Foreign policy

Greek soldiers march in front of parliament during a military parade to mark independence

One of the oddities of Greece’s bailout programme has been that, despite five years of punishing austerity, its military budget remains amongst the highest in the EU.

Early in the crisis, the issue became controversial during a dispute over whether Athens should follow through on a contract to purchase German-built diesel submarines – a move that was criticised as a way to curry favour with Greece’s largest creditor.

More recently, the far-left government of Alexis Tsipras raised questions when it agreed to sign off on a €500m programme to upgrade five aging US-made maritime patrol aircraft.

And according to a document obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here, the issue has come up again during the current standoff between Athens and its international creditors as a way to breach the fiscal gap the two sides are currently wrestling over.

To recap, Greece’s bailout monitors have pushed Athens to make up a €1bn-€2bn annual budget shortfall by cutting public sector pensions and raising value-added taxes on some items like electricity, which Tsipras has resisted. Creditors have insisted they are open to other ideas, but argue Athens has not come back with credible alternatives.

The three-page document, circulated among creditors, shows that two of Greece’s bailout monitors – the European Commission and European Central Bank – think defence cuts would be one way to make up the difference and have suggested changes (particularly moving to a less manpower-intensive force structure, a decision several Nato allies like the US have already taken) in talks with Greek negotiators:

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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

Hyon Hak Bong presenting his credentials to Queen Elizabeth two years ago

Hyon Hak Bong, North Korea’s envoy to the EU, has his work cut out.

The instructions from Pyongyang are clear: re-open a dialogue on human rights with the EU that was suspended in 2003. That’s a tall order in itself, but it is made even more difficult by the fact that he must simultaneously reassure sceptical Europeans that camps for political prisoners simply do not exist in North Korea.

Speaking to the Financial Times on a mission to Brussels, it was clear that the London-based ambassador was part of a broader Pyongyang charm offensive towards the EU. Last month, Kang Sok Ju, one of the supremos in the ruling Workers’ party, visited Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy.

Currently seen as a destination for only the hardiest foreign investors, the impoverished nation of 25m would benefit from some more business with Europe (and the access to hard currency that brings). Real progress on that prickly human rights dossier would certainly help “develop relations further”, as Mr Hyon puts it.

North Korea wants the EU to stop co-sponsoring UN resolutions against Pyongyang’s human rights record, but Mr Hyon may find Brussels bureaucrats ever-so-fussy about those infuriating details – like the penal system. Europeans will be focusing on the testimonies of North Korean defectors, who describe the horrific conditions in the country’s gulags, telling of rape, summary executions, starvation and back-breaking labour in penal mines.

According to Mr Hyon, this is all a fiction. He said that the EU needed to understand who the defectors were: “These are the riff-raff who have escaped through fear of the legal treatment they will receive for their crimes. So they attack North Korea and take money to do so…. We do not have political prisons. We have prisons like those in Belgium and the UK, where prisoners are being educated.” Read more

Russian president Vladimir Putin visits a Rosneft oil refinery on the Black Sea last year

EU ambassadors head into yet another meeting Friday afternoon to hammer out the latest round of sanctions against Russia. Their bosses have promised to get things done by the end of the week, but there’s still a lot of work to do, so it’s not entirely clear whether a deal can be reached. Also, the on-again, off-again Ukrainian ceasefire could slow things down, though allies don’t appear to be giving much credibility to the Kremlin’s protestations that they are working towards a truce.

As we wrote in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, we got a leaked copy of the draft legislation approved by the European Commission on Wednesday and sent to national capitals for today’s deliberations. The 18-page text is filled with a lot of jargon and technicalities, but because they could directly affect financial markets, the details matter.

For that reason, we are offering Brussels Blog readers more detail here. Remember: the EU ambassadors could still change much of the wording in their negotiations – though if the July sanctions are any indication, the changes are likely to be on the margins. Read more

Russia's Vladimir Putin, right, talks to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton last month in Minsk

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, we got our hands on the three-page Russia sanctions options paper circulated by the European Commission and the EU’s diplomatic corps to national delegations yesterday that, for the first time, raised the spectre of boycotting the 2018 World Cup, to be hosted by Moscow.

But the meat of the document is the actual sanctions that are likely to be agreed this week; the World Cup suspension is clearly mentioned as something that only would be considered in the future. So as is our tradition here at the Brussels Blog, we thought we’d provide readers a bit more detail, including excerpts from the document itself.

First, though, here’s the language on the World Cup, which also includes a mention of UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations which organises and runs all international competitions for European soccer clubs – including Russia’s. Read more

Italy's Mogherini, the likely next EU foreign policy chief, arrives at a meeting with her counterparts

If EU leaders are going move forward with additional sanctions against Russia for its increasingly aggressive stance in Ukraine, they have a bit of work to do. The current draft of Saturday’s summit conclusions (we’ve posted a copy we got our hands on here) has very little to say on the topic.

Right now, the operative paragraph on sanctions reads like this:

The European Council remains engaged in the monitoring and assessment of the restrictive measures adopted by the European Union and stands ready to consider further steps, in light of the evolution of the situation on the ground.

Not particularly stirring stuff.

One other point to note in the draft: not only will the summit choose a new EU foreign policy chief (in all likelihood Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini) and a new president of the European Council (either Polish prime minister Donald Tusk or Danish premier Helle Thorning-Schmidt), but they also must choose someone to head eurozone summits. Read more

A Vienna branch of Sberbank, Russia's largest state-owned bank, which would be covered

Although a large chunk of Brussels officialdom has already cleared out for the summer break, the 28 ambassadors to the EU will be busy this week finalising highly-anticipated sanctions against Russia.

On Monday, they will for the first time be adding “cronies” of Russian president Vladimir Putin to the EU’s sanctions blacklist, and then on Tuesday is the main event: deciding whether to move forward with “phase three” sanctions – measures against entire sectors of the Russian economy rather than just targeting individuals or “entities”.

Over the weekend, national governments reviewed legislation prepared by the European Commission that will be debated during Tuesday’s session. As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, we’ve been able to secure a copy of the draft sent to national capitals and have posted relevant excerpts below. Read more

Russian president Vladimir Putin, left, with Van Rompuy at a January summit in Brussels

After weeks of equivocation that made it appear the EU might never move to “phase three” sanctions against Russia – which would target entire sectors of the Russian economy rather than just individuals and “entities” – on Friday things began to move very quickly.

First, EU ambassadors (known as Coreper in euro-speak) tasked the European Commission with drawing up the legislation needed to approve the new sanctions, which would go after the Russian financial, energy and defence sectors. Details of what the sanctions are expected to look like are here.

Then, late on Friday, Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, sent a letter to all EU prime ministers urging them to quickly endorse the sanctions package, and to give their EU ambassadors the authority to sign off on them Tuesday. Some countries have been calling for an emergency summit of leaders to approve them, but Van Rompuy clearly wants to move faster. The text of the Van Rompuy letter, obtained by the Brussels Blog, is here:

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Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, chairs a security council meeting at the Kremlin this week

Although the sanctions options paper prepared by the European Commission for today’s meeting of EU ambassadors offers up five different sectors of the Russian economy for possible restrictions, a full two pages of the ten-page document obtained by Brussels Blog focuses on the financial industry.

As we reported here this morning, the main financial proposal would bar all “EU persons” from investing in debt or equity sales made by state-owned Russian banks, which constitute most of the largest financial institutions in the country.

As is our practice, we thought we’d provide a bit more detail on the proposal here on the Blog. The health warning that needs to be attached to this plan, however, is that the likelihood of it being actually adopted remains slim. Thus far, only a small hard-core group of EU countries have supported moving to “phase three” sanctions, which hit entire Russian economic sectors rather than just targeted individuals. Sanctions need unanimity from all 28 EU countries to be enacted.

The meat of the capital markets proposal is pretty straight forward: if a Russian bank that is more than 50 percent owned by the government issues stock or bonds, no European can participate. As part of its impact assessment, the document estimates that between 2004 and 2012, $16.4bn was raised by Russian state-owned financial institutions through IPOs in EU markets. And in 2013 alone, about 47 per cent of all bonds issued by those banks — €7.5bn out of €15.8bn – were issued in the EU.

Here’s an excerpt of the proposal:

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Sweden's Carl Bildt, centre, and Lithuania's Linas Linkevicius, left, urged an arms embargo

Trying to keep track of what the EU has agreed – or, in some cases, has agreed to consider – on sanctions against Russia is nearly impossible for those not following the machinations up close because the terminology and targets keep changing.

Tuesday’s meeting of EU foreign ministers was just the latest case in point. Some measures were “accelerated”, others were expanded, and still others were put off until a Thursday meeting of EU ambassadors. No new sanctions were agreed, but the nuances could prove important down the road.

According to EU diplomats, some of this lack of clarity is intentional obfuscation. The initial outline of how the EU would gradually ratchet up sanctions has proven politically unworkable, so those negotiating have consciously attempted to blur lines and shift focus to make it easier to get unanimous agreement on the next steps. Read more

A pro-Russian militant stands guard at a checkpoint outside Donetsk earlier this week.

UPDATE: We’ve now posted the draft communiqué on Ukraine. You can read it here.

Today’s special EU summit was originally called to hash out nominees for the remaining jobs atop the big Brussels institutions – the European Council president, the EU foreign policy chief and the chair of the eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers. But recent events in Ukraine have pushed Russia policy back onto the agenda.

According to a draft of the summit communiqué obtained by Brussels Blog – which was pulled together at a marathon session of EU ambassadors on Tuesday – EU leaders could go beyond so-called “phase two” sanctions, which involve targeting individuals for travel bans and asset freezes. But it won’t be all the way to “phase three”, which constitutes sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy.

The new intermediate phase, which diplomats say is an intentional blurring of phase two and three, would focus on four elements. First, the EU would cut all new project funding for Russia from the European Investment Bank and caucus together to prevent similar investments from other international organisations where EU countries are members – particularly the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Other international financial institutions are not mentioned by name, but diplomats said the World Bank was raised during deliberations. The draft language now looks like this:

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When looking for scapegoats for the EU’s energy crisis and our dependence on Russian gas, it is all too easy to attack “district heating”.

District heating is the main way that cities are heated in eastern Europe and the Soviet-era infrastructure can often be wastefully inefficient, as we write about in a story today.

But don’t write it off too quickly. The truth is that western Europe is probably going to see a lot more of this technology in the next decade as it rethinks its urban energy consumption. 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

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

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

The USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier

With the Russian buildup of forces in Crimea continuing unabated, the internet has been filled with reported sightings of US naval vessels heading into the Black Sea, most recently the USS George HW Bush aircraft carrier which, in reality, was merely heading to the Greek port of Piraeus for a long-scheduled port call.

The latest addition to this internet buzz was reports that Turkey had given the US navy permission for a warship to sail through the Bosphorus, the narrow straight that connects the Eastern Mediterranean with the Black Sea. 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

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