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

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

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

Peter Spiegel

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A protestor holds up a copy of Poland's constitution during Thursday's demonstration

Almost since the day it retook power in October, Poland’s Law and Justice government has courted controversy over policies party boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski has said are part of a plan to “fix” the country. At the centre of the squabbling has been a law passed in December that overhauls the way Warsaw’s constitutional court operates, changes that critics say limits its ability to strike down government policies it finds objectionable.

The law has drawn scrutiny from Brussels, which launched its first-ever review of a member’s government for possible violations of the EU’s “fundamental values” after the measure was passed. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which was asked to review the law as well, came down hard on Warsaw in a draft decision that was leaked to a Polish newspaper. This week it was the turn of the court itself, which ruled that the laws curbing its powers were unconstitutional. But in a decision that stunned many, Poland’s prime minister, Beata Szydlo, announced she would not allow the court’s ruling to be officially published, meaning it will not be enforceable. “This is not a judgement, it is a political position,” said Poland’s foreign minister. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Happy European Central Bank monetary policy meeting day! It’s the time of the month eurozone economy watchers crowd around their desktop livestreams to find out what new plan Mario Draghi has concocted to revive the region’s growth, since the latest one still doesn’t seem to be working. The problem is that the arrows in Mr Draghi’s economic stimulus quiver are running out, and those that are left all have significant limitations once they’re fired.

Let’s start with a central bank’s most basic tool: lowering interest rates to spur borrowing and investment. In normal times, cutting borrowing costs is a no-brainer. As of December, however, Mr Draghi lowered the ECB’s deposit rate to negative 0.3 per cent. In theory, a negative deposit rate would spur bankers to lend, since leaving the cash in ECB accounts means they’re actually losing money. But so far, there’s been little evidence that logic has taken hold.

Negative interest rates are also difficult politically in the ECB’s host country of Germany, where thriftiness is next to godliness and savings accounts and insurance policies are viewed as important income generators. Lower rates mean lower returns on savings, and cuts in ECB rates are treated with the kind of purple prose and blaring headlines in German tabloids that are normally reserved for celebrity divorces and grisly murders in similar newspapers abroad. Even before the ECB met, the German banking association was out with a statement yesterday saying further interest rate cuts would do “more harm than good.” Read more

Duncan Robinson

Jean-Claude Juncker, far right, at a press conference after the EU summit with Turkey

After a 12-hour meeting between the EU and Turkey, a tired-looking Jean Claude Juncker took to the stage after 1am on Tuesday morning and boldly declared that a plan to send back migrants from Greek islands to Turkey was legal.

The European Commission president swiftly tried to bog the even more tired-looking press corps down in legalese. With impressively few glances at his notes, Mr Juncker regurgitated:

Article 33 and 38 of the asylum procedure directive clearly open the way for a solution of this kind. Because article 33, paragraph 2, letter C indicates that a country can refuse to consider a claim if a non-EU country is considered as a safe third country.

But is this true? Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

Merkel, right, with CSU chief Horst Seehofer, her most high-profile critic on migration policy

Did Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, engineer her surprise summit deal with Ankara to bolster her chances of winning three key regional elections this weekend? That was the question some of the more cynical European diplomats were asking themselves yesterday as they licked their wounds from what one called a “brutal” 12 hours of summit negotiations, where Ms Merkel essentially rammed through a bilateral deal she reached with her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, on the gathering’s eve.

If Ms Merkel had hoped the unexpected agreement – which would have Turkey take back potentially thousands of refugees washing up on Europe’s shores in return for €6bn in aid and a visa-free travel scheme – would be hailed at home and win her political points before the Sunday vote, then she appeared headed for disappointment. Horst Seehofer, head of Ms Merkel’s Bavarian CSU sister party and her most prominent migration critic, was cool to the plan and other nominal allies were even more critical. Marcel Huber, a prominent CSU leader and secretary of the Bavarian regional government, said the visa liberalisation scheme would face “massive resistance” and was “not a matter for consideration”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes the criticism even came from within Ms Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union. Read more

Jim Brunsden

AfD supporters march in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the German regions with elections Sunday

Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party found itself without a home in the European Parliament on Tuesday after the assembly’s European Conservatives and Reformists group, the political home of Britain’s Tories, gave them a firm push out of the door.

In the tersest of one-sentence statements, the ECR confirmed it had “invited” its two AfD members to leave. Just in case they didn’t get the message, it went on to say that, if they choose to stick around, “a motion will be tabled to expel them” at the next meeting of the group’s executive on April 12.

The decision by the ECR to open its doors to the AfD after the party’s success in the 2014 European Parliament elections was a headache for David Cameron from the start. The move was an embarrassment at a time when the the British prime minister was trying to improve relations with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who saw AfD as threat to her Christian Democrats on the right. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

Turkey's Ahmet Davutoglu, left, at a post-summit press conference early Tuesday morning

It has become customary to assume EU summits aimed at tackling the ongoing refugee crisis produce much rhetoric but little meat. But last night’s gathering of European leaders with Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, may prove the one that broke the rule.

In talks that went on for 12 hours, the two sides emerged with the outlines of a deal that, if finalised next week, is as sweeping in its implications as it is in its substance. The German-engineered plan would allow the EU to turn back almost all migrants washing ashore in Greece and return them to Turkey. But the price will be high: in addition to billions of additional European aid to Ankara, the EU would expedite a long-dormant visa liberalisation programme that could provide Turkish nationals visa-free travel into the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone as soon as June.

That a significant deal was in the offing was clear late last week when Donald Tusk, the European Council president, travelled to Ankara and received strong signals that Mr Davutoglu was open to a massive programme of refugee returns. But the plan now on the table is significantly more ambitious than the one Mr Tusk was considering. It was driven almost entirely by Mr Davutoglu and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, with the help of Mark Rutte, her Dutch counterpart and holder of the EU’s rotating presidency. The EU’s nominal leaders (Mr Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president) were almost entirely cut out of the deal-making, which began in earnest when the Turkish, German and Dutch leaders held a pre-summit meeting on Sunday. In her press conference, Ms Merkel acknowledged as much, saying Mr Davutoglu presented new demands at the Sunday meeting – and she endorsed them wholeheartedly. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Ahmet Davutoglu, centre, meets with his German and Dutch counterparts ahead of the summit

EU leaders gather in Brussels today with Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, to once again attempt to sort out a deal that could stop the massive influx of refugees crossing into Europe from Turkish shores. This time, however, rather than high-minded rhetoric, there appears to be a workable deal on the table: Mr Davutoglu has signalled his readiness to agree a scheme that would allow the EU to return tens of thousands of non-Syrian migrants trying to enter Greece back to Turkey. Add in a new Nato mission that was yesterday given the authority to operate in Turkish waters and will help Greek and Turkish authorities hunt down human smugglers, and the pieces of effective response may finally be falling into place.

There’s one small problem, however: the UN isn’t sure the plan is legal under international law, which prohibits “pushbacks” of potential asylum seekers, who under the Geneva Conventions must receive a fair hearing first. Vincent Cochetel, who is leading the UN refugee agency’s response to the European crisis, hinted EU courts would find the tactic in violation of EU laws which incorporate the Geneva Conventions. Human rights groups also question its legality. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Cypriot finance minister Harris Georgiades, left, with eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem

And then there was one. If all goes according to plan, eurozone finance ministers will bid a fond farewell to the Cypriot bailout on Monday, making the island nation the fourth of the five countries that were forced into a rescue programme at the height of the crisis to exit. Only Greece remains.

In many respects, the Cypriots have been model bailout students. Nicosia only spent about €7.5bn of the €10bn originally allocated in the programme, and its economy returned to growth last year, a full year earlier than the bailout’s architects anticipated. Indeed, it has out-performed on almost every major economic indicator: its debt levels are lower than originally forecast, its projected budget deficit isn’t a deficit, and its current account is almost in balance.

Still, not everything is so rosy. Most importantly, the bailout will end without the Cypriot government completing all the reform tasks it was supposed to – the privatisation of the state telecommunications operator proved too politically radioactive so close to parliamentary elections, so won’t be done in time. As a result, Monday’s eurogroup meeting will be a farewell, but not a formal closure of the programme. That will happen at the end of the month when the three-year rescue just expires. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Tusk stops in Athens Thursday morning to meet with Greece's Alexis Tsipras en route to Ankara

If it’s Thursday, it must be Ankara.

Donald Tusk, the European Council president, is halfway through a four-day, six-country tour ahead of Monday’s emergency EU summit on refugees that culminates in Turkey. He will meet prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu today in Ankara and cool his heels most of tomorrow morning awaiting an afternoon meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. On almost every stop on his way to Turkey, Mr Tusk has signalled he still isn’t happy with the country’s efforts to stem the migrant flow despite the much-debated bilateral deal in which Ankara was supposed to crack down on migration in exchange for €3bn in EU aid. Tusk has promised to raise the issue with the Turks.

New numbers released by the UN’s refugee agency show that daily arrivals in Greece peaked at more than 3,600 last week, which is not much lower than it has been for the last two months. Overall numbers for February were slightly below January, but EU officials have been reluctant to concede on any Turkish requests – like a new programme to resettle Syrian refugees now in Turkey into Europe – unless those numbers fall more significantly. Read more

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Europe is waking to news that Donald Trump has taken a huge, bounding leaptowards securing the Republican nomination for US president. It is not yet wrapped up; the Republican race will probably run through to the spring. But Mr Trump could barely have emerged in better shape from Super Tuesday and the Europe’s press are all a bit stunned. Before they could even deploy some withering headlines, Mr Trump beat them to the punch, blasting the bloc on terrorism and migration: “You look at Brussels, look at Sweden, you look at Germany – it’s like a disaster.” With an eye on the presidential race, he at least had the diplomatic courtesy to hold back on attacking Germany’s Angela Merkel, a leader he recently said would “be out if they don’t have a revolution”. Read more

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The British EU referendum campaign is barely a week old and it already feels like a war of attrition. For outsiders watching from Brussels, one of the most peculiar clashes is around the question of whether a vote to leave the EU actually means Britain will leave. It turns on arcane EU law – Article 50 of the EU treaty, the so-called exit clause – but it is high-politics. Will voters see an exit as a dangerous gamble, or a gradual withdrawal to a safer place? “A country invokes Article 50 to start exit negotiations, which would seem the obvious first step after a leave vote. But there is nothing mandating London pull the Article 50 trigger immediately, and some have suggested using the Leave vote to try to get better terms without an Article 50 break. The argument will run and run because, as often in politics, both sides rest their case on a kernel of truth.

The idea of “vote Brexit for a better EU deal” comes from theVote Leave campaign and some prominent Brexiteers, including for a brief but dazzling moment Boris Johnson, the London mayor. David Cameron tried to nix the concept by saying the British people “would rightly expect” an Article 50 exit to start “straight away” after a leave vote. That would start a two-year clock ticking on exit talks, opening the risk of British membership and trade arrangements ending overnight if talks turn hostile. The British prime minister added that to imagine other EU countries would negotiate a new UK membership deal was “for the birds”. He won support on Monday by Emmanuel Macron, the French economy minister, who said the what-if game on future negotiations was “insane”.

A UK government paper on Monday followed up Mr Cameron’s salvo by explaining the divorce mechanics. Lots of uncertain scenarios are depicted – described by Mr Johnson as “baloney” – including a 10-year Brexit process subject to countless vetoes in Europe. But on Article 50, the paper just echoes Mr Cameron’s view of the public “expectation”. It did not say it must be invoked immediately. And nor did it say that Article 50 would cover every aspect of Brexit. Indeed it points out there would need to be a complex trade negotiation alongside and separate from the Article 50 divorce. (For the legal geeks, we have explained more in this annotated version of the Article 50.) Read more

Jim Brunsden

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Schäuble, right, with World Bank president Jim Yong Kim at the G20 in Shanghai this weekend

Christine Lagarde, the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, last week called for leading economies to “go bold” in tackling the looming threat of a global slowdown, saying that “there has to be action on all fronts.” Instead, a meeting of finance ministers from the Group of 20 nations that concluded at the weekend produced an 11-point statement that was notable as much for what wasn’t in it as for what was.

Ever the budgetary hawk, Germany’s Wolfgang Schäuble – under pressure at home to maintain a balanced budget in the face of huge new spending demands thanks to the refugee crisis – moved quickly at the meeting in Shanghai to bury any idea that the G20 might agree on a coordinated stimulus package through greater public spending. Instead, the communiqué ministers adopted prescribes a medicine that’s much more palatable to Mr Schäuble but politically difficult to administer: pushing ahead with labour-market and competitiveness reforms.

Given Berlin’s struggles within the eurozone to repel repeated pushes from Italy, Portugal, and most recently Spain, for more flexibility in the bloc’s budget rules, the last thing Mr Schäuble wanted was for the most powerful nations on earth to signal that it’s time to open the purse strings. “Thinking about further stimulus just distracts from the real task at hand,” Mr Schäuble said. “If you want the real economy to grow there are no shortcuts without reforms.” Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Kenny does some last-minute campaigning in Dublin ahead of today's general election

Elections are held in a onetime bailout country, and the incumbent party wins – but without enough support to cobble together a governing coalition. It happened in Portugal back in October, in Spain in December, and it seems the most likely scenario to play out today in Ireland, where voters go to the polls for the first time since Dublin emerged from its eurozone rescue two years ago. The Irish Polling Indicator, a daily tally of opinion surveys, has the Fine Gael party of prime minister Enda Kenny at just 28.5 per cent, with coalition partner Labour at 6.5 per cent. “Hung Dáil looms,” declares the Irish Times.

Given Ireland’s unusual political history, finding parties for Fine Gael to partner with (other than Labour) is no easy task. Unlike most Western European democracies, Ireland’s modern party system didn’t really develop on a traditional left-right spectrum. Instead, it’s more of what political scientists term a “centre-periphery” model, originally defined on Ireland’s relationship with its former masters in London. During the Irish Civil War, those who backed the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave Dublin independence, went on to become Fine Gael; those who thought the treaty didn’t go far enough (mainly because the new Irish Free State didn’t include Northern Ireland) eventually became Fianna Fáil.

For those historical reasons, a “grand coalition” of the country’s two main political parties would be an anomaly – despite narrow policy differences (indeed, the Irish Times recently posted a video entitled “What’s the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael?”). To this day, Fine Gael is seen as the party of Dublin’s professional elites, and that division has been exacerbated in the post-bailout environment, where Dublin has thrived but the countryside has failed to rebound. The FT’s Ireland correspondent Vincent Boland has a look at those divisions in his pre-election report from Limerick. Read more

Peter Spiegel

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Mr Orban announcing Hungary's migration referendum in Budapest on Wednesday

Now it’s Hungary’s turn. Viktor Orban, the polarising Hungarian premier, announced yesterday that his country would be holding a referendum on whether it should be forced to take in refugees as part of EU policies to relieve Greece and other overwhelmed frontier countries suffering the biggest influxes of migrants from the war-torn Middle East. By our count, that would make five countries holding referenda on EU policies in the course of about a year: Greece’s “oxi” on a the terms of a third eurozone bailout; Denmark’s “no” on opting-in to EU policing and judicial policies; an upcoming April Dutch referendum on the EU integration deal with Ukraine; Britain’s June plebiscite on EU membership; and now Mr Orban’s migration poll.

Throw in two more referenda – an Italian one in October on a non-EU domestic reform issue, and the always referendum-happy (but non-EU member) Switzerland – and you have a continent that seems to have gone delirious for direct democracy. As Tom Nuttall, the Economist’s Brussels-based Charlemagne columnist, pointed out in January, it’s not as if referenda are a new phenomenon. But when political leaders begin applying it to EU policies – which are always the product of multilateral horse-trading in Brussels – it could grind the already slow-moving European legislative machine-work to a halt.

In some ways, the rash of referenda is a bit of birds coming home to roost. Founders of the European project were overtly elitist about how they went about integration. “I thought it wrong to consult the peoples of Europe about the structure of a community of which they had no practical experience,” Jean Monnet, the intellectual godfather of the EU, once famously said. In more recent times, referenda results were either worked around – after France and the Netherlands rejected the EU’s “constitutional treaty” in 2005 it was largely rebranded the “Lisbon treaty” with tweaks that made plebiscites unnecessary – or re-run. Ireland voted twice on both the Nice and Lisbon treaties after rejecting them the first time around. Read more

Duncan Robinson

On Wednesday, Vienna hosted nine countries – and 18 ministers – to discuss the migration crisis in the western Balkans. Despite the size of the diplomatic shindig, a few names were left off the list.

To the surprise and annoyance of Athens and Berlin, neither Germany (the main destination) nor Greece (the main entrance) were asked to come along. The European Commission, which has attempted to marshal the EU’s response, was not asked either. Read more

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There are 20 European ministers in Vienna today for one of the most extraordinary meetings of the migration crisis – and there have been some pretty extraordinary meetings.

Austria has convened nine countries along the so-called western Balkans migration route. That sounds reasonable enough. Foreign and interior ministers will be present from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Missing from the guestlist, though, is the main migrant entry-point (Greece) and the main destination-point (Germany). That is either a rather big oversight – or an act of mutiny.

It caps a week where the dominoes have begun to fall in south-eastern Europe. Austria’s renegade policy – imposing asylum caps while waving through Germany-bound migrants – has triggered other national responses down the line. Vienna is even considering deploying troops to the Macedonia border. It is shaping facts on the ground that are fast eclipsing the prospects for a “European solution”, if ever it were possible. Read more