Peter Spiegel

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Crews prepare the EU summit building for Thursday night's high-stakes gathering

Ever since Donald Tusk, the European Council president, began chairing EU summits just over a year ago, they have frequently been far shorter and more tightly-scripted affairs than those run by his predecessor, Herman Van Rompuy. Sometimes gatherings scheduled to run two days are cut short by an entire day, something that never happened under Mr Van Rompuy. So it is a measure of the two-day summit that begins today – where leaders are hoping to finally lock down an agreement on Britain’s renegotiated relationship with the EU – that on the eve of its commencement, those running it are still not entirely certain how the schedule will unfold. “We still don’t actually have a set-in-stone running order,” lamented one EU diplomat involved in the summit’s planning.

Mr Tusk’s ultimate goal is to get all 28 national leaders to agree the “new settlement” demanded by David Cameron, the British prime minister, by Friday morning over what one senior EU official only half-jokingly termed an EU “English breakfast”. That could enable Mr Cameron to announce the date for his referendum on Britain’s EU membership back in Downing Street that very afternoon (most now expect it to be held in late June). But how Mr Tusk is actually going to get to a Friday morning agreement will be partially improvisational.

The one thing organisers do know is that the “British question” will be the first thing on the agenda, shortly after the presidents and prime ministers arrive at 5pm. After a “tour de table”, officials said Mr Tusk expects to take stock of where negotiations stand and then task lawyers and sherpas to start drafting any revisions to the current text he has prepared. The senior EU official said there will be a “war room” filled with lawyers who will attempt to get any political deal into legally-binding language. Read more

We’ve got our hands on the final pre-summit draft of the UK’s “new settlement” deal, sent to member states by Donald Tusk, the summit’s host, in the early hours of this morning.

There are not many changes from Tusk’s first version, published two weeks ago. A lot of the political issues have been left to the summit of EU leaders this evening. We’ve annotated a version of the main text, which you can view here. We’ve also run through the decision setting up an emergency brake for non-euro countries, which is here. I’m afraid Tusk provided no track marks in these drafts, making it difficult to see where the changes were made, but we hopefully spotted all the main issues and revisions. There are two particularly interesting tweaks:

1. City of London safeguards go to the summit:

This was not the plan. The officials negotiating this text wanted to sort the section on economic governance — basically outlining principles for coexistence between euro and non-euro countries — so that leaders weren’t subjected to a deep dive on financial regulation. But they failed to agree a key part that marked out turf on financial stability issues between national, eurozone and EU authorities. Pity the leaders — this is complex stuff. More details in the annotations.

2. The European parliament trigger for the benefits “emergency brake”? (SEE UPDATE)

This change is arcane but politically quite important for Britain and the European parliament. The text is revised to suggest the European parliament may have a say on the decision to trigger the “emergency brake” allowing the UK to restrict benefits to EU migrant workers. (In the earlier draft, MEPs had power over the legislation that would create the brake, but the ability to trigger the brake was left to EU member states.) This is super important for the bigwigs of the parliament — and very tricky for London.

UPDATE: A diplomat called to set us straight on the EP role in the emergency brake. A reference to a Council implementing act — basically bypassing the parliament — was removed. The language is a red rag to the parliament so it is a qualified win for them. But a reference to Council authorisation for the emergency brake remains, which we missed on first reading. That suggests the trigger is still in the hands of member states. One caveat: this area of law is incredibly complex and MEPs are a creative bunch when it comes to their powers and prerogatives. They could, of course, insist that the emergency brake trigger involves their sign-off as a condition for passing the law. Read more

Duncan Robinson

National Front's Nanterre offices during Wednesday morning's police raid

Workers in the National Front’s Nanterre headquarters had a poor start to the day on Wednesday. Their office was raided by a bunch of gendarmes.

But this wasn’t any run-of-the-mill raid. The French police acted as part of a European parliament investigation into Marine Le Pen’s far-right party for alleged expense fiddling by its MEPs.

The party – which is now consistently running first or second in polling for next year’s French presidential race and remains the largest French party in the European parliament itself – were accused by EU authorities last year of fraudulently claiming €7.5m to cover the pay of 20 MEP assistants who worked only on national matters – which is against EU rules.

As expected, FN are not happy it. They hit back, in typically bombastic style, labelling the investigation “a political operation directly led by François Hollande and Manuel Valls with the goal of obstructing, monitoring and intimidating the patriotic opposition”. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Ukraine's Arseniy Yatseniuk speaks during last night's "no confidence" debate in parliament

Amidst the ongoing refugee crisis, and the more recent fever over Britain’s efforts to renegotiate its relationship with the EU and avoid Brexit, the crisis that once dominated the European agenda and threatened to plunge the continent into another Cold War disappeared from the headlines. But mounting accusations of rampant corruption in Kiev have thrust Ukraine back into the spotlight, culminating with yesterday’s call by President Petro Poroshenko for the resignation of his erstwhile ally, prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk.

Last night, the Ukrainian parliament failed to comply, coming up 32 votes short of the 226 needed to pass a no-confidence motion that would have left the country in a state of suspended animation, stuck between choosing a new technocratic government or early elections. Despite that failure, the fallout from the split between Mr Poroshenko and Mr Yatseniuk – who head the legislature’s two largest parties, which are both part of the governing coalition – is likely to make an already unstable situation even shakier.

The current crisis was sparked by the resignation earlier this month of Aivaras Abromavicius, the government’s reform-minded economy minister who stepped down after accusing the government of condoning corruption and cronyism akin to the disgraced regime of Viktor Yanukovich, the onetime president topped in the 2014 Maidan revolution. The International Monetary Fund, which is still leading a $40bn Western bailout of Kiev after the Russian-instigated civil war plunged the Ukrainian economy into an abyss, piled on with chief Christine Lagarde warning the programme could not continue without a “substantial new effort” to invigorate reforms. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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David Cameron, left, is greeted this morning by EU Parliament president Martin Schulz

It has become something of a newfangled tradition for European prime ministers facing a spot of trouble on the EU stage to make a ritual appearance before the European Parliament to explain themselves – though some seemed to be holding their noses even as they did so.

The precedent was set by Viktor Orban, the Hungarian premier, who in 2012 travelled to the parliament’s second home in Strasbourg to counter criticisms his government was becoming increasingly authoritarian following a new media law and judicial reforms that critics charged improperly consolidated power in his own hands. Just last year, Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, made the Strasbourg pilgrimage at the height of fears his bailout brinkmanship would lead to Grexit. And Poland’s new leader, Beata Szydlo, agreed to appear last month following criticism her new media and judicial laws were following an Orbanesque trajectory.

Which is why many in the European Parliament expected David Cameron would turn up to make his “new settlement” case to them ahead of this week’s high-profile summit, where he hopes to emerge with a “reform” deal he can sell to the British public ahead of an expected June referendum on EU membership. Mr Cameron’s reasons for courting the parliament are not just symbolic, as they were for Mr Orban, Mr Tsipras and Ms Szydlo. He needs MEPs to approve many of the migrant benefit restrictions he has won in negotiations with EU leaders, since they will have to be finalised through the EU’s normal legislative process.

But when Mr Cameron arrives in Brussels today, it won’t be to appear before the entire parliament meeting in plenary session. Indeed, it won’t even be a meeting with the parliament’s conference of presidents – which was the original plan, until someone in Downing Street realised the conference includes leaders of all the parliament’s’ political groups, including those headed by archenemy (and UK Independence party leader) Nigel Farage and French ultranationalist (and National Front leader) Marine Le Pen. Read more

Jim Brunsden

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  © AFP photo

It was one of the most intriguing invitations of the year: would Greek premier Alexis Tsipras agree to meet The Visegrad Wall?

The Visegrad group — Hungary, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic — are leading the fightback against Germany’s open-door migration policy. Mr Tsipras’ attendance was intended to show he was “in the loop” on their push to seal the Macedonia border (and trap migrants in Greece in just the way Mr Tsipras is desperate to avoid).

First Mr Tsipras declined, then he said yes, then he backed out. At the very least, it’s a great loss to political spectacle.

Even without Greece there, the V4 meeting will tee-up another stormy week of migration politics in Europe. Read more

Christian Oliver

  © AFP

Greece has become wearily accustomed to micromanagers in Brussels and Berlin telling it what to do. Last summer’s Greek bailout sought reforms in some remarkably specific areas, including the weight of loaves and the shelf-life of milk. (Bakeries and dairies were cast as symptomatic of the economy’s protectionism and uncompetitiveness). Read more

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Bar the shouting (and there will surely be some) the Brexit deal is almost done. We’re nearing the moment where the sherpas fade into the background, leaving their leaders to reach the summit when they gather in Brussels on Thursday. An agreement is pretty certain, clearing the way for a June EU referendum. But there are some Brussels beartraps still to avoid — and they’re not all obvious. One issue in particular could be a killer. Read more

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One side-effect of “crisis Europe” has been a surplus of bombastic political rhetoric. In a crowded field Mark Rutte, the Dutch premier, stood out when likening the EU to the fall of the Roman Empire. Hungary’s Viktor Orban touched a nerve with his “no road back from a multicultural Europe” speech, which in turn built on his warning over the bloc “staggering towards moonstruck ruin”. And of course Fico is FicoRead more

Duncan Robinson

This is Wednesday’s edition of our new Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Greece is not in Dublin. While this fact is pretty basic geography, it is also a crucial part of understanding why the EU’s response to the refugee crisis has been so chaotic. Read more

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  © Getty Images

There are three existential issues stalking the EU: the eurozone financial crisis, the migration crisis and a (potential) Brexit crisis after the UK’s EU referendum. Each one poses potentially acute but largely distinct challenges. But is there a risk of a “perfect storm” bringing these crises together?

Greece is facing the brunt of two traumas. While the threat of Grexit from the eurozone has receded, hard fiscal decisions remain, especially over pensions. The political consensus in Greece is extremely fragile. And the potential for a nasty backlash will increase if worst-case scenarios on Schengen and migration play out. In the event that northern Europe panics and closes Macedonia’s border (hardly an improbable scenario), the social and political burden on Greece will be immense. Read more

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  © Getty

Once more to the breach, dear friends. Angela Merkel will be back in Turkey today for her second visit in five months. To put this in perspective, the German chancellor had been twice in five years before the migration crisis hit. And it is only five days since she last met Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish premier. This is urgent business.

Turkey is the lynchpin of Ms Merkel’s migration strategy and it is floundering. Even with rough seas, arrivals to Greek islands are still running at roughly 2,000 a day. With spring (and German state elections) approaching, there are just weeks left to avert a migration surge that forces Ms Merkel’s hand. That would leave November’s EU deal with Turkey – including bold promises of visa liberalisation and €3bn in funding – all but stillborn.

It took a while, but the penny has dropped in Ankara. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Renzi, left, during his visit last week with Germany's Angela Merkel in Berlin

Sometimes it seems not a day goes by without Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, picking a fight with Brussels. For a while, it was his angry denunciation of its slow response to the refugee crisis. Then he accused the EU of a “double standard” on Russian gas pipelines. More recently, he held up a €3bn EU aid package to Turkey. And he’s been blaming new EU rules for his country’s mounting banking crisis. But the most critical fight he’s been waging was on full display yesterday: his attempt to get more wiggle room for Italy’s 2016 budget.

Pierre Moscovici, the European Commission’s economic chief, was the man in the firing line this time, since yesterday was his semi-regular appearance to unveil the EU’s latest economic forecasts. In the run-up to Mr Moscovici’s announcement, Pier Carlo Padoan, the Italian finance minister, laid down his marker: he wanted a decision quickly that would allow Rome more flexibility to spend a bit more than EU rules normally allow. But Mr Moscovici was having none of it. Mr Padoan would have to wait until May for a decision, along with every other eurozone minister.

In what appeared a fit of mild Gallic pique, Mr Moscovici also noted that “Italy is the only country in the EU” that had already been given special dispensation under new budget flexibility guidelines – it is able to miss its structural deficit target by 0.4 per cent in order to implement Brussels-approved economic reforms – and it was now coming back repeatedly for more. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Kenny with Irish president Michael Higgins after formally dissolving parliament Wednesday

To date, no eurozone leader who has guided his country through a bailout has emerged politically unscathed on the other side. Portugal’s Pedro Passos Coelho was deposed as prime minister in November after inconclusive general elections. Earlier last year, Greece’s Antonis Samaras suffered a similar fate at the hands of leftist Alexis Tsipras. And Spain’s Mariano Rajoy is looking increasingly unlikely to win back the premiership in Madrid after informing King Felipe VI this week that his coalition-building efforts were going nowhere. Can Enda Kenny end the losing streak?

The Irish prime minister asked for parliament to be dissolved yesterday, setting the stage for a three-week sprint to election day on February 26. Mr Kenny is already touting his economic record, and to any outsider, that would seem to be enough to put him over the top. Ireland is expected to be the fastest-growing economy in the EU in 2016, which would be the third year running. Its unemployment rate of 8.6 per cent, while still high, is lower than the eurozone average and well below the 14.7 per cent rate when Mr Kenny assumed office in 2011.

Despite that record, opinion polls have stubbornly shown his Fine Gael party unable to get much above 30 per cent, a good-sized decline from the 36 per cent they took in the last general election. More troublingly for Mr Kenny is the demise of his coalition Labour party, which has seen its support cut in half. Without Labour, it’s unclear who Fine Gael would go into coalition with – which could produce a similar result to that faced by Mr Rajoy and Mr Passos Coelho, who emerged from their elections atop the largest party, but one too small to cobble together parliamentary majorities. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Donald Tusk, left, arrives at Downing Street for dinner with David Cameron on Sunday

There is a time in every EU policy debate when the technical becomes the political. That’s what happened yesterday when, after months of painstaking work by some of London and Brussels’ most seasoned mandarins, European Council president Donald Tusk published a 16-page “New Settlement for the United Kingdom within the European Union”. The EU’s political leaders now have two weeks to decide whether they will sign onto the deal before a high-stakes summit where the agreement is to be finalised.

For those following the debate closely, there were few surprises. Critically, Mr Tusk’s proposal includes an “emergency brake” that will allow David Cameron, the British prime minister, a four-year limit on benefits to newly-arriving EU migrant workers – at least for a while, since how long he can keep that brake engaged remains to be negotiated. Also left unclear is the efficacy of a second “emergency brake” that would allow London to force eurozone decisions onto the agenda of an EU summit. How and when that brake can be pulled is a sticking point with France, which wants to make sure Britain cannot veto further eurozone integration efforts.

But by in large, the substantive fight is over and things now move into the realm of the political, both inside Westminster and in other EU capitals – most of which got their first look at Mr Tusk’s draft at the same time as the rest of the world. In London, the political hothouse that always develops over Europe heated up quickly. Even within Mr Cameron’s own cabinet, there were grimaces – and open challenges – among known euroceptics like Chris Grayling, leader of the House of Commons, and Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary. Avowed Brexiteers were less constrained. Steve Baker, leader of the Conservatives For Britain group, accused Mr Cameron’s Europe minister of being “reduced to polishing poo”. The reviews were about as kind in Britain’s popular press. The cover of the best-selling Sun tabloid shouts this morning: “Who do EU think you are kidding Mr Cameron?” The equally influential Daily Mail calls the renegotiation deal “The Great Delusion!” on its cover. Read more

Christian Oliver

Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s energy commissioner, will have to choose his words carefully next week.

On February 10, he will release the European Commission’s long-awaited “gas package”, and he must manage expectations among an unusually varied bunch of interests. There are eastern Europeans who want assurances that they will be safer in the face of any supply cut by Russia. The Norwegians need comforting too, looking for signs that there will still be EU demand for their gas in the years ahead. Environmentalists want Brussels to stress that the longer term trajectory is a greener, more efficient continent burning less gas.

According to an early draft of the plan seen by Brussels Blog, there appears to be a little bit for everybody – but not yet enough to keep everybody happy. Take Norway. It wants to want to maintain its status as the EU’s favourite gas provider. But their companies need assurances that Europe has a long-term appetite for gas at a time they’re looking to invest in infrastructure in the Barents Sea, above the Arctic circle. Just in case the message wasn’t getting through, Oslo wrote to Mr Arias Cañete about the issue again last week. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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For most of Europe, the sharp decline in oil prices since the summer has been an economic boon, lowering costs for everyone from energy-intensive manufacturers to run-of-the-mill consumers. But the one place in Europe where the free-fall has been no boon at all has been the Kremlin treasury, where oil and gas sales account for more than half of revenues. Already, Russian officials have announced a 10 per cent cut in spending for this year’s budget, and have toyed with the possibility of aggressively hedging against future losses. Now comes word that President Vladimir Putin may be putting pressure on seven of Russia’s largest state-owned companies – including energy giant Rosneft and airline Aeroflot – to at least partially privatise as a way to raise funds. Read more

Jim Brunsden

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It’s been a rough few months for US tech giants doing business in Europe. Apple is fighting a rearguard action to prevent EU competition authorities from ordering it to pay billions of back taxes to Ireland; Google has been accused by Brussels of abusing its dominant position in internet searching; and Facebook has faced a series of legal setbacks over its data privacy policies. Unless EU and US negotiators can sew up a deal in the next 24 hours, add another item to that litany: the disappearance of the legal agreement that has allowed tech groups to seamlessly move data on customers back and forth across the Atlantic.

In reality, that legal structure disappeared four months ago, when the European Court of Justice struck it down following disclosures by former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that, the court ruled, meant the US wasn’t living up to its side of the “safe harbour” agreement — which is based on the assumption that privacy practices are relatively the same in both jurisdictions. But while the ECJ ruling came in October, European data protection agencies decided to give EU and US authorities to the end of January to strike a new “safe harbour” deal. In the interim, companies that regularly transfer personal data — be it payroll information or your latest posts on Facebook — were left in a legal limbo. They were not quite sure if their alternative measures would would suffer the same legal fate as safe harbour.

European Commission and US Commerce department negotiators spent most of a drizzly Sunday in Brussels attempting to strike a deal, but here we are on February 1 and none has been reached. Although the deadline has officially passed, negotiators can actually use today for one last push.Europe’s national data privacy authorities (DPAs) won’t meet until tomorrow to decide on their next steps. But absent a “safe harbour” deal, this meeting could trigger hunting season for the more adventurous DPAs, who will look to the US West Coast for some big game. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Cameron and Mr Juncker at the prime minister's official country residence last year

David Cameron, the British prime minister, is due in Brussels today for a meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker – a session so important that he cancelled a trip to Denmark and Sweden in order to sit down with the European Commission president in person. The two men have a famously difficult relationship – Mr Cameron actively opposed Mr Juncker’s election as president, and was one of only two leaders to vote against him at a 2014 summit. But it’s less than three weeks before a high-stakes EU summit where Mr Cameron hopes to get a renegotiation deal that changes the UK’s relationship with Europe. So Mohammed must go to the mountain.

For months, the main sticking point in the British renegotiation talks – which have taken Mr Cameron on a grand European tour from Berlin to Bucharest – has been benefits for EU workers in the UK. Mr Cameron wants to prevent EU migrants from receiving in-work benefits for four years, something that would appear to run directly counter to EU treaties’ non-discrimination requirement.

The latest option under consideration is actually one that has been debated for several months – an “emergency brake”. The original idea would have allowed Britain (and other countries) to limit immigration from other EU members if it can prove government services like healthcare or schools were becoming overwhelmed by the strain. As our Brexit watcher Alex Barker reports, the new twist is that the “emergency break” would allow countries to limit work benefits, rather than immigration. In the past, Downing Street has been lukewarm to the “emergency brake” idea, especially since it would likely need vetting from Brussels before the brake can be pulled. But with time running out, and alternate “Plan B” options limited, Mr Cameron may be warming to the idea. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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The other shoe has finally dropped. After months of subtle and not subtle warnings, Brussels has taken its first step towards green-lighting border checks across Europe for up to two years – and pushing Greece towards a de facto suspension from Schengen. The European Commission’s report into Greece’s borders found “serious deficiencies” in how Athens manages its external frontier. Those two words – “serious deficiencies” – are key, since they are explicitly used in the code governing the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone if Brussels wants to dictate new border measures aimed at restoring “overall functioning” of the bloc. As with all EU rules and regulations, the process of moving from what happened yesterday to border checks is complicated and filled with further rounds of back-and-forth between Brussels and Athens. But the Schengen code also makes clear that such a report is the first step. Read more