Brussels Playbook: Nord Stream bombshell — Georgia protests — Wagner’s mother
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By JAKOB HANKE VELA
with ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH
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OVERNIGHT IN GEORGIA: Extraordinary scenes out of Tbilisi overnight and into the early morning, as protesters took to the streets bearing EU flags and chanting “Down with the Russian law.” Thousands of Georgians faced off against riot police, after the parliament passed the first reading of a Kremlin-inspired law that would require organizations that get more than 20 percent of their funding from overseas to register as “foreign agents.”
Putin’s fingerprints: Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili, who is in the U.S. for an official visit, said in a video address: “This law — which no one needed — does not come out of nowhere. It is something dictated by Moscow.” She added: “The Georgia that sees its future in Europe will not allow anyone to take away this future.” Zourabichvili promised to veto the law — but the parliament has the right to overrule her. More here.
What we’re watching: Some incredible photos and videos are doing the rounds; check them out here, here, here and here. But perhaps the most iconic: This woman facing down a wall of police and a water cannon, armed with nothing more than courage and an EU flag.
GOOD MORNING and happy International Women’s Day.
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DRIVING THE DAY: NORD STREAM EXPLOSIONS
PIPELINE BOMBSHELL: EU defense ministers meeting in Stockholm today will discuss plans for joint weapons procurement with foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell. But the discussions are set to be overshadowed by new reports on the underwater explosions in the Baltic Sea, which last September blew giant holes in both Nord Stream 1 pipelines and one of the two Nord Stream 2 pipelines.
The revelations: German public broadcasters ARD and SWR and newspaper Die Zeit on Tuesday evening published reports citing unnamed officials claiming Western intelligence services have traced the attacks to a “Pro-Ukrainian group.” The New York Times had similar revelations.
Repercussions: If proven true, the news could have repercussions on public support in Germany for the government’s pro-Ukraine stance. It could also complicate Ukraine’s EU accession talks and undermine trust between allies.
More questions than answers: According to the NYT, U.S. officials left “open the possibility that the operation might have been conducted off the books by a proxy force with connections to the Ukrainian government or its security services,” and said there were “still enormous gaps” in the information about the perpetrators.
According to the German media reports, German investigators identified a yacht that was used to lay the explosives, which belonged to a company registered in Poland and owned by two Ukrainian nationals. The team which placed the explosive charges on the pipelines was comprised of five men — a captain, two divers and two diving assistants — as well as one woman doctor, all of unknown nationality, according to the reports. Investigators also seem to have accessed the yacht, with Zeit reporting that they found traces of explosives on a table in the cabin.
Zelenskyy not in the frame: Both the New York Times and Die Zeit say investigators have found no evidence that Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy or his government were involved in or knew about the operation.
Caveat 1: The New York Times report says officials believe Russia had no motive to carry out the attacks, while Ukraine did. That contradicts on-record statements, including from Germany’s former intelligence chief, who said Moscow had the strongest motive because it had already stopped transporting gas through the pipelines and needed an excuse to avoid paying penalties for failing to honor the long-term gas delivery contracts it had signed with Berlin.
Caveat 2: The NYT doesn’t exactly inspire confidence with its claims that Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 are “two pipelines,” rather than four. It also fails to mention that one of those four pipelines was left undamaged by the explosions and, according to German officials, could still transport gas.
Caveat 3: The reports said investigators can’t exclude that the potential link to Ukraine was part of a “false flag” operation aiming to pin the blame on Kyiv for the attacks.
EU response: Josep Borrell refused to draw conclusions from the reports. “Investigations on the exact circumstances are still ongoing in Sweden, Denmark and Germany,” he told our colleague Jacopo Barigazzi, who is on the ground in Stockholm for the defense ministers’ meeting. “As long as investigations are ongoing, we cannot draw definitive conclusion.”
WHAT ELSE DEFENSE MINISTERS WILL DISCUSS WITH BORRELL TODAY: The EU’s chief diplomat will update defense ministers on how the European Peace Facility will be used to support investment in common defense, as the bloc seeks to help Ukraine militarily and replenish countries’ own stockpiles of weapons (as Jacopo revealed in this scoop last week). The goal is to secure ministers’ political support, “so that we can formally take a decision and get going” at the next meeting of foreign and defense ministers on March 20, Borrell told Jacopo on Tuesday.
‘Time is of the essence,’ Borrell said. “The situation on the battleground continues to be intense and we need to act fast.” Supplies of ammo are “a crucial and decisive issue in this war.” The ministers will also discuss the issue with their Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov.
Key questions: Is there enough ammo in Europe that can quickly be transferred to Ukraine? And how to raise the €4 billion Estonia reckons is needed?
THE BRETON SOLUTION: Internal Markets Commissioner Thierry Breton doubled down on his suggestion — first reported by POLITICO — that the European Investment Bank could be pulled in to help finance the EU’s plan to develop a common defense system. “I believe that we need the EIB. We need to change its policy on this,” he told reporters Tuesday, referring to the fact that the EIB is currently prohibited from financing ammunition and weapons.
Background: As my colleague Suzanne Lynch reports, any decision on how to deploy EIB resources would need to be signed off by the bank’s shareholders — member countries. Though the EIB did embrace a new strategy to support dual-use security and defense technologies last year in the wake of Russia’s invasion, it is prohibited from financing ammo — the issue is likely to sharply divide EU countries.
FIRST SANCTIONS JUDGMENT TODAY: The EU’s second-highest court, the General Court, will rule today on a complaint by the mother of President Vladimir Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is the leader of the mercenary Wagner Group. Violetta Prigozhina was among the first people to be sanctioned in response to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine last year. (On February 23 — the day before Putin launched his full-scale invasion — the EU slapped sanctions on almost 400 people in response to the Kremlin declaring Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk as independent entities and sending troops to the regions.)
The case: Prigozhina sued the Council of the EU in April for allegedly failing to include specific reasons for listing her, for allegedly making errors in the listings by saying that she is currently linked to a company that Prigozhin partially owns, and for being so imprecise in her listing that she doesn’t have a meaningful way to challenge it.
What to expect: Some of Prigozhina’s claims seem unlikely to stand up in court; for instance, she “disputes her son’s alleged association with Wagner Group,” according to the filing — but he has now publicly acknowledged his direct involvement in creating the group. In other aspects, however, the court’s thinking will be crucial as it could have a domino effect on other cases. For example, Prigozhina claims the Council misused its power, because the true reason for listing her is to target her son.
Context: Prigozhin himself has challenged the EU’s measures, after Brussels named him as a “financier of the Wagner Group” when sanctioning the private army in December 2021 — but the court dismissed his action to annul the decision in September. The court also threw out a case in June last year, in which Prigozhin challenged being sanctioned for supporting Wagner’s activities in Libya. Separately, in April 2022, Prigozhin was also sanctioned for undermining Ukraine’s integrity.
Prepare for more: The EU court registered 103 cases related to restrictive measures last year, according to a press release.
SWISS WEAPONS EXPORTS: Swiss companies exported weapons worth some €960 million last year, up 29 percent from the year before, the country’s economy ministry said in a press release Tuesday. Most weapons went to Qatar, Denmark, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. But those countries won’t be able to channel those supplies to Ukraine, at least for now — the Swiss parliament rejected a motion that would have made that easier. The body will vote on another, similar motion today. (Backgrounder here.)
HAPPENING TODAY — 2024 FISCAL GUIDANCE: In guidance the Commission will adopt today, the EU executive will give countries more leeway to bring down public debt. As my ace financial services colleague Paola Tamma reports in her detailed curtain-raiser, the new interim guidance is a first step toward the broader overhaul of EU spending rules that break with the old regime. Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis and EU Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni will announce the new rules at 11:30 a.m.
VDL ON TOUR: The flattery was set to “stun” last night during European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s address to Canada’s parliament, our Ottawa colleague Zi-Ann Lum writes in to report. “Everything we did for Ukraine. We did it together,” von der Leyen said about her past year working with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Top lines: “I am a European of German nationality. It was German Nazism and fascism that brought death and destruction upon Europe and the world, but Allied Forces brought liberty back to all of us,” von der Leyen said. “We owe our democracy also to you, the people of Canada.” Write-up here, and full text of the speech here.
TV magic: Liberal staffers filled the empty seats in government benches, Zi-Ann reports, giving von der Leyen a backdrop without a yard of upholstery behind her; Conservatives left most of their backbench empty during the address.
Next stop: Von der Leyen is planning a trip to South America, including Brazil, next month, our trade colleagues report. The trip comes as the EU and the Latin American Mercosur bloc enter the last stretch of talks to seal a trade deal that has been over two decades in the making. It follows a visit by Charles Michel in January.
NET-ZERO CHANGES: European Commission officials have different views on what the upcoming Net-Zero Industry Act should look like. The text is still being negotiated between different Commission services before being presented next Tuesday and it is facing radical amendment. An example: nuclear energy has been scrapped from the list of strategic green technologies, according to a new draft of the regulation seen by my colleague Giorgio Leali. “Renewable hydrogen technologies” are also replaced with “electrolysers and fuel cells.”
Changes also cover the very goal of the text — ensuring that at least 40 percent of the clean tech that the EU requires to meet its net-zero goals must be made inside the bloc by 2030. The 40 percent goal is confirmed in the new draft, but it removes sector-by-sector targets expressed as percentages of total production for technologies like solar panels, wind turbines and heat pumps and electrolyzers. The text instead set those goals in terms of gigawatt production and moved them to a recital which, in EU law, is not as legally binding as normal provisions.
NEW TRAVEL RULES: The Commission has revamped its rules regarding the travel practices of senior officials following POLITICO’s revelations that the EU’s top transport bureaucrat signed off on his own free flights to Qatar. Commissioners or heads of Cabinet will now have to sign off on trips for directors general. Details here.
IN OTHER NEWS
QATARGATE MUST-READ: Qatargate is a very Italian scandal, writes Jacopo Barigazzi this morning: “Bags of cash, under-the-table bribes, a consulting firm laundering money — the allegations emerging in the so-called Qatargate scandal are corruption at its elemental level, classic mafioso behavior. And Italian suspects — although no mafia — have been involved in each stage. Even a key law being used to secure confessions is imported from Italy — one that helped Italy flip and imprison mafia members in Sicily and elsewhere for years.” Worth your time.
Now read this: It’s an open secret that numerous MEPs, especially qualified lawyers, are doing additional paid work on the side — and it’s completely legal, writes Sarah Anne Aarup.
POLISH TRAGEDY: Poland’s state-controlled media is under fire after the 15-year-old son of an opposition MP who had been abused by a pedophile died by suicide following a news report that made it possible to trace his identity. Wojciech Kość has the story.
SLOVAKIA’S CHANGING POLITICAL MAP: Slovakia’s caretaker Prime Minister Eduard Heger on Tuesday formed a new party called Demokrati (Democrats), which he will lead to an election later this year. The move came after Heger, along with four other ministers, left the OLaNO party. During a press conference, Heger said pro-Western democratic values and aid to Ukraine were cornerstones of his new party’s agenda.
Divided country: Slovakia will hold an early parliamentary election on September 30, after the government fell last December. The electorate is divided, polls suggest. Slovakian MEP Vladimír Bilčík told Playbook’s Ketrin Jochecová in a statement that Heger’s new party “brings new hope for a strong center-right political project in Slovakia anchored around pro-European values.” He said the Democrats’ aim “is to defeat dangerous populist and pro-Russian parties, such as Robert Fico’s Social Democrats in SMER and far-right extremists who could fundamentally challenge Slovakia’s democracy and respect for the rule of law as well as the country’s longstanding commitment to the EU.”
MEPS TO MEET DALAI LAMA: A delegation of four MEPs is today traveling for a four-day trip to Dharamshala to meet the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan officials in exile. The delegation will attend commemoration of the 64th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising Day and meet the Dalai Lama on Friday.
NIMBY ALERT: The EU drugs regulator doesn’t want brothels moving in next door to its Amsterdam HQ.
— Informal meeting of EU defense ministers in Stockholm from 9 a.m. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg doorstep at 12:25 p.m.; press conference at 3 p.m. Watch.
— Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis and Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni announce Fiscal Guidance for 2023 at 11:30 a.m. Watch.
— College of Commissioners meets; followed by readout and press conference on one year of implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive for Ukraine by Commissioners Margaritis Schinas and Ylva Johansson. Watch.
— Empowering Female Entrepreneurs Summit and EU Gender Equality Champions Awards; Commissioner Mariya Gabriel attends. From 1 p.m. Watch.
— Commission VP Frans Timmermans holds a joint meeting, together with Commissioner Kadri Simson, with the Minister for Energy Transition and Sustainable Development of Morocco Leila Benali.
— Council President Charles Michel meets BDI President Siegfried Russwurm at 11 a.m.; meets the EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator Ilkka Salmi at 2 p.m.
— POLITICO’s Women’s Day interviews with Commissioner Ylva Johansson and Spanish Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera from 2 p.m. Watch.
— Globsec “Zeitenwende” debate on Germany’s security position on Ukraine and Russia from 4 p.m. More info.
— EP President Roberta Metsola delivers opening keynote at the “Prominent and Promising Women in the EU” photography exhibition at the Netherlands Permanent Representation to the EU at 5:30 p.m.
JON STEWART IN THE HOUSE: American comedian Jon Stewart, who was for many years the host of the satirical Daily Show, was spotted pacing the corridors of the European Parliament Tuesday. The hat tip for spotting him goes to Stefan de Koning, spokesperson for Dutch MEP Sophie in ’t Veld, who joked on Twitter that he’d been too nervous to approach his comedic hero.
Funny guy: Stewart’s team got in touch with POLITICO ahead of his visit seeking help on everything from learning about the EU to tips for whom to interview — and then ghosted us when they got to Brussels. You’re welcome.
MORE STRIKES: Trade unions are striking over gender inequality today. There’s a protest march planned from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., starting and ending at Mont des Arts. Travel on tram lines 92 and 93 and bus lines 33, 38, 48, 52, 71 and 95 will be disrupted (details here).
PICTURING THE EU’S PROMISING WOMEN: The Dutch perm rep has commissioned a series of portraits called “Prominent and Promising Women in the EU” to celebrate International Women’s Day this year. Among those photographed: Ursula von der Leyen, Parliament President Roberta Metsola, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly and European Chief Prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi. The portraits are being displayed at the perm rep in Brussels, with the exhibition’s grand opening tonight.
IWD AT POLITICO: POLITICO Live is celebrating today with a series of interviews with women leaders, featuring interviews with Commissioner Ylva Johansson and Spanish Minister for the Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera. You can follow the livestream here.
TRICKY JOB ALERT — TIKTOK IS HIRING: The popular Chinese social media platform is looking for a “senior public policy manager” in Brussels. Good luck, as they say, with that.
OFFSCREEN FILM FESTIVAL: The Offscreen Film Festival, featuring unreleased indie films, starts today and runs until March 26. More info.
BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Damian Boeselager, Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, Klemen Grošelj, Andreas Glück, Grace O’Sullivan and Francisco José Millán Mon; Former MEP Daniele Viotti; IBM’s Amelie Coulet; The U.K.’s former Permanent Representative to the EU Ivan Rogers; Robin Barnett, former British ambassador to Ireland and Poland; Tajikistani PM Kokhir Rasulzoda.
THANKS to Paola Tamma, Jacopo Barigazzi, Eddy Wax, Giorgio Leali, Suzanne Lynch, Barbara Moens, Stuart Lau, Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová and producer Grace Stranger.
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