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Brussels faces fishing backlash as Brexit talks drag on

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Brussels faces accusations of accepting “vicious and unprecedented cuts” to EU fishing rights, after tabling an improved offer to the UK in a bid to overcome the last big stumbling block in talks over the two sides’ future relationship.

Brexit negotiations continued in Brussels on Saturday with EU fishing rights in UK waters the central issue still to be resolved.

With less than two weeks until Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union, with or without a deal, negotiators are under intense pressure to wrap up talks on a “comprehensive partnership agreement” in time for any accord to be ratified before the end of the year.

But on Saturday afternoon representatives of the European fishing sector said the EU was going too far in its efforts to secure an agreement.

The European Fisheries Alliance, a group representing fleets from coastal nations such as Belgian, France, and the Netherlands, said: “The shape of a deal, as [it] currently stands would give a huge blow to the European seafood sector.”

“In spite of repeated promises made, we are in the throes of being sold down the river with the offer made to the United Kingdom by the European Commission,” said Gerard van Balsfoort, the organisation’s chairman.


€650m


Annual value of EU fishing rights in UK waters

National capitals have long suspected that the future-relationship talks — which cover everything from trade to security — would end with bargaining over fish: an issue on which the UK government is determined to show clear gains from Brexit, and one that is a matter of high political sensitivity for coastal nations. 

People involved in the talks said that, in a bid to break the impasse, the EU had made an improved offer on how much of its existing fishing rights in UK waters — worth €650m per year — it was prepared to sacrifice.

Whereas the EU indicated at the end of last month that it could accept losing 15 to 18 per cent of its quota rights, that offer has now risen to 25 per cent, according to people briefed on the talks. 

This quota cut would be linked to a post-Brexit fishing transition period, during which EU boats would be assured of access to UK waters. Brussels now accepts that this transition could last six years — having previously insisted on eight. 

The proposal is still far removed from UK negotiating objectives — with Britain as recently as last month seeking an 80 per cent cut in EU fishing rights in UK waters.

The European fishing sector has warned of devastation to coastal communities if Brussels does not hold a tough line. 

“We are looking at vicious and unprecedented cuts on a wide range of stocks including our pelagic, shellfish and whitefish sectors,” Mr van Balsfoort said. He added that the situation was worsened by the fact that “fisheries negotiations with the UK are intended to start all over again after only six or seven years,” when the transitional period would end.

Brussels is also under intense pressure from EU leaders, notably French president Emmanuel Macron, not to give more ground.

Mr Macron has repeatedly said the UK cannot expect tariff-free access to the EU market while expelling boats from its fishing waters. 

EU diplomats said that national governments were concerned that some countries could be treated more favourably than others in the bargaining over exactly which fishing rights, for which species, would face the steepest cuts, straining unity at a crunch moment in the talks. 

People involved in the talks cautioned that other parts of the fisheries negotiation remained unresolved: notably the rights of EU boats to fish close to the British coast.



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What unites and divides Germany’s potential coalition partners

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Guten Morgen and welcome to Europe Express.

Germany’s election season is kicking into gear and both Angela Merkel’s centre-right CDU/CSU and the up-and-coming Greens have published their election manifestos. With polls indicating the two parties could end up bedfellows in the first post-Merkel government, we compare their Europe-related policies.

The Uefa Euro 2020 football championship is in full swing and gripping fans across the continent. But we explore a darker reality that has spilled out in stadiums and pitches: culture wars.

In Luxembourg, EU affairs ministers meet today to prepare for a summit, hear the latest on EU-Swiss relations and discuss the rule of law in Hungary and Poland.

This article is an on-site version of our Europe Express newsletter. Sign up here to get the newsletter sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning

Berlin calling

Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, have laid out their joint election manifesto after the Greens published theirs in past weeks. It is well worth looking at what unites and divides the potential government allies in the post-Merkel era.

In brief, the CDU/CSU wants to return to how things were before the coronavirus pandemic, especially on fiscal rules and the sacrosanct schwarze Null (a balanced budget). They seem lukewarm on disruptive digital and green policies and made a libertarian push for a retreat of the state from many areas of society under the motto: “throwing money at problems isn’t always the best way to solve them”.

Meanwhile, the Greens have put forward a transformational plan. Their ambition is to turn Germany into a carbon-neutral economy in the next 20 years. Here are three areas to watch closely:

Debt and spending 

  • The CDU/CSU have insisted that once the pandemic is over, so should be any relaxation of fiscal rules. They support the EU’s unprecedented, mutual-debt-fuelled €800bn recovery plan, but say it should be a one-off. They oppose consistent debt mutualisation across the bloc. (Here is Armin Laschet’s take in an interview with the FT)

  • The Greens are less dogmatic about what other EU nations should do in terms of borrowing. They even suggest a relaxation of Germany’s debt brake to allow public investment in schools and infrastructure, to be financed with more debt. 

Climate goals

  • The CDU/CSU have embraced the goal of CO2 neutrality by 2045 and a 65 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2030. But there are caveats for some industries and climate activists have pointed to inconsistencies and omissions in the conservative parties’ manifesto — notably their vague commitments on a “stable, fair and transparent” price for carbon.

  • The Greens are seeking to raise the carbon price to up to €60 per tonne in 2023, along with subsidies and incentives to cushion the social impact of a greener economy. 

Europe and foreign policy

  • The CDU/CSU were more dovish on China and Russia and they failed to mention the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The Greens were more hawkish and maintained their opposition to the pipeline for environmental and geopolitical reasons (they worry about circumventing Ukraine, depriving it of transit revenues, and increasing energy dependence on Russia).

  • Both the CDU/CSU and the Greens favour majority voting in EU foreign policy, replacing the current model of unanimity. The Greens would also abolish the need for unanimous EU decision-making on taxation.

The September 26 election result will determine how much of these manifestos get translated into actual policy — and how much one or both political groups will have to compromise.

Chart du jour: Europe’s Covid bill

Bar chart of Government debt as GDP (%) showing National debt in Eurozone countries spiked in 2020

Public debt in the eurozone rose 14.1 per cent in 2020 compared with the previous year, the biggest leap in two decades, driven by the pandemic. Greece and Spain have recorded the biggest single increase in debt loads, while Ireland only recorded a marginal increase.

Beautiful game, uglier realities

International football’s biennial jamborees usually offer a few weeks of summer escapism for avid fans and newbies alike, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.

But this year’s European championships have become an extension of the psychodramas and culture wars that dominate political life on the continent.

The list of controversies runs long (and we are only 11 days in). Last month, France’s far-right kicked off a movement to boycott Les Bleus over a rap song. In England, the national team has defied criticism in the tabloid press by continuing to take the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, despite jeering from some of their own fans. 

Further east, Ukraine’s football association was ordered by governing body Uefa to partly modify its kit design. Russia had complained that the jersey included a map of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

Greece has also complained to Uefa about neighbouring North Macedonia using the acronym “MKD”. The Greeks (who didn’t qualify for the tournament) say the abbreviation violates the terms of the 2018 agreement under which Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia.

The latest conflagration came this weekend, when German captain and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer became the subject of an investigation by Uefa for wearing a rainbow armband in support of LGBT+ rights. News of the probe prompted senior EU officials to express support for the player.

The inquiry has since been dropped by the governing body, which concluded that the armband did not constitute a breach of its rules prohibiting the display of “political symbols”. 

Neuer’s Germany faces off tomorrow against Hungary, where LGBT+ rights have come under political assault from Viktor Orban’s ultranationalist government. Munich’s Allianz arena is preparing to welcome the visitors by lighting up the stadium in rainbow colours.

Separately, Uefa on Sunday said it was investigating “potential discriminatory incidents” during Hungary’s two opening matches in Budapest, where TV images captured homophobic banners among the 55,000-strong crowd. Monkey chants were also reportedly directed at French players on Saturday. 

Brussels risks getting ensnared in the politicisation of the world’s most popular game. EU diplomats have told Europe Express that the incoming Slovenian presidency, led by rightwing prime minister Janez Jansa, wants leaders to sign off on summit conclusions this week on the governance of sport. 

Under the banner of the European Way of Life, Jansa is pushing for leaders to agree language “reaffirming the uniqueness of the organisation of sport in Europe”. The request has baffled diplomats, particularly as the EU has little legal authority over sport.

Slovenian diplomats said the push was needed to prevent schisms such as the scuppered European Super League that rocked world football earlier this year. Jansa also has a long-running grudge against his compatriot and president of Uefa Aleksander Ceferin, often taking to Twitter to send pointed jibes at football’s governing chief.

Between all the spats and controversies, viewers could be forgiven for forgetting that some football is also going on.

In the dock

Poland and Hungary will be in the spotlight during ministerial meetings in Luxembourg today as member state ministers discuss Article 7 procedures against the two countries, writes Sam Fleming in Brussels.

These procedures allow the European Commission, European parliament or member states to take action against countries for serious breaches of the rule of law under threat of punishments such as the suspension of EU voting rights.

The commission triggered the process against Poland in 2017, while the parliament launched it against Hungary the following year.

In Poland, incursions into judicial independence have continued, as have apparent threats to the primacy of EU law. In Hungary, there are mounting concerns about the judiciary, anti-corruption frameworks, media pluralism and human rights. Last week, Hungary passed an anti-LGBT+ law that sparked criticism from rights groups. The commission said it would look into whether the legislation breached EU laws.

Nevertheless, the two countries can shield each other from punishments under the Article 7 regime by wielding their vetoes. The question ahead is whether the commission can obtain better results by deploying powers agreed last year to withhold EU funds over breaches of vital principles.

Commission vice-president Vera Jourova is due to address the ministers in the General Affairs Council, setting out the state of play in both countries.

“The last hearing on Poland took place in December 2018 and on Hungary in December 2019, and many things happened since then,” she told Europe Express. “Unfortunately most of them continued to raise our concerns.”

What to watch today

  1. EU affairs ministers meet in Luxembourg

  2. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel receives European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in Berlin

Notable, Quotable

  • United front: French politicians from left to right have persuaded a Green candidate to withdraw from the second round of regional elections on Sunday. The move is aimed at ensuring that Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National does not take control of the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.

  • Belarus sanctions: EU foreign ministers approved sanctions against a further 86 individuals and organisations in Belarus and set their sights on industries including finance, potash and petroleum products to put pressure on President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime.

  • Government collapse: In a first for Sweden, the country’s prime minister Stefan Lofven has lost a no-confidence vote in his government. The vote, engineered by rightwing opposition party Sweden Democrats, means Lofven has a week to call an election or build a new ruling coalition.

  • German tech offensive: Germany’s Federal Cartel Office added Apple to the Big Tech companies in its crosshairs, launching a probe into whether the iPhone maker has established market dominance through its “digital ecosystem”.

  • St Schuman: “Founding father” of the EU Robert Schuman may soon become a saint. The former French prime minister was given the title of “venerable” in a decree by Pope Francis over the weekend, which is one of the steps that could lead to sainthood.

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Today’s Europe Express team: sam.fleming@ft.com, mehreen.khan@ft.com, david.hindley@ft.com, valentina.pop@ft.com. Follow us on Twitter: @Sam1Fleming, @MehreenKhn, @valentinapop.





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German conservatives pledge tax cuts and stability to voters

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German chancellor Angela Merkel’s party has promised a “decade of modernisation” in an election manifesto that pledges tax relief and a quick return to balanced budgets after the massive spending splurge during the Covid-19 crisis.

“Our offer is to combine consistency in fighting climate change with economic strength and social stability,” Armin Laschet, leader of the Christian Democratic Union, said. “We will turn Germany into a carbon-neutral industrial state that safeguards jobs.”

The CDU, and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, are currently leading the polls some 100 days ahead of federal elections that will bring the curtain down on Merkel’s 16 years as chancellor and could usher in the first conservative-Green coalition in Germany’s history.

The manifesto offers a series of tax reliefs, although it is vague on how they will be funded. It foresees a 25 per cent cap on corporate taxes, currently around 30 per cent, and pledges to abolish the “solidarity surcharge”, introduced in 1991 to help pay for German reunification, for the 10 per cent of taxpayers who still pay it.

It also promises income tax relief for people on low and middle incomes, while saying the CDU wants a return to balanced budgets “as soon as possible” and to bring Germany into compliance with the Maastricht treaty by bringing its debt-to-gross domestic product ratio below 60 per cent. The party rejected any attempt to remove the “debt brake”, a limit on budget deficits anchored in the German constitution.

Yet the manifesto fails to explain how a future CDU government would finance the promised tax relief without raising taxes elsewhere, or making spending cuts. The government is already taking on a record €240bn of debt this year with another €100bn forecast for 2022, partly to pay for the aid disbursed to businesses during the pandemic.

Arguing against tax rises, Laschet said the government had injected liquidity into German companies and “it would be completely crazy to take that out again, just when we want small and medium-sized enterprises and family-run businesses to start investing again”.

He also said Germany’s pre-coronavirus experience showed you can increase revenues without raising tax rates. “Because we had economic growth, a lot of people were in employment and paying into the system.”

Instead, he argued the focus should be to remove red tape and expand access to fast broadband services. In the past 25 years, “Amazon, Google and Tesla turned into tech giants while we played bureaucratic ping-pong”, he said.

Laschet presented his party’s 140-page manifesto alongside Markus Söder, the CSU leader and prime minister of Bavaria. It was their first joint appearance before the press since Laschet prevailed in a bitter contest between them over who should run as the CDU/CSU candidate for chancellor.

While pledging to implement the government’s existing goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045, they face a strong challenge from the Greens, who enjoyed a stunning surge in popularity after naming 40-year-old Annalena Baerbock as their candidate for chancellor. A series of slip-ups have recently knocked the Greens off their perch.

“The Greens’ aura of invincibility is over,” said Söder. “The Germans won’t entrust the chancellery to the Greens — they have a lot of ideas but absolutely no experience.”



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Marine Le Pen falls short in French regional vote

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Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party fell short of expectations in the first round of France’s regional elections on Sunday, leaving the Les Républicains party and other centre-right politicians in a strong position for the second and final set of ballots next weekend. 

The relatively poor results for the anti-immigration RN — in a record low turnout of about 33 per cent — will also provide some comfort for Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to face Le Pen when he seeks re-election as president next year. 

Le Pen described the low turnout as a “civic disaster” that gave a false impression of the political situation. “If you want things to change, you must vote,” she said in a short speech as the results began to emerge.

Xavier Bertrand, the centre-right leader of the Hauts-de-France region in the north, was on course for re-election and received a boost to his own presidential ambitions, with early estimates from BFMTV after polls closed giving him 44 per cent of the vote, against 24.4 per cent for Le Pen’s RN. 

Recalling that the RN had been ahead in the region after the first round in 2015, Bertrand boasted in a speech of “breaking the jaws” of his far-right rivals in this year’s electoral battle. Le Pen had campaigned in the north and hoped to flip the region to her party in Sunday’s vote. 

Xavier Bertrand after casting his ballot © AFP via Getty Images

Early estimates suggested that Le Pen’s party might be within reach of a first-round lead in Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur in the south. But even there the performance was less impressive than predicted by opinion polls, which had suggested the RN would take control of the region after the second round in the first such victory in its history. 

That now looks less easy to achieve for the RN, since other parties have in the past tended to unite in a so-called “republican front” in second-round votes to keep the extreme right from power.

Nationwide, centre-right lists were forecast to receive about 29 per cent of the votes cast in the first round, against 19 per cent for the RN, 16 per cent for the Socialist party, 13 per cent for the Greens and 11 per cent for Macron’s centrist La République en Marche party. 

Incumbent parties performed well, with LR politicians in the lead in the Grand Est region in the east, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes in the south-east and Ile-de-France around Paris. The Socialists expected to hold Occitanie and Brittany in the west.

Gérald Darmanin, interior minister, said the record low turnout was “particularly worrying”, adding: “Our collective effort must be to mobilise the French for the second round.” 

The low turnout did not fulfil the fears of Macron’s ally François Bayrou by benefiting the extreme right or the extreme left, and may have been the result of voter weariness with politics and a desire to enjoy themselves after more than a year of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“The French have their minds on other things completely,” Brice Teinturier of polling group Ipsos told a webinar last week. “We are coming out of the pandemic . . . and the outlook for the economy is getting much better.”



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