Brussels

Jim Brunsden

“Their world collapses. Ours is built.” So said Florian Philippot, the main adviser to Marine Le Pen, hailing Donald Trump’s victory as the start of a new order in world politics. Elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany will give this theory a thorough real-world test in 2017.

 

France

In France, Ms Le Pen of the National Front leads the way in first-round voting, but lags comfortably behind potential rivals in polls on a presidential run-off. Now, after duff calls in both Britain and the US pollsters are viewed with scepticism.

“Before the American result, the question seemed absurd,” says the Economist. “Now, the unthinkable has become conceivable.” The FT’s Anne-Sylvaine Chassany quotes Dominique de Villepin, a former French prime minister: “France and the US are like twins. What is possible in the US is possible in France, even if the system is refusing to see it.” Read more

Jim Brunsden

“We are sorry – due to technical complications, your journey towards Brexit has been temporarily interrupted. Theresa May will get back to you as soon as possible.”

Normally, court judgements are meant to settle difficult questions, but yesterday’s decision by the UK High Court that Britain’s parliament must vote on Brexit has instead thrown up a lot of tricky new ones.

The shock ruling gave fresh hope to Remainers, annoyed leading government ministers, challenged a key plank of Ms May’s Brexit strategy, and left leaders across the continent wondering what happens next.

It was not only the ruling itself that had people scratching their heads. Britain is now apparently a country where, when the government is defeated, the pound gets stronger;when parliamentary sovereignty is upheld, some parliamentarians are unhappy, and when judges listen to legal arguments in a courtroom, they are “Enemies of the people”.

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Jim Brunsden

As everyone who has played the famous video game knows, Super Mario is not always super. Temporarily able to boost his size and powers, he is nevertheless, for much of the time, just regular Mario.

What to make then of ECB president Mario Draghi? The eurozone crisis has seen the ECB repeatedly expand its operations in its bid to stimulate the euro area economy. As Mr Draghi has repeatedly said, these “extraordinary measures” were meant to provide a temporary breathing space for governments. Instead, politicians have proved all too willing to let the ECB permanently shoulder the load.

In a hearing before the European Parliament yesterday, Mr Draghi cut a frustrated figure as he set out the steps nations need to take to finish building their “incomplete” and “still fragile” monetary union, and to make their economies more competitive. Read more

Jim Brunsden

History is full of great projects left half finished – the Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, the Beach Boys’ Smile album, the last Tintin book … could the euro area’s banking union join them?

Forged at the height of the debt crisis as a way to restore trust in the financial sector, the banking union remains very much a work in progress, and it’s increasingly unclear whether its architects are all working off the same plans.

While the European Central Bank is firmly installed as the currency bloc’s banking supervisor (something examined in-depth in this new study by Bruegel,) and new rules on handling financial crises are on the statute books, discussions are becoming bogged down over the banking union’s third pillar – a centralized scheme for guaranteeing bank deposits. That plan, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin while strongly supported by the ECB and governments in southern Europe.

The row between national capitals over EDIS is only part of a larger, and extremely complex negotiation – one that is hampering efforts by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, to sign off his country’s EU’s presidency by getting a deal on a banking union workplan. The split is likely to be a topic of discussion among policymakers at today’s Brussels Economic ForumRead more

Jim Brunsden

For many of us, the idea of Germany getting tough on its own carmakers is about as likely as a French minister admitting he prefers Australian wine, or Viktor Orbán offering free hugs to asylum seekers.

But over the past few months, German regulators have been making a good show of doing exactly that. Chastened by the discovery in the US that Volkswagen had been cheating in emissions tests, officials have leapt into overdrive, probing manufacturers including Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz, General Motors’ Opel, as well as Fiat.

In Germany’s latest move, the country’s transport ministry is calling on the EU to tighten its ban on emissions test cheating – a far cry from its efforts last year to water down EU plans for more realistic environmental testing of cars. Ministers will discuss the German requests today in Luxembourg, as part of a debate on the dieselgate scandal.

So what exactly is going on? Read more

Jim Brunsden

In countless zombie movies there is the classic moment where a member of the dwindling band of survivors is cornered and desperately opens fire on the oncoming tide of walking dead. Despite firing off round after round, to the despair of our hero, the enemies keep approaching until the fateful click of his empty gun that tells him the game is up.

It’s a predicament not unlike that of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble as he fights a rearguard action to ward off Brussels plans for a common eurozone scheme to guarantee bank deposits.

The idea, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin on the grounds that it could force Germany to help cover the costs of bank failures elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is lauded in Southern Europe as a guarantee that capitals will be helped to cope with financial crises.

So far, Mr Schäuble has thrown all kinds of obstacles at the proposal, which was unveiled by the European Commission late last year. He has insisted on a tough programme to close loopholes in existing regulations which he says must be fulfilled before EDIS is even considered. He has also questioned the very legal foundations of the plan – saying parts of it have budgetary implications for nations that go beyond what is allowed under the EU treaties.

Despite all this, discussions on the text have rumbled on for months in the EU’s Council of Ministers.

Now, however, Germany is seeking to hit Brussels where it really hurts: with its own rules of procedure.

In a joint paper with Finland, obtained by the FT, Germany seeks to hoist the European Commission up by its institutional petard, accusing it of failing to respect “requirements under primary law and the Better Regulation principles” by not carrying out a full “impact assessment” before presenting the EDIS plan in November.

It’s the Brussels equivalent of trying to take down Al Capone for tax evasion. But hey, it worked.

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Jim Brunsden

By Mehreen Khan in London

The International Monetary Fund’s latest recommendations on Greek debt relief have leaked.

Yesterday, ahead of the latest meeting of eurozone finance ministers on May 24, the IMF repeated it would take part in Greece’s €86bn bailout only if its European partners could prove “the numbers add up”.

A key part of this calculation is for the fund to be fully assured that Greece’s debt mountain is finally placed on a sustainable downward trajectory. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Britain: 2016

Should an extraterrestrial land on Earth tomorrow and decide to base his decision on where to live solely on economic forecasts provided by the European Commission, there’s a fair chance they’d pick the UK.

In country-specific recommendations published yesterday for almost all EU countries, Britain comes out looking pretty good, with a “dynamic” economy, “strong” household balance sheets and a banking sector whose resilience “continues to improve.” Even the risks to the economic outlook are presented as being contained, or mitigated by the government’s “wide-ranging” reform agenda.

All well and good. The only perplexing thing is, how does this fit with the altogether less peppy assessment that the EU Commission made this time last year? What could be happening to change their view? Read more

Peter Spiegel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

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

A few weeks ago, the EU agreed an historic overhaul of its troubled common fisheries policy, setting binding deadlines to end decades of over-fishing that have depleted stocks from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

But just when it seemed safe to go back in the water, the European parliament’s fisheries committee threatened to take a bite out of the reform on Wednesday. By a 12 to 11 margin, the committee approved an amendment allowing the use of up to €1.6bn in EU funds to help build new fishing boats.

The subsidies fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that the EU’s 83,000-vessel fleet is already far too large, and in need of a drastic cut – some say by half – in order to allow stocks to recover.

“For anyone with a brain this is completely outrageous and very difficult to understand,” said Markus Knigge, a fisheries advisor to the Pew Charitable Trust, citing estimates that the money could result in 19,000 new boats. Read more

Predicting what Germany will do in a negotiation is fast becoming the Brussels equivalent of soothsaying. Tuesday’s tetchy banking union talks set off yet another diplomatic stampede to consult the ouija boards, throwing canes and tarot cards in order to find out what Berlin really wants.

Were the strident objections of Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, just negotiating tactics? A manifestation of German domestic politics? Or are they red lines that will require the reforms to create a single banking supervisor to be totally recast or significantly delayed? We’ve consulted the FT Brussels Blog Oracle (and a few diplomats) to draw up these two scenarios.

The Germans are digging in: no deal this year

There was genuine shock at Schäuble’s intervention. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting of finance ministers, four EU ambassadors predicted to us that a deal — or partial agreement — was at hand. That was until Schäuble spoke. He opened with a dispute that officials thought was close to being resolved: whether small banks fall under the ECB’s supervision responsibilities. Don’t think this will pass the German parliament, he warned.

More worrying for some was his next point. Read more

Over at the socialist gathering held in a conference centre overlooking an ornate garden in the centre of Brussels, a gaggle of reporters – and a few bemused tourists – clustered around Jean-Marc Ayrault, the new French prime minister, as he arrived for the meeting.

Jean-Marc Ayrault arrives at the meeting of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Reuters

Jean-Marc Ayrault arrives at the meeting of the Party of European Socialists (PES). Reuters

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eurocoasterWelcome back to our live coverage of the eurozone crisis. By Tom Burgis and Esther Bintliff on the  newsdesk in London, with contributions from FT correspondents around the world.

All times are GMT. This post should update automatically ever few minutes, but it may take longer on mobile devices.

Europe’s leaders gather in Brussels today for another crunch summit. This time, we’re told, it’s different. Expectations are running high for a new grand bargain to restore sanity to the eurozone’s finances and chart a course out of the debt crisis. We’ll bring you all the build-up, plus:

  • The European Cental Bank’s interest rates decision and press conference from Mario Draghi, the ECB president under pressure to deploy more of the central bank’s resources to shore up the euro
  • The meeting of centre-right European leaders in Marseille, including Germany’s Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the two key players in the euro drama
  • The unveiling by the European banking authority of the individual capital needs of Europe’s banks

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There is the CIA, which orchestrates drone attacks in North Waziristan and plots to topple foreign governments, and then there is the CIAA, a shadowy organisation that seeks to influence cloned meat standards, nutrition labels and other European policies governing the continent’s food and drink industries.

In an attempt to end all confusion, the CIAA, one of Brussels’ more muscular industry trade groups, is changing its name on June 23. “It’s quite an important thing, a new name. It’s a new identity,” says Lisa McCooey, the group’s Brussels-based operative, er, communications director.

The confédération des industries agro-alimentaire del’UE was born 30 years ago, when French was the lingua franca of the European Union and the acronymous similarities with a large US government organisation based in Langley, Virginia must have gone unnoticed. Read more

Peter Spiegel

UPDATE: The demonstrations are already turning nasty. Near the Belgian prime minister’s office, protesters are throwing rocks at riot police, who have opened water cannons on them.

It’s summit day (again!) in Brussels, and for Europe’s presidents and prime minsters gathering this afternoon, the unexpected collapse of the Portuguese government and the ongoing infighting over the Libyan campaign is likely to dominate deliberations behind closed doors.

But those of us without the benefit of a security detail and Belgian motorcycle outriders will have to deal with something far more onerous: thousands of Belgian demonstrators who are expected to clog Brussels’ city centre to protest European austerity measures and the failure of Belgian political leaders to form a government.

A quick morning wander through the city’s EU quarter reveals Belgian security forces armed to the teeth, complete with gas masks, body armour, riot helmets and plexiglass shields. Helicopters buzz overhead. Two Belgian army soldiers were even spotted wandering through the atrium of Justis Lipsius, the EU building where the summit is held. Read more

It will be Luxembourg that will have the final say on Brussels versus Strasbourg, now that Paris has decided to sue under Lisbon.

In other words, the fight over the seat of the European Parliament has suddenly become a full-blown EU inter-institutional brawl.

The French government on Tuesday decided to take the European Parliament to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg after parliamentarians last week decided to tweak the terms of their regular commute between Brussels and Strasbourg. Paris claims the move violates the EU’s new Lisbon treaty, its governing constitution. Read more