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. Read more
Van Rompuy at last month's EU summit. Will December's summit agree to the contracts?
When is a eurozone bailout not a eurozone bailout?
It’s a question that sherpas to the EU’s presidents and prime ministers will be grappling with on Tuesday when they are scheduled to debate a new proposal from Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, intended to further centralise economic decision-making in Brussels.
Under the 9-page plan (first uncovered by our friends and rivals at Reuters; we’ve posted the copy we got our hands on here), a country that is struggling economically could agree to a “contractual agreement” with Brussels that legally codifies its economic reform programme.
In return, that country could avail itself of a low-cost loan that would only be disbursed in tranches to insure compliance with the “contractual arrangement”. Oh, and one other thing: the European Commission would monitor the country to make sure its complying with the “contractual arrangement”.
Legally-binding economic reform agreement. Low-cost eurozone loans. European Commission monitoring missions. Sounds a bit like a bailout, no? Well, because it would be available to all eurozone countries, Van Rompuy doesn’t call it a bailout. In eurocrat-ese, it’s a “solidarity mechanism”. And if sherpas give it the signoff Tuesday, it will be debated by EU leaders at their December summit. Read more
Rehn, left, with President José Manuel Barroso at Wednesday's press conference
It may have appeared that Olli Rehn, the EU’s economic chief, today was siding with Washington in the going transatlantic tussle over Germany’s current account surplus by launching an inquiry into whether the surplus was harming growth in the rest of Europe.
But Rehn went out of his way to make clear that he was no fan of the US Treasury department report that pushed the dispute into overdrive last month.
Speaking at a press conference announcing the European Commission’s decision to launch the “in-depth review” of Germany’s surplus, Rehn said the US Treasury’s report was “to my taste somewhat simplified and too straight forward”. Read more
Rehn, right, consults with Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble at last month's IMF meetings.
Over the last few weeks, the normally über-dismal science of German economic policymaking has unexpectedly become stuff of international diplomatic brinkmanship, after the US Treasury department accused Berlin of hindering eurozone and global growth by suppressing domestic demand at a time its economy is growing on the backs of foreigners buying German products overseas.
The accusation not only produced the expected counterattack in Berlin, but has become the major debating point among the economic commentariat. Our own Martin Wolf, among others, has taken the side of Washington and our friend and rival Simon Nixon over at the Wall Street Journal today has backed the Germans.
Now comes the one voice that actually can do something about it: Olli Rehn, the European Commission’s economic tsar who just made his views known in a blog post on his website. Why should Rehn’s views take precedence? Thanks to new powers given to Brussels in the wake of the eurozone crisis, he can force countries to revise their economic policies – including an oversized current account surplus – through something soporifically known as the Macroeconomic Imbalance Procedure.
On Wednesday, Rehn will announce his decision on whether Germany will be put in the dock for exactly what the US has been accusing it of: building up a current account surplus at the expense of its trading partners. And if Rehn’s blog post is any indication, he’s heading in exactly that direction. Read more
So this is it. Google’s revised offer to settle the European Commission probe into its search business has been described extensively in the press. But the actual text and screenshots of how new Google searches will look under the proposal were not published, much to the annoyance of the complainants asked for confidential feedback. One of the parties has decided to revolt and set the documents free. We’re publishing them here in full.
Before the legal text, a screenshot: this is what Google proposes its EU sites will look like for a restaurant search. Note the three “Almunia links” — what negotiators are calling the forced search results that display competitors’ offerings — that appear under the paid-for “sponsored” Google search results. Under the revised offer, they are spruced up with bigger fonts, icons and two lines of text.
And here is what a search for an iPod would look like. It’s important to note that the Almunia links (to rival price comparison sites Supaprice, Kelkoo and Shopzilla) are still paid for through an auction, but the minimum offer price has been reduced. More on the objections to that at the bottom of the post.
The three-year Brussels probe into Google’s search business seems to be meandering towards a thundering anticlimax. With every legal twist, revised settlement offer and procedural shuffle, the case is losing the zip that made it a cause célèbre in the antitrust world. The opposing camps, meanwhile, appear ever more entrenched and polarised. Nobody is satisfied.
For now Joaquín Almunia, the EU competition chief, is still ploughing towards a settlement, rather than issuing formal charges. But it has been a bumpy ride. The protracted process will have many more months or years to run, especially with legal appeals. There could still be surprises, even perhaps a charge-sheet, the so-called “statement of objections”. The anti-Google camp are far from surrendering. The details still matter.
The latest inch-forward came on Monday with Almunia seeking feedback on Google’s second settlement bid. The terms of the latest package will not be published, for various reasons that are hard fathom. Even so, all the complainants and most journalists covering the case now have a copy of the offer or have been talked through it. Below is a medley of insights on what is on the table and what to expect next: Read more
Ireland's Enda Kenny, left, and Germany's Angela Merkel meeting last year in Berlin
With just over a month of funding left in Ireland’s €67.5bn three-year bailout, Irish prime minister Enda Kenny sent a subtly-worded letter to his fellow EU leaders as they gathered in Brussels today for their two-day summit.
At first glance, the letter (we’ve posted a copy here) seems to simply repeat messages that Kenny has made in the past: he’s weighing whether to request a line of credit after they exit the bailout; he wants quick completion of the eurozone’s “banking union”; he continues to hit his bailout targets.
But a closer read between the lines shows a more complicated game going on. In essence, Kenny is reminding other leaders they have failed to live up to promises made to Ireland last year that would have significantly lowered the Dublin’s sovereign debt levels. An annotated look at the letter after the jump.
Herman Van Rompuy during a public appearance at the European Council building on Wednesday
EU leaders are gearing up for their first summit in four months tomorrow – the longest hiatus since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis three years ago.
It is a measure of how calm the financial markets have been that no major decisions are to be taken at the two-day get-together, which is supposed to focus on telecommunications and digital policy issues. “It’s not a summit for decisions,” said one top EU diplomat. “The objective is decisions at the December summit.”
Still, for the cognoscenti there is much to comb over, including the simmering spat between France and Britain over José Manuel Barroso’s effort to streamline EU regulations.
On Wednesday afternoon, the office of Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council and chair of all summits, circulated a final draft of the summit communiqué, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and posted here. A few things worth noting: Read more
Did tight-fisted budget policies in Germany help make the eurozone crisis deeper and more difficult for struggling bailout countries like Greece and Portugal?
That appears to be the conclusions of a study by a top European Commission economist that was published online Monday – but then quickly taken down by EU officials.
Our eagle-eyed friend and rival Nikos Chrysoloras, Brussels correspondent for the Greek daily Kathimerini, was able to download the report and note its findings before the link went dark (Nikos kindly provided Brussels Blog a copy, which we’ve posted here).
Shortly after being contacted by Brussels Blog, officials said they would republish the 28-page study, titled “Fiscal consolidation and spillovers in the Euro area periphery and core”, once a few charts were fixed. And as Brussels Blog was writing this post, it was indeed republished here.
Still, the paper’s day-long disappearance looks suspicious given the hard-hitting nature of its findings. For some, they may not be surprising. Many economists have argued that it was the simultaneous austerity undertaken by nearly all eurozone countries over the course of the crisis that pushed the bloc into a deeper recession than predicted, hitting Greece and other weak economies particularly hard.
But coming from the European Commission’s economic and financial affairs directorate – which was responsible for helping administer Greek and Portuguese bailouts as well as provide semi-mandatory policy advice to other eurozone economies – the criticism of Berlin is unexpected, to say the least. Read more
Viviane Reding, the EU’s justice commissioner, triumphantly claimed that “data protection is made in Europe” after a committee of European lawmakers reached a compromise agreement yesterday to overhaul the bloc’s pre-internet privacy rules.
But for those who have not been following the EU’s data protection process closely, particularly in the wake of the ongoing NSA spying scandal, Ms Reding’s declaration of victory may have seemed a little premature. Read more
Backstops? A safety net for banks in difficulty? Why the fuss? We have one already! That is the rough conclusion from finance ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday.
To provide some context, the apple of discord is whether Europe should pool more public funds to stand behind its banking system. Looming on the horizon is a stress test of banks next year that is supposed to restore faith in the financial system. It may uncover horrors that can’t be covered by contributions from private investors. If a bailout is needed, the open question is whether the bank’s sovereign will be able to fund it by borrowing from the market or from eurozone bailout funds without rekindling the sovereign debt crisis.
So what is the plan? Well there is no sign of new money. For the more optimistic finance ministers the ultimate, ultimate backstop — only to be used in exceptional circumstances — is apparently a “direct recapitalisation” from the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s E500bn bailout fund.
The trouble is that there are a legion of hurdles to clear before using this instrument in practice — especially if it is to be used to cover any shortfall exposed next year. The rough rules on the use of the instrument were published in June. Many senior officials think it is so encumbered with conditions as to be almost pointless. If direct recap is the backstop, some finance ministers will be worriedly looking over their shoulder.
TEN OBSTACLES TO A DIRECT RECAPITALISATION
1. German veto: Any ESM decision to take a direct stake in a bank is subject to a German veto. Berlin is determined to ensure that even if this tool is theoretically “available”, it remains unused. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, even said on Tuesday that German law would need to be changed to use the direct recap instrument.
2. German veto: the Bundestag would have to vote through any direct recap. Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, the most likely coalition partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel, is dead-set against direct recapitalisation of banks. It thinks the financial sector, not taxpayers, should foot the bill for bank failure. Read more
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.” Read more
My big fat Greek presidency it will not be. When Athens takes the reins of the EU’s rotating presidency in January, the government will manage the event like a family throwing a frugal wedding.
That is only to be expected since Greece’s crisis-hit economy is now enduring its sixth year of recession, the public coffers are bare and unemployment is nearing 30 per cent. Dishing out huge amounts of cash to impress visiting diplomats would likely provoke outrage from a citizenry that is increasingly unhappy with the EU, as it is.
So how frugal is Greece planning to be? The government has set a €50m budget for the six-month affair, down from the €60m to €80m spent by predecessors like Ireland,Cyprus,Denmark and Lithuania. Officials say they are hoping that the final bill comes to even less.
The Greeks have found a few simple ways to cut costs. They will limit the number of ministerial meetings that will be held in their country to just 13 – keeping as much of the work in the EU’s Brussels headquarters as possible. All of the Greek meetings will be hosted in Athens. Read more
Moscovici, left, and Rehn at press conference where Rehn held the new French budget aloft
After an hour-long meeting this afternoon up in Olli Rehn’s office in the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, Rehn and Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister, wandered down to a crowded press area to make the expected enthusiastic noises about Paris’s economic reform effort.
But what might be most noticeable about the appearance was not what was said but what was done: Moscovici handed over a copy of France’s 2014 budget, which he had unveiled in Paris just yesterday.
“Pierre has given me the draft budget law for 2014 for France,” Rehn said, holding aloft the document, marked “Projet de Loi de Finances 2014” on the cover. “This is the real spirit of governance at the European level.”
To the uninitiated, the display might have appeared to be a bit of empty symbolism, a courtesy Moscovici was paying to the perpetually besieged Rehn. But there was nothing symbolic about the handover. This year, for the first time in EU history, every eurozone member must submit its national budget to Rehn’s office for review within the next two weeks – before they are debated by national parliaments. Read more
Reactions around Europe to Angela Merkel’s sweeping victory in Sunday’s German parliamentary elections were mixed. As expected, fellow leaders – particularly those of the centre-right persuasion – sent their congratulations while some on the centre-left called for Merkel to join the Social Democrats in a grand coalition.
In Italy, the Berlusconi-owned newspaper Il Giornale warned the result left the EU “in the hands of the chancellor who helped exacerbate the economic crisis.”
The differing views reflect increasingly polarising opinions towards Merkel across the eurozone. Just last week, the German Marshall Fund published its annual “Transatlantic Trends” report, which included polling of 11 EU countries (plus Turkey) and their views of Merkel’s handling of the eurozone crisis.
Will a bank resolution phoenix rise from the ashes of the latest banking union debate? True to form, EU finance ministers used their informal gathering in Vilnius last week to tear into Brussels’ blueprint to empower itself as the top executioner for Europe’s ailing banks, leaving the path ahead uncertain.
This is a rite of passage for banking union proposals: the hammering the Commission endured at a meeting in Cyprus discussing its previous initiative — making the ECB the eurozone’s top bank supervisor — was something to behold.
Nevertheless it looks like a significant re-write of the Commission plan is looming, especially if a deal is to be agreed by December. Here we list 9 compromises to placate the German-led hold-outs, in roughly descending order of likelihood. The vast majority will probably be necessary for a compromise to be reached.
1. Change the executioner
This is a bad day for Europe’s financial transaction tax. The legal adviser to EU finance ministers — the Council legal service — has concluded that one of the main provisions of the Brussels designed tax is discriminatory, overreaches national jurisdiction and infringes the EU treaties.
In a June letter, Anastasiades called Bank of Cyprus his country's "mega-systemic bank".
After the upheaval of March’s prolonged fight over Cyprus’s €10bn bailout, much of the ensuing debate has focused on the island’s largest remaining financial institution, the Bank of Cyprus, which was saved from shuttering but faces an uncertain future.
The bank’s fate was highlighted in a letter from Cyprus’s president to EU leaders in June, where he argued that eurogroup finance ministers had not properly dealt with the “urgent need” to address the “severe liquidity strain” the bailout had placed on the country’s last “mega-systemic bank”.
“I stress the systemic importance of BoC, not only in terms of the banking system but also for the entire economy,” Nicos Anastasiades wrote at the time.
Well, the European Commission’s soon-to-be-released first review of the Cyprus programme, a draft of which was obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here, shows that the fate of the bank is still somewhat unresolved – and that the EU has decided to make Nicosia’s promise to live up to the original bailout terms a primary condition for easing onerous capital controls which still hamper economic activity. Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more