EU

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Another big Brussels week on migration is upon us. The flow of migrant boats to Greek islands has almost stopped, but Brussels is only in the foothills of the political trek to make the Turkey deal stick and the EU asylum system work properly. The European Commission will try to chivvy the pace on Wednesday with three contentious initiatives on visas, borders and asylum rules.

1. An overhaul of the Dublin asylum system

This revamp of the EU’s asylum rules is well-flagged but still hot politics. A Commission discussion paper last month raised two main reform options – and we understand the final proposal will be a blend of the two. So the first EU country an asylum seeker enters would still handle their claim (a crucial Dublin principle for immigration-wary northern states and the UK). But if a frontline state receives 150 per cent more claims than its set asylum capacity, a quota system automatically kicks in to distribute migrants around Europe (which is more to the liking of Greece and Italy). It is a halfway house that leaves plenty for EU states to fight about. There is perhaps even some fodder for Brexit campaigners (the question of whether Britain can stay in Dublin but remain exempt from automatic burden sharing will not be answered in the proposal). Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

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

Jim Brunsden

Wolfgang Schäuble’s destiny is to be a man who keeps having to listen to people talking about things he doesn’t want to hear about.

Germany’s finance minister, together with his counterparts from around Europe, will gather in Amsterdam on Friday to discuss, among other things, the future of the Banking Union — the major policy push undertaken by the euro area over the last few years to centralIze how it oversees its banks.

But like a band with growing musical differences, ministers can’t agree on what the next steps of the project should be, with Mr Schäuble playing the role of the blues purist who wants the group to move away from grand concepts and get back to basics.

 Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

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

Jim Brunsden

Meeting room in the Dutch maritime museum where finance ministers will gather on Friday

Coming to terms with painful truths can take a long time, and the EU’s struggle to acknowledge an original sin built into its banking regulations is a case in point.

It’s a problem that dates back decades, and that finance ministers are going to tentatively grapple with at an informal meeting in Amsterdam this week. It centres on the regulatory treatment of sovereign debt, and we’ve got our hands on the options paper prepared for ministers by the Dutch presidency and posted it here.

While the subject may sound arcane, it’s extremely politically charged. The latest ructions over how to treat bank holdings in government debt are fanning the already hot flames of discord between Rome and Berlin, with Brussels as ever squeezed uncomfortably in the middle.

So what’s the problem? The EU has highly detailed legislation covering different aspects of banks’ activities, in order to ensure that institutions have enough financial reserves to cope with the risks that they are taking with their investments.

The rules cover everything from mortgage lending to complex trading in derivatives, but they have one glaring loophole, namely that many of the normal requirements, such as capital rules and exposure limits, don’t apply to banks’ purchases of European governments’ own debt. Read more

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When the European Commission first opened up proceedings to examine whether Poland had violated European norms, it said they would wait until constitutional scholars at the Council of Europe examined the situation first. Well, it’s been a month since the Council slammed the new government in Warsaw – and Frans Timmermans, the Commission vice-president in charge of rule-of-law issues hasn’t done anything yet. The European Parliament yesterday did its best to make sure he doesn’t forget.

MEPs yesterday voted 513 to 142 in favour of a motion censuring Poland’s right-wing, conservative Law and Justice (PiS) government and ordering it to reverse changes to the country’s top court that have left it paralysed. As procedural slaps on the wrist go, it was relatively strong. And while it is legally little more than a strongly-written letter, it also called on the Commission to push ahead with its unprecedented probe into Warsaw’s “threat to constitutional democracy” – which technically could result in sanctions. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

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

Christian Oliver

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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

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  © REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images

Back in 2005, it was Jean-Claude Juncker who caught the mood after Dutch and French voters spurned a draft EU constitution. “Europe is not in crisis: it is in deep crisis,” he declared. He has gone from Luxembourgish premier to European Commission president since then – and the Dutch are back to saying No. This time team Juncker relayed that the president was just “sad” about the rejection of the Ukraine trade deal. And for europhiles that pretty much sums it up.

This has been a long journey. Referendums on European issues, from the 1970s on, largely acted as a rite of passage: membership, enlargement, monetary union. They then morphed into more wide ranging political guarantees for eurosceptic voters (in Denmark, Britain or France) wary of where pro-European politicians may lead them. Some would call them a reality check.

More recently they have grown to be not just domestic political matters, but negotiating tools or instruments of coercion abroad. This is the weaponisation of referendums and a few EU leaders have been accused of the tactic: Greece’s Alexis Tsipras over bailout terms, Britain’s David Cameron to win a better deal, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban over migration quotasRead more

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David Cameron has had a frustrating week. Since the Panama Papers revealed the offshore dealings of his late father, the British prime minister has vainly tried to stop questions over his family potentially benefiting from tax avoidance. He first politely parried and demanded privacy, then changed tack, clarified his position, challenged his critics to provide evidence, then clarified three times more. Today we know a great deal about what Mr Cameron does not own. But it still isn’t over.

Through this mini-ordeal, Mr Cameron enjoyed one advantage. He can point to a record of championing transparency and fighting offshore corporate dodges. But now even this defensive shield is looking a little shaky.

The FT’s Jim Brunsden has dug deep into a bygone Brussels legislative battle over corporate secrecy and uncovered Mr Cameron’s intriguing personal role. He indeed pressed hard to expose beneficial owners of shell companies. But there was a caveat. In an EU law to tackle money laundering and end harmful secrecy, he wanted special treatment for trusts, discrete legal vehicles Brits have used for centuries to manage estates and pass assets down generations. That now looks a little awkward. 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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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

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

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

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

Peter Spiegel

Welcome to the Thursday edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

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

Christian Oliver

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Migrants on a rubber raft arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos early Sunday morning

Last week’s highly-touted agreement to deport migrants from Greece to Turkey went into force yesterday, which means we will soon know the answer to the most critical question now facing the EU: Have leaders burned massive political, legal and moral capital striking a deal with Turkey that will never work?

The most immediate fear is that the Greek authorities are far from ready for the Herculean task of shipping thousands of people from the Aegean islands. Then, there is the concern that desperate migrants (and the people smugglers) will probably quickly switch to even more perilous entry points into the EU, like via war-torn Libya and across the Mediterranean into Italy.

EU officials are under no illusions. Most leaders at Friday’s Brussels summit that agreed the deal were sombre rather than triumphant. Above all, there was a tacit acknowledgment that, even by its own standards, the EU had brazenly pushed the law to the very limits. Human rights groups are bound to challenge the EU’s actions over the coming weeks and months. Read more

Duncan Robinson

But how will this money be spent? Not well if a report into the EU’s spending on migration policy between 2007 and 2013 is anything to go by.

The European Court of Auditors has chastised Brussels for failing to plan or monitor its projects properly — and not being able to demonstrate how €1.1bn of funds were spent. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

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

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So 13m German voters have spoken. Now starts the hard part: working out what they meant to say. Sunday’s regional elections in three states were billed as a verdict on Angela Merkel’s migration strategy. And at first sight the results look dreadful for the German chancellor. Her CDU party was punished. And an anti-immigrant right-wing party made its biggest gains in Germany since 1945. For establishment German politics, this is frightening stuff. But the conclusions are not all straightforward. There are some complex patterns to interpret in these results. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Jean-Claude Juncker, far right, at a press conference after the EU summit with Turkey

After a 12-hour meeting between the EU and Turkey, a tired-looking Jean Claude Juncker took to the stage after 1am on Tuesday morning and boldly declared that a plan to send back migrants from Greek islands to Turkey was legal.

The European Commission president swiftly tried to bog the even more tired-looking press corps down in legalese. With impressively few glances at his notes, Mr Juncker regurgitated:

Article 33 and 38 of the asylum procedure directive clearly open the way for a solution of this kind. Because article 33, paragraph 2, letter C indicates that a country can refuse to consider a claim if a non-EU country is considered as a safe third country.

But is this true? Read more