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Fish stuck in Brexit net as clock ticks towards midnight deadline



The fate of Britain and the EU’s future trading relationship hinged on several hundred million euros of fishing rights on Sunday evening, as both sides continued to seek a breakthrough that would unlock the path to an overall post-Brexit deal.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said on Twitter that he and his UK opposite number David Frost were continuing to “work hard” for a deal, with talks at a “crucial moment”. “The EU remains committed to a fair, reciprocal and balanced agreement,” he said. “We respect the sovereignty of the UK. And we expect the same.”

Meanwhile, allies of UK prime minister Boris Johnson raised the prospect of talks continuing through next week, pushing any parliamentary vote on a trade deal back into the period between Christmas and January 1, when Britain’s Brexit transition period expires.

“The process is ongoing and feels like it has a bit of distance still to run,” said one aide to Mr Johnson. “We have time left to resolve this one way or another — what’s absolutely certain is we won’t sign an unbalanced deal. If this isn’t settled by January 1, that’s it. No negotiation next year.”

People involved in the talks said the question of EU fishing rights in UK waters was the biggest remaining sticking point, although there were also outstanding issues relating to fair competition between EU and UK companies, notably in the area of state aid. UK aides insisted the deadlock was not only being caused by fish.

Both sides are aware that time is growing short for any agreement to be ratified in time for January 1 — when Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union. 

People briefed on the talks said on Sunday that the situation was “fluid” with Mr Frost and Mr Barnier holding a meeting during the afternoon. The EU negotiating team was also in close contact with fishing nations, assessing the limits of how far it could go in the talks.

Both sides were “considering their positions” said one official.

Negotiators were up against a Sunday deadline set by the European Parliament, which has refused to guarantee it will ratify any agreement that arrives after midnight.

Mr Johnson is also under pressure to agree a deal swiftly to give Britain’s parliament time to fully scrutinise a text which will define the UK’s relations with its closest trading partner for decades to come.

The two sides have been discussing an EU offer on fish to sacrifice 25 per cent of its €650m of fishing rights in UK waters. The cut would be linked to a transition period of six years during which EU fishing fleets would be assured of their right to enter UK waters.

Mr Barnier has argued that, after the transition period, a mechanism would need to be put in place that would allow the EU to hit UK products, notably fish, with tariffs if Britain closed off its waters to EU boats.

The UK has been demanding a greater share of the stocks and a shorter transition.

But in a sign of how sensitive the issue is for both sides, the 25 per cent offer from Brussels has prompted outrage from the EU fishing sector, with the European Fisheries Alliance warning of “a huge blow” to the industry.

The UK and EU negotiators were also still trying to resolve disagreements relating to fair competition rules for companies. One person briefed on the talks said the outstanding issues were mainly around state aid and that they were “still difficult but not insurmountable”.

Mr Barnier pushed his case in his tweets that the EU was seeking a relationship of equals with the UK, saying that both sides “must have the right to set their own laws and control their own waters”.

“We should both be able to act when our interests are at stake,” he said. 

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What unites and divides Germany’s potential coalition partners




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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German conservatives pledge tax cuts and stability to voters




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




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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