The Capitals brings you the latest news from across Europe, through on-the-ground reporting by EURACTIV’s media network. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
Before you start reading today’s edition of the Capitals, feel free to have a look at the “Europe risks losing strategic clout in Western Balkans” op-ed written by ten former ministers of foreign affairs and was exclusively published in Brussels by EURACTIV.com. Also, feel free to have a look at “Europeans ‘extremely concerned’ after nuclear watchdog confirms Iranian breach“.
Gas independence. Next year, Bulgaria will be able to say it has achieved gas independence, Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov said while inspecting the progress of the construction of the Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) on Monday (11 November).
Borissov added that the route would be completed ahead of schedule and Bulgaria would be able to supply LNG from the USA, Qatar, Cyprus, Egypt and Azerbaijan. At the moment, Bulgaria is entirely dependent on Russian gas.
With the gas link from the Bulgarian city of Stara Zagora to the Greek city of Komotini, the country will be able to take Azeri gas from the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), as well as from the Greek LNG terminal Revithoussa. Bulgaria has a contract to import 1 billion cubic meters of Azeri gas per year, which corresponds to roughly one-third of its needs.
Energy Minister Temenouzhka Petkova, the energy regulator’s Chairman Ivan Ivanov, US Ambassador Herro Mustafa, Greek Ambassador Dimitrios Chronopoulos and Azerbaijan’s Ambassador Nargis Gurbanova attended the inspection.
“After an extremely transparent procedure, Bulgaria took out a loan with a bank guarantee and is contributing 500 million leva (€250 million) to the project. Two Greek companies won the contracts for pipe supply and construction. This shows we are not just open and transparent. We have always said Bulgaria and Greece must share their resources – Greece should be able to use the Black Sea and the Danube and Bulgaria should be able to use the Aegean Sea.” Borissov insisted that IGB was key to the diversification of sources and routes for natural gas supply to Southeastern Europe. The project would guarantee Bulgaria’s energy security, which also means national security, according to the US ambassador.
(Krassen Nikolov, EURACTIV Bulgaria)
Meanwhile, the Sofia City Court has obliged the Sofia Municipality to create direct access to the system for providing information to the public on air quality in the capital in real-time, both on its website and Facebook page. Each month, the municipality is required to report the air quality of the past month, how often the streets have been washed, and, within two months, submit a plan for tree planting in 2020. These are just a part of the new interim measures the court has imposed on the municipality until the end of the case, which is being bought by citizens, as well as an NGO.
Greenlight for another two years: After Germany‘s grand coalition of conservatives (CDU/CSU) and and Social Democrats (SPD) had published their mid-term review last week, chances of the coalition ‘sticking’ together until the end of the legislative term in 2021 “have grown a lot”, according to finance minister Olaf Scholz (SPD). On Sunday, both parties finally agreed on a basic pension scheme, a topic which had driven a wedge between the two parties for months. The final decision on the continuation of the grand coalition would, however, have to be made at the SPD party conference in December, said Scholz, who is applying to become the SPD’s chair.
The basic pension is to ensure low-income earners, who have contributed to the pension fund for 35 years to receive 10% more than people who are working on a basic income. The new agreement, which will take effect in 2021, includes an income test rather than a means test, in which a person’s assets are examined. (Florence Schulz | EURACTIV.de)
French President Emmanuel Macron and EU Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen are scheduled to speak on Tuesday (12 November) morning at the Paris Peace Forum, which will focus on global governance, at a time when many EU countries have expressed their doubts about the French leader’s acerbic position on NATO. When it comes to geopolitics, the ‘Macron method’ is facing strong opposition within Europe itself.
BRUSSELS / THE HAGUE
Terrorist financing. Six individuals were arrested in Belgium and the Netherlands as part of an international investigation to counter-terrorist financing. According to the Dutch public prosecutor’s office, in 2013 and 2014, the individuals in question allegedly handed over money to fighters of the ISIS or to persons related to them in Turkey or Syria. Prosecutors suspect that more than €130,000 were withdrawn in cash and brought to Syria by the suspects, collected by a foundation for the purpose of “providing assistance to the victims of war”. The investigation followed the publication of a Dutch secret service report in 2018. (Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)
Farage retreats: The Brexit party will not contest the 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017, the party’s leader Nigel Farage has announced. The Brexit Party previously had plans to field candidates in over 600 seats but has retracted this intention following Boris Johnson’s supposed shift on Brexit. Farage has instead said that he will target Labour-held seats.
The Brexit Party leader said on Monday (11 October) that he had been encouraged by Johnson’s promises not to further extend the transition period beyond the current timeframe of December 2020, as well as the Prime Minister’s commitment to seek more divergence from EU rules post-Brexit.
For his part, Johnson welcomed the move, saying that it shows “there’s only one way to get Brexit done, and that’s to vote for the Conservatives.”
See also: UK backtracks on EU Commissioner
Spain’s far-right Vox party more than doubled its number of lawmakers in the country’s fourth national election in four years on Sunday (10 November), which resulted in a deeply fragmented parliament, setting the stage for very difficult government negotiations. Read more.
Merkel in Rome. Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a working dinner in Rome. “With Germany, we often share goals, sometimes not, but we must continue to work in the direction of weakening divisive forces in the EU,” said Conte. Both leaders also defended NATO as a pillar of international politics in a press conference.
Conte exchanged views with Merkel on the sudden withdrawal of the Franco-Indian steel producer ArcelorMittal from the deal to take over the steel plant Ilva in Taranto. Rome and Berlin agreed to share the most advanced solutions and knowledge in the steel sector, Conte said. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)
16 deals with China. “In Athens, as in Shanghai, we find that our relations are warmer than ever. Confidence is a given,” Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Monday (11 November), during joint statements with the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping in Athens. 16 agreements are expected to be signed during the visit, the expansion of Cosco’s investments in the Piraeus port as well as the opening of Chinese banks.
“China and Greece are partners for the establishment of one belt, one road. This initiative must be strengthened by the further development of your country. We look forward to implementing partnerships in many areas and we want to strengthen Piraeus’s role in transit and further enhance the transport capacity of the China-Europe land-to-sea express line,” Jinping said.
US State Secretary Mike Pompeo warned several Balkans countries last month about the risks of Chinese investment in sensitive technologies and called on leaders to take the “right decisions”. He also said that Beijing might offer bribes to obtain some infrastructure deals in the Balkans.
New Polish government. On Friday (8 November), PM Mateusz Morawiecki announced the names of the ministers in his new cabinet, in which he picked just three women. PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński said the new government would work to counter threats such as a global recession.
A new climate ministry will be set up, meaning that the environment ministry will no longer be dealing with issues related to clean air and climatet protection. EU affairs Minister Konrad Szymański will continue his mandate, however, not within the Foreign Ministry but as a minister heading the European department at the PM’s Chancellery. The move was criticised by the former PiS FM and currently MEP Witold Waszczykowski (ECR), who wondered “which minister will now represent us in Europe?” (Karolina Zbytniewska | EURACTIV.pl)
BRATISLAVA | PRAGUE
Rule of law conditionality of EU funds. “From a political perspective, this proposal is something that Slovakia can count on, as well as support,” the Slovak ambassador to the EU Peter Javorčík was quoted as saying by TASR. He also added that Hungary and Poland are raising more issues regarding the proposal but have not blocked it so far. “Up to now we are not talking about sanctions. I understand this proposal has a preventative character, aimed to guarantee that the country respects the principles of the rule of law, with which Slovakia has no issue, of course,” Javorčík explained.
Some EU leaders do not talk to each other. Czech and Slovak PMs met on Monday (11 November) in the Czech Republic to discuss bilateral cooperation but also their visions of the EU’s future. “The European Council should work as a coalition government of Europe, we should meet more often and discuss not only issues set up by officials,” said Czech PM Andrej Babiš. “The European Council should be a debate, not a series of statements […] It is not my idea, Chancellor Merkel suggested it behind the scenes at a summit in Sibiu,” Babiš said, adding that unlike the V4 who speak with one voice, “some European leaders do not talk to each other”.
Slovak PM Peter Pellegrini agreed with Babiš that the EU should discuss how to make itself more efficient and to “be able to play the role of global leader that is currently not a case in many areas”. He also appreciated Babiš’s initiative to prepare common Visegrad’s suggestions for a debate on the EU’s future.
Speaking about NATO and Turkey’s activities in Northern Syria, Slovak PM Peter Pellegrini said: “We are witnessing crises of international organisations […] A NATO member state is publicly blackmailing us. NATO has to learn how to deal with such issues in the future.”
Jobbik would like to enter EPP. Márton Gyöngyösi, the only MEP from the far-right party Jobbik, said that the results of the local elections show that Jobbik has concluded the process of becoming a people’s party meaning that even leftist voters would vote in its favour if this meant defeating Orbán’s Fidesz party. Gyöngyösi said that if Fidesz, which is already being isolated within the European People’s Party, leaves the European group, then Jobbik would like to join. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Preparations for the second round. President Klaus Iohannis (EPP) will face ex-PM Viorica Dancila (S&D) in the second round of the presidential elections. Dancila invited Iohannis to two electoral debates, but the president said he would prefer meeting the voters instead. Iohannis got 37.5% of the votes in the first round, while Dancila obtained 22.7%. Dan Barna, the candidate of the USR-PLUS Alliance (RE), came third with 14.7%. Barna and the co-leader of the alliance Dacian Ciolos (head of Renew group in the EU Parliament) urged their voters to vote for Iohannis in the second round. (EURACTIV.ro)
Levica boosted after leaving the government. In the case of early elections, 11.2% of voters would vote for Levica (radical left) according to a survey conducted by daily Delo. The increase comes following Levica’s decision to pull out from the government and become a “real opposition”. Leading party with 15,4% is still LMŠ (RE) led by PM Marjan Šarec, while for the first time the biggest opposition party SDS (EPP) follows closely with 15.2%. Social Democrats (SD) held a congress during the weekend and called Šarec to convene a meeting of the coalition partners. SD is the biggest advocate for the continuation of an agreement with Levica and only obtained 6% of the votes.
Fixed telephone lines are not secure. The Parliamentary Committees for the Control of Intelligence and Security Services concluded that the Slovenian diplomat, Simona Drenik, was to be blamed for the interception of her conversation with a former Slovenian judge during the arbitrage process at the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the border with Croatia by Croatian intelligence. “Every schoolgirl who saw any of James Bond movies knows that it is not safe to communicate on fixed lines,” said Minister of Defence Karl Erjavec. Simona Drenik said she did not break secrecy rules and attacked the committee for politicising the process. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Brexit and MFF talks. Speaking at the InvestEU conference organised by EURACTIV Croatia’s partner Jutarnji list, Finance Minister Zdravko Marić said it would be good for the talks about the next MFF to be concluded during Croatia’s EU Presidency. “Even if this does not happen, talks are expected to be completed soon so that the implementation of the programme could start in early 2021,” he added.
Gert Jan Koopman, director-general of the European Commission’s Budget Department, said Brexit would be a big loss for reaching the final agreement on the MFF and explained that the EU executive wants to ensure that cohesion policy remains a powerful instrument, but Croatia and other member states, will have to rely more on investment instruments such as InvestEU. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Mini Schengen – part II. President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić has said that the proposal of a “Mini Schengen” with North Macedonia and Albania has been the best idea in the Balkan region in the past 30 years. For North Macedonia PM Zoran Zaev, the cooperation among Western Balkan countries shows that the EU needs to pay more attention to the region. (EURACTIV.rs)
260 citizens in camps in Syria. BiH will allow all its citizens who are currently in camps in Syria and affiliated with the terrorist organisation Islamic State (IS) to return. The perpetrators of terrorist offences will have to deal with investigation and indictments, BiH Security Minister Dragan Mektić said. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Daniel Eck]