Foreign policy

Demonstrators in Berlin protest against alleged US spying activities in July.

In today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, we report on a draft of a stinging report the European Commission will issue Wednesday which could send shock waves through the US tech industry: unless the Obama administration changes the way it handles online data of European citizens, American companies like Google and Facebook will have to find another way to do business in the EU.

Given the importance of the Commission’s review of the 13-year-old “safe harbour” agreement with the US – which allows American firms to operate in Europe under US privacy rules because of an assumption that Washington treats the data similarly to European governments – and the fact we got our hands on it before its official release, we thought Brussels Blog readers might be interested in a bit more detail about the Commission’s findings. 

What has become an increasingly touchy EU-Russia trade relationship took another tit-for-tat turn on Thursday when Brussels escalated a WTO case against Moscow over vehicle recycling fees.

The EU believes a recycling fee Russia charges on imported cars is less about good environmental policy and more a way to squelch foreign competition. The fee does not apply to cars built in Russia or its closest trading partners,Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Brussels complained to the WTO about the levy in July, marking the first case against Russia since it joined the global trade body with much fanfare in 2012 – 19 years after its initial application. On Thursday, the EU asked for a panel to rule on the matter after – to little surprise – settlement talks with Moscow proved fruitless. A result could take months.

“We’ve used all the possible avenues to find with Russia a mutually acceptable solution,” said Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner. “As the fee continues to severely hamper exports of a sector that is key for Europe’s economy, we are left with no choice but to ask for a WTO ruling.” 

Cyprus' Mavroyiannis, right, with EU's Lewandowsky during last year's budget talks

When Andreas Mavroyiannis was appointed the Greek Cypriots’ lead negotiator with the Turkish side of the island this month, many in Brussels took note. Mavroyiannis is not only Cyprus’ former ambassador to the EU, but he served as the island’s EU minister during its eventful EU presidency last year.

Although the Cypriot presidency received mixed reviews, thanks in part to ongoing upheaval back in Nicosia surrounding the country’s then-unfinished bailout, Mavroyiannis was widely viewed as a pro, winning praise in Brussels for his handling of highly-tendentious negotiations over the EU’s €1tn seven-year budget.

So if Mavroyiannis could handle 27 warring EU heads of state, surely his appointment was a sign of new Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades’ seriousness in tacking the 40-year division of the island, some reasoned. Anastasiades was one of the few Greek Cypriot politicians, after all, who backed the 2004 Annan Plan to reunify the island, and many EU officials have hoped the economic crisis brought on by the €10bn bailout might bring new momentum to finding a solution to the frozen conflict.

Well, not everyone agrees with that assessment – least of all Osman Ertug, the Turkish Cypriot official who will be Mavroyiannis’ chief interlocutor if and when negotiations reconvene. 

Brussels and Beijing appear to be nearing a settlement in a trade fight over solar panels that is the EU’s biggest ever anti-dumping case – based on the more than €20bn in Chinese-made solar products shipped to the bloc in 2011. Sometime on Friday afternoon, EU officials are expecting to learn whether or not their counterparts in Beijing have taken their latest offer.

In theory, the two sides have until August 6th to haggle over a deal. After that date, provisional duties imposed by the EU will jump from about 11 per cent to an average of 47 per cent. The reality is that they have probably already missed that deadline, according to diplomats, given the amount of legwork that Brussels must do to translate an agreement and circulate it among national governments. Hence, the next few days are crucial. 

France's Laurent Fabius, left, and Britain's William Hague co-authored the letter to Cathy Ashton.

[UPDATE] During Monday’s appearance with Kerry, which includes a town hall meeting with European Commission staff, Barroso is expected to announce a new “comprehensive package” of EU humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, according to officials briefed on the initiative.

This weekend’s announcement by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, that Washington is prepared to double the amount of non-lethal aid it is sending to the mainstream opposition in Syria kicks off what is expected to be a busy week in Brussels on the issue.

Kerry is due in the Belgian capital for this week’s Nato foreign ministers’ meeting, where Syria will be debated, and officials familiar with Kerry’s schedule said there was even a discussion of his attending the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg on Monday. That has since been ruled out – though Kerry will meet with José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, on Monday ahead of the Nato ministerial.

Still, the Monday EU foreign ministers’ meeting will be the latest venue in the ongoing Franco-British effort to lift the EU’s arms embargo on the Syrian opposition. EU diplomats said they do not believe a definitive decision will be made at the meeting, but it comes just weeks before the entire sanctions regime is set to expire at the end of next month, so the deliberations are likely to become even more spirited.

For those looking to read up on the topic ahead of the Monday meeting, Brussels Blog has got its hands on the joint letter Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, and his British counterpart William Hague sent to Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, last month arguing for a change in policy – we’ve posted it here, in both French and English. 

Brussels bloggers Peter Spiegel and Joshua Chaffin discuss the unexpected Anglo-French push to lift the arms embargo for Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime.

 

It is now become standard operating procedure: a big story breaks, and the Taiwanese news organisation NMA — which came to fame with its CGI take on Tiger Woods’s complicated love life — does its own unique interpretation of the event. Past favourites have included former British prime minster Gordon Brown’s temper tantrums and ex-US vice president Al Gore’s alleged harassment of a masseuse. Now, they’ve done Friday’s highly-anticipated speech by David Cameron on Britain’s future in the EU, complete with Bulgarians and Romanians storming Buckingham Palace and Nick Clegg in a Baby Bjorn: 

Geithner, left, has been in frequent touch with ECB's Draghi and his predecessor, Trichet.

A joint election party co-hosted by Democrats and Republicans Abroad at the Renaissance Hotel in Brussels this evening is scheduled to go until 3am in anticipation of a long night ahead for any eurocrats waiting to get first word on who has won the US presidential contest.

Looking for something to do in the interim? For his part, French economist Jean Pisani-Ferry, director of the influential Brussels think tank Bruegel, scoured the recently-released calendars of US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner to find out which of the American’s EU counterparts he talked to most frequently since the eurozone crisis broke nearly three years ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, by far his most frequent phone calls have gone to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund. Pisani-Ferry counts 114 contacts with either IMF chief Christine Lagarde or her predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or their deputies.

What is a surprise is that Geithner’s most frequent interlocutor on this side of the Atlantic has not been in Brussels, Paris or Berlin. Instead, it was Frankfurt, where he contacted European Central Bank president Mario Draghi and his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet, 58 times in the 30 months examined. 

Romney, left, with Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski during his July trip to Warsaw.

The US presidential debates begin on Wednesday, and if the previous year of campaigning is any indication, Europe is unlikely to be much of a topic. Despite the ongoing eurozone turmoil, the crisis barely registered on the election’s radar screen, even during the contentious and debate-heavy Republican primary process.

Republican Mitt Romney’s views on Europe were largely overshadowed by the gaffes committed on a trip to Britain and Poland earlier this year. But little noticed outside Washington policy circles, the former Massachusetts governor last year appointed two co-chairs to a “Europe working group” within his foreign policy advisory team.

One is well-known to Brussels: Kristen Silverberg, who was the Bush administration’s last ambassador to the EU before leaving office in 2009. But potentially more interesting is the other co-chair: Nile Gardiner, a Briton who served as an aide to Margaret Thatcher before moving to the US, where he now works for the conservative Heritage Foundation.

If a recent article in the Washington Times is any indication, Gardiner holds some strong anti-EU sentiments that could have an impact on a future Romney administration. 

Photo AFP

Mohamed Morsi, the new Egyptian president, arrived in Brussels today for day-long meetings with top EU officials. But most of the world’s attention was back in Cairo, where the US embassy, like other embassies in the region, had been the target of attacks by demonstrators angry about an anti-Muslim movie clip uploaded onto YouTube in the US.

Morsi’s morning press conference with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso was his first chance to publicly address the incidents and followed concerns in Washington that he had not condemned the attacks strongly enough. Indeed, US president Barack Obama himself warned that the US did not consider Egypt an ally, nor an enemy, and was watching closely how Morsi would respond.

In order for our readers to make their own judgment, the complete transcript of Morsi’s comments on the incident at the Brussels presser, as conveyed through a translator, are below. He falls short of specifically condemning the attacks, but does say “the Egyptian people reject any such unlawful act” against “individuals, the properties and the embassies.”