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EU leaders head back to Brussels to tackle Brexit and a resurgent pandemic



EU leaders are back in Brussels on Thursday for their second summit in as many weeks. An array of subjects are up for discussion over the course of the next two days — some very familiar and others, such as Brexit, making it to the leaders’ table for the first time this year.

Here’s a rundown of what will be keeping leaders busy during their socially-distanced, mask-protected summit:

  • Brexit Relations with the UK haven’t been on the summit agenda since the start of future relationship talks this year, and despite the deadline for negotiations hurtling towards them, leaders won’t be focused on it Thursday.
    Still, there is expected to be a push from France and its allies to substantially beef up a set of summit conclusions to warn that the bloc’s fishing industry will not be thrown asunder as part of a trade deal. As the Financial Times reports, leaders will have to find some common ground on the neuralgic issue of fishing rights — which impacts eight coastal member states but not much of the rest. In a phone call with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the European Council’s Charles Michel Wednesday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would “reflect” on the outcome of Thursday’s summit “before setting out the UK’s next steps”. Ms von der Leyen meanwhile repeated that the EU did not want a deal “at any price”.

  • Budget Ongoing budget negotiations between the council and parliament are not on the formal summit agenda but will undoubtedly rear their head over the course of the next two days. Negotiations have seemingly gone backwards since the last time leaders met earlier this month. Talks between MEPs and EU ambassadors have descended into public mud-slinging and Twitter trolling about which side can count. Parliament president David Sassoli is expected to kick off the summit this afternoon to complain about the deadlock.
    Diplomats think German chancellor Angela Merkel will use it as an opportunity for leaders to air their complaints and make clear where they stand on the issue of additional cash demanded by MEPs and the rule of law. On the latter, discussions may not be as tense as usual — Poland’s premier Mateusz Morawiecki, one of the staunchest opponents of a conditionality mechanism, won’t be attending after going into precautionary self-isolation earlier this week.

  • Climate challenge Leaders are due to spend Thursday’s dinner session digesting a proposal for the EU to cut its emissions by “at least 55 per cent” by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). Ahead of the summit, an alliance of 11 countries — including France, Ireland, the Nordics and Netherlands — backed the goal proposed by the commission. The parliament last week voted to approve a more ambitious 60 per cent goal in a bid to push resistant governments to compromise somewhere closer to 55 per cent. No formal decision on the 2030 target will be taken Thursday — that is likely at December’s summit.

  • Covid-19 co-ordination Amid all the other issues up for discussion, leaders could be forgiven for forgetting that the continent is in the grip of an escalating pandemic. As of Wednesday, the EU has outstripped the US for the number of new Covid-19 cases and the likes of France, Germany and the Netherlands have imposed stringent new curbs this week. The surging cases will be the backdrop for another leaders’ discussion about how to co-ordinate travel restrictions and pandemic management. But, as per a similar summit discussion two weeks ago, diplomats don’t expect much more than lip service from governments who remain fiercely protective of their right to control their borders as they see fit.

  • Turkey In another rerun of the last summit, Turkey will be bought up as a subject of discussion by Greece and Cyprus, said diplomats. Turkey has angered its EU neighbours in recent days by redeploying a vessel to explore gas in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece’s prime minister is likely to be among those pushing for a formal condemnation of Ankara’s actions, but officials warned that as of yet, there are no plans to add to the summit communiqué thrashed out earlier this month.

Chart du jour: Europe’s grey hairs are showing

Low fertility rates keep Europe’s population among world’s oldest, Total fertility rate and median age, 1955-2030

Germany’s population declined for the first time in 10 years, according to federal data released on Tuesday. Germans, along with Europeans as a whole, have been steadily ageing and having fewer children for decades, with immigrants making up an increased number of their younger citizens. A sharp decline in inward migration, thanks to coronavirus, could be bad news for Europe’s already meagre population growth. (chart via FT)

Europe news round-up

  • French president Emmanuel Macron has announced a curfew for nine French cities — including Paris, Lille and Aix-Marseille — from 9pm-6am for at least six weeks. (FT) Notably, Strasbourg is not on the list — meaning MEPs are still on course to send the parliament’s travelling circus to the Alsace next week. In Germany, Angela Merkel held intense talks with federal leaders to agree new limits on socialising amid what she called a “decisive and critical phase” of the virus. (Der Spiegel)

  • France and the Netherlands have issued a joint call for the EU’s competition authorities to curb the market power of tech giants — including taking a nuclear option to break up “gatekeeper” platforms. The FT has more on the Franco-Dutch position paper. (FT)

  • Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko met with opposition activists last Saturday, only most of the activists returned to prison cells when the meeting was over. The move was widely panned by critics as an attempt to divide the opposition parties. Mr Lukashenko’s government had arrested more than 700 protesters by Sunday. (FT)

  • A new poll from Ipsos Mori shows support for Scottish independence is at 58 per cent — the highest ever polled — while dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson is at 76 per cent, the worst Ipsos has ever recorded in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is aiming to capitalise on anger over Westminster’s Covid-19 management with a bill for an independence referendum to be tabled after Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021.

  • There’s just few weeks to go until the US presidential election and Joe Biden is leading Donald Trump in most polls. European leaders hoping for a reset to a pre-Trump age shouldn’t hold their breath, argues Jana Puglierin at the European Council on Foreign Relations. She thinks the EU will have to realise American interests have shifted and Europeans will still have to pick up more of the bill for their defence and security.

Coming up on Thursday

EU leaders begin Thursday’s summit at 15.00 (CET) in Brussels’ Europa Building. Beforehand, leaders from the centre-right, centre-left and liberals will have their respective political group meetings. Mr Michel and Ms von der Leyen are due to hold a press conference at the end of dinner.

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UK ends damaging post-Brexit clash over status of EU envoy




UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab has finally ended a corrosive diplomatic dispute over the status of the EU’s ambassador in London, a stand-off that had added to post-Brexit tensions.

Raab had previously refused to grant João Vale de Almeida full diplomatic status after Brexit took effect on January 1, arguing the EU was an “international organisation” not a state.

Brussels retaliated by shutting Britain’s head of mission to the EU, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, out of key meetings with EU officials, adding to Brexit tensions on trade and Northern Ireland.

But on Wednesday the issue was settled after a meeting between Raab and Josep Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief.

Officials briefed on the deal said Vale de Almeida would now receive the same diplomatic recognition as his counterparts in EU missions in all other world capitals, including Washington and Beijing.

In a joint statement, issued at a G7 meeting in London, Raab and Borrell said they had reached an agreement based on “goodwill and pragmatism” on an establishment agreement for the EU delegation to the UK.

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While Vale de Almeida will enjoy full ambassadorial status, British officials said Raab had secured a deal “which gives us some of what we want” regarding the legal situation of EU staff in London.

EU officials will enjoy a largely similar status to other diplomats but with some downgrades: notably, under the agreement, they will not have immunity from prosecution for road traffic accidents.

Raab insisted on this carve-out following the death of Harry Dunn, a British motorcyclist killed in 2019 in a collision with a vehicle driven by Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat. She returned to the US claiming diplomatic immunity. 

But many British diplomats were dismayed at how long it had taken to resolve the dispute. “It was a stupid thing to do in the first place and we’ve had to back down,” said one former ambassador.

The diplomatic rapprochement was hailed in Brussels as a sign of a “new cycle” in UK-EU relations following the European parliament’s formal ratification last month of the trade deal between the two sides, which took effect on January 1.

There has also been a thawing in relations over the management of tensions in Northern Ireland, as London and Brussels look for ways to soften border checks on goods coming from the British mainland to the region.

Vale de Almeida will now get to present his diplomatic credentials to the Queen — an honour not available to the heads of international missions.

Boris Johnson has never recognised the EU as equivalent in status to a national government but Number 10 insiders insisted that the Foreign Office — not the prime minister — was responsible for the diplomatic dispute.

Meanwhile, Ireland and the UK announced plans for the first meeting in two years of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a structure created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the two countries to liaise on issues around Northern Ireland. 

“We are aware that there are sincerely held concerns in different communities in Northern Ireland in relation to a number of issues and firmly agree that the best way forward is through dialogue and engagement,” said Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis and Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney in a joint statement after they met in Dublin on Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting will take place in June, ahead of the July marching season in Northern Ireland, which could inflame tensions between unionists — who feel that their region’s status in the UK is under threat from post-Brexit trading arrangements — and nationalists, who are pushing for a vote on a united Ireland. 

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France threatens to cut power to Jersey as fishing tensions rise




France has threatened to cut off its power supply to Jersey in the Channel Islands, as tensions rise with the UK over the post-Brexit fishing regime.

Following the UK’s full departure from the bloc in January, French fishermen have expressed concerns at difficulties in receiving the necessary licences to fish in British waters.

The dispute also comes at a time when UK and EU negotiators are in discussions over the 2021 catch quota for shared fishing stocks.

Jersey, the largest channel island and a British crown dependency, receives 95 per cent of its electricity from France through underwater cables. Its foreign policy is governed by the UK, which means it is treated as a third country by the EU.

Annick Girardin, the French maritime minister, told France’s National Assembly she was “revolted” that Jersey had granted 41 fishing licences that included conditions and specific criteria that were “decided unilaterally and without explanation”.

“It’s unacceptable,” she told lawmakers. “We’re ready to resort to retaliatory measures . . . concerning Jersey, I’ll remind you of the transport of electricity via submarine cables.” Girardin added she would “regret” any action but “we’ll do it if we have to”.

French fishermen and ministers have been complaining for two weeks about the difficulty of gaining access to British waters despite the agreement on fisheries reached at the end of last year.

The anger among French fishermen at the delays in receiving licences for fishing in UK has prompted barricades for lorries arriving in Europe with UK-landed fish.

Clement Beaune, France’s junior minister for European Affairs, last week threatened to block regulations that would allow UK financial firms to do business in the EU if Britain does not respect its Brexit commitments on fishing.

Bertrand Sorre, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s governing La République en Marche party, gave the example of a fisherman from Granville in Normandy who had previously fished for scallops and whelks for an average of 40 days a year off Jersey; he had been told he could fish for only 11 days this year, and only for scallops.

Ian Gorst, Jersey’s external relations minister, said it had issued the licences in accordance with the UK’s trade and co-operation agreement with the EU and the new regime would “take time for all to adjust”.

“If French fishermen or the authorities have further evidence they would like to submit, we will update the licences to reflect that evidence,” he said in a statement.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are clear that Jersey is responsible for its own territorial waters.”

UK business minister Nadhim Zahawi urged both sides to “iron out” issues with fishing. “We’ve got to look at this urgently and the best way to fix this is to work together,” he told Sky News.

A senior UK official said the government had been taken aback by the strength of the French reaction, which was seen as an “aggressive escalation” given that the UK had been working together on the question of licensing. “It’s a strange way to behave, from what is meant to be a friendly country,” they added.

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Hello, Berlin? Germany’s future raises foreign policy concerns for allies




The writer is Fritz Stern chair at the Brookings Institution

President Joe Biden has made it clear that he really, really wants to work with Europe. After the four traumatic years of the Trump presidency, that seems an opportunity not to be missed. Also, Moscow and Beijing are undeterred by US and EU sanctions over the jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in China.

They are dialling up the pressure on Europe with countersanctions, expulsions of diplomats and thuggish-sounding threats. But in Brussels, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is fighting with European Council president Charles Michel over charges of sexism and a Turkish sofa, instead of getting a grip on a double-dip recession and the pandemic.

British premier Boris Johnson is in trouble over costly wallpaper. French president Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election in 2022, is neck-and-neck in the polls with his far-right rival Marine Le Pen, while retired and current military officers are warning of civil war.

This would seem to be the moment for Germany, as a responsible neighbour, to step up and help out. But Europe’s most powerful economy is going to the polls even sooner than France: on September 26. As the 16-year tenure of Chancellor Angela Merkel comes to a close, the six parties scrambling to rule in the post-Merkel era are somewhat less than focused on goings-on beyond Germany’s borders.

The reason is the fragmentation of Germany’s colour-coded party landscape. In current polling, the Greens are fighting for first place with the CDU (black) at about 25 per cent, with the Social Democrats (red) far behind at 15 per cent, followed by the liberal Free Democrats (yellow) and the Left party (dark red) at around 11 per cent each.

The far-right Alternative for Germany is so radical that Germany’s domestic intelligence service wants to place it under observation. No other party will work with it, but it still captures about a tenth of the vote. This increases the likelihood that Germany’s next government will be a three-way coalition, with a kaleidoscope of possible combinations: black-green (or the reverse, with the CDU as junior partner); “Jamaica” (CDU-Greens-liberals); “traffic light” (Greens-SPD-liberals); and finally, “R2G” (SPD-Left-Greens).

This is why the small parties’ ideas suddenly matter. But in terms of foreign and security policy, none of the five presents a fully reassuring image to a neighbour or ally of Germany.

The Left party’s only path to government is R2G, a goal the powerful leftwings in the Greens and the SPD have been actively pursuing. But the Left too has radicalised, shedding its once influential east German pragmatists. Its new top duo opposes military engagement abroad of any kind. But it is also apparently clueless about pensions, and that may alienate its base.

The FDP has cabinet-ready experts on finance, digital issues and foreign and security policy — and a liability in Christian Lindner, their leader. The CDU and Greens are still smarting because of his petulant walkout from coalition negotiations in 2017. Last year, he faced a revolt in his own party after supporting the decision of a regional liberal politician to let himself be elected state governor with the AfD’s help.

The SPD’s Olaf Scholz is caught in a double bind. As Merkel’s finance minister, the opposition accuses him of oversight failures in a spate of financial scandals. As candidate for chancellor, he has seen the SPD leadership wrench the party to the left with anti-nuclear slogans reminiscent of the 1980s. Fritz Felgentreu, one of several seasoned legislators to resign in protest, calls his party’s security policy a “smouldering fire”.

Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate, has come under fire for sounding soft on Syria, Russia and China. Yet his real problems are corruption scandals and circling party frenemies. His party may be dealt another blow in next month’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, where some polls have the AfD in close pursuit.

All this does much to explain the rise of the Greens and Annalena Baerbock, their laser-focused candidate. Her criticism of China, the Kremlin and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is music to Washington’s ears. Yet the party’s feisty base has had ferocious fights over defence spending and nuclear deterrence. Its reliability as a partner is by no means guaranteed.

Of course, elections are generally not fought, or won, on foreign policy. But German voters would do well to remember that their country’s wealth and power depends on the stability and security of its neighbourhood. Maybe it is time to pay attention, and get a little worried. Its neighbours and allies already are.

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