Peter Spiegel

Greece's hulking finance ministry, overlooking Athens' central Syntagma Square

With Greece’s government coffers dwindling by the day, nervous creditors have been watching each and every debt repayment and monthly wage bill closely for signs Athens has finally run out of cash.

But despite many predictions the country should have gone bust by now, the Syriza-led government has managed to scrape together enough funds to pay its creditors – including a €200m payment to the International Monetary Fund that was due today – and, despite some hiccups, the pensions and salaries owed government workers as well.

Some of that cash has been found in the bank accounts of independent government agencies, and more recently the government has been trying to raise additional funds by pooling unused reserves from local municipalities – a move that has generated considerable backlash.

But under the radar, the Greek government appears to have found a different, more traditional way to raise extra money: it’s collecting more taxes and spending less money.

According to data released just over a week ago – which was widely overlooked, since it was published the same day as a highly-contentious meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Riga – the Greek government is actually doing even better than it was a year ago in tax revenues, spending reductions, and primary surpluses. Read more

Peter Spiegel

One of the more controversial actions taken by the Juncker Commission in its still-short life was January’s move to make the EU’s crisis-era budget rules more “flexible,” an announcement many took as a signal it was preparing to let both Italy and France off the hook for their recent fiscal transgressions. Which it ultimately did.

According to Commission officials, the so-called “flexibility communication” caused ructions among the 28 commissioners both because of its substance and the process by which it was agreed: the college was only allowed to see a hard copy of the highly-technical document for about a half hour before it was taken away, and then presented for adoption later in the day.

Among those who were angered by the way it was forced through the college over the complaints of some of the Commission’s budget hawks was Chancellor Angela Merkel who, according to our friends and rivals at the German weekly Der Spiegel (no relation), complained to Juncker that “her commissioner” – German Günther Oetttinger – had only received the document a few hours before it was to be approved. “Why ‘your’ commissioner?” Juncker reportedly replied coolly. “That’s my commissioner.”

Now it seems that Berlin is not the only place where objections are being raised about some of the decisions taken in the “flexibility communication”. According to a leaked opinion by the European Council’s legal service – which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here – last month, lawyers on the other side of Rue de la Loi appear to have decided a central part of the new guidelines might be illegal. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Monday night’s live TV interview with Alexis Tsipras, the first since he became Greece’s prime minister, has generated headlines because of his declaration that, if the deal he ultimately strikes with eurozone creditors includes measures he promised to avoid, he’d put it up for a referendum.

But the three-hour-long session contained some other nuggets that illustrated anyone who thought Tsipras was going soft after reshuffling his bailout negotiating team on Monday morning may have miscalculated.

At the very top of the show, for instance, he accused Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, of “political weakness” for failing to admit the Greek bailout has been “a failure”.

For eurozone crisis obsessives, another exchange was particularly notable: Tsipras claimed that as part of the critical agreement on February 20 to extend Greece’s bailout through June, he received a verbal commitment that the European Central Bank would allow Athens to sell more short-term debt. Read more

Duncan Robinson

ECJ chief Skouris, left, tried to block other judges from testifying before the European Parliament

Fans of warring judges are in a for treat: the fight over reform at the EU’s second-highest court is about break into the open.

The controversy behind the EU’s decision to double the size of the General Court at the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice has begun to raise eyebrows in the European Parliament, not least because the court itself had asked only for extra 12 judges to deal with its extra workload.

Instead, EU ministers approved an extra 28 after they couldn’t decide which countries would be awarded the new judgeships. So now every country will get one — even though each judge gets paid more than €220,000 per year.

Judges at the General Court say the proposal is a waste of money (the backlog is not as bad as made out, they say, and can be fixed by adding more support staff) and four of the most critical are set to appear before the parliament’s legal affairs committee on Tuesday.

But their appearance, following an invite by committee member António Marinho e Pinto, a Portuguese MEP who is heading the Liberal group’s work on the issue, has been objected to by none other than Vassilios Skouris, the ECJ president. In a polite but prickly letter to the committee’s chairman (which Brussels Blog obtained and has posted here), Mr Skouris insists only he, and not the European Parliament, can decide who is allowed to give testimony and that Mr Marinho e Punto’s invitation should be ignored: Read more

Peter Spiegel

Migrants arrive in the Sicilian port of Messina after a rescue operation at sea earlier this week

When EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday for a hastily-called summit to address the rash of migrant drownings in the Mediterranean, the most concrete “deliverable” is likely to be a pledge to “at least” double resources to the bloc’s two maritime operations along Europe’s southern coast.

According to a draft communiqué sent to national capitals late Wednesday, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and has posted here, the commitment to double the financial resources will go through 2016. But the text is a bit more unclear on what exactly the Triton and Poseidon missions’ mandate will be.

The draft says the new cash would allow the patrols to “increase the search and rescue possibilities within the mandate” of Frontex, the EU’s border guard agency. But diplomats say the issue of whether to grant Frontex an explicit search-and-rescue mission, like the now-disbanded Mare Nostrum patrols, remains off the table. A senior EU official said Frontex remains a border-control agency, and that will not be changed. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Earlier this week, we reported that rather than the 12 new judges initially requested by the European Court of Justice to help with its burgeoning workload, EU member states are about to approve 28 instead thanks to a classic fudge that has more to do with national pride than legal efficiency. As is our practice at Brussels Blog, we thought we’d offer up some more details on how this deal came about, including some of the correspondence between the court and those responsible for making the decision.

The choice to double the size of the ECJ’s general court – the second-highest in the EU – was made only because, for years, national governments couldn’t decide where the 12 new judges would come from. So they decided to name one new jurist from each of the EU’s 28 members instead.

The issue had been deadlocked for three years, but during Greece’s turn at the EU’s rotating presidency last year, Theodoros Sotiropoulis, the courtly Greek ambassador to the EU at the time, dropped an unsubtle hint to the ECJ: you’ll get 28 judges, or you’ll get none. Here’s a copy of that letter (the handwritten Greek at the beginning and end of the letter is due to the fact the ECJ president, Vassilios Skouris, is also Greek):

 Read more

Peter Spiegel

Dijsselbloem, left, with Spanish rival de Guindos during a eurogroup meeting in December

The second quarter of 2015 will not only bring a crescendo in the ongoing Greek crisis for the 19 eurozone finance ministers who make up the eurogroup, which must ultimately decide whether Athens gets the bailout funds it needs to avoid bankruptcy. It will also trigger something nearly as closely-watched by EU insiders: an active race to head the group.

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who was the surprise pick to preside over the powerful committee when he was plucked from obscurity just weeks after national elections pushed his party into government in late 2012, will see his two-and-a-half year term end in July.

Unusually for such high-profile EU posts, both Dijsselbloem and his leading challenger, Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos, have publicly declared their interest in the job. Indeed, de Guindos received a very public, full-throated endorsement from his prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, at last month’s EU summit in Brussels.

Although the politicking hasn’t really begun in earnest yet – the group is somewhat preoccupied with Greece at the moment – the Brussels Blog has talked to a handful of insiders to gauge where the race stands. Most believe it will come down to a political showdown between the EU’s two main pan-European party groups, the centre-right European People’s Party and the centre-left Party of European Socialists.

Here’s how most are handicapping it now – plus a few dark horses who could emerge if the two men cancel each other out. Read more

Christian Oliver

Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU trade commissioner, during a press conference last week

Meet the Miculas: two twin brothers, Ioan and Viorel, whose battle with EU law will be of interest to anyone following Europe’s fitful trade negotiations.

The duo’s battle to save their beer-to-biscuits food empire in northern Romania may not seem an obvious proxy for an increasingly bitter fight over the EU’s trade deals with the US and Canada. But it cuts to the heart of one of the most politically contentious issues surrounding both trade accords: the status of international investment tribunals.

The brothers, who also hold Swedish citizenship, have had a terrible start to the week.

On Monday, the EU said they would have to repay all the subsidies they received to build up their business in the poor northern Romanian county of Bihor, on the Hungarian border. Their factories, which produce brands such as Servus beer and Rony biscuits, depended on what Brussels ruled was illegal state aid. According to their lawyers, the pair had decided to invest in a region as impoverished as Bihor on the understanding that Romania would subsidise them. On that pledge hang some 9,000 jobs.

Their business model, which predated Romania’s accession to the EU, came unstuck when Bucharest decided to join the European club. Competition authorities no longer allowed this kind of state largesse. In 2005, Bucharest cut the funds to the brothers in Bihor. (Romania finally joined in 2007).

This is where things get interesting legally, and the trade aficionados will start to realise something is afoot.

As Swedish citizens, the Miculas took their case to an international tribunal and won. At the end of 2013, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes awarded a settlement of $250m from the Romanian government because of its suspension of the subsidies. It was one of the largest sums ever awarded by an international investment tribunal. To Brussels, the award of damages meant state aid was now effectively being paid “through the back door”. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at a cabinet meeting Sunday night in the Greek parliament

There has been lots of analysis on a new list of economic reforms that the Greek government sent to its bailout monitors over the weekend, including this incredibly comprehensive report from the Athens-based analytical website Macropolis.

But before everyone goes concluding that this is the final list that eurozone creditors will rule on, remember: nothing has been submitted yet to the eurogroup – the committee of 19 eurozone finance ministers that will ultimately rule on whether the reforms are sufficient to unlock the remaining €7.2bn in bailout funds Athens desperately needs.

And tonight’s “deadline” for bailout monitors to approve a submission, and then forward it onto the eurogroup, is nothing more than a self-imposed one; in reality, there is no deadline other than the date when Athens eventually runs out of cash.

People on both sides of the negotiations say that despite three days of talks, the list is not comprehensive as yet. “There was no such thing as an original list,” insists an official from one of the bailout monitoring institutions. “There were contributions, tables, pieces of paper.”

Indeed, on the Greek side, some involved in the discussions say a fuller, longer, and more detailed document is in the works. They argue the issue is not, as many among the bailout monitors claim, a lack of detail. The issue is getting all the details – some 72 reforms, according to one person in the Athens camp – into a well-organised document, in English, without mistakes in substance or politics. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Tsipras, at right without tie, and Merkel, left in red, at Thursday's Greece discussion in Brussels

If you didn’t know what the standoff over Greece’s bailout was all about, Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, has provided an excellent primer in a letter sent a week ago to his German counterpart, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he is scheduled to meet Monday night in Berlin.

Our story about the March 15 letter, which the FT obtained a copy of, can be found here. But as is our normal practice, we thought we’d provide readers of the Brussels Blog a bit more detail – including a copy of the letter, which we’ve posted here.

It’s worth noting that eurozone officials say a similar letter was sent to a select group of other leaders, including François Hollande, the French president; Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank chief; and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.

For those who are having a hard time following every twist an turn in Tsipras’ dispute with his bailout lenders, the letter is filled with a lot of jargon and references to multiple previous exchanges of letters, which can be confusing even to a Greek crisis veteran. For that reason, below is an annotated version of the Tsipras letter, which is our modest attempt to explain its intricacies to the uninitiated.

The letter starts off by referring to a February 20 agreement by the eurogroup – the committee of all 19 eurozone finance ministers which is responsible for overseeing the EU’s portion of Greece’s €172bn bailout. That was the meeting where ministers ultimately agreed to extend the Greek bailout into June; it was originally to run out at the end of February, and the prospect of Greece going without an EU safety net had spurred massive withdrawals from Greek bank deposits, which many feared was the start of a bank run. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Protesters outside the Greek finance ministry in Athens during a visit by the troika in 2013

Among the issues plaguing deliberations over the way forward on Greece’s bailout is how the country’s international creditors can verify its economic and fiscal situation without sending monitors to Athens– which would look very much like the return of the hated “troika”.

Alexis Tsipras, the new Greek prime minister, has declared the death of the troika – which is made up of the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund – but for now, the troika isn’t really dead. The re-branded “institutions” must still evaluate Greece’s reform programme and give it a signoff before any of the remaining €7.2bn in bailout can be disbursed.

But the new Greek government has resisted anyone from the “institutions” showing up in Athens; they were originally supposed to show up this week, but officials said Greek authorities blocked the visit. In a letter Thursday to Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister and eurogroup president, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, suggested an alternative to a return of “the institutions” to Athens: have them meet in Brussels instead. Wrote Varoufakis:

As for the location of the technical meetings and fact finding and fact-exchange sessions, the Greek government’s view is that they ought to take place in Brussels.

But Dijsselbloem’s response to Varoufakis on Friday, in a letter obtained by the Brussels Blog, suggests officials from the “institutions” may be showing up in Athens after all. Wrote Dijsselbloem: Read more

Peter Spiegel

Dijsselbloem, left, speaks with Varoufakis during a finance ministers' meeting in February

During a 45-minute interview in his Dutch finance ministry office in The Hague, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, chairman of the eurogroup, offered up a detailed recounting of his month-long negotiations with Athens to secure last week’s agreement extending Greece’s €172bn bailout by four months – as well as his views of what might come next.

Portions of that interview have been be published on the Financial Times website here and here, but as is our normal practice at the Brussels Blog, we thought we’d offer up a more complete transcript of the interview since some of it – including previously undisclosed details about the three eurogroup meetings needed to reach a deal – was left on the cutting room floor and may be of interest to those following the Greek crisis closely. The transcript has been edited very slightly to eliminate cross-talk and shorten occasionally long-winded questions from the interviewer.

The interview started on Dijsselbloem’s decision to travel to Athens to meet Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras just days after the January 25 elections – a visit that was overshadowed by a tension-filled press conference between Dijsselbloem and his Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, which spurred a market sell-off: Read more

Peter Spiegel

Varoufakis (right) and Schäuble shake hands ahead of Wednesday night's eurogroup meeting

[UPDATE] In response to our post below, the Greek government this morning has denied it ever agreed to the text we got our hands on. “At no point in time did the Greek delegation give consent to the text that has been published,” said Nikos Pappas, the prime minister’s chief of staff. Our account is based on several sources from multiple delegations, so we stand by our story. However, Greek officials insist the text they agreed to Wednesday night was actually an earlier version than the final statement we published. These officials say the agreed draft was changed before it was to be issued at a late-night press conference by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the eurogroup chairman, prompting their veto. The drama continues…

Wednesday night’s breakdown in talks between Greece and the other 18 eurozone finance ministers happened at such the last minute that many of the participants in the eurogroup meeting – including Wolfgang Schäuble, the powerful German finance minster – didn’t even know it had happened, since they had already left the building.

According to several officials involved in the talks, Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, had agreed to a joint statement with his colleagues, a statement that was even signed off by Greece’s deputy prime minister, Yannis Dragasakis, who was also in Brussels for the gathering.

Once agreed, the eurogroup meeting broke up and Schäuble and several of his colleagues headed out the door. But officials said Varoufakis put in one last call back to Athens to inform them what he had just agreed to – and government officials vetoed the statement.

We at Brussels Blog got our hands on the statement and have posted it below. In many senses, it has a little bit for everyone. For eurozone officials, who were pushing Athens hard to request an extension of the current €172bn bailout, which expires at the end of the month, it leaves open the option to “explore the possibilities of extending” the programme.

For Varoufakis, there’s even the word “bridge” mentioned in the final paragraph – though not in the sense the Greek minister probably wanted, which is as part of a bridge financing deal. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis speaks before the Greek parliament on Tuesday

One of the unmentioned problems looming over the current Greece standoff is the fact that Athens will need a third bailout, regardless of what happens in a week’s worth of Brussels meetings that start on Wednesday. Eurozone officials say that both Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek finance minister, and his boss, Alexis Tsipras, have acknowledged that in private meetings.

Just four months ago, it appeared that Athens wouldn’t need another full-scale EU bailout and would be given a line of credit instead. That’s because at the time it appeared the Greek government was making progress in convincing private credit markets to fund its fiscal needs. That is no longer the case.

Eurozone officials are understandably reluctant to estimate the size of another Greek bailout – and not just for political reasons. Trying to guess how much Athens will need without digging through Greece’s books is a fraught affair, especially since tax revenues have reportedly begun to dry up and it’s been months since the troika did their last full-scale analysis.

But that shouldn’t prevent Brussels Blog from doing some spit-balling. According to a very quick-and-dirty back-of-the envelope estimate, a third Greek bailout could run as much as €37.8bn if Varoufakis’ plans are adopted in full. Are Greece’s 18 eurozone partners prepared to cough up that kind of money in the current environment? Read more

Christian Oliver

A pipeline at a recently-modernised gas compressor station in eastern Ukraine

In only three weeks, the Juncker commission will unveil one of its most totemic policy packages: the so-called “energy union”.

But behind the hype, key parts of the plan still seem to lack any real bite, according to documents seen by the Brussels Blog.

Overall, a single energy market makes a lot of sense as the EU is currently often a messy patchwork of 28 counter-productive energy islands. If the member states integrated their gas and electricity networks more deeply, the continent could cut costs, slash emissions and reduce dependency on Russia. Who could object to that? Well, as ever, the mood among member states is hardly harmonious.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s vice-president charged with launching the energy union on February 25, said that the single market would comprise “hardware” and “software”.

Relatively speaking, hardware is the easy bit. Build gas pipelines and electrical cables across borders and that will improve security of supply and help prices converge.

The big hurdle is the software. Fundamentally, energy has massively different costs in various countries because of divergent tax and regulatory systems. You cannot have a free-flowing single market until you harmonise these. Poles, Czechs and Hungarians pay less than half of German and Danish rates for power. In Denmark, 57 per cent of the final electricity price is based on levies, whereas in Britain the figure is closer to 5 per cent.

So will the member states converge fully? They don’t seem to want to. Sefcovic admitted on Wednesday that taxation was a significant problem and that he had hit a wall with member states: “Most of us in this room would agree that it would be the best way forward but we have to be very realistic that unanimity on an issue like energy taxation would be very difficult to achieve.” Oh dear. That’s a pretty big hole in the energy union plan. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Cast your mind back to November.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the new European Commission president, was being pummeled by the European Parliament after a leak revealed widespread tax avoidance in Luxembourg while he was prime minister of the Grand Duchy.

Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, MEPs queued up during a failed vote of no confidence to declare themselves “shocked, shocked” that tax avoidance was going on in Luxembourg.

In a bid to quell the criticism, Mr Juncker said that a lack of tax harmonization within the EU was to blame. To combat this, the commission president said he would introduce legislation to force the automatic exchange of tax-rulings that affect companies based in other member states.

But, according to this leaked document from 2012, both the commission and member states have long been aware of the problem of cross-border tax-rulings – and had already looked into ensuring the automatic exchange of tax information.

The Code of Conduct Group, which looks at business taxation with the commission, came out with guidance in 2012 to encourage member states to “spontaneously exchange the relevant information” on cross border tax rulings. They then asked member states how feasible this was. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

Christian Oliver

Cecilia Malmström answers press questions about the EU-US trade deal earlier this month

One year ago, Karel de Gucht, the EU’s trade commissioner, asked people to write in and voice their concerns about the most contentious part of a landmark trade deal with the US.

It is his successor, Cecilia Malmström, who will have to take the results of this public consultation squarely on the chin on Tuesday. It’s going to be a big (and possibly bruising) day for EU trade policy.

All the furore hinges on clauses of the US-EU accord that would allow foreign investors to sue governments in international tribunals, bypassing national courts.

This is technically known as Investor State Dispute Settlement, or ISDS, and has caused a huge international stink. It is probably the single biggest political obstacle to the EU-US deal, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which is potentially the world’s biggest trade deal. Reservations about ISDS are particularly strong in Germany and Austria.

So what will this consultation show on Tuesday? As far as we know, more than 150,000 people have written in. The vast majority are unhappy. To give a scale of the feverish interest in this topic, the trade commission has never held a public consultation that garnered more than 1,000 responses before. Read more

Duncan Robinson

An airport that loses €275 per passenger. A €16.5m runway that has never been used by the aircraft for which it was built. Another airport that receives 0.4 per cent of the travellers that were forecast.
 Read more

Peter Spiegel

ECB chief Mario Draghi, right, with France's François Hollande at October's EU summit

The dance had become so routine that we at the Brussels Blog were thinking of giving it a name, the Eurozone Two-Step.

Ever since the eurozone crisis first rocked international markets nearly five years ago, European Central Bank chiefs – first Jean-Claude Trichet, then Mario Draghi – sent a very clear message to the currency union’s political leaders: we can only act if you act first.

The deal was never explicit, but both sides knew what was required. The ECB’s first sovereign bond purchase programme in May 2010 came only after eurozone leaders created a new €440bn bailout fund; its €1tn in cheap loans to eurozone banks in early 2012 only came after political leaders agreed to a new “fiscal compact” of tough budget rules.

But with the markets watching Frankfurt closely for signs Draghi is about to launch another bold move – US-style quantitative easing, purchasing sovereign bonds to halt fears the bloc is headed into a deflationary spiral – there are new indications one of the partners is no longer dancing.

Back in October at a eurozone summit, Draghi was able to get a little-noticed statement out of the assembled leaders committing them to another “Four Presidents Report”, a reference to the blueprint delivered in 2012 that set a path towards further centralisation of eurozone economic policy. The report helped kick-start the EU’s just-completed “banking union.”

Progress on that 2012 blueprint has since stalled, however, and at his last summit press conference, then-European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said the new “Four Presidents Report” would be delivered at the December EU summit, which starts next Thursday. Many in Brussels saw this as the quid for Draghi’s quo – once the leaders agreed to another blueprint for eurozone integration, Draghi would have a free hand to launch QE.

But according to a leaked draft of the communiqué for next week’s summit, Draghi may have to deliver his quo without a eurozone quid. The text (which we’ve posted here) makes clear that leaders have no intention of delivering a new blueprint any time soon. Read more