EU

After months of speculation, official confirmation finally came on Friday that Ramon Fernandez, one of the central players in Brussels on the French side throughout eurozone crisis negotiations, will step down as head of the French Treasury at the end of June.

He will be replaced by Bruno Bézard, 51, currently director general of public finances at the finance ministry and a figure firmly in the tradition of French haut functionnaires: a graduate of both Ena and L’Ecole Polytechnique, the elite graduate schools, he was an economic adviser to former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin and has headed the APE, the agency that holds most of the state’s big company shareholdings.

Fernandez, 46, an amiable figure who combines formidable technical skills with an impish sense of humour, found himself in an uncomfortable position after the election in 2012 of President François Hollande. Firmly identified with the centre-right, Fernandez was appointed in 2009 by former president Nicolas Sarkozy and was regarded with deep suspicion by many on the socialist left, notably the voluble Arnaud Montebourg, now economy and industry minister. The directeur du Trésor is a powerful position as the senior civil servant in the finance ministry empire. Read more

With flashes of wit, much earnestness and a certain reluctance to go for the jugular of their opponents, four candidates for the European Commission presidency broke new ground on Monday night by holding a live televised debate designed to drum up public interest in the May 22-25 elections for the European parliament.

 

If social media are one measure of that interest, the debate may have worked. Halfway through the 90-minute programme, broadcast from the Dutch city of Maastricht, an organiser announced that 10,000 tweets a minute were coming in. The harder question to answer is whether any candidate did enough to convince potential voters that the elections will truly make a difference in a EU blighted by a long recession, mass unemployment and a squeezed welfare state.

 

Although the debate never turned nasty, Ska Keller, the Greens candidate, got in a sharp jab at Jean-Claude Juncker, the centre-right candidate, when she accused him of “presiding over a tax haven” during his time as prime minister of Luxembourg. An indignant Mr Juncker rejected the charge and managed later to slip in the image-softening remark that one reason why he favoured a EU-wide minimum wage was that he remembered his father’s tough life as a steelworker.

Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister who is the centrist, liberal candidate, turned his fire on José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing Commission president, saying Mr Barroso had never taken a decision without first flying to Berlin and Paris to get the green light. “The Commission needs to lead,” he thundered.

He also put Mr Juncker on the spot by challenging him to explain why his centre-right group still included Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, who caused outrage last weekend by suggesting Germans denied the existence of Nazi concentration camps. But Mr Juncker hit back with the succinct sentence: “I was sickened by the statements of Mr Berlusconi.” Read more

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, David Cameron and 50 other world leaders are battling against the clock to protect the world from a “dirty bomb” attack by terrorists in the heart of a major financial centre.

Military officials briefing the leaders do not know exactly where the attack is going to be carried out and they have limited time to come up with a response to avoid mass destruction. Hundreds of thousands of people could die.

This might sound like the plot of a Hollywood action film.

In fact it is a “war games” scenario faced by the leaders this week when they took part in a role-playing exercise at a nuclear safety summit in The HagueRead more

Brussels bureau chief Peter Spiegel reports on the upcoming summit of EU leaders on Crimea. Politicians are expected to decide on further sanctions on Russia and how the EU could help Ukraine progress economically and politically.

FT Brussels blog’s chief writer Peter Spiegel has some scoopy tweets after having spoken to a few EU officials ahead of the summit

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David Cameron, UK prime minister, unexpectedly had nothing to say about Ukraine on Thursday as he arrived in Brussels for the meeting of EU leaders.

Ahead of the summit, the British premier is not meeting with the 12 other conservative heads of Government in the European People’s Party group but instead joins members of the smaller European Conservatives and Reformists group.

The ECR struggles to match the EPP’s star power. Apart from the UK Conservatives none of its member parties are in any EU government.Nevertheless, Mr Cameron will meet the finance ministers of Iceland and the Faro Islands at their pre-summit get together. Read more

José Manuel Barroso

Anyone expecting Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, to give any hint as to where EU summitteers might go on Russian sanctions when they gather later today, will be disappointed.

At a press conference following a pre-summit meeting with business and labour union leader to discuss Europe’s jobless recovery, Barroso would only say that “the most important thing to do” is to help create a “credible, stable, prosperous, democratic Ukraine.” Read more

Ukraine's prime minister Yatseniuk returns to Brussels Friday to sign the EU integration treaty

Just how sensitive is tonight’s summit dinner debate over the next steps for EU sanctions against Russia? According to EU diplomats, the meal will be for leaders only – no aides, no experts – and they won’t be allowed to bring in mobile phones or other electronic devices.

That’s because the next most likely step is what one senior EU diplomat termed “phase two-plus”: new names, potentially those closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are expected to be added to the list of 21 Russian and Crimean officials subject to EU visa bans and asset freezes.

As a result, the draft conclusions that were produced from last night’s meeting of EU ambassadors – which apparently includes those names – is not being given the normal circulation to national capitals and will only be given to leaders once they get into the room tonight. The draft produced before last night’s meeting, a leaked copy of which we’ve posted here, is the last one to get distributed more widely. Read more

It is safe to assume that there are parts of the UK Treasury already in a tremendous froth over this leaked opinion from the legal advisers to EU finance ministers.

Remember the only thing that would make George Osborne, the UK chancellor, hate the Financial Transaction Tax idea more than he already does would be its extension to currency exchange transactions. Even the European Commission didn’t go that far.

For that reason this opinion from the EU Council legal service will cause a stir, at least in Brussels. It contradicts the Commission’s own legal service (they are making a habit of this on the FTT) and says that there is no law in principle preventing a joint levy on foreign exchange. This effectively reopens a debate that makes London very nervous. Read more

Campaign posers for Sunday's independance referendum in Simferopol's Lenin square

Monday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers is shaping up as one for the history books. Just as Crimean officials are scheduled to be finishing their count of the region’s independence referendum, ministers will gather in Brussels to finalise a list of Crimean and Russian officials to be targeted with travel bans and asset freezes, the most significant step yet taken by any of the western allies against the Russian incursion.

But first, diplomats must decide who exactly is on that list.

The process started in EU embassies in Moscow, who pulled together a master list that was forwarded to diplomats in Brussels. According to one diplomat involved in the discussions, the list is to be narrowed to a “small but politically significant” group of people who are “infringing Ukraine’s territorial integrity”. The diplomat put the final number “in the tens or scores”. So perhaps 20 to 40 names. Read more

Arseniy Yatseniuk, the Ukrainian prime minister, at last week's emergency EU summit

When EU diplomats meet again tomorrow in Brussels for another round of talks over Russian sanctions ahead of Monday’s foreign ministers’ meeting, one of the more peculiar points of debate will be about last week’s EU summit promise to sign the “political chapters” of their integration treaty with Ukraine.

Apparently, it may be almost impossible to do so legally – even though the current plan is to have them signed at the EU leaders’ regularly-scheduled summit next Thursday. Bit of a pickle, no?

For those not following things that closely, the EU’s “association agreement” with Ukraine is the thing that first set off the current crisis, after then-President Victor Yanukovich decided not to agree the pact – both a free trade deal and a political affiliation agreement – on the eve of a big summit designed around the signing ceremony. The months of protests that followed eventually led to Yanukovich’s downfall.

At last week’s emergency summit on the Ukraine crisis, EU leaders took many by surprise when they decided to sign the non-trade portions of the treaty – essentially the Preamble, Title I and Title II of the text, which can be read here – even though European Commission officials had previously indicated that they’d wait for a “legitimate” government in Kiev to be elected in the new May presidential vote. Read more

German finance miniser Wolfgang Schäuble with Finland's Jutta Urpilainen at Monday's eurogroup

The German finance ministry is on the brink of an extraordinary achievement. Like many power shifts within the EU, it is happily hidden behind the most fiendish jargon. But if all goes to plan, Berlin is securing something rare and coveted in Brussels: the effective power to block future EU banking regulation.

Put another way, it is quietly resetting the ground rules of the single market in financial services without the need for treaty change or a referendum or a big speech. Take note David Cameron.

How has Berlin managed it? It is all concealed in the thicket of legal arguments over establishing Europe’s €55bn bank rescue fund via an intergovernmental agreement, rather than through the EU’s normal “community method”, where majority (or at least qualified majority) rules.

To translate: at German behest, the rules for pooling banking union rescue funds are laid out in a side-deal between governments, rather than under legislation agreed between EU member states and European parliament. Such intergovernmental pacts are allowed; remember the fiscal compact? But they are not supposed to change or impact the EU’s common rulebook, outlined in the EU treaties. Read more

Yulia Tymoshenko speaking at the EPP conference in Dublin on Thursday night

By Vincent Boland in Dublin

There is something about being a European centre-right politician that appears to attract its own kind of celebrity. The gathering of the European People’s party in Dublin is a good example of this rather eclectic mix of high-profile luminaries.

On Thursday evening, it was the turn of the Ukrainians to wow the audience. Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion and front-runner to be Ukraine’s president in a post-revolution election in May, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister and prison inmate, both got standing ovations as they arrived on stage to address the congress. Read more

Ukraine's prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, left, and France's François Hollande at summit's start

Today’s emergency summit of EU leaders has just gotten underway and the Brussels blog has got its hands on an early draft of the official three-page concluding statement on Ukraine.

As if it weren’t clear enough already, the draft reveals deep fault lines among member states over the appropriate response to Russia’s actions in Crimea, since there is very little substance in the text thus far. Indeed, the moderates – led by Germany and including countries with strong economic ties to Russia, like Italy and the Netherlands– appear to have succeeded in keeping any specific threats against Russia out of the declaration.

Although the statement endorses the conclusions of EU foreign ministers on Monday – which demanded that Russia return its troops in Crimea back to barracks or face “targeted measures” – the leaders’ statement oddly leaves this specific demand out. There is no language reiterating the foreign ministers’ view on this, which included the demand to “withdraw [Russian] armed forces to the areas of their permanent stationing.” Instead, the draft simply states a commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Read more

José Manuel Barroso announces the Ukrainian aid programme on Wednesday

The EU’s announcement on Wednesday of a new €11bn aid package for Ukraine is both more and less than it first appears.

The “more” part of the package comes in the €1.6bn of so-called “macro-financial” assistance, which is the traditional kind of direct budget aid that we’ve come to recognise in eurozone bailouts. Up until the fall of Victor Yanukovich’s Russia-backed regime in Kiev, the EU had only signed up to €610m in such loans, so the extra €1bn is a significant increase.

The “less” part of the package is the estimated €8bn to come from Europe’s two development banks, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. That aid is contingent on finding infrastructure projects to fund in Ukraine, which may prove a fraught exercise. In any case, it’s likely to be long-term assistance of only marginal use to the struggling technical government in Kiev right now. Read more

Sweden's Carl Bildt, Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski and EU's Catherine Ashton consult on Ukraine

As is frequently the case with high-level EU documents, the draft communiqué distributed to national capitals ahead of today’s emergency meeting of foreign ministers is more interesting for what has not been agreed going into the session than what is already set in stone.

And according to a draft obtained by the Brussels Blog, quite a bit is left to be decided, including just how aggressive the ministers will be in threatening sanctions – or “targeted measures” in Eurospeak – against Russia. Our main story on the leaked communiqué gives the outline of the dispute, but as is our practice at the Blog, we decided to post a bit more information here. Read more

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary general, before a meeting Sunday on Ukraine

Even though Ukraine is not a member of Nato – and therefore is not covered by the alliance’s mutual defence treaty – the west has signed a series of bilateral agreements with Kiev over the last 20 years in which it has agreed to help protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Given the rapidly escalating events inside Ukraine, such international agreements may seem a mere legal nicety. But many in Ukraine believed the pacts provided the country with a measure of security, and they will still help guide the west’s response to Russian activities.

Perhaps just as importantly, leaders in other capitals in the region who either have or are contemplating similar agreements with the west – be they association agreements with the EU or partnership action plans with Nato – are surely watching to see if these pacts are worth the paper they’re written on.

In the White House’s statement after President Barack Obama’s phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday, Washington referred to several of those agreements, starting with the so-called “Budapest Memorandum”. Here’s a quick primer on the international texts that govern the west’s – and, in many cases, Russia’s – relations with Ukraine.

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A slide from a January 2014 investor presentation by the Ukrainian finance ministry

First of all, just how much financial trouble is Ukraine in?

Almost all major economic powers were out on Monday saying that any aid package would have to wait for a full International Monetary Fund programme. But such “stand-by arrangements” can take months to negotiate – and IMF officials have made clear they want a new government firmly in place before those negotiations can begin, so that may mean we’re waiting until after May’s presidential elections.

So will Ukraine make it until then? Analysts are dubious, and the Ukrainian finance ministry’s declaration on Monday that they are seeking bilateral loans from the US and Poland in the next week or two certainly implies that they’re not sure they can make it that long either.

One key metric to watch is Ukraine’s foreign currency reserves, which for those not seeped in international finance is about as close to a national bank account for emerging market economies as you can get. If Ukraine runs out of reserves of dollars, it can’t pay any of its bills to foreign creditors – such as bondholders or gas providers – and essentially goes broke. Read more

Barroso, right, meets with UK prime minister David Cameron at Downing Street last year.

José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, caused quite a kerfuffle in London at the weekend when he said on one of Britain’s most-watched political chat shows that Scotland would find it “extremely difficult, if not impossible” to rejoin the EU if it were to secede from the UK.

But for those who have been following the debate closely, Barroso’s position had been telegraphed long before – in fact, it has been the stated European Commission view for nearly a decade.

In 2004, then-Commission president Romano Prodi, in a statement published in the Official Journal of the European Union – where all laws and decisions must be published before they can take legal effect – made clear that any region that decided to declare independence must reapply for EU membership and face the same kind of unanimous agreement as any other applicant: Read more

Workers shutter a branch of Laiki Bank, which was closed under Cyprus' €10bn bailout last year

For those not following every twist and turn in the EU’s debate over how to bail out failing banks, it may come as a bit of a surprise that finance ministers are still fighting over who pays for a collapsed financial institution given the deal struck in December on this very issue.

But a three-page “issues note” sent to national capitals this week ahead of EU finance ministers’ meetings on Monday and Tuesday – obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here – makes clear that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about a new EU-wide bank rescue fund to pay for such bailouts. And it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the unanswered questions centre around one thing: money. Read more