be that of Pierre Moscovici, the former French finance minister tapped to be the European Commission’s new economic chief, who will appear before the economic affairs committee on Thursday morning.

Members of the parliament’s centre-right grouping, the European People’s party, have vowed to give him a grilling on whether he will vigorously enforce the EU’s tough budget rules – particularly since he comes from a French Socialist government that has advocated more flexibility in the rules.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, Jean-Claude Juncker, the incoming Commission president, took the unusual step of issuing a legal decision that spells out in black and white Moscovici’s relationship with the Commission’s new vice president in charge of the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, a former Latvian prime minister with a reputation as a deficit hawk. Here’s the relevant paragraph:

 

 

We have posted the entire 6-page document here. Most of it is unsurprising boilerplate – though there is a somewhat intriguing US-style line of succession among the vice presidents on page 2, which ranks Dutchman Frans Timmermans first and Finland’s Jyrki Katainen last. Read more