Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.
US president Joe Biden is heading to Europe today with the Northern Ireland peace process figuring prominently on his agenda, so there may be scope for a brief ceasefire in EU-UK diplomatic hostilities. Still, EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic has his work cut out when he meets his British counterpart Lord David Frost in London. We will look at the pitfalls and what — if any — grounds there are for optimism.
Meanwhile, dozens of environmental and consumer organisations that helped Brussels design rules for green finance have turned against the European Commission. We will unpack the reasons behind their U-turn and what it spells for the future of the so-called taxonomy.
And we will hear from Russia, where the non-governmental organisations founded by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny are about to be blacklisted, on par with international terrorist organisations.
But before we get into that, a quick update on Germany’s seismic verdict from last year, when the constitutional court in Karlsruhe challenged the supremacy of EU’s top court in a ruling on the legality of the European Central Bank’s bond-buying program that started in 2014.
The commission is opening legal proceedings against Germany over that verdict — in part because failing to do so would fuel arguments by Poland and Hungary about alleged double standards when it comes to the application of EU law, an EU official familiar with the matter said.
Maros Sefcovic has a bracing 8am start this morning for crunch Brexit talks with his UK counterpart David Frost as the EU and Britain square up to air their differences on the Northern Ireland protocol, fish and myriad other disagreements, writes Jim Brunsden in Brussels.
The atmosphere ahead of the London meeting has not been heartening, even by Brexit standards. Following a call with Boris Johnson yesterday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned of her “deep concern” about the state of Britain’s efforts to apply the agreements it has signed with the EU.
She said that the two leaders would hold further talks on the margins of this week’s G7 meeting in Cornwall.
In the meantime, the ball is with Sefcovic and Frost. As usual in EU-UK encounters, the London talks take place against a ticking clock, with EU rules banning imports of British sausages and other chilled meats into Northern Ireland set to take effect next month unless exemptions are extended.
It says a lot about the state of EU relations that the commission briefed diplomats at the start of the week that Britain might soft-pedal on Brexit disagreements while Joe Biden is in town only to, as one diplomat put it, “go full throttle” once the US president is back aboard Air Force One.
Sefcovic warned that the EU was ready to retaliate if Britain does not start living up to basic obligations under the protocol, such as properly staffing checkpoints for goods entering the region, or blindsides Brussels with unilateral delays. Frost is going into the talks arguing that the EU should be prepared to show more flexibility with the rules — as he wrote in this op-ed for the FT.
It is worth remembering that Northern Ireland is not the only flashpoint in the tetchy relationship.
Today’s agenda also includes talks on the vexed question of fishing rights around Jersey, where the window is also closing, with the end of temporary waivers on requirements for French boats.
Meanwhile, Britain will push the EU to rapidly confirm its participation in programmes such as the “Horizon Europe” science and research funding.
Hopes for breakthroughs, especially on Northern Ireland, have been damped in recent days. But beneath the political bluster, a lot of detailed work is proceeding on both sides to look for solutions.
The commission shared four informal papers with EU diplomats at a lengthy meeting on Monday covering irritants that have emerged with the protocol such as VAT on second-hand cars, charges on steel imports, barriers to imports of British-made medicines and veterinary checks.
There has also been renewed thinking on the UK side: a proposal landed in Brussels last week for a possible agreement on food safety standards along with another paper on customs checks.
The golden rule of Brexit: while they are still talking, there is hope.
A majority of citizens in Germany, France and Italy have lost faith in the EU during the pandemic, according to a recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations. But the upshot is that while many citizens across the bloc think the EU is “broken”, most believed the European project is still a “good thing” and want member states to work more closely together.
The EU’s long-running saga on how to design rules for green finance is far from over, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.
Known as the “taxonomy on sustainable finance”, the European Commission’s laudable attempt to stamp out greenwashing in the financial sector has run into a litany of political problems. (Here is a refresher for those catching up.)
In the latest twist, a group of 90 environmental and consumer organisations that helped Brussels design the taxonomy have called on MEPs to stall its approval. The activists and NGOs have turned against the commission, accusing the draft text of giving carte blanche to activities such as forestry, which they argued does more harm than good to the environment.
In a letter seen by Europe Express, the organisations call on the European parliament to sit on their hands and delay approving the taxonomy text until crucial details such as how to treat activities relating to gas and nuclear power are settled.
But the NGOs, which include Greenpeace and consumer rights organisation BEUC, are fighting a rearguard action. The taxonomy draft is unlikely to meet resistance from a majority of MEPs, with the greens and socialists expected to back it. A majority of member states are also behind the text.
But even if it is approved, fiercer fights over the future of the taxonomy have only be deferred. Brussels still has to devise rules on how to treat contentious issues including gas power under the system. The proposals aren’t due until autumn, when MEPs, member states and NGOs will go at it again.
Organisations founded by jailed Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny will appear in court today facing charges of extremism that would put them on a par with Isis and al-Qaeda, writes Henry Foy in Moscow.
Decried by rights campaigners as a show trial aimed at criminalising opposition to President Vladimir Putin, an expected ruling against Navalny’s groups would mean all of his supporters, donors and employees could be subject to criminal prosecution.
Last Friday, on Navalny’s 45th birthday, Putin signed into force a law that makes it illegal for members or supporters of “extremist” organisations to participate in Russian elections.
Navalny, who survived a near-fatal nerve agent attack last year, was detained in January after returning to Russia after medical treatment in Germany, and subsequently sentenced to at least two and a half years in jail.
Since then, prosecutors have targeted his Anti-Corruption Foundation and have taken steps to prevent his supporters from taking part in September’s parliamentary elections.
Russian prosecutors say Navalny’s groups have “created conditions for destabilising the social and sociopolitical situation under the guise of their liberal slogans”. In response to judicial pressure, Navalny’s team have closed down his regional network of activists. But it has said local campaigners would continue to operate and vowed to keep campaigning against Putin regardless of the court’s verdict today.
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