Brussels Playbook: Manfred vs Ursula — Oil tankers free (for now) — Concern for Kaili’s child

Brussels Playbook: Manfred vs Ursula — Oil tankers free (for now) — Concern for Kaili’s child
Опубликовано: Thursday, 16 February 2023 05:28

What’s driving the day in Brussels.


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DRIVING THE DAY: EPP VS COMMISSION BOSS Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

WEBER TESTS VDL’S MAJORITY: The European Parliament will today vote on a resolution that backs Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s plan to boost EU industry. But the center-right European People’s Party is preparing to vote against it, MEPs tell Playbook.

It would be a shot across VDL’s bow from her own conservative political family.

“Manfred Weber has asked his colleagues to torpedo the text,” French Renew Europe MEP Valérie Hayer, who led negotiations on the file, told Playbook. “He clearly cares more about destabilizing Ursula von der Leyen than about stabilizing the EU economy.”

Renew group leader Stéphane Séjourné was similarly livid: “My group is amazed at how the EPP is playing with this text. There is clearly some internal score-settling going on. Everything in the text corresponds to their ideas and yet they are withdrawing,” he told Playbook after negotiations last night. “Weber is playing with Ursula von der Leyen’s legitimacy and testing his coalition with the far right,” he said, adding: “It is cynical … We had the trick on migration with the wall, the Green Deal, and now industry.”

But the Renew leader also did some score-settling of his own. “We believe in the von der Leyen majority. But the EPP members must show that they still believe in it,” he added. “I hope the moderate wing will wake up.”

Weber did not wish to comment, but other MEPs from his own party also portrayed the decision as a German-led effort to settle political scores with VDL, rather than an argument about the text of the resolution itself.

HIGH DRAMA UNFOLDED OVERNIGHT: The EPP had been expected to back the resolution, which supports plans put forward by von der Leyen to subsidize EU industry and respond to green subsidies under the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act.

But then this happened: “The EPP group has decided not to sign the joint draft resolution,” German MEP Christian Ehler, the EPP’s point-man on industry, told Playbook, arguing that “the present text does not do justice to the dramatic situation of industry and the global challenges posed by the U.S.A. and the IRA, and likewise by China.”

‘A message’ to the Commission: “The Commission has failed to set the necessary framework conditions” for European industry to succeed, Ehler said. “This is therefore no time for convenient compromises, but for a clear message to the Commission to finally take the competitiveness of the European economy seriously.”

What could the message be about? Think of the cars! Ehler and Weber are from Bavaria originally — home to a significant chunk of the country’s car industry. On the same day that the group decided not to back the resolution in Strasbourg, Bavaria’s conservative Minister-President Markus Söder tweeted that “the EU’s general ban on internal combustion vehicles from 2035 will harm Bavaria as an industrial location and the employees of the car industry.”

Not everyone in the EPP wanted to send that message: Speaking behind closed doors at the EPP’s group meeting last night, a Spanish member said the text was “the most EPP text I have seen in a long time,” according to three attendants, suggesting there was nothing in resolution text that justified opposing it. MEPs from the Netherlands and Portugal also spoke out against the plan to torpedo it. But when Weber asked whether they wanted to put the party line to an internal vote, the opponents gave in, attendants said.

“This is very much an issue between VDL and the [German Christian Democrat] delegation,” one EPP member said of his interpretation.

“Don’t forget that the Germans are the most powerful delegation in the EPP,” another said.

But, of course, it’s also about the top job: Party insiders said one thing was clear. The campaign to find the EPP’s next Spitzenkandidat, or top candidate, is now clearly on ahead of the 2024 European Parliament election. Von der Leyen — who has a full-time job leading the EU’s executive — may have less time or appetite for political shenanigans, but the party clearly does have the time and is crying for her attention.

“Some in the party believe Weber has already turned the EPP into a campaign machine for [Parliament President Roberta] Metsola” to get the top job, one member said. But many don’t expect the European Council would appoint her. The member said it could mean that “the EPP may accept that it will lose the top Commission job and to be five years in opposition.”

SPECIAL GUEST GUTERRES: Next month’s EUCO summit from March 23-24 will again have a special guest, Playbook is told: United Nations Sec Gen António Guterres will join leaders on the first day of meetings.

**Kemi Badenoch, United Kingdom secretary of state for business and trade and Jane Hartley, United States ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irelandwill speak at POLITICO U.K. 2023 event on February 21. Register today to follow the discussion online.**

RUSSIA SANCTIONS Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

MYSTERY AROUND RUSSIA’S OIL TANKER FLEET: As Playbook first reported Monday, the EU has been discussing sanctions against a Dubai-based shipping company, suspected of fronting for Russia’s state-owned tanker fleet.

Empire’s new clothes: Russian state-owned shipping company Sovcomflot (short for Soviet Commercial Fleet) transferred ownership of 92 of its oil tankers to a Dubai-based company called SCF in April 2022, according to four diplomats. SCF then renamed itself SUN Ship Management in July.

Why is the Commission not acting? At a meeting of ambassadors Wednesday, several countries favored the proposal to sanction the company, while no ambassador opposed it — yet, the company does not appear on the list of new sanctions, proposed by the Commission on Wednesday.

Two diplomats said they were surprised to find out that the EU’s diplomatic arm, the External Action Service (tasked with drafting the lists of individuals and companies), had decided not to include SUN Ship — despite what they said was clear evidence that the company was operating Russia’s tankers.

No opposition from Mediterranean countries: Greece, Cyprus and Malta all made clear they were not opposed to sanctioning SUN Ship, diplomats said, and one ambassador specifically asked the EEAS why it had decided to keep the company out, but there was no clear answer.

Follow-up: But on Wednesday evening, one official and one diplomat said the EEAS may add additional names to the list of sanctions — so stay tuned.

EU SPLIT OVER SANCTIONING RUSSIAN RUBBER: Perhaps to no one’s surprise, EU ambassadors didn’t reach an agreement on the next sanctions package last night. One of the contentious points is synthetic rubber, which the Commission wants to sanction, according to draft documents obtained by POLITICO.

Billion-dollar industry: The synthetic rubber industry generates billions of dollars in revenue for Russia each year, trade data shows: In 2021, for example, it exported synthetic rubber worth almost $2 billion. Of this amount, the EU reported importing synthetic rubber worth some $700 million. Some forms of rubber were already sanctioned in previous packages, but this would cut off more revenue streams.

Why that matters: Synthetic rubber is used in tires as well as in smaller quantities for clutches and the like. Countries like Italy and Germany are skeptical about banning the product, while Poland is in favor of it.

What else is in the package: If EU ambassadors agree to the plan, the bloc would also tighten the screws on the airline industry. For example, aircraft operators would have to notify the EU about non-scheduled flights from and to Russia to prevent them from transporting banned cargo or sanctioned people.

More financial sanctions: Three additional banks will be subject to restrictive measures, according to an EU diplomat. The new sanctions, if adopted, will also require banks to notify the Commission of the Russian central bank assets that they hold. Read more on what’s in the package here.

Not enough: But that’s not far-reaching enough, said Michael McFaul, a professor at Stanford University and coordinator of a working group on sanctions.

“The financial sanctions are very porous … We think that all banks should be sanctioned. There are way too many that are not,” he said.

What’s next: The EU is hoping to adopt its next round of sanctions before the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

PUTIN FACES DEFEAT IN GAS WAR: Remember fears about an energy shortage this winter amid Russia’s war? As it turns out, Europe is on course to get through winter with its vital gas storage facilities more than half full, according to a new Commission assessment seen by POLITICO. That means despite Vladimir Putin’s efforts to make Europe freeze by cutting its gas supply, EU economies will survive the coldest months without serious harm — and they look set to start next winter in a strong position to do the same. Charlie Cooper has the story on how Putin is staring at defeat in his gas war.

ALSO TODAY: NATO ENLARGEMENT Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

STOLTENBERG IN TURKEY: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is in Ankara today to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan and Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu. The NATO boss will also visit the area devasted by last week’s earthquakes, reports Suzanne Lynch.

Working on Erdoğan: But top of the agenda will be Turkey’s continued blockade against Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership bids. It’s now more than seven months since NATO gave the green light to the Nordic wannabe members to join. Turkey has yet to ratify their entry, and the clock is ticking …

Conscious uncoupling: For the first time, Stoltenberg publicly raised the prospect this week of a staggered timeline for admitting the two countries — a tacit acknowledgment that Finland’s bid is essentially being held up by Turkey’s beef with Sweden. Erdoğan accuses Sweden of harboring Kurdish militants, and tensions have soared between the two countries over the burning of a Quran in the Swedish capital last month. Finland and Sweden were planning to join NATO simultaneously, but might decide to uncouple their applications to allow Finland a faster way in.

Getting in the good books: Sweden has been on its own charm offensive of late. Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson announced plans to hold an international donor conference for Turkey and Syria along with EU Commission President von der Leyen. It’s not clear if this will win any brownie points with Erdoǧan — or whether Turkey has time to address the NATO question as it deals with a colossal humanitarian crisis and its domestic political ramifications.

PARLIAMENT DRAMA Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

AS QATARGATE INVESTIGATIONS CONTINUE, all eyes will be on a Brussels courtroom today, where former Parliament VP Eva Kaili faces a hearing after more than two months of pre-trial detention. Kaili’s team — which now includes well-known Belgian lawyer Sven Mary — is pushing for her immediate release, arguing her imprisonment amounts to “torture,” also because she is being kept away from her young child.

Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella, who was arrested last week and charged shortly after, is also expected in court today for his pre-trial hearing. His lawyer Maxim Töller told my colleague Camille Gijs that he was still going over the 2,000-page file Wednesday evening. He added that he was reviewing “new confessions from Mr. [Pier Antonio] Panzeri,” the former Italian MEP at the center of the probe. “I’ll be up all night,” he said.

KAILI BEING DEPRIVED ACCESS TO HER CHILD, 10 ITALIAN S&D MEPs SAY: Italian MEPs from the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group wrote to Parliament President Metsola to raise their concerns about the treatment of Kaili.

That poor child: “She has only been able to see her 23-month-old daughter twice since her arrest on 9 December. A child without the presence of her mother or father,” the MEPs wrote in the February 9 missive, seen by POLITICO’s Eddy Wax. The child’s father is Francesco Giorgi, the former assistant of Panzeri, both of whom are also jailed as part of the probe.

Holding the pen was the Italian Democratic Party’s Massimiliano Smeriglio, whose letter denounces Kaili’s treatment by Belgian authorities as “a violent act that the child will pay for and that has all the flavour of an additional penalty, taking place even before the trial is held.”

Have a heart: “There is no need to go overboard. Not in a European democracy, especially when innocent and guilty are yet to be established,” they wrote.

Other MEPs who signed the letter include the head of Italian Democratic Party MEPs Brando Benifei; Paolo De Castro; former anti-mafia prosecutor Franco Roberti; and Alessandra Moretti.

Meanwhile, the scandal widens: European lawmakers Maria Arena and Moretti are also connected to the investigation undertaken by Belgian prosecutors, according to the warrant for Italian MEP Andrea Cozzolino.

My colleagues Camille and Eddy Wax got their hands on Cozzolino’s warrant, which alleges that Arena and Moretti, along with Cozzolino and Tarabella, were members of a “quadrumvirate,” which authorities suspect sought to act on Panzeri’s instructions during a meeting about a resolution on Qatar in late 2021. Read more.

PLENARY SESSION BRIEFLY SUSPENDED: EU lawmakers were evacuated from the Parliament on Wednesday after Kurdish independence activists disrupted the plenary sitting. The session resumed about three hours later. Read more.

NEW ECR CO-CHAIR: Brothers of Italy MEP Nicola Procaccini became the co-chair of the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists this week, replacing Raffaele Fitto, who joined Giorgia Meloni’s government in Rome as European affairs minister. Procaccini — a former spokesperson for Meloni — will lead the group alongside Polish Law & Justice MEP Ryszard Legutko. On Wednesday in Strasbourg, MEP Chiara Gemma, formerly sitting as an independent with the 5Star Movement, joined the ECR group, bringing its total MEPs to 64.

EYE ON ATHENS: A number of MEPs slammed the Greek government Wednesday for what they argued were attempts to sweep under the rug alarming spying allegations against journalists and opposition leaders, Nektaria Stamouli reports.

“Institutions in Greece have suffered a serious blow,” Greek socialist Pasok party leader and MEP Nikos Androulakis said during a discussion in the European Parliament on rule of law concerns in Greece. The spy saga that has engulfed the Greek conservative government started in the summer when it was revealed that Androulakis’ phone had been under surveillance by the state spy service.

‘Obsessive criticism’: Responding to criticism, conservative MEP Eliza Vozemberg defended the Greek government’s actions, calling the criticism “obsessive and deliberate.”

Look beyond your party lines: “Our job is not to protect one political party or the other, our job is to protect democracy for everyone, all together,” said Dutch MEP Sophie in’t Veld in impassioned remarks, speaking in Greek to stress her message.

Reminder: Greece came in last in Reporters without Borders’ last media freedom ranking. The government passed a law giving authorities the power to send people to jail for up to five years for spreading alleged “fake news” deemed “capable of causing concern or fear to the public or undermining public confidence in the national economy, the country’s defense capacity or public health.”

**Where and how do we need to invest to make Europe’s network infrastructures future-proof? POLITICO Live’s event will convene a lively discussion on March 21 with experts including Roberto Viola, director general, DG CNECT, European Commission, and Konstantinos Masselos, chair 2023, BEREC. Mark up your agendas and register now!**

IN OTHER NEWS Share on Twitter Share on Facebook Share on Linkedin Share on Handclap

FOLLOW-UP ON EUCO ORGANIZATION: Last week, we reported that several diplomats and heads of state had criticized European Council President Charles Michel and his team for what they alleged was a messy process of organizing the EU leaders’ summit and preparing the written conclusions.

Lessons learned: At this Wednesday’s meeting of ambassadors, Michel’s head of cabinet Frédéric Bernard aimed to set the record straight, Playbook is told. Bernard pointed out that most leaders had found the summit — and in particular the session with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — useful, but argued the visit made it difficult by nature to entirely predict the choreography, according to two people with direct knowledge of the discussions.

27 egos and counting: Michel’s team also feels that not all criticism directed their way was fair.

For example, one official said, the leaders of Poland and Estonia decided to bring up amendments to the Council conclusions, one proposing to refer to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s “Holodomor” — in which millions of Ukrainians died of forced starvation in the early 1930s — as a genocide. The other called for joint ammunition purchases.

Other leaders at last week’s summit then criticized how they were forced to discuss these amendments to the final text (a task usually left to their negotiators and ambassadors). But the official argued that while the amendments had already been rejected in previous negotiation stages, there was little the organizers could do to prevent participants from bringing the topic up again — the EUCO being a summit of leaders all at the helm of a country, who are all equally convinced about their proposals.

Ball back in Coreper’s court: Attendants and people briefed on the meeting said one tangible outcome was that ambassadors should in the future play a bigger role in preparing their leaders’ discussions.

EPP INVITES CYPRIOT PRESIDENT-ELECT: Cyprus’ President-elect Nikos Christodoulides has accepted an invitation to a European People’s Party meeting in March, according to a senior EPP official.

Refresher: Christodoulides, who was elected last Sunday, originally hails from the ruling right-wing Democratic Rally party (DISY), but was running as an independent, Nektaria Stamouli reports. He broke ranks with DISY and its leader, Averof Neofytou, who was also running for president but didn’t make it to the final round.

Turning a page: Christodoulides and Neofytou met Wednesday and announced that no DISY officials will take part in the new Cabinet. Neofytou also said he invited Christodoulides to join the EPP, of which DISY is a member. “EPP has always been and still is supporting Cyprus,” he said.

BORNE IN BRUSSELS: France’s Elisabeth Borne is making her first visit to the EU capital since becoming prime minister. She’ll be accompanied by FM Catherine Colonna and EU Affairs Secretary of State Laurence Boone to meet von der Leyen as well as Commissioners Frans Timmermans and Valdis Dombrovskis. On the agenda will be the Commission’s proposals to help European industry but also energy issues, according to an official in Borne’s office.

Keeping up the momentum: Borne will in particular address the reform of the European electricity market, a key issue for her government, which no longer wants to make the price of electricity dependent on that of gas.

Nuclear hydrogen: She will also defend hydrogen produced with nuclear energy, which is mentioned in several European texts currently being negotiated and which, according to Paris, should be considered as carbon-free (which it technically is, even though it is not renewable).

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

— NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits Turkey to meet President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu as well as visit areas affected by the earthquakes. Press conference at 9:45 a.m.

— European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen meets Prime Minister of France Elisabeth Borne at 12 a.m. Watch.

— Commission Executive Vice Presidents Valdis Dombrovskis and Frans Timmermans will also meet Elisabeth Borne.

— Commission Vice President Vĕra Jourová speaks with European Central Bank Vice President Luis de Guindos.

European Parliament plenary session continues. Full program. Watch live.

— Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius visits Ukraine; meets Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov to discuss cooperation and assistance on environmental matters and the Phoenix Initiative. There will also be a roundtable with a group of mayors of substantially destroyed towns.

— Commissioner Nicolas Schmit is in Lisbon; meets Prime Minister António Costa and other ministers.

— Commissioner Mairead McGuinness is in Dublin; attends the European of the Year award ceremony, organized by European Movement Ireland.

— Commissioner Helena Dalli is in Stockholm; meets Swedish Minister for Equality Paulina Brandberg.

— Commissioner Ylva Johansson visits Vilnius to receive an award for EU support for Lithuania during the Belarus migrant standoff of 2021 at the State Awards Ceremony hosted by Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda.

— European Commission members attend the Munich Security Conference; fireside chat with Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas at 3:20 p.m. Watch.

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

NO LUXURY MANSION FOR EU IN LONDON: The EU’s U.K. ambassador won’t be moving to London’s Millionaires’ Row after all.

Facing criticism over the costs of renting a mansion among the stars, the European External Action Service formally withdrew its plan to rent a posh property in London’s affluent Chelsea neighborhood, according to a letter seen by Playbook. Read more.

MORE DIVERSITY FOR EU DIPLOMATS: Staff at the European External Action Service will today review the first draft of the “Agenda for diversity and inclusion in the EEAS: 2023-2025,” seen by my colleague Jacopo Barigazzi.

Gender balance by 2025: One goal is “achieving gender balance at all levels of management by the end of 2025,” says the draft, considered to be the brainchild of Stefano Sannino, the EEAS secretary general.

Beyond gender: It also says: “We will boost the recruitment, effective employment, and career prospects of staff with visible and invisible disabilities.”

And it says “we will enhance the representation of staff from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.”

For representing the LGBTIQ+ community, one of the aims is “adapting administrative processes to ensure they enjoy the same rights and inclusion as all other staff members.”

On religion, the goal is to create an environment where “everyone can enjoy the same privileges.”

Regarding generational concerns, the aim is to provide workers with a “career journey regardless of their age.”

HEALTH WARNING OVER BAD AIR IN BRUSSELS: Brussels authorities were forced to issue health warnings Wednesday because the city’s air pollution levels were far above the acceptable threshold for particle emissions. This was mostly attributed to traffic, despite Brussels being a low-emission zone. Don’t expect fresh air today either.

Reminder: Brussels is notorious for being polluted and has even been taken to court over this.

FROM BIG TECH TO FINNISH POLITICS: As of today, it’s all nappies and Finnish politics for Aura Salla, Meta’s top lobbyist in Brussels, who announced Wednesday she was running for a seat in the Finnish parliament — and is expecting a baby “any day now,” she told my colleague Pieter Haeck.

ALL OF THE LIGHTS: Over the next three days, Brussels will be illuminated by the Bright Festival of lights. This year’s event will pay tribute to Brussels’ Art Nouveau history. More info here.

‘EARLY’ MUSIC FESTIVAL: If you’re more into music — from medieval to romanticism — there’s also FestiVita! in Cercle Royal Gaulois, running through the weekend. Details here.

BIRTHDAYS: European Commissioner Adina-Ioana Vălean; MEP Tomas Tobé; POLITICO founder Robert Allbritton; European Commission’s Siobhan Millbright; World Bank’s Paul Blake; Antoine Clément from Penta Group; Welt’s Daniel Zwick; Paul Fournier of Philip Morris International; Nigel Olisa of Gamian-Europe. Day of Restoration of the State of Lithuania.

THANKS TO: Jacopo Barigazzi, Nektaria Stamouli, Eddy Wax, Leonie Kijewski, Nicholas Vinocur, Camille Gijs, Suzanne Lynch, Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová, editor Emma Anderson, and producer Grace Stranger.

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