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Brussels Brief | 40th Edition

9 February — 15 February 2018


It’s the 40th Edition of Brussels Brief* and we are back with a two for one presidency, data protection, and discourteous billionaires.


The EU is waking up after hearing the popular (not populist) feedback that its processes and institutions may be opaque, let alone ‘undemocratic’. JCJ is officially in senioritis mode as he enters the final year of his Commission and his want of a meaningful legacy has matched well with the necessity for ‘constitutional’ reform. Fuelled by the victory and enthusiasm of Cousin Manu Macron, the prospect of having a fused Presidency of the Commission and Council (elected by Spitzenkdadidat procedure) and a truly bicameral legislature (European Parliament & Council) are worthy and admirable, if not overdue. However, another pressing point of constitutional reform was not addressed. This week, the European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly accused the Council of the EU’s lack of transparency “constitutes maladministration” and “undermines citizens’ right to hold their elected representatives to account”. Given the report by the Ombudsman was on Tuesday, JCJ had a chance to address these legitimate concerns in his speech but, unfortunately, chose not to. Out of political expediency for sure, but the risk of the ‘blame Brussels’ culture running evermore rampant in EU member states is real and more reform will be necessary before the spectre of (euro)skepticism is calmed.


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The Brussels Brief Team 👨‍👩‍👦 ✌️ 🇪🇺


Collated and Curated over ‘The Word Radio’ and a cup of (very) hot something ☕ in Brussels Brief HQ.

“This is Europe today: many wishes, few convictions.”
- Jean-Claude Juncker
European Commission President, first spitzenkandidat and constitutional reformer in chief.

🔝 FRONT PAGE — Top News This Week

Spitz’n’shine. Time for some housekeeping at the top. That was the line that President of the Commission Jean-Claude Juncker took as he embarked on a mini state of the Union (video) where he touched upon reform at the top, enfants terribles, Brexit and of course… Money. The first not so unexpected bombshell was that JCJ backs the ‘spitzenkandidat’ procedure formally for the election of his successor next year. Spitzenkandidat is a usually long German word for ‘top of the party list’, and the future European Commission president will be elected with regard to the lead candidate of the party that wins most seats in next year’s European Parliament elections. Perhaps more revolutionary was the suggestion that the Presidency of the European Council, (who sets the agenda) and the Presidency of the Commission (who delivers the agenda) be fused in order to avoid the future hypothetical situation that they don’t get along. The frontrunners for the top job in 2019 are rumoured to be Michel Barnier for EPP, Pierre Moscovici for S&D, and Margrethe Vestager for ALDE. As if constitutional reform was not enough, he managed to use the session to criticise Turkey over recent Cyprus skirmishes and to call Poland back into the fore with talks after unleashing the punishing Article 7 on the country in December. To the delight of many, he also used the opportunity to rebut Boris Johnson’s earlier speech about Brexit and the intentions of the EU to create a ‘superstate’, an assertion ridiculed by JCJ as ‘total nonsense’ in stark diplomatic terms. Of course in mentioning Brexit, he had to lay out the urgency of the ‘UK-less’ EU budget post-2020 but let Gunther Oettinger do much of the legwork for that one. Not just another press conference. [Euronews, Financial Times, The Independent, Ekathimerini, Reuters, BBC News, EUobserver]

BONUS: Dayswimming. Things were calm at the European Parliament this week except for what happened the week before at plenary. Having rejected transnational lists early last week, the EP set its sights on another transnational issue — eliminating daylight saving time, the twice-annual practice of putting clocks forward then turning them back. Citing health and safety concerns MEPs (some who brought giant clocks to the chamber) voted overwhelmingly for a resolution that started as a petition in sun-starved Finland. The idea of daylight saving supposedly began with a British builder in 1907 and adopted by Germany in the midst of WWI. [Eurotopics, New York Times, BBC News, Deutsche Welle, Bloomberg]

💸 ITS THE ECONOMY, STUPID — Top Economic, Trade and Innovation News

Dr Strangedata. Knowledge is power and in the digital age having control of personal data is tantamount to holding a nuclear arsenal. The tongue-twisting General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR among professionals) is going into effect and the reach of the new rules go beyond the protection of privacy. Securing free flow of data across borders is now a cornerstone of future EU trade agreements all pointing to the conclusion that big data is more than big business, it’s raw power politics with Europe leading the vanguard. The EU arm reaches globally as the Commission is pushing the frontier for data protection directly impacting tech giants Google, Amazon and Apple who are in preparation to comply with EU regulations including the possible penalty of a 4% of global turnover. The only question that remains is whether the new regulation will be beneficial to the US, rather than EU companies. [The Register, Reuters, Business Insider]

Show me the money! With Brexit looming to cause massive disruptions in the EU budget JCJ has proposed a few bold ideas going where no one has gone before: increasing EU revenue streams through a harmonised corporate tax rate with a proportion levied by the Commission. This could raise up to €140 billion for the seven-year budget period 2021–2027. Among other novel ideas fill the dwindling EU coffers from CO2 taxes under the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (an extra €105 billion), or letting the ECB collect seigniorage, the surplus value created through its money printing, worth up to €56 billion over seven years. Money always finds a way home. [Financial Times, New Europe]

Make it blow, make it charge…While EU revenue is going down renewable energy is rising to the skies. Germany leads the way with most installed wind energy for 2017 and total European capacity grew by a whopping 25% in 2017. One key issue is the ability to store energy where Europe has been lagging behind, most famously Elon Musk’s Gigafactory, but an investment supported by the European Investment Bank is about to stop the discharge and reload Europe with several new gargantuan factories capable of charging Europe with 200 Gigawatt hours of storage capacity by 2025 or to put that in your electrical bill; a €250 billion industry according to for Commissioner for Energy Union Maroš Šefčovič. The energy revolution underway, televised or not. [Euractiv]

🇬🇧 STATE OF THE (DIS)UNION — Brexit Stories

The ‘discourteous’ Brexit roundup. It hasn’t been the rosiest of weeks in the EU-UK tango over the cliff edge. Last Friday a visibly miffed Michel Barnier, gave a press conference begrudging comments made by UK Brexit minister David Davis that the EU was being ‘discourteous’. The ’substantial’ differences between the two parties with regard to the transition period (known as the implementation period to the Brits), led Barnier to threaten that it might not happen at all if they persist. If the UK’s position seems a bit unclear, you’re not alone, around 75% of Brits don’t know what their own government is doing with regard to Brexit. Suggestions that membership of EFTA could fill in the blanks. The organisation made up of the OGs of reluctant EU members, has been cited as a potential ‘halfway house’ between those MPs that want to stay in the single market and the under pressure government ministers looking to have their cake and eat it. As the cliff-edge approaches and as the effects are already felt, the decisions will need to come quick and fast before the precipice. [Evening Standard, EUobserver, Euractiv, Voice of America, Quartz]

Not all heroes wear capes. Some spend serious cash. Billionaire philanthropist and nightmare of autocrats around the world, George Soros, is doubling down on the Brexit debate. In a scathing op-ed in the ‘Brexiteer’ Mail on Sunday, the founder of the Open Society Foundation set out why he is against Brexit from happening and has pledged to match any donation up to 100,000 GBP to the ‘Best For Britain’ campaign looking to keep the UK in the EU. That is in addition to the 400,000 GBP he has already pledged himself. A Jewish refugee from former communist Hungary, Soros has driven much of his wealth towards progressive liberal goals worldwide and is despised in his native Hungary, where the Hungarian government has introduced a ‘stop Soros’ billthat looks to curb the billionaire’s liberal influence in an ever more illiberal Hungary. He has also been ejected from Russia and most recently, by illiberal forces in the United States who blame him for much of the backlash to Donald Trump’s presidency. [Daily Mail, The Guardian, Bloomberg]

- The size of the EU budget 2014–2020 as a percentage of gross national income.

🏢 BRUXELLES MA BELLE — News about the city

Bruxelles accueil. Forced to flee war-plagued Iraq, Hussein Rassim left in 2015 with the hope of finding shelter in Europe. From Turkey, across the Aegean Sea, into Greece, FYROM, Serbia and Hungary, he reached his final destination: Belgium. Relieved and ready to begin a new chapter in his life, Hussein longed for his oud, an instrument that belongs to the family of the lute. During his time in Iraq, that instrument had taken him to the Institute of Musical Studies of Baghdad, becoming his passion and his profession. Acrowdfunding page, initiated by four of his friends and circulated by professionals of Amnesty and UNHCR among others, raised him the money necessary (and more) to obtain a replacement for his long-lost instrument. Now, he is preparing for a series of concerts that he plans to play with his band, formed here in Brussels, and with his wife, a cellist player, he met in the European capital. [UNHCR, Thomson Reuters Foundation News]
Cards for the win. A European Union directive on payment services has now been transposed into Belgian law. English, please? Essentially, there is now a ban on applying a surcharge for using debit and credit cards to make payments. It was likely that in the past customers would be charged .50 euro cents for not using cash in purchasing items. This will no longer be the case. The initiative, led by the Minister of Economy Kris Peeters, is meant toencourage people to use cards more often than not. “It’s safer, reduces the flow of cash and makes it easier to combat tax fraud,” states Peeters. [The Bulletin]

✂️ EXTRA — From The Cutting Room Floor

The ministry of silly jihad. Postmodernism is a frequent source of absurdity in an age where political insecurity is on the rise and young people are drawn to the prospects of violence. Enter a new swath of European artists andplaywrights like Ismael Saïdi who’s taking on cultural anxiety and has turned it into a theatrical comedy channelling feelings of uncertainty and dislocation for his own millennial generation. Other artists have begun tackling issues like the fall of Communism, post-colonialism in The Congo or the numerous crises unfolding in Greece since the onset of the financial crisis. At the same time, European filmmakers are reexamining the rise of far-right movements who have been on the rise in recent years, like German director Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade” which takes on the new seeds of discontent and social unrest. You can’t subsist on art only, but it’s good for the soul. [Variety, The Guardian]

💡 OPINION — Top minds muse on the European project

Saviour no more. Perhaps the expectations set were too high, still, President Macron was elected just last year with the hopes that he would restore Europeanism and democracy in a country, and a continent, losing sight of it. As promised, Macron is looking to engage ordinary citizens in the political process and his mastermind strategy is that of circulating a questionnaire with statements such as “What do you expect of Europe in your daily life?” However, Claudia Chwalisz claims that over-simplified questions of the sort are not the only problem. This consultation comes with no resources to education for anyone participating on relevant issues, nor does it give space and time for discussion. Chances are this process leads to a series of unrealistic demands enabling further populism and anti-system rhetoric when these requests are, inevitably, not met. Shade hath been thrown. [Politico]

🎧 PRESS PLAY — Media Corner

🔊 Podcast of the Week. British TV personality and author of ‘WTF: What have We Done, How did it Happen? How Do We Take Back Control?’ Robert Peston discusses his book and the referendum that brought it about. [eSharp!]

🎥 Video(s) of the Week. John Oliver on Brexit, a second referendum and the importance of being shocked by Donald Trump. [Sky News]

✏️Cartoon(s) of the Week. OXFAM scandal, The dictators of the future, Brexit Circus []

📺 GIF of the Week

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