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 with today’s edition of the Capitals, make sure you read the article of our defence reporter, Alexandra Brzozowski, who is in London reporting directly from the NATO summit that opens on Tuesday. Also, feel free to read Beatriz Rios’ story on how women are doing in European politics.
Is Germany heading towards new elections? Members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have elected the new party leaders: two widely unknown politicians who are openly critical of the grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives. Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans won the party vote with 53.06%, beating the pro-Merkel duo formed by Federal Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Brandenburg’s state politician Klara Geywitz, who obtained 45.33%. Delegates will now decide at the party’s annual convention on 6-8 December whether or not the SPD will continue the grand coalition.
This means the door has now opened to political change in Germany. Europe’s biggest country is looking at months of political uncertainty, just before it is scheduled to take over the EU presidency in July 2020, where it is expected to wrap up, among other things, the Multi-Annual-Financial Framework (MFF).
67-year old Norbert Walter-Borjans and 58-year old Saskia Esken, who belong to the SPD’s left-wing, have made no secret in their campaign that they do not want the grand coalition, commonly known as ‘GroKo’ in Germany, to continue as it is. Esken told public broadcaster Phoenix that the party convention next weekend will decide on the continuation of the coalition with the conservative union, CDU/CSU. Delegates will have to decide what the new priorities will be, a move that could lead to the questioning of the grand coalition.
In his victory speech on Saturday evening (30 November), Walter-Borjans called on Chancellor Merkel to review her balanced-budget policy and ramp up investment on tackling climate change. And, if Merkel wants the new duo to support the GroKo, she should review the ways the government supports society’s most vulnerable.
The two new leaders are convinced that the SPD finds itself in a never-before-seen political downfall because it has moved too far into the political centre and thus lost its original political identity and values. The duo intends to take the party back to its social-democratic roots and spark a new political start by introducing a radical change of direction.
Their election duped the entire political elite, which had, during the campaign, clearly spoken out in favour of the other candidate couple, Scholz and Geywitz, who unmistakably called for the continuation of the grand coalition until the end of the mandate in 2021. “I admit that I had narrowly predicted the opposite outcome,” MEP Katarina Barley told the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The Vice-President of the European Parliament described the vote as a “very big, courageous democratic step” with which the party is entering new territory.
CDU and CSU politicians called on the new SPD leaders to abide by the coalition treaty. CDU Secretary-General Paul Ziemiak said it was crucial to continue: “There is a basis for this and that is the coalition agreement that was concluded between the SPD and the Union, and nothing has changed about that.
The German Federation of Unions (DGB) also urged the SPD to remain in the GroKo. DGB leader Reiner Hoffmann told the newspaper “Bild am Sonntag”: “Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans should do their utmost to support the government in the second half in order to successfully implement the projects still left in the coalition agreement.
Die Linke (The Left), on the other hand, called on the SPD to consider new alliances. “Our country needs a socio-economic turnaround, and that can only be achieved with majorities to the left of the Union,” party leader Katja Kipping said. “This requires both a lively SPD and a strong left. (Claire Stam | EURACTIV.de)
Is France going to be paralysed? The leader of Emmanuel Macron’s LREM party, Stanislas Guerini, denounced on Sunday (1 December) the will of protesters to “gather all the anger” and stage a transport strike, as it may grind the country to a halt from Thursday (5 December) on. The government was meeting on Sunday afternoon, trying to work out ways to have the pension reform accepted. Macron is said to be very committed to showing he can reform France, but the government has already announced that reforms could be delayed.
The main issue is the 42 “specific pensions” schemes, which, according to budget minister Gérald Darmanin, are considered too expensive. Although these schemes cost around €8 billion a year, only 3% of workers benefit. According to a poll published on Sunday by Ifop for the JDD, 76% of French citizens are OK to have the pensions system reformed, but do not trust Macron’s team to do it. (EURACTIV.FR)
Liberal adjustments. Over the weekend, Socialist Paul Magnette (PS) discreetly called a meeting between the purple-green parties (PS, SP.A, MR, Open VLD, Green and Ecolo), which would have a very tight majority of 76 seats in the 150-seat Belgian federal parliament, for further coalition talks. Conservative CD&V and Flemish nationalist N-VA were not invited. Attendees discussed Magnette’s recently leaked draft programme, which strongly focuses on climate and social policies and has been adjusted with “liberal accents”. N-VA leader Bart De Wever was not amused: “Magnette’s proposals are socio-economic, and there is no change in the area of migration either. Such a government would only have one-third of votes in Flanders, the region that pays the bills.” (Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)
“Was Grandpa a Nazi?” At the end of the Second World War, not only Flemish but also Walloon collaborators participated in the mass murder of 6,000 Jewish women in a concentration camp in northern Poland, according to an investigative documentary by French-language broadcaster RTBF. Although the involvement of Belgian collaborators is not unknown, it caused a stir in Wallonia as, until now, it had always been assumed that only Flemish collaborators had helped German soldiers perpetrate war crimes. (Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)
Facebook bans Tory ad. Facebook has taken down a Conservative party election ad featuring BBC news footage, due to a violation of intellectual property rights. “We have removed this content following a valid intellectual property claim from the rights holder, the BBC,” a statement from the social media giant said, over the weekend.
“Whenever we receive valid IP claims against content on the platform, in advertising or elsewhere, we act in accordance with our policies and take action as required.”
The news on Sunday came following an investigation by The Independent which found that Google has banned eight Conservative paid-for ads over the last month because they broke the company’s advertising policies. Labour MP David Lanny responded to the recent bout of Tory setbacks in online advertising by saying that Prime Minister Johnson’s party “have lied to the public, destroyed trust in government and debased the offices they hold.” (Samuel Stolton |EURACTIV.com)
Sánchez won’t appear before the Parliament for a ‘failed investiture’. Spain’s acting PM and leader of the socialists (PSOE), Pedro Sánchez, won’t appear before the Spanish Parliament for a “failed investiture”, warned acting government spokeswoman Isabel Celaá.
Sánchez, she said Friday, has no intention of presenting himself as a candidate for the investiture, unless he is certain of getting enough support (votes in favour or abstentions) to become Spain’s new PM, likely before Christmas.
“We (the PSOE) will not go to a failed investiture,” said Celaá. The socialist party, however, is “optimistic” to win in the coming days the support of Catalan independentists of ERC (United Left of Catalonia), whose abstention is essential for Sánchez.
Meanwhile, the conservative Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP) stressed it will maintain its ‘no’ for Sánchez, even if the socialist leader would fail to obtain an abstention of ERC, which will be key to forging a “progressive coalition” between the PSOE and leftist Unidas Podemos (United We Can). Instead, the PP would prefer a new (third) election in Spain, PP sources said. (EuroEFE.EURACTIV.es)
Veto in the Eurogroup? Italy’s PM Giuseppe Conte convened a cabinet meeting to ease tensions between ruling parties over the overhaul of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). But after four hours of talks, anti-establishment Five Star Movement and centre-left Democratic Party did not find common ground, deciding to wait for Italian Parliament’s resolutions on the matter, planned for next 11 December.
This means that Italy won’t be able to give its go-ahead to the reform of the eurozone bailout fund at the Eurogroup meeting on 4 December. The executive will address the negotiations following a ‘package approach’, said a government source. However, putting the ESM dossier on hold while waiting for the conclusion of other elements of the ‘package’, such as the roadmap on the completion of the banking union, may slow down the entire reform of the Economic and Monetary Union. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)
Greece raises Turkey’s aggression issue: Turkey and Libya signed a memorandum of understanding preparing a deal on maritime borders in the Mediterranean Sea, without any discussion with neighbouring and affected countries like Greece, Cyprus, Egypt or Italy. This caused a severe reaction from the Greek side, which accused Turkey of breaking international laws. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used TANAP pipeline opening ceremony to send a clear message on Turkey’s role in East Med, while the Greek delegation left the ceremony when he started speaking on sea matters outside the agenda of the event. FM Nikos Dendias urgently visited Egypt on Sunday (1 December) to discuss fast-forwarding an Exclusive Economic Zone agreement between the two countries. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis said on Sunday Greece will ask NATO to condemn Turkey over international law violations, while the government confirmed that he will have lunch with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of a NATO conference in London.
Will something change in migration policy?: The Commission “will propose a new agreement on migration and asylum. All EU member states will share the burden and pressures fairly. Either Europe shows solidarity, or it is no longer Europe. Greece is Europe, and it will manage its difficulties as Europe, with the support of its partners”, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas said on Sunday, at a congress of the ruling New Democracy (ND) party in Athens.
“We demand greater support from partners and allies. We are Europe’s border, not to mention the West’s: Our borders equal our security and their security.” Alternate Citizen Protection Minister George Koumoutsakos, responsible for migration policy, told Euractiv’s partner Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA-MPA) in an interview published on Sunday. “The EU can weigh in heavily, compared to every member state individually. In this way, we could manage more effectively the entire issue of the limited returns that other EU countries also face. It’s a detailed Greek initiative we will introduce at the Council of Justice and Interior Affairs on Monday, in Brussels”, he added. (Theodore Karaoulanis | EURACTIV.gr)
Disability ability. Warsaw has won the EU’s annual Access City Award for efforts by cities to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. While 30 of the city’s metro stations are now barrier-free and buses and bus stops have been renovated accordingly, future measures include that all new public infrastructure needs to comply with accessibility rules. The European Commission commended Warsaw’s efforts, with Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen, calling the city “a model for others”, showing that “a lot can be done in a very short amount of time”. Previous winners include Berlin, Milan, and Lyon. (Alexandra Brzozowski | EURACTIV.com)
More skeletons in the closet. Another leaked video recording from the „collection“ of Marián Kočner – an influential Slovak businessman who has been accused of ordering the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak – shows the then Finance Minister Ján Počiatek, talking to then General Prosecutor Dobroslav Trnka in 2009. In the video, they discuss two highly reported scandals of that time. Firstly a fraudulent sale of emission quotas to a shell company, which then diverted the money back to firms close to Slovak National Party (SNS), then part of the government. Počiatek’s words suggest that Robert Fico, who was then in his first term as prime minister, was at the very least aware of the scheme. The second scandal involves state lottery company Tipos, which is now being investigated on charges of money laundering. In the small talk they engaged in during the debate, Počiatek also casually mentions how hungover he was during the last meeting of EU finance ministers in Brussels. (Zuzana Gabrižová | EURACTIV.sk)
Bad news for the PM. The European Commission sent to the Czech authorities on Sunday its final audit report concerning the EU subsidies for the Agrofert holding company and the suspected conflict of interest of its former owner and current Czech PM Andrej Babiš. As weekly magazine Respekt has found out, the report confirms the conflicts of interest, which puts in question former and possible future EU subsidies for the holding company. (Ondřej Plevák | EURACTIV.cz)
No US visas for corrupt officials. The US Embassy is taking a “hardline” approach to support the fight against corruption and enforce the rule of law in Bulgaria. New US Ambassador to Sofia, Hero Mustafa, announced on Friday that the embassy will not issue visas to corrupt officials and their family members.
“Such serious measures will benefit Bulgaria in the long run, as strict adherence to the rule of law is linked to Bulgaria’s political and economic prosperity,” Mustafa said during a public lecture at the Atlantic Club in Sofia on Friday.
The statement by the US diplomat was made four days after the end of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s visit to the US, where he met with President Donald Trump. Following the talks, it was announced that Washington would help Bulgaria fight corruption, guarantee media independence and energy diversification. Borisov asked NATO to build a Naval Coordination Center in Varna, and Trump approved the idea.
Prominent investigative journalist quits the National TV. Valia Ahchieva, a prominent investigative journalist, announced she is leaving the Bulgarian National Television BNT, where her weekly programme was suspended without explanation last January. Most Bulgarian media quote her as saying she will continue her partnership with EURACTIV Bulgaria and will start a YouTube channel. “Free journalism needs free media, and I chose freedom,” Ahchieva stated. (Krassen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg)
Hungary to join development bank founded by Russia and Kazakhstan. Hungary is ready to start talks on joining the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) as a full member, Finance Minister Mihály Varga told a conference on Eurasian economic integration in Moscow. Moldova also announced plans to join the development bank, established and majority-owned by Russia and Kazakhstan. Other members of the EDB include Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. (Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com)
New poll shows gains for centre-right: The National Liberal Party (PNL, part of EPP) would get 39% of the votes if elections were held this week, according to a new poll that showed big gains compared to the previous month. In the previous IMAS survey, PNL, which recently formed a minority government, was preferred by 29.6% of the potential voters. The socialist PSD party is seen obtaining 21% of the votes, the same score it got in the October survey. The other large parties were on a downward trend compared with the previous survey: the Save Romania Union (USR, part of RE) would get 12% (down from 16.4%), ALDE would get 3% (from 4% in October), and Pro Romania is down to 6% from 10% previously. (EURACTIV.ro)
Illegal border crossings sharply up in the first ten months. From January to October, Slovenian police recorded 14,066 illegal entries into the country, 72% more than in the same period of 2018, the Ministry of the Interior said. The highest number of illegal migrants came from Algeria (1,752), followed by those from Afghanistan (1,519), Bangladesh, Syria, and Iran. In the first ten months of the year, Slovenian police returned 9,653 illegal migrants to Croatia, which is a major increase compared to the 3,906 migrants returned to Croatia from Slovenia in the same period of 2018. The number of migrants who have sought asylum in Slovenia has increased from 2,875 in 2018 to 3,350 in 2019. In 2018, Slovenia granted international protection to 102 migrants, and this year it has granted international protection to 62 migrants. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Borell on Western Balkans. “As a Spaniard, I have always felt that it was a great mistake that we failed to prevent the implosion of Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav wars,” said Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the EU in an interview for Croatian daily Večernji list. “Still, we don’t want to rewind history. In the current situation, the countries of the former Yugoslavia should have a European perspective. I don’t know how long it will take. Spain also took a long time to become an EU member after Franco’s death… Changing the method does not mean changing the end goal, which, to me, remains the same, but I understand the disappointment on both sides,” he said about the stalled accession process and the new French initiative.
“The first thing I will do once Kosovo gets a government is visit Kosovo, where I have never been. I will also visit Serbia, where I have been several times, to discuss with both sides a new approach to problem-solving in the Balkans, which is one of the priorities for us”. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Schengen during Germany’s EU presidency. Croatia could join the Schengen area during Germany’s EU presidency, which comes after Croatia’s January-June presidency next year, Foreign and European Affairs Minister Gordan Grlić Radman said. “Germany is a country that supports us very much. I think that we are realistic optimists in that regard,” he said. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Serbia will be an important partner for energy security in the region. The two interconnections linking Serbia to the Southern Gas Corridor will be completed by 2022, announced Serbia’s Minister of Energy, Aleksandar Antić, after meeting with his Turkish counterpart Fatih Dönmez in İpsala, on the occasion of the completion of the TANAP pipeline. TANAP, together with gas pipelines South Caucus and TAP, comprises the Southern Gas Corridor, which has a capacity of 16 billion cubic meters of gas per year. (EURACTIV.rs)
Bosnia’s defence exports rising, particularly to Arab countries Bosnia-Herzegovina’s defence industry has recorded a steady rise in exports, exporting €82 million worth of ammunition and military equipment in the first ten months of 2019, an increase of 20% over the same period in 2018. The biggest buyers are Arab countries. For instance, Saudi Arabia bought €26.5 million worth of ammunition and military equipment in the first ten months, while Egypt followed with purchases totalling €22 million. According to the Bosnian Chamber of Foreign Trade, total defence industry exports in 2018 came to €100 million. The lion’s share, 94%, related to ammunition and the rest included parts of weapons. Bosnia’s imports of military equipment last year totalled a mere €6 million. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
Perennial Milo Đukanović again party president. The current Montenegrin President Milo Djukanović was re-elected as president of the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), the strongest political party in Montenegro. He is now the longest-serving national political leader in Europe. His political career started in 1987 when he was a follower of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević. He supported wars in former Yugoslavia until they finished with the defeat of Milošević’s politics. After the election, Djukanović said: “EU membership remains our strategic goal, although it will not depend on our political will and reforms.” (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic, Daniel Eck]