Brussels Playbook: Germany vs France on cars — MEP cool down — Space plan explained

Brussels Playbook: Germany vs France on cars — MEP cool down — Space plan explained
Опубликовано: Tuesday, 14 March 2023 06:35

What’s driving the day in Brussels.


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GOOD MORNING. Here’s Josh Posaner, POLITICO’s senior reporter for mobility and space affairs, filling in for the usual Playbook crew. I’ve spent many a weary evening enjoying the sight of a German minister demanding compromise from their smaller neighbors during arcane Council sessions on everything from trade policy to trucker regulations. When it comes to cars, though, Europe’s biggest economy is in no mood to set an example of calm consensus-building within the broad family of European nations.

Scroll down for more on the escalating car engine battle roiling EU politics — along with the latest on astropolitics news too, as has become standard for my rare stand-in shifts.

DRIVING THE DAY: GERMANY’S CAR ENGINE ALLIANCE Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

BERLIN VS PARIS: The EU’s two big carmaking countries are at opposing ends of a row over the future of the internal combustion engine. Germany’s Transport Minister Volker Wissing said in Strasbourg late Monday that his crew of car-loving countries (which includes Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic) would compile a list of demands for the European Commission’s top team on a raft of automotive legislation, not least covering the 2035 zero-emissions sales mandate for cars and vans.

If they don’t comply with the big asks, the countries have the numbers to further frustrate legislation that would mandate a cut-off for sales of polluting vehicles, targeted at making sure Europe complies with its climate targets.

Bruno’s up for a fight: But Paris is not interested in changing a measure that was agreed over nearly two tortuous years of talks, finalized among EU countries during France’s Council presidency last year, and only needs a formal stamp of approval from ministers to become law.

And after spending years fighting to direct billions of euros of public funding into massive electric vehicle battery plants, while also setting up novel national subsidy schemes to get poorer French motorists affordable clean car leasing deals, France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire is not going to idly watch Germany’s clean car policy demolition job destroy all that groundwork. He’s pledged to “fight” for the 2035 phaseout.

Mail incoming: The Czech Republic’s Transport Minister Martin Kupka hosted the pro-combustion engine talks and told Playbook afterward that the plan is to send a list of joint demands over the coming days to the Commission’s climate chief Frans Timmermans, as well as Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean and Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton. In the “next weeks,” the gas-guzzling car fan club will then publish its broad position, before meeting again in the not-too-distant future, he said. The likes of Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and, strangely, Portugal are also in play, Kupka said.

Sour grapes: To be clear, alliance-building and last-stand demands for changes to wonky regulations is part and parcel of European politics. What Germany is doing now is nothing of that sort. A loophole for e-fuels, the German red line, was a big part of negotiations since summer 2021 to firm up the final fuel efficiency standards text that marks the centerpiece of EU efforts to significantly cut transport emissions.

Can’t always win: Berlin just straight up failed to secure enough support in either the European Parliament or Council to make space for e-fuels in passenger car and van legislation. The arguments were compelling enough to win more votes. Now German ministers are effectively trying to solve a domestic political issue wrapped inconveniently inside Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition pact at an EU level. Luckily for them, they have just enough support to form a blocking minority.

Only the beginning: Contagion has already begun, with diplomats telling your stand-in Playbook writer that smaller countries are emboldened by Germany’s late, late, late opposition to an otherwise done deal on car emissions legislation. “The German behavior is [as] contagious as COVID: It’s spreading to other member states and to other files,” one diplomat from a green-minded country said. That means more dissent as countries wise up to the fact that blockades aren’t poor form anymore if Berlin can do it.

Here’s the full story.

**Do not miss POLITICO Live’s virtual event “Managing the growing burden of respiratory infections in the EU” on March 29 and hear a frank discussion about how Europe can better prevent and address the strain posed by the rise of respiratory infections. Register now!**

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

PLAN TO KEEP THINGS COOL (AND AVOID THE HEAT) AFTER OFFICE: The European Parliament took a big step last night toward banning MEPs from lobbying their colleagues for six months after they leave office in a so-called cooling down period, POLITICO’s Eddy Wax reports.

Why now? Creating a revolving door policy for MEPs suddenly looked politically feasible in the wake of the Qatargate corruption scandal, which laid bare the unfettered access ex-MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri had to the institution. After stepping down after 15 years as an MEP in 2019, Panzeri founded an NGO called Fight Impunity and continued voraciously networking in the corridors of the EP. He’s since admitted to receiving cash from Morocco and Qatar in exchange for influencing Parliament’s work.

Inside the bureau: An agreement in principle was reached last night during a closed-door meeting of the bureau, the murky format that brings together Parliament President Roberta Metsola and her 14 vice presidents to decide on internal rules. Bar a few nips and tucks, the new rules should be implemented from May 1 and will mean that all ex-MEPs will be barred from entering Parliament to lobby their peers for six months.

Badge badgering: If former MEPs do start to join the EU’s corporate underbelly after that, they will have to register on the EU transparency log and pick up a visitor badge each time they enter the Parliament premises in Brussels or Strasbourg, arguably a tightening of the rules and a lot of extra faff for ex-lawmakers.

Hot and bothered about cooling off: A left-leaning coalition of the Socialist, Greens and Left groups pushed to lengthen this so-called cooling-off period to a maximum of two years — but were narrowly outvoted by the European People’s Party and Renew groups, according to a person in the room. Metsola herself had floated the idea of tying the cooling off period to how long an MEP has served — but this was snarled up in legal problems, a second person who was familiar with the matter said.

Hit for six: When it came to the vote, “it was people who wanted longer, and people who wanted less, frankly. So six months was basically the landing zone,” the second person said. The European Conservatives and Reformists group and arch-conservatives like the EPP’s Rainer Wieland, who vows to protect the freedom of MEPs’ mandates, have queried the speed of the post-Qatargate reforms.

Loopholes: Former MEPs can still swan around Place Luxembourg or the Alsatian restaurants of Strasbourg lobbying their colleagues to their hearts’ content the day after leaving office — the only thing now will be they can’t access the Parliament buildings themselves to sweet talk members there.

Gear up for more fights! A Renew spokesperson explained they voted in line with a resolution in February that agreed on six months. Heads of political groups have already given a general nod to Metsola’s overall reform plan, but each element is likely to be the subject of more tussles as it works its way through the Parliament. The final formal decision will be taken at the next bureau get-together, and after that, MEPs will likely turn to tightening the rules on who can get into the Parliament and under what conditions.

COMMISSION’S QATAR FLIGHTS PROBE: While we’re on the subject of transparency and good practice, the Commission has launched an internal investigation into whether the director general of its transport department, DG MOVE, broke EU rules when he signed off on his own free flights to Qatar.

A spokesperson for the Commission told my colleague Gregorio Sorgi during Monday’s midday press briefing that the institution was looking into whether Henrik Hololei had violated conflict-of-interest rules. She said: “We have referred the matter to our HR department in the European Commission, and they are looking into the missions that were performed with contribution from third parties.” She added that the probe would assess whether Hololei’s behavior amounted to a conflict of interest.

Gregorio has more here.

SPOTLIGHT ON RUSSIAN PRISONERS: MEP Petras Auštrevičius from Renew Europe is organizing a Facebook Live event today to highlight the experience of political prisoners in Russia and Georgia, aiming to shed light on Vladimir Putin’s suppression of dissent.

Putin critic and anti-corruption campaigner Bill Browder is also co-hosting the event, which will focus on the cases of Vladimir Kara-Murza and Alexei Gorinov in particular, as well as former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose wife and son will be in attendance. More details here.

SPACE AND DEFENSE Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

NO BIG BANG AS BRUSSELS DEBUTS NEW SPACE STRATEGY: The European Commission slipped out a brand new strategy document on space and defense Friday with more of a whimper than a bang. That’s even though the paper tries to launch the kind of considered institutional planning that’s astute when you’re set to launch another €3 billion worth of publicly-funded satellite hardware into orbit.

The development of communication constellation IRIS2 (think of it as a vaguely-defined EU version of Elon Musk’s Starlink) as the EU’s third big satellite program gives mandarins a very good reason to get to grips with “counterspace,” which basically means finding ways to gain the upper hand in orbit and protect your valuables out in space.

Keeping us in the dark: Given we consume space data at about a million times the pace we stop to think about the implications of losing access to it, your ersatz Playbook author thinks it’s fair to ask whether some stronger comms from the Berlaymont would have been a welcome addition to the strategy publication.

Agenda crunch: While Commission officials insist the late Friday sign-off was because Internal Market Commissioner Breton and High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell needed to align their schedules, industry folk gossip it had more to do with a spat between Borrell’s team of diplomats and the Commission’s own defense and space department over who gets to control what. Better to bury a wonky strategy document deep in that Friday weekend grey zone than spark a row by wheeling it out in primetime, goes the narrative.

Command and control: Anyway, under the plan, the Commission will compile an annual classified space threats report, while a military-grade version of the Copernicus imaging satellite program is also on the cards. But French space-focused MEP Christophe Grudler wanted to see provisions for a European Space Command that could streamline decision-making in the event of an orbital crisis. “We need a single entity to coordinate our space defense at the European level,” said Grudler. “And we need to prepare for efficient decisions.”

Who you gonna call? At this point in time, it’s best to call France rather than anyone at an EU level if you want to talk space defense. The government just got done with a space defense exercise.

Infinity War: Get ready for much talking, as the Commission says again in its strategy that it’s considering dropping an EU Space Law. Regulating the dark vacuum of space is ambitious stuff, since rules for what countries can and can’t do up there are pretty sparse, basically only going so far as to make sure everyone agrees that nobody should annex the moon or station nuclear weapons in orbit. Beyond that, it’s the wild west.

BACK DOWN ON EARTH Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

MICHEL AND VDL DISAGREE ON CHINA POLICY: There’s a new rift emerging between European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel: how to treat China. The latest episode of the presidential power war comes just after von der Leyen’s visit to Washington, on which the Commission will brief EU ambassadors Wednesday.

Hangover from the transatlantic love fest? After the transatlantic meet-up in Washington last Friday, this week’s discussion will have to show how EU countries want to deal with the growing pressure from U.S. President Joe Biden to take a more hawkish stance toward Beijing. Senior figures in the European Council — including Michel — are pushing for a less confrontational approach.

Not a vassal state: “There is a huge risk of conflict here between the United States and China,” said one senior Council official speaking on condition of anonymity, referring to growing fears that Beijing could attack Taiwan. “Yes, we are a partner of the United States, but we are not a vassal state. We believe that we must not completely decouple from China.”

Read more in the story from Barbara Moens and Suzanne Lynch here.

BIDEN TO VISIT BELFAST: Biden has accepted a formal invitation from U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to visit Northern Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next month. The U.S. president’s attendance had appeared in some question until Sunak brokered the so-called Windsor Framework with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol — the hotly-disputed post-Brexit trading arrangement. More details here.

DEBT CHATTER Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

MINISTERS TACKLE EU SACRED COW: Today, EU finance ministers will discuss the reform of EU rules on government spending — the so-called Growth and Stability Pact. Revamping it became imperative after the pandemic inflated public debt, now standing at 93 percent of GDP on average in the eurozone, ranging between nearly 180 percent in Greece and below 20 percent in Estonia.

Draft conclusions that ministers are set to adopt today show general support for the Commission’s idea to switch from a one-rule-fits-all approach to debt reduction, which is considered unrealistic, to multi-year plans tailored to each country’s debt profile.

While there’s less ideological positioning than a decade ago when the pact was reformed, key divisions remain, notably on the pace of debt reduction, on the methodology used to determine how much each country should slash spending, and enforcement tools.

Criticism for the Commission’s proposal comes from all quarters: Germany is the toughest nut to crack, and wants to ensure that countries bring down debt by a “common quantitative benchmark” or target — something that France opposes. Others, like Portugal, fear the proposed methodology penalizes countries that have drastically reduced their debt. Still others, like Italy, want to avoid sanctions and the related market backlash.

It’s going to be a long and winding road to reform. Spain, which is set to chair talks during the second half of this year, failed to commit to reaching a common position among the EU27 during its upcoming Council of the EU presidency. “We will try to advance as much as possible,” Deputy PM Nadia Calviño told my colleague Paola on Monday.

The Commission is set to present legislative proposals in April and aims to conclude negotiations by the end of its mandate in 2024. Whether that’s achievable is yet to be seen.

Further reading: For POLITICO Pro Financial Services subscribers, Paola has a handy guide here to spending rules reform.

In other fiscal regulation news, the collapse of U.S. lender Silicon Valley Bank is again shining a light on the fragility of the world’s financial system and raising questions about why the EU can’t tighten its own rules. A plan for stricter measures for bank bailouts mysteriously dropped off the Commission’s agenda for last week, and it’s now expected to be M.I.A. for at least a month. Or even longer. Hannah Brenton takes an in-depth look at why.

**To what extent has the energy crisis tied to the war in Ukraine shown that the market needs a deep reform? POLITICO Live’s virtual event “Power market reform approaching a snag?” on March 22 is bringing you the answer together with our energy reporter, Victor Jack, and a stellar group of experts. Register now!**

AGENDA Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

Economic and Financial Affairs Council; arrivals at 8:30 a.m.; press conference at 2:20 p.m. Watch.

Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumers Affairs Council; arrivals at 8:30 a.m.; press conference at 3:45 p.m. Watch.

European Parliament plenary session continues in Strasbourg. Data act at 9 a.m. … “This is Europe” debate at 10 a.m. … European semester at 1 p.m. … The challenges facing the Republic of Moldova at 7:30 p.m. Agenda. Watch.

— Parliamentary group press briefings: EPP at 9:30 a.m. … S&D at 10 a.m. … Renew Europe at 10:20 a.m. … Greens/EFA 10:40 a.m. … The Left 11:20 a.m. Watch.

— European Parliament President Roberta Metsola meets Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda, press point at 10:20 a.m.; “This is Europe” debate in plenary with their participation at 10:30 a.m. Watch.

— Commission Executive VP Margrethe Vestager is in Bogotá, Colombia: meets with Colombia’s presidential adviser on digitalization, Saul Kattan; participates in the launch of the EU-Latin America and the Caribbean Digital Alliance and the EU-Colombia Digital Package.

— Commission Executive VP Valdis Dombrovskis meets Italy’s Minister of Economy and Finance Giancarlo Giorgetti.

— German Chancellor Olaf Scholz meets the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev.

PARIS CORNER Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

LITERAL RAT RACE: Garbage collectors have been on strike for days in the French capital, meaning trash is piling up, politicians are screaming at one another, and some fear a likely invasion by … rats! As Nicolas Camut reports, the workers are protesting a controversial reform of France’s pension system championed by President Emmanuel Macron. It would increase the age of retirement for garbage collectors — who can at present retire early with reduced benefits on account of the hardship of their work, which has been shown to affect their life expectancy — from 57 to 59.

The issue caused a political brawl over the weekend, after the mayors of several Parisian districts argued the strike threatened to turn into a major public health risk, and called on the mayor of Paris to take action. Read the full story here.

BRUSSELS CORNER Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

FLANDERS REJECTS ENGLISH-ONLY GRAD PROGRAMS: The Flemish government has turned down bids from three universities — KU Leuven, UGent and VUB — seeking to offer master’s programs in civil engineering in English only, La Libre reports.

Context: The language of instruction in Flanders is Dutch, but universities have the option of creating an English-taught program, provided there is also a Dutch-taught alternative.

The catch: The three universities wanted an exemption from the rule, which would mean that it would no longer be possible to study the relevant civil engineering program in Dutch. “I understand that the universities want to respond to the demands of some sectors and also want to attract more foreign students. However, this should not be at the expense of Flemish students and their right to a high-quality Dutch-language education,” said Flemish Minister for Education Ben Weyts.

The reasoning: One of the universities, KU Leuven, told Playbook’s Ketrin Jochecová that they made the application at the request of the business community. “There are currently huge shortages of engineers on the labor market in Belgium. There, we need international students. After graduation, those international students enter our labor market in large numbers,” said KU Leuven spokesperson Sigrid Somers, adding that the university currently offers the program both in English and Dutch, which poses a funding issue. “Duplicating expensive courses in two languages is running at its limit. The application was an attempt to rationalize,” she added.

BELGIAN ROYALTY TO VISIT EGYPT: Belgian Queen Mathilde and Princess Elisabeth will today head to Egypt for a three-day trip. The visit will mark several anniversaries, including 200 years since Jean-François Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs; 100 years since Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered; 125 years since the birth of Belgian Egyptology; as well as the 75th anniversary of the death of Belgian Egyptologist Jean Capart. It is also a tribute to Belgian Queen Elisabeth, who ruled from 1909 to 1934 and was very passionate about Egypt. Belga has more.

METRO UPDATE: More modern M6 trains have been transferred to metro lines 2 and 6, public transport company STIB-MIVB announced Monday. “This means more comfort and more seats for our travelers,” they said in a tweet.

DELHAIZE STILL CLOSED: Strikes continue at most of Delhaize’s stores nationwide as employees protest against planned franchising. The unions will meet with management reps today to discuss the situation, VRT reports.

NEW ‘BRUCITY’ CENTER INAUGURATED: City officials held an official inauguration Friday for Brucity — Brussels’ new administrative center, which aims to help digitalize and simplify public services. (City employees had actually moved to the new building back in December.) According to Mayor of Brussels Philippe Close, about 6 kilometers of documents have been digitalized.

Beyond the red tape: The center will offer other services beyond handling the city’s admin needs. Outside of working hours, up to 100 students will be able to use study rooms in the building as of May 2. There will also be a rooftop restaurant with a view of Brussels and public parking, RTBF reports.

BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Philippe Lamberts, Salima Yenbou, Alessandra Basso, Iuliu Winkler and Antonius Manders; Former MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel; former Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod; Albert II, prince of Monaco.

THANKS TO: Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová, editor Emma Anderson our producer Grace Stranger, along with Suzanne Lynch and Eddy Wax in Strasbourg and Barbara Moens and Paola Tamma in Brussels.

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