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Back in 2005, it was Jean-Claude Juncker who caught the mood after Dutch and French voters spurned a draft EU constitution. “Europe is not in crisis: it is in deep crisis,” he declared. He has gone from Luxembourgish premier to European Commission president since then – and the Dutch are back to saying No. This time team Juncker relayed that the president was just “sad” about the rejection of the Ukraine trade deal. And for europhiles that pretty much sums it up.

This has been a long journey. Referendums on European issues, from the 1970s on, largely acted as a rite of passage: membership, enlargement, monetary union. They then morphed into more wide ranging political guarantees for eurosceptic voters (in Denmark, Britain or France) wary of where pro-European politicians may lead them. Some would call them a reality check.

More recently they have grown to be not just domestic political matters, but negotiating tools or instruments of coercion abroad. This is the weaponisation of referendums and a few EU leaders have been accused of the tactic: Greece’s Alexis Tsipras over bailout terms, Britain’s David Cameron to win a better deal, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban over migration quotasRead more

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David Cameron has had a frustrating week. Since the Panama Papers revealed the offshore dealings of his late father, the British prime minister has vainly tried to stop questions over his family potentially benefiting from tax avoidance. He first politely parried and demanded privacy, then changed tack, clarified his position, challenged his critics to provide evidence, then clarified three times more. Today we know a great deal about what Mr Cameron does not own. But it still isn’t over.

Through this mini-ordeal, Mr Cameron enjoyed one advantage. He can point to a record of championing transparency and fighting offshore corporate dodges. But now even this defensive shield is looking a little shaky.

The FT’s Jim Brunsden has dug deep into a bygone Brussels legislative battle over corporate secrecy and uncovered Mr Cameron’s intriguing personal role. He indeed pressed hard to expose beneficial owners of shell companies. But there was a caveat. In an EU law to tackle money laundering and end harmful secrecy, he wanted special treatment for trusts, discrete legal vehicles Brits have used for centuries to manage estates and pass assets down generations. That now looks a little awkward. Read more

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The Netherlands votes today on the EU’s trade pact with Ukraine. Polls suggest the deal will be rejected. But what will it actually mean? For an answer to that, prepare to enter the topsy-turvy world of Dutch referendums.

Here are some of the contradictions to grapple with. The plebiscite is merely advisory. Most Dutch politicians support the Ukraine deal. Two-thirds of voters say they have no idea what was agreed with Kiev, according to I&O research. Even the referendum organisers were not particularly interested in the details. Yet, in spite of all that, this vote may have some real political consequences for the Netherlands and the EU. Read more

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Spring is coming and Italian politicians know that probably spells trouble. With the improved weather come the migrant boats to Italy’s southern shores and one fiendishly difficult political problem.

Attention in Brussels is still on the migrant flow across the Aegean and the controversial deal with Turkey to stop it. The first so-called “returns” of migrants to Turkey started on Monday, but the first batch included no asylum seekers and the jury is still out on whether the plan is legal, workable or effective.

Over in Rome, however, the concern is more whether the EU can repeat its Turkey trick elsewhere. Angelino Alfano, Italy’s veteran interior minister, wants Brussels to strike similar returns deals with African countries, the source of most migrants reaching Italy. “Europe was able to find the resources when it was urgent — I am referring to Turkey,” he told the FT. “It’s a matter of political leadership.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Spain's Mariano Rajoy, right, with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president

Next to Ireland, there have been few eurozone countries that have been touted as austerity success stories more often than Spain. Under the government of Mariano Rajoy, the centre-right prime minister who is still clinging onto office after indecisive elections in December, the country went through a series of wrenching reform programmes and came out the other side with relatively robust growth. In February, the European Commission said Spain’s economic output had grown 3.2 per cent last year, double the eurozone average.

But one thing Madrid can’t seem to do is get a handle on is its budget deficit. Originally, the Spanish government was supposed to get its deficit back below the EU’s ceiling of 3 per cent of gross domestic product by 2013. When it became clear at the height of the eurozone crisis that was impossible, the deadline got extended by a year. But a year later, Madrid had made so little progress that it got a further two-year extension, to 2016. It appears things have gotten no better over those two years, however: yesterday, Spain’s national statistics office announced that the country’s 2015 deficit was nearly 5.2 per cent – even higher than Brussels estimated back in February. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Erdogan, Merkel and Obama at the November Group of 20 summit in Antalya, Turkey

When Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, shows up for a summit in Washington today, he’ll get something of a cold shoulder. Instead of a one-on-one with President Barack Obama, as Ankara requested, Mr Erdogan will instead be granted an audience with Joe Biden, the vice-president. The White House has tried to explain away the apparent snub as a factor of the 50-odd leaders who are descending on Washington for the gathering on nuclear security. But it is being seen in some quarters as a sign of strain in relations with the US over media freedom and Mr Erdogan’s aggressive military campaign against Kurds.

There have been no such outwards signs of squeamishness in Europe, however, where all 28 EU leaders have had three separate summits with Mr Erdogan’s prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, to persuade him to stem the influx of migrants pouring into Europe from Turkey. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, went so far as to fly to Istanbul on the eve of Turkish elections to be photographed sitting in twin thrones with Mr Erdogan.

Which all makes the new diplomatic dust-up between European governments and Ankara all the more awkward. Yesterday, both Germany and the EU were forced to reiterate their support for a free press and free expression after Ankara summoned Germany’s ambassador to complain about a satirical video shown on German public broadcaster ARD that depicted Mr Erdogan as a dictator rounding up journalists and bombing Kurds. That diplomatic outburst came hot on the heels of an angry denunciation of EU envoys’ presence at an Istanbul trial of two prominent Turkish journalists charged with espionage. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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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

Peter Spiegel

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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

Peter Spiegel

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Is Fayçal Cheffou the “man in white,” the third conspirator captured on CCTV footage just before last week’s Brussels airport attack pushing a baggage cart next to the two suicide bombers? Belgian prosecutors are operating under that assumption after charging him with terrorist murders on Saturday, but they have yet to formally name him as the man who dropped off the largest bomb at Zaventem airport but later fled after it failed to detonate.

The Belgian press was filled with accounts of Mr Cheffou’s recent activities, including attempts to radicalise migrants who were seeking shelter at a refugee camp in central Brussels. Some accounts have described Mr Cheffou as a freelance journalist, but the only real evidence of that is a video posted to YouTube where he reports on Muslim detainees at a Belgian facility who were allegedly protesting over being given daytime meals during Ramadan.

The charges against Mr Cheffou were just one in a series of moves by law enforcement across Europe to roll up members of the Islamic State network at the weekend. Yesterday alone, Belgian prosecutors brought charges against a man for his role in a Paris terrorist plot broken up by French police last week; Italian police arrested another man on allegations he helped Isis terrorists obtain false residency permits; and just last night Dutch police rounded up a third man in Rotterdam on charges related to the failed Paris attack.

The FT’s security correspondent Sam Jones has a look at whether all the recent arrests are evidence that the Isis network in Europe is far bigger than security services originally believed. In its account of the Europe-wide manhunt, the Wall Street Journal reports French and Belgian authorities have sought US assistance as they attempt to map out the full breadth of the cell. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

Peter Spiegel

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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

Peter Spiegel

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A Belgian soldier patrols the grounds of Brussels airport on Tuesday morning

Belgian authorities this morning are still hunting for a man they believe is on the run after participating in yesterday’s attack on Brussels’ international airport, and have been focusing their investigation on the city’s Schaerbeek neighbourhood after a raid there turned up an explosive device, chemicals and an Islamic State flag. Late last night, the federal police posted new photos of the two other suspects in the airport bombing, who federal prosecutors said are believed to have killed themselves in twin suicide attacks, which has left at least 14 dead. [UPDATE: Belgian broadcaster RTBF has identified the two suicide suspects as brothers Khalid and Brahim El Bakraoui.]

According to Dernière Heure, a Brussels legal tabloid that broken several key angles in the investigation, police were led to the Schaerbeek flat by the taxi driver who unwittingly drove the three attackers to the airport yesterday morning. The paper also says it was the same driver who led investigators to a third, unexploded bomb in a suitcase at the airport; he told police that the three men had carried a lot more bags than just the two that had blown up.

Less is known about the bombing of a metro at the Maalbeek station in the Belgian capital’s EU quarter. Thus far, authorities have released little information other than that at least 20 were killed in that attack, which occurred about an hour after the initial bombs went off at the airport. Eyewitnesses said the explosives went off just as the train was pulling into Maalbeek and survivors had to pry open the doors to get out of the carriage. Read more

Christian Oliver

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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

Peter Spiegel

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Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu speaks to reporters upon arrival at the EU summit Friday morning

Turkey’s prime minister arrived in Brussels last night for what is expected to be an extremely difficult final round of negotiations with EU leaders on a deal that would allow Greece to return of thousands of refugees arriving on its shores to Turkey. The talks are due to begin this morning between Ahmet Davutoglu and three EU leaders – the European Commission and European Council presidents as well as Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister who holds the EU’s rotating presidency – but diplomats last night said they remained unsure whether Ankara would agree to the EU’s terms.

After five hours of talks in a summit last night, the EU’s 28 leaders agreed a common negotiating line that was not much different from a proposal tabled by Donald Tusk, the European Council president, the day before. But those terms include potential poison pills that Ankara has indicated are unacceptable. Foremost among those are measures Turkey would have to implement to completely overhaul its asylum system – including widening the nationalities that received protected status. Currently, only Syrians are given protections similar to those required under the Geneva Conventions, and the new EU negotiating line, seen by the FT, insists all migrants returned to Turkey be treated in compliance with “international standards”. Ankara has signaled it is unwilling to be lectured by Brussels on how it treats refugees. Read more

Duncan Robinson

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

Peter Spiegel

Tusk, right, arrives in Nicosia for meetings with the Cypriot president earlier this week

At a meeting of all 28 ambassadors to the EU late yesterday, aides to Donald Tusk, the European Council president, circulated a new three-page draft of a migration deal with Turkey that will serve as the basis of two days of summit talks aimed at securing an agreement with Ankara by Friday.

We got our hands on the draft and have posted it here. Much of the text reflects the emerging consensus of European officials that has emerged over the last week, be it on the legality of the mass return policy of migrants from Greece to Turkey or on the sticky issue of getting Cyprus to sign onto any pact.

Because many of the issues are couched in opaque diplomatese, Brussels Blog hereby offers an annotated version of the key parts of the text:

 Read more

Duncan Robinson

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Richard Nixon, left, with British prime minister Harold Wilson at Downing Street in 1969

Frost: “So in a sense what you’re saying is that there are certain situations…where the president can decide that it’s in the best interest of the nation or something and do something illegal?”

Nixon: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”

When it comes to the refugee crisis, Nixonian thinking appears to have taken over the EU’s institutions. Since the outline of a controversial deal with Turkey emerged last Monday, officials have repeated the mantra: whatever the EU does, it will be legal – and in the best interests of Europe. But doubts, both legal and practical, still remain.

On Wednesday, Frans Timmermans, the orotund first vice president of the European Commission, spelled out how the EU will try to return migrants and asylum seekers to Turkey without trampling on EU and international law. He said all asylum seekers on Greek islands would be subject to a proper hearing to determine whether their application is admissible – as is required in the Geneva Convention. This principle is also contained in a draft EU-Turkey agreement distributed to national capitals last night by Donald Tusk, who will host a two-day summit to hammer out the refugee deal starting today.

But for this to happen, Greece’s asylum system needs to be bulked up to cope with 10,000 arrivals per week. Extra judges and translators will be flown onto its islands, while reception facilities must be transformed into something resembling detention centres. In short, the system needs to be transformed from a dysfunctional mess labelled “degrading” by the European Court of Human Rights into the bulwark of the EU’s response to the refugee crisis. If the Greeks fail, and the system degenerates into a network of kangaroo courts rubber stamping decisions, then Europe’s actual courts – in either Strasbourg (European Court of Human Rights) or Luxembourg (European Court of Justice) – would likely strike the deal down. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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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

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Anastasiades, right, chats with Britain's David Cameron at the EU refugee summit last week.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president who has been attempting to broker a deal to stop the influx of refugees into the EU, has flown to Nicosia for a meeting this morning with Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades. For a man who spent the week before the last EU migration summit travelling to seven different capitals in four days, the fact that Mr Tusk is making Cyprus his only stop ahead of the next two-day gathering beginning Thursday is telling: the small island nation may prove the most difficult needle to thread in Brussels’ nascent deal with Turkey to take back thousands of migrants now washing ashore in Greece. [UPDATE: Mr Tusk has tacked on an evening trip to Ankara at the last minute.]

Cyprus has long been one of the biggest complicating factors in EU-Turkey relations, so objections from Nicosia to the demands being made by Ankara– another €3bn in aid, a visa-free travel scheme, opening of new “chapters” in EU membership talks – may have been expected. But the small group of EU leaders who brokered last week’s deal, led by Germany’s Angela Merkel, seemed to have forgotten that Cypriot objections this time around are far more consequential: the country is in the middle of delicate talks that diplomats believe are the best (and perhaps last) chance to reunify an island divided since Turkey invaded and held its northern half in 1974. For Mr Anastasiades, making concessions to Ankara now without any compensation would not only cost him politically at home, but could wreck reunification talks altogether since the Greek Cypriot community he leads would likely abandon him. Like all other 27 EU heads of state, Mr Anastasiades can, on his own, veto the Turkey deal. 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