In this week’s newsletter, we focus on the following five topics: the attempts to build a right-wing populist alliance ahead of the 2014 EU elections; an agreement on the 2014 EU budget; the Maltese citizenship on sale for €650,000; EU-US talks on the TTIP; and a British start-up who wants to facilitate cross-border rail travel. Enjoy the reading and share with us your opinion about these topics!
Right-wing populists want build an alliance ahead of 2014 EU elections
Right-wing populist leaders Marine Le Pen (France, Front National) and Geert Wilders (Netherlands, Party for Freedom – PVV) want to build an alliance in order to be strong enough to constitute a political group in the European Parliament in the next legislature (the numerical conditions are at least 25 MEPs coming from at least ¼, i.e., 7 Member States). Both leaders enjoy some popularity at home, surfing on anti-EU, anti-Islam and anti-immigration stances, and will try to use this situation to increase their numbers of MEPs. A political group would allow them to enjoy more financial and material resources, as well as an increased speaking time in the EP meetings. To succeed, Wilders and Le Pen intend to convince other nationalist and right-wing populist parties to join their cause, such as the Austrian FPÖ, the Swedish Democrats, the Belgian Vlaams Belang and the Italian Lega Nord. However, they refuse extremists such as the Greek Golden Dawn or the Hungarian Jobbik. They will also try to attract the British UKIP in their alliance, but Nigel Farage is currently not interested in it in particular because of the participation of the FN. The German AfD, which nearly entered the Bundestag in September and voices strong criticism of the Euro, also excluded any talks with Wilders and Le Pen. The right-wing populists will campaign on repatriating sovereignty in the Member States on monetary and budgetary issues and they want to reaffirm territorial sovereignty (which could mean restricting free movement in Europe). Although both political leaders highlighted their similarities, there are nevertheless huge differences between them: for example, Wilders’ party is pro-Israel while many FN members are anti-Semitic. Moreover, the PVV is more radical than the FN in its anti-Islam rhetoric. In addition, Wilders supports gay marriage while Le Pen is opposed to it.
Note: An alliance of anti-Europeans looks maybe threatening to some politicians, but I think it is a good thing that the opponents of the European integration openly try to build an alliance, because it will become easier to point to their differences and their flaws as pro-Europeans will have a clearly defined opponent at European level. I reiterate my opposition to an alliance of pro-Europeans against right- and left-wing populist and/or anti-European parties: reducing the European elections to a pro/contra question about the EU would be simplistic and precisely favour an alliance such as the one that Le Pen and Wilders try to build. Rather, the different pro-European parties need to clearly define their policies on a number of issues that matter to voters and to “fight” populists with serious policy proposals. If the debate is about ideas, then the populist front will be very quickly divided and weakened.
European budget deal: €135.5bn for 2014
After 16 hours of negotiation, European leaders agreed on a budget of €135.5bn for 2014. This means expenditure will be fall by nearly 10% compared to this year (after a deal was reached on an amending budget for 2013). It is the first budget to fall within the 2014-2020 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), which should now soon be adopted by the EP and the Council. The Member States accepted to add half a billion euros to their proposal and the EP renounced to its claim of an increase of €1.4bn. Despite this effort, the UK, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands voted against the compromise which still needs to be validated by the Council and the MEPs next week.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the cohesion policy, although losing around €7bn, will continue to be the two biggest items of expenditure, but the Lithuanian Deputy Finance Minister stated that “priority areas such as growth, employment, innovation and humanitarian aid” would be better funded. In particular, nearly €4bn will be dedicated to the fight against youth unemployment. The funding of Frontex, the EU border control agency, will also been increased, and so will the funding of Europe’s financial supervisory authorities.
Note: To laugh a bit (for those reading French), compare the sentences in the articles of Le Monde and of Les Echos…
Selling the Maltese (and European) citizenship…
The Maltese government of PM Muscat has announced that foreign ‘high value’ individuals could buy the Maltese nationality (and hence the European citizenship) for €650,000. The government hopes that this measure will yield €30 million (amount reached with 45 naturalisations) which would be used to reduce the fiscal deficit. 200 to 300 applications are expected each year. The government promised that the system would be transparent and that people with criminal record would be rejected. The nationalist opposition criticised the fact that the citizenship was simply sold and was not linked to particular investments or residency, and warned that Malta could therefore be assimilated to a fiscal paradise. According to the government, other EU countries are contemplating similar systems.
Talks between EU and US over a trade agreement have resumed
Discussions between the EU and the US on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) have started again this week, having been delayed because of the US government shutdown. They could have been further postponed because of the NSA spying affair, but European leaders decided to dissociate this issue from the commercial negotiations. Indeed, for all their indignation, European leaders reckon the economic benefits of the TTIP could reach €119bn (£99bn) annually, and the EU really needs to spur its anaemic growth. Moreover, European leaders know that their own secret services are not always operating within the borders of legality.
The topics discussed during this week were services, investment, raw materials, energy and some regulatory issues. According to analysts, GMOs, consumer protection laws, public procurement rules, and data protection rules are among the contentious themes, but agreeing on common rules on financial services could also prove to be a difficult hurdle. However, the current discussions are more a “round of observation” aimed at defining more precisely the topics for working groups and true negotiations will start only in January. Both sides hope to reach an agreement by the end of 2014.
The next round of talk is due to take place in a month (16-20 December) in Washington.
A British start-up launches a pan-European rail booking service
Until now, when you want to travel across Europe on the train, you need to book your tickets on several national railway companies’ websites. Loco2.com (which stands for “low CO2”), a British start-up, has come up with the idea of integrating the booking and timetabling systems of several national rail operators to make it possible for train travellers to book their whole trip on a single website. The firm’s co-founders describe their mission as making “booking a train as simple as booking a flight”. Moreover, they hope their initiative will make cross-border rail trips cheaper and promote rail trips over flights. At the moment, the service works very well for any trip in France and/or Germany from or to a British railway station. There is a less complete service for countries such as Spain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. The path to implementing this new ticketing system has been full of hurdles, as national operators tried to fend off competition from newcomers.
The European Parliament’s agenda for next week is available here. Next week, there is the plenary session in Strasbourg with many important topics to be debated, including the ratification of the agreement on the 2014 EU budget and the vote on the 2014-2020 MFF, the final vote on EU’s next research programme Horizon 2020, discussions on women’s quota on company boards and also on new infrastructure funds.
The Foreign Affairs Council will meet in Brussels on Monday. On the same day, the European Policy Centre will organise a conference on the topic “Do EU sanctions work?” [as a tool of foreign policy].