This is Wednesday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.
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
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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
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
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Thus far, Belgian authorities have disclosed only four men were involved in the plot: Khalid at the metro station and the two suicide bombers at the airport, as well as a third man who has become known as the “man in white” who accompanied the two bombers at the airport and is still on the run. But most plots of this sophistication only happen with the help of a broader network of suppliers and enablers, meaning its unlikely the Belgian investigation ends with the four. Read more
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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
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
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A Russian government photo of Syria-based military aircraft returning home yesterday
Once again, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has caught nearly everyone with their guard down. Yesterday, as promised, he began withdrawing Russian forces from Syria, complete with cinematic videos of Sukhoi fighter jets departing Hmeymim airbase for home, posted to the defence ministry’s webpage. The Tass news agency quoted senior Kremlin officials saying anti-aircraft systems would remain, however, raising questions everywhere fromWashington to Brussels to Damascus about whether this amounted to a full stand-down or, as frequently happened in Ukraine, a temporary move that could be reversed.
At home, Mr Putin’s move is being hailed as a great strategic victory. State TV declared the deployment had completed its mission of “exterminating the terrorists” and stabilising the region. But western analysts were less convinced, noting that while Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and close Kremlin ally, has been shored up, the country’s second city of Aleppo remains out of firm regime control and the fighting has ground into an uncertain quagmire rather than a clear victory. Read more
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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
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
AfD supporters march in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the German regions with elections Sunday
Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party found itself without a home in the European Parliament on Tuesday after the assembly’s European Conservatives and Reformists group, the political home of Britain’s Tories, gave them a firm push out of the door.
In the tersest of one-sentence statements, the ECR confirmed it had “invited” its two AfD members to leave. Just in case they didn’t get the message, it went on to say that, if they choose to stick around, “a motion will be tabled to expel them” at the next meeting of the group’s executive on April 12.
The decision by the ECR to open its doors to the AfD after the party’s success in the 2014 European Parliament elections was a headache for David Cameron from the start. The move was an embarrassment at a time when the the British prime minister was trying to improve relations with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who saw AfD as threat to her Christian Democrats on the right. Read more
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Cypriot finance minister Harris Georgiades, left, with eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem
And then there was one. If all goes according to plan, eurozone finance ministers will bid a fond farewell to the Cypriot bailout on Monday, making the island nation the fourth of the five countries that were forced into a rescue programme at the height of the crisis to exit. Only Greece remains.
In many respects, the Cypriots have been model bailout students. Nicosia only spent about €7.5bn of the €10bn originally allocated in the programme, and its economy returned to growth last year, a full year earlier than the bailout’s architects anticipated. Indeed, it has out-performed on almost every major economic indicator: its debt levels are lower than originally forecast, its projected budget deficit isn’t a deficit, and its current account is almost in balance.
Still, not everything is so rosy. Most importantly, the bailout will end without the Cypriot government completing all the reform tasks it was supposed to – the privatisation of the state telecommunications operator proved too politically radioactive so close to parliamentary elections, so won’t be done in time. As a result, Monday’s eurogroup meeting will be a farewell, but not a formal closure of the programme. That will happen at the end of the month when the three-year rescue just expires. Read more
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Tusk stops in Athens Thursday morning to meet with Greece's Alexis Tsipras en route to Ankara
If it’s Thursday, it must be Ankara.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is halfway through a four-day, six-country tour ahead of Monday’s emergency EU summit on refugees that culminates in Turkey. He will meet prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu today in Ankara and cool his heels most of tomorrow morning awaiting an afternoon meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. On almost every stop on his way to Turkey, Mr Tusk has signalled he still isn’t happy with the country’s efforts to stem the migrant flow despite the much-debated bilateral deal in which Ankara was supposed to crack down on migration in exchange for €3bn in EU aid. Tusk has promised to raise the issue with the Turks.
New numbers released by the UN’s refugee agency show that daily arrivals in Greece peaked at more than 3,600 last week, which is not much lower than it has been for the last two months. Overall numbers for February were slightly below January, but EU officials have been reluctant to concede on any Turkish requests – like a new programme to resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey into Europe – unless those numbers fall more significantly. Read more
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Europe is waking to news that Donald Trump has taken a huge, bounding leaptowards securing the Republican nomination for US president. It is not yet wrapped up; the Republican race will probably run through to the spring. But Mr Trump could barely have emerged in better shape from Super Tuesday and the Europe’s press are all a bit stunned. Before they could even deploy some withering headlines, Mr Trump beat them to the punch, blasting the bloc on terrorism and migration: “You look at Brussels, look at Sweden, you look at Germany – it’s like a disaster.” With an eye on the presidential race, he at least had the diplomatic courtesy to hold back on attacking Germany’s Angela Merkel, a leader he recently said would “be out if they don’t have a revolution”. Read more
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The British EU referendum campaign is barely a week old and it already feels like a war of attrition. For outsiders watching from Brussels, one of the most peculiar clashes is around the question of whether a vote to leave the EU actually means Britain will leave. It turns on arcane EU law – Article 50 of the EU treaty, the so-called exit clause – but it is high-politics. Will voters see an exit as a dangerous gamble, or a gradual withdrawal to a safer place? “A country invokes Article 50 to start exit negotiations, which would seem the obvious first step after a leave vote. But there is nothing mandating London pull the Article 50 trigger immediately, and some have suggested using the Leave vote to try to get better terms without an Article 50 break. The argument will run and run because, as often in politics, both sides rest their case on a kernel of truth.
The idea of “vote Brexit for a better EU deal” comes from theVote Leave campaign and some prominent Brexiteers, including for a brief but dazzling moment Boris Johnson, the London mayor. David Cameron tried to nix the concept by saying the British people “would rightly expect” an Article 50 exit to start “straight away” after a leave vote. That would start a two-year clock ticking on exit talks, opening the risk of British membership and trade arrangements ending overnight if talks turn hostile. The British prime minister added that to imagine other EU countries would negotiate a new UK membership deal was “for the birds”. He won support on Monday by Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister, who said the what-if game on future negotiations was “insane”.
A UK government paper on Monday followed up Mr Cameron’s salvo by explaining the divorce mechanics. Lots of uncertain scenarios are depicted – described by Mr Johnson as “baloney” – including a 10-year Brexit process subject to countless vetoes in Europe. But on Article 50, the paper just echoes Mr Cameron’s view of the public “expectation”. It did not say it must be invoked immediately. And nor did it say that Article 50 would cover every aspect of Brexit. Indeed it points out there would need to be a complex trade negotiation alongside and separate from the Article 50 divorce. (For the legal geeks, we have explained more in this annotated version of the Article 50.) Read more
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Schäuble, right, with World Bank president Jim Yong Kim at the G20 in Shanghai this weekend
Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, last week called for leading economies to “go bold” in tackling the looming threat of a global slowdown, saying that “there has to be action on all fronts.” Instead, a meeting of finance ministers from the Group of 20 nations that concluded at the weekend produced an 11-point statement that was notable as much for what wasn’t in it as for what was.
Ever the budgetary hawk, Germany’s Wolfgang Schäuble – under pressure at home to maintain a balanced budget in the face of huge new spending demands thanks to the refugee crisis – moved quickly at the meeting in Shanghai to bury any idea that the G20 might agree on a coordinated stimulus package through greater public spending. Instead, the communiqué ministers adopted prescribes a medicine that’s much more palatable to Mr Schäuble but politically difficult to administer: pushing ahead with labour-market and competitiveness reforms.
Given Berlin’s struggles within the eurozone to repel repeated pushes from Italy, Portugal, and most recently Spain, for more flexibility in the bloc’s budget rules, the last thing Mr Schäuble wanted was for the most powerful nations on earth to signal that it’s time to open the purse strings. “Thinking about further stimulus just distracts from the real task at hand,” Mr Schäuble said. “If you want the real economy to grow there are no shortcuts without reforms.” Read more
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Mr Kenny does some last-minute campaigning in Dublin ahead of today's general election
Elections are held in a onetime bailout country, and the incumbent party wins – but without enough support to cobble together a governing coalition. It happened in Portugal back in October, in Spain in December, and it seems the most likely scenario to play out today in Ireland, where voters go to the polls for the first time since Dublin emerged from its eurozone rescue two years ago. The Irish Polling Indicator, a daily tally of opinion surveys, has the Fine Gael party of prime minister Enda Kenny at just 28.5 per cent, with coalition partner Labour at 6.5 per cent. “Hung Dáil looms,” declares the Irish Times.
Given Ireland’s unusual political history, finding parties for Fine Gael to partner with (other than Labour) is no easy task. Unlike most Western European democracies, Ireland’s modern party system didn’t really develop on a traditional left-right spectrum. Instead, it’s more of what political scientists term a “centre-periphery” model, originally defined on Ireland’s relationship with its former masters in London. During the Irish Civil War, those who backed the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave Dublin independence, went on to become Fine Gael; those who thought the treaty didn’t go far enough (mainly because the new Irish Free State didn’t include Northern Ireland) eventually became Fianna Fáil.
For those historical reasons, a “grand coalition” of the country’s two main political parties would be an anomaly – despite narrow policy differences (indeed, the Irish Times recently posted a video entitled “What’s the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?”). To this day, Fine Gael is seen as the party of Dublin’s professional elites, and that division has been exacerbated in the post-bailout environment, where Dublin has thrived but the countryside has failed to rebound. The FT’s Ireland correspondent Vincent Boland has a look at those divisions in his pre-election report from Limerick. Read more
On Wednesday, Vienna hosted nine countries – and 18 ministers – to discuss the migration crisis in the western Balkans. Despite the size of the diplomatic shindig, a few names were left off the list.
To the surprise and annoyance of Athens and Berlin, neither Germany (the main destination) nor Greece (the main entrance) were asked to come along. The European Commission, which has attempted to marshal the EU’s response, was not asked either. Read more
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There are 20 European ministers in Vienna today for one of the most extraordinary meetings of the migration crisis – and there have been some pretty extraordinary meetings.
Austria has convened nine countries along the so-called western Balkans migration route. That sounds reasonable enough. Foreign and interior ministers will be present from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Missing from the guestlist, though, is the main migrant entry-point (Greece) and the main destination-point (Germany). That is either a rather big oversight – or an act of mutiny.
It caps a week where the dominoes have begun to fall in south-eastern Europe. Austria’s renegade policy – imposing asylum caps while waving through Germany-bound migrants – has triggered other national responses down the line. Vienna is even considering deploying troops to the Macedonia border. It is shaping facts on the ground that are fast eclipsing the prospects for a “European solution”, if ever it were possible. Read more
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Other than David Cameron’s deal renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU, the only major decision taken at last week’s Brussels summit was to hold yet another emergency summit on Europe’s burgeoning refugee crisis. With a regularly-scheduled summit already on the calendar for March 17, why would leaders need to reassemble again in the first week of March? According to several EU diplomats, the new gathering will be held at the request of Chancellor Angela Merkel because of a major political event happening in the interim: March 13 regional elections in three large German states.
Increasingly, those elections – in wealthy Baden-Württemberg; neighbouring Rhineland-Pfalz; and eastern Saxony-Anhalt – are being seen as referenda on Ms Merkel’s migration policy. And with UN figures showing refugee arrivals in Greece back up above 3,000 per day, there’s a good reason for the chancellor to be in a bit of a panic. Recent polls show the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party making significant gains in all three länder, particularly in Saxony-Anhalt, where a survey published yesterday by the mass-market Bild newspaper had AfD at a stunning 17 per cent, ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats. In Baden-Württemberg, whose capital of Stuttgart is home to automaker Daimler, Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats – who have dominated the state’s politics for decades – fell behind the Greens in the same poll. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says “it looks bleak” for the CDU in the region. In Rhineland-Pfalz, AfD has risen from nothing in the 2011 elections to 8.5 per cent.
The atmospherics have not been helped by events on the ground, which appear to be further radicalising the electorate. Last week, videos emerged of an anti-immigrant mob besieging a bus filled with migrants in the small town of Clausnitz, near the Czech border. That was compounded by another video showing police dragging a frightened boy off the bus as the mob raged outside. Just days later in Bautzen, another small town near the Czech border, onlookers cheered as a building meant to house asylum seekers burned to the ground. Much like the new year’s attacks in Cologne, the incidents have set off another round of German soul searching over just how welcome the country is to immigrants. Read more
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“Let me tell you where I’ve got to, which is, um, I am, um….I’ve made up my mind.”
With these words, Boris Johnson bounded into the Brexit camp on Sunday, jolting Britain’s EU referendum campaign into life. A summit-weary David Cameron had barely caught up on his sleep on Saturday morning when the Mayor of London emailed to let his old pal know he would take the opposite side. There was no reply. Less than 10 minutes before going public, Mr Johnson sent the British prime minister a ‘courtesy’ text. The two men enjoy one of the most cut-throat, competitive personal rivalries in British politics (they have literally wrestled on the floor of Downing Street). That rivalry is now set to engross Britain’s June 23 referendum on EU membership. Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, tweeted “the country’s future had been reduced to uni chums arguing”. “Blond Bombshell” cried The Sun’s frontpage; “Boris Goes In for the Kill” said the Daily Mail; and “Out for Himself” declared the Independent.
Old Brussels hands know what it is to be trolled by Boris Johnson. Read more