Blog: Brussels Playbook: All eyes on Strasbourg — Sanctions latest — Sefco Brexit warning – POLITICO Europe

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By SUZANNE LYNCH

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NEW OVERNIGHT: European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has urged the British government to “dial down the rhetoric” and “be honest about the deal they signed” amid expectations that the Boris Johnson government could renege on the Northern Ireland protocol part of the Brexit trade agreement. It follows a watershed election in Northern Ireland which saw the nationalist Sinn Féin party top the poll. The Democratic Unionist Party has signaled it won’t go into government unless the Northern Ireland element of the Brexit deal is renegotiated. More details below.

DRIVING THE DAY: EUROPE’S FUTURE    Share on Facebook  Share on Linkedin  Share on Handclap

HAPPY EUROPE DAY: After more than a year of listening sessions with citizens and endless debates about the future of the EU, it’s crunch time for the Conference on the Future of Europe. The final report will be presented today in Strasbourg to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country holds the six-month presidency of the Council of the EU.

RECAP:  The Conference on the Future of Europe was launched with much fanfare in March 2021 in the latest attempt to answer a question that has befuddled the EU since its inception: how to give citizens a say on how the EU should work. Over the last 12 months, “citizens panels” were convened across the EU, while policymakers regularly gathered for plenary sessions in Strasbourg. The final plenary session at the end of April agreed to 49 proposals  — on everything from climate change to migration —which will be officially presented today. 

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TROUBLE LOOMING: Playbook has learned that a group of EU countries is gathering support for a non-paper to be published later today, slamming the outcome of the year-long initiative, in particular the role of the European Parliament and proposals to change the EU treaties.  

Ten countries — Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Malta — have so far signed up, with others expected to come on board today. 

While we do not exclude any options at this stage, we do not support unconsidered and premature attempts to launch a process towards Treaty change,” the document states. “We already have a Europe that works. We do not need to rush into institutional reforms in order to deliver results.”

One EU diplomat involved with the process was even more damning about the process privately.  

“The purpose of the Conference was to engage citizens in a broad debate on the future of Europe. Unfortunately throughout the entire process, the European Parliament has instrumentalized the conference to pursue their institutional interests, for example having final say on the budget, the legislative right of initiative, the Spitzenkandidaten process,” the diplomat said. “We have not heard ordinary European citizens demand such institutional changes. They care about concrete political results.”

TWO EUROPES:  Today’s event is sure to kickstart a new phase of soul-searching about the long-term direction of the EU. Despite strong resistance in many EU capitals toward a convention on treaty change — “We could get stuck in this for years to come. It took almost a decade to get the Lisbon Treaty in place” one diplomat told Playbook — others counter that the Ukraine war has highlighted the need for more EU integration, for example in foreign policy and energy. In a significant intervention last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said he supported treaty change and wanted a reassessment of the unanimity rule, particularly on foreign policy.

MACRON’S MOMENT: But the real focus today will be on French President Emmanuel Macron, The Conference on the Future of Europe was the brainchild of the French leader and today’s speech in Strasbourg, which will focus on his vision for Europe as well as the war in Ukraine, will be his first big speech since his reelection. How the French leader intends to sell his vision of more Europe in a country where more than 40 percent of people vote for a Euroskeptic candidate, Marine Le Pen, for president remains to be seen.

NEXT STEPS: Technically, there are no binding rules compelling the EU to pass any of the proposals. The European Commission plans to host an event in about six months that will give an update to stakeholders.  So far there have only been vague commitments by the Council to give a “serious and careful examination” to the proposals. Expect the Parliament to react with fury if consideration of the proposals is not prioritized. 

PROCESS IN FOCUS: Despite calls from the Parliament for the democratic experiment to become a permanent fixture, the selection process and cost has already come under scrutiny. The ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) group walked out of the process last month, arguing that the chosen participants were inherently pro-European, and did not reflect the views of the average EU citizen. Citizens were also recompensed for participating. The low level of engagement in the online platform, which was a key part of the process given COVID restrictions, is also a major failing of the initiative. 

NOW READ THIS: POLITICO’s Maïa de La Baume has this deep dive on the Conference on the Future of Europe ahead of today’s closing event, including a visit to one of the citizens’ panel events in Warsaw this year. As she writes: “Now, the moment has arrived when EU leaders and officials will show whether they can actually follow through on pledges to take the recommendations seriously.”

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SANCTIONS LATEST    Share on Facebook  Share on Linkedin  Share on Handclap

NOT DONE YET:  The sun may have been shining this weekend in Brussels, but spare a thought for COREP II ambassadors and Commission officials who were locked in meetings trying to hammer out a deal on the sixth sanctions package. The upshot? It’s still not finalized. 

Where things stand: Talks between the bloc’s 27 countries broke up without a deal on Sunday afternoon, and officials in Brussels are now expected to draft a new compromise plan before the next COREP – most likely Tuesday. It follows a meeting between G7 leaders on sanctions on Sunday. Hungary, which along with Slovakia won concessions last week, is leading the charge against the Commission’s proposal.

Details: The most recent plans, circulated on Sunday and seen by POLITICO colleagues Jacopo Barigazzi and Leonie Kijewski, envisage giving Hungary and Slovakia until the end of 2024, and the Czech Republic until end of June of that year, before the oil embargo kicks in. But one EU diplomat said the compromise did not go far enough for Hungary, saying Budapest is pushing to be completely exempted from the oil ban. Hungary’s leader Viktor Orbán previously indicated his country needed five years at a minimum.

Not just oil: The planned oil embargo is not the only point of contention among EU countries. Other disagreements include whether EU vessels should be banned from transporting Russian oil, amid calls for some form of coordination at G7 level. The aim is to make sure the measures are effectively targeted against Russia and are watertight so that countries such as China or Turkey do not take advantage of a change in EU rules.

Bad optics:  While multiple officials insist that a deal will be done and the outstanding issues are technical, the bottom line is that the EU has been unable to agree to a plan that was unveiled in a much-publicized speech by von der Leyen in Strasbourg last Wednesday.

US moves on Gazprom:  As G7 leaders — as well as European Commission chief von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel — discussed further sanctions measures on Sunday, the U.S. announced it would sanction executives of Gazprombank for the first time (though it is not freezing assets or prohibiting transactions with the bank), among other measures. The EU has so far not disconnected the lender, a subsidiary of Gazprom, from the SWIFT international payments system. 

Russia parade: Meanwhile, Russia is gearing up for military parades across the country today to mark Victory Day — the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. The annual event is taking on new significance given the invasion of Ukraine, with the world awaiting what President Vladimir Putin has to say when he addresses troops in Red Square today. The speech is one reason why EU officials may hold off on their next sanction until Tuesday as they wait and see if Putin threatens any new escalation. 

Lessons from the past:  Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landsbergis, tells POLITICO that Victory Day, which celebrates Soviet victory over Nazism, was the beginning of “new enslavement, suffering and repressions,” for millions in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. 

“As Eastern Europeans observe Russian soldiers strutting in the Victory Day parade in the Red Square of Moscow today, they cannot but be reminded of millions of their peaceful compatriots who were raped, imprisoned, sent to concentration camps, tortured, massacred, deported, deprived of basic human rights and dignity by the brutal Soviet predecessor of the Russian Army which is out celebrating today,” Landsbergis said.

Pointing to parallels with what is happening in Ukraine today, he warns that Putinism could “destroy Europe once again.”

His warning is echoed by Nils Muižnieks, director of Amnesty International’s Europe Regional Office. “Moscow’s relentless crackdown on human rights presents a challenge to Europe’s entire human rights system,” he says in an op-ed for POLITICO.

Berlin’s message:  In his own address to mark Victory Day, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that Russia should not be able to set the terms of any peace deal that brings its invasion of Ukraine to an end, and pledged to continue sending heavy weaponry to Ukraine.

“I cannot tell you today when and how Russia’s cruel war against Ukraine will end,” Scholz said during a television address on Sunday. “But one thing is clear, there should not be a peace dictated by Russia. The Ukrainians will not accept that, and neither will we.” Joshua Posaner has more

Moldova fallout: The war raging just across the border in Ukraine is threatening to tear Moldova apart. The country sits in a precarious position: It’s mostly encircled by Ukraine and has a potential powder keg in the east: Transnistria, a breakaway region controlled by pro-Russian separatists with the help of around 1,500 Russian troops. As Russia threatens to expand its Ukraine war into the country, the traditionally neutral nation is turning West — not to everyone’s liking, writes Gabriel Gavin.

Latest from Ukraine: Dozens are feared dead after a school was bombed by Russia on Saturday in the Donbas region, the governor of Luhansk has said. Meanwhile, more than 600 people have now been evacuated from the southern cities of Azovstal and Mariupol in a weeklong rescue operation, with Ukrainian forces are still battling a fierce Russian assault on the Mariupol steel plant.

SEFCO WARNING     Share on Facebook  Share on Linkedin  Share on Handclap

BREXIT TROUBLE: European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič has urged the British government to “dial down the rhetoric” and “be honest about the deal they signed” amid expectations that the Boris Johnson government could renege on the Northern Ireland protocol following a watershed election in Northern Ireland. The Slovak commissioner told Playbook that the EU has “already shown a lot of flexibility by proposing impactful, durable solutions and we stand ready to continue discussions. We need the UK Government to dial down the rhetoric, be honest about the deal they signed and agree to find solutions within its framework.”

Insisting that the EU has “absolutely no interest in interfering in the UK’s internal affairs,” he said that the UK should show genuine determination and good faith to make the Protocol work, rather than looking for ways to erode it.”

Explainer: Sinn Féin, the party that was once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) has become the largest party in Northern Ireland for the first time following the election on Thursday — a fundamental shift in the political landscape of the region. 

The party, which supports the reunification of Ireland, won 27 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) coming in with 25. The moderate Alliance party performed strongly, winning 17 of the assembly’s 90 seats, up from eight in 2017.

Political unrest: The DUP has indicated that it may not nominate a deputy first minister — insisting that the Northern Ireland protocol that forms part of the Brexit deal must be changed, though many believe the real reason is that it won’t back a Sinn Féin first minister.  As POLITICO’s Shawn Pogatchnick reports from Belfast, the results have answered a key post-Brexit question: Most lawmakers at Stormont in Belfast want the trade protocol to stay, not go.

UK warning: But the British government has warned that the Northern Ireland protocol must be changed. Šefčovič’s intervention comes hours after Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said that changes to the protocol “cannot be put off.” “If not, we’ll have to take the measures to make sure that the economic integrity of the trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain and frankly the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is protected and preserved,” he said.

Next steps: Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis will meet with the party leaders today in a bid to break the deadlock. But with the queen’s speech, which sets out the government’s parliamentary agenda, due Tuesday in Westminster, the big question is whether British leader Boris Johnson will bring forward legislation dis-applying parts of the protocol in the coming days or weeks.

GERMAN ELECTION    Share on Facebook  Share on Linkedin  Share on Handclap

SCHOLZ’S SHELLACKING: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s SPD party is reeling from a crushing defeat in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Sunday’s vote saw Scholz’s party getting only 16 percent of the votes — about 11 percentage points less than five years ago, according to the projections. The SPD was even overtaken by the Greens, who came second at 18.3 percent, gaining about 5 points, according to public broadcaster NDR.  

CDU comeback: In contrast, the Christian Democrats, the party of former Chancellor Angela Merkel, which lost power following September’s federal election, got 43.4 percent of the votes in Schleswig-Holstein, according to NDR. That’s a gain of about 11 percentage points from the last state election in 2017. It means that incumbent CDU state premier Daniel Günther will be able to rule for another five years.

Big picture: The results set a worrying trend for Chancellor Scholz ahead of another even more important regional election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, next Sunday. Scholz has been accused at home and abroad of being too hesitant in his support for Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, and of having communicated poorly about the reasons for his reluctance.

Franco-German to-do list: With Macron heading for Berlin later today for his first foreign trip since reelection, Maïa de La Baume and Hans von der Burchard assess the priorities for the French-German relationship, because as ever with Europe, nothing much will change unless Paris and Berlin are pulling in the same direction.

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AGENDA    Share on Facebook  Share on Linkedin  Share on Handclap

Conference on the Future of Europe closing event, Strasbourg. Press conference by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and French President Emmanuel Macron, 2 p.m. Full program here

—Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni participates in the “9th May Conference” in Lisbon, Portugal. 

—Commissioner Johannes Hahn hosts the Global Europe Seminar in Strasbourg.

—Commissioner Margrethe Vestager speaks at Think Tank Europe event on Europe and the war in Ukraine, titled “Europe, what now?”

—Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen speaks at the spring seminar of the Confederation of Finnish Industries.

—Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica in Croatia; Commissioner Janez Lenarčič visits Slovenia; Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius in Norway; Commissioner Helena Dalli in Turin, Italy; Commissioner ​​Elisa Ferreira in Portugal.

—European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans participates in the Europadag Symposium in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

—Commissioner Didier Reynders participates in a roundtable on the future of European democracy

Klaus Regling, head of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) participates in Jornal de Negócios/Catolica University Europe Day seminar, 6.45 p.m. 

BRUSSELS CORNER    Share on Facebook  Share on Linkedin  Share on Handclap

EUROPE DAY:  Dust off your recording of “Ode to Joy,” channel your inner Guy Verhofstadt and wrap yourself in the nearest EU flag. It’s Europe Day — the annual event that celebrates the signing of the Schuman declaration, one of the founding documents of the EU. While most of the fun took place on Saturday when the institutions around Brussels opened their doors to the public, many EU agencies will close their doors today, so expect lots of out-of-office replies in your inboxes.

AMBASSADORS ON TOUR: As Playbook reported last week, COREP I ambassadors discovered the delights of Paris recently in a trip hosted by the French presidency. Members of the Political and Security Committee (PSC) have also been having some fun. Ambassadors were in the U.S. on a jolly (oops, work trip) last week, where they visited Washington and New York. Another example of the resurgent transatlantic relationship in action. 

IRISH EU: A new poll published today shows that support for Ireland remaining in the EU stands at 88 percent, as the country marks 50 years since it voted to join the then EEC. The European Movement Ireland poll, undertaken by Red C, found that 79 percent of people believe that EU membership has had a positive impact on their lives.

BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Terry Reintke, Tanja Fajon and Jutta Paulus; Former MEPs David Bull and Joachim Starbatty; Hungary’s President János Áder; European Commission’s Nathalie Pasquier; Tobias Gamper.

Celebrated over the weekend: MEP Chrysoula Zacharopoulou; Former MEPs Gabriele Zimmer and Stanisław Żółtek; European Commission’s Nathalie Vandystadt; European Parliament’s Olga Cosmidou; French economist Thomas Piketty; Euractiv’s Georgi Gotev; Helen Whitehead from the U.K.’s Department for International Trade; Former Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende; MEPs Carmen Avram, Massimiliano Smeriglio, Izabela-Helena Kloc and Tatjana Ždanoka; Grace Fenstermaker; Galina Timchenko, Russian journalist and POLITICO 28 alum; FoodDrinkEurope’s Bo Dohmen; Legendary British broadcaster David Attenborough; FleishmanHillard EU’s Jim Brunsden.

Thanks to Jacopo Barigazzi, Barbara Moens, editor Sanya Khetani-Shah and producer Grace Stranger.

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Suzanne Lynch

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