Putin pays family visit to Budapest with energy agenda

Vladimir Putin is back in Budapest to meet Viktor Orbán today for the seventh time in recent years. [EPA/ TAMAS KOVACS]

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Before you start reading today’s edition of the Capitals, feel free to have a look at how an EU-funded Interreg MED project “gets the best out of Mediterranean olive oil“.

See also EURACTIV Poland’s Karolina Zbytniewska interview with MEP Bernd Lange who said that London faces “tough negotiations” to replace all EU trade deals after Brexit, because “Australia or Japan are looking at the EU’s internal market, not at the one of a small island”.

BUDAPEST. Vladimir Putin is back in Budapest to meet Viktor Orbán today (30 October) and will be accompanied by Russia’s long-serving Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who already arrived on Tuesday (29 October). Both the Russian and Hungarian heads of state have already met on several occasions.

Orbán and Putin are expected to discuss the Paks II power plant expansion, built by the Russian state-owned Rosatom, as well as the persecution of Christian communities worldwide and the possible construction of a new stretch of the TurkStream gas pipeline in Hungary.

If built, the new pipeline will allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine when exporting gas to Southeastern Europe, as talks on a long-term transit contract with Kyiv are currently in a deadlock. The visit will also include the signature of a settlement deal over contaminated oil, Reuters reports.

Reuters also quoted a source as saying that one of the goals was to agree on the TurkStream pipeline. “Putin has to agree with all the countries involved so that there wouldn’t be any troubles with the pipeline,” the source said.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told Reuters that TurkStream should be constructed as soon as possible in Bulgaria because that would open up an additional delivery route to Hungary, which continues to rely on Russian gas shipments.

Meanwhile, Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó said that the economic ties between Hungary and Russia are transparent and “in line with the interests of the Hungarian economy and domestic businesses”. Szijjártó added that while Europe highlighted its disputes with Russia, western European states had in fact been quietly building close cooperation with Russia, highlighting that Dutch-Russian trade had increased by 23% since 2017, while French-Russian and German-Russian trade increased by 40% and 56% respectively.

Russian Health Minister Veronika Skvortsova called Hungary a key partner in Central Europe, highlighting that trade between the countries had increased by 30% in the past two years, with its turnover reaching $7 billion. She emphasised that energy is a crucial area of cooperation, especially nuclear energy and Hungary’s Paks II nuclear power plant upgrade project.

(Vlagyiszlav Makszimov | EURACTIV.com, Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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SOFIA

Energy projects without prospects. The chances of a Balkan hub gas project in Bulgaria are not looking promising because of the regional market’s small amount of consumers, a limited amount of gas suppliers and no links with the gas market in Western Europe, two experts have said.

Plamen Dimitrov of the Bulgarian Geopolitical Society and Dimitar Bechev, director of the Institute for European Policies, spoke about the country’s gas diversification, which is entirely dependent on Russian supplies, at a conference on Tuesday (29 October) in Sofia. They said the largest gas supplier in the region is Gazprom and that Russians prefer to conclude long-term contracts with the Balkan countries. Therefore, trading through gas distribution centres remains a challenging goal to achieve.

The participants of the conference also expressed doubts that the financial model of Turkish Stream through Bulgaria and Serbia would meet the expectations of the Bulgarian government. “There are no big players in Bulgaria. There are no traditions and staff for gas trading,” Dimitrov said. (Dnevnik.bg, Krassen Nikolov | EURACTIV.bg)

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BERLIN

Merkel’s old rival. The search for a scapegoat after the elections in Thuringia turns out to be a good opportunity for Merkel’s long-term opponent Friedrich Merz to make speak again. In an interview with German national broadcaster ZDF, he said that the performance of the federal government was “grotesquely bad”.  According to him, the chancellor’s “inactivity and lack of leadership” for years had laid “a carpet of fog over the country,” adding that he could not imagine that this government would last another two years.

Merz, who had retired from politics ten years ago because of a permanent quarrel with Merkel, has been working on his political comeback since last year and is hoping for the so-called ‘Merkel era’ to end. Whether her party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), wants to continue governing with a weakened Social Democratic Party (SPD) will be decided soon when the government’s mid-term review is expected.

A broken nose. Economics Minister Peter Altmaier has completely different concerns, given that after his speech at the digital summit in Dortmund, the CDU politician fell down the stage’s stairs in front of a shocked audience. The minister briefly passed out and was taken to hospital where a fracture of the nasal bone and an abrasion on the head were diagnosed. (Florence Schulz | EURACTIV.de)

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MADRID

A weird sociological study. Spain’s National Statistical Institute (Instituto Nacional de Estadística, INE) plans to track the movements of millions of Spanish citizen’s cellphones to conduct a “sociological study”, El Pais and EFE reported on Tuesday (29 October).

The INE will analyse the movements of users when using data from the three big telecom companies in Spain. The INE said that before the processing takes place, the data will nevertheless be anonymised, EURACTIV’s partner EFE reported. The Spanish public television RTVE said it is a “pioneering” study in Europe, which, however, generated concern among Spanish civil society groups, who are worried about data protection and privacy issues, protected in the EU under the GDPR directive. (EUROEFE.EURACTIV.es)

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PARIS

Leave the kids alone. The National Commission for Information Technology and Liberties (CNIL), which is an independent authority that aims to ensure data protection laws are respected, does not want the national education system to implement a facial recognition system. While two sites in the Provence Alpes Cotes d’Azur region planned to experiment with such a system, the authority indicated that “this system concerning pupils, most of whom are minors, for the sole purpose of making access easier and safer, does not appear necessary or proportionate to achieve these objectives”.

“In the presence of less intrusive alternative means, such as badge control, the use of a facial recognition device to control access to a high school appears disproportionate”, the authority added, concluding that such a device “cannot, therefore, be legally implemented”.

CNIL also reprimanded the city of Saint-Étienne for experimenting with the new technology based on powerful microphones that are activated in case of high noise levels. But for the independent authority, this technique is likely to violate data protection laws related to personal data. (EURACTIV.fr)

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LONDON

General election set for December: UK citizens will head to the polls for a general election on 12 December, after the Labour party decided to back Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans for a national ballot. It will be the first general election in December since 1923. By an overwhelming majority of 438 votes to 20, the Commons supported Johnson’s legislation.

Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had previously stood against the idea of a general election on Johnson’s proposed date of 12 December, saying only on Monday (28 October) that it wouldn’t be the right way forward. On Tuesday (29 October), however, he struck a very different tune. “This election is a once-in-a-generation chance to transform our country and take on the vested interests holding people back,” he said. (Samuel Stolton, EURACTIV.com)

Read more: Johnson gets his election as UK lawmakers finally agree December poll

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ROME

Fiat-Peugeot merger. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and Peugeot owner PSA Group are discussing an all-share merger of equals, a source close to the talks between the two companies told the Wall Street Journal. The potential combination of the Italian American giant and the French carmaker could create a €45 billion automotive juggernaut. FCA has long looked for a merger partner, and almost reached a deal in May with Renault, Peugeot’s archenemy.

No longer with centre-left. Anti-establishment Five Star Movement will not run together with co-ruling Democratic party (Pd), at the next regional elections in Emilia-Romagna and Calabria, its leader Luigi Di Maio said after the historical debacle in Umbria. The foreign minister said that the unsuccessful alliance in the region was an experiment that did not work. (Gerardo Fortuna | EURACTIV.com)

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WARSAW

Fight over new government posts. After the elections, the ruling PiS is trying to form a new government. As it has a majority in the Sejm (235/460) seats, it will nominate Mateusz Morawiecki to be prime minister, once again. But PiS has a problem, given that the 235 seats also comprise two of PiS’ minor allies, which gained a great deal in the elections. PiS itself has 200 seats, while Solidarna Polska (powerful minister of justice Zbigniew Ziobro’s party) has 17, and Porozumienie (deputy PM Jarosław Gowin’s party) 18.

This will make talks of setting up the new government much harder compared to just four years ago. Ziobro wants to become a deputy PM and would like to see Morawiecki out of government, as the two have fought for influence over the last few years. This is not likely to happen, but Ziobro wants another ministry for his party: energy, infrastructure or digitalisation.

There is also much talk about Gowin’s plans. Contrary to Ziobro, he is seen as a moderate (previously he was in Donald Tusk’s PO) and therefore has more options. Although he has declared loyalty to the United Right (as PiS and allies are called), he gained leverage over the creation of the government, because, without his MPs’ votes, it could fail. There is also a rumour that the new economy ministry could be led by Jadwiga Emilewicz, who is Gowin’s close associate. (Łukasz Gadzała | EURACTIV.pl)

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BRATISLAVA 

Resisting calls to step down. Martin Glváč (Smer-SD, PES) will not step down from his position as deputy speaker of the Slovak parliament for the time being. The opposition tried to oust him through a vote on Tuesday (30 October), but the governing coalition MPs did not approve the parliament’s agenda.

Read also: Leaked recording shakes Slovak politics, confirms high-level political corruption

According to media reports, Glváč has exchanged hundreds of messages with Marián Kočner who is charged with the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and other economic crimes. The content of the messages suggests that Glváč had a close relationship with Kočner, also during the time, when Kočner already faced investigation for serious economic wrongdoings, discussing business deals, politics and “managed” content in the media. Glváč was also reportedly in contact with the women, who acted as the intermediary in the murder of Jan Kuciak. (Zuzana Gabrižová |EURACTIV.sk)

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PRAGUE

Commercial TV in the hands of a billionaire. PPF Group of the wealthiest Czech, Petr Kellner, is taking over the Central European Media Enterprises (CME) that operates the most popular Czech TV station Nova and other television channels across Eastern Europe, such as Slovakian Markíza, Bulgarian bTV or Romanian Pro TV. According to the director of the Foundation for Independent Journalism Josef Šlerka, who spoke to public broadcaster Czech Radio, this move is politically motivated and put Czech press freedom at serious risk. But the  PPF has denied such allegations. (Aneta Zachová | EURACTIV.cz)

Read more: Media-shy Czech mogul buys TV empire spanning five EU countries

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BUCHAREST

A new Commissioner proposal. The outgoing government led by Viorica Dăncilă has proposed a new name for the European Commission: former MEP and EU affairs minister Victor Negrescu. Negrescu is the third former colleague of Dăncilă, herself a former MEP that has been proposed by the socialist government in the Commissioner race. However, Romania’s president Klaus Iohannis vehemently criticised the decision, saying the current government, which was toppled following a no-confidence vote on 10 October, cannot legitimately nominate a Commissioner, as it would be the government’s job to do so.

But Dăncilă pointed to a letter sent by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to both the PM and the President, saying: “It has now become critical” to complete the proposals for the members of the Commission. The Romanian parliament will vote on the new government on Monday. However, media reports quoted von der Leyen as saying that the new Commissioner needs to be approved by the president. (EURACTIV.ro)

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LJUBLJANA 

More men than women. For the first time in more than 160 years of history, there are more men than women among the population of Slovenia. The population of Slovenia on 1 July 2019 was 1,045,835 men and 1,043,475 women, the Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia has announced. Besides, the average age of people who died is almost nine years higher than 30 years ago. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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ZAGREB

HNS could leave the government coalition on Thursday. Croatian People’s Party – Liberal Democrats (HNS-RE) leader Ivan Vrdoljak said that the ministers of his party would not attend the government meeting on Thursday if the draft budget, which is expected to be on the agenda, did not include allocations for education-sector employees. Jutarnji list, EURACTIV.com’s partner, reported that if the HNS votes against a draft budget for 2020, it will be out of the government as was the case for right-wing party Most (Bridge) in 2017.

However, this will not mean snap elections since other parties, including those that represent minorities in Croatia, will remain in the coalition, as well as the party of Zagreb mayor Milan Bandić. There are also speculations that some of the HNS representatives will stay with the government trying to find a way for possible future cooperation with HDZ (EPP), a leading party in the coalition. (Željko Trkanjec | EURACTIV.hr)

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BELGRADE

Don’t expect terrific enthusiasm. President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić stated that Serbia would, alongside its path towards EU accession, build good relations with others and act as a responsible country. After meeting with EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, Vučić said that it was not entirely clear what would happen in the EU.

“Our responsibility is to establish better relations in the region, to protect stability, to carry out reforms to get closer to the EU… From Serbia, you can expect a rational approach and path to European integration. Still, it is not realistic to expect terrific enthusiasm and joy from the people of Serbia,” Vučić said. (EURACTIV.rs)

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[Edited by Sarantis Michalopoulos, Daniel Eck]

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