Sunlight is the best disinfectant
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Sunlight is the best disinfectant

Jun 13, 2023

POLITICO’s must-read briefing on what's driving the day in Brussels, by Jakob Hanke Vela.

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SUNLIGHT IS THE BEST DISINFECTANT: The Council of the EU will have a harder time hiding legal assessments linked to legislation from the public eye, after it lost a court appeal on access to documents last month, my colleague Jacopo Barigazzi writes in to report.

Victory for transparency: Laurent Pech, a professor of EU law who won the case against the Council, told Playbook that “EU institutions cannot argue anymore that legal opinions are, by definition, something which must be kept confidential just because they relate to politically controversial or what they view as particularly sensitive matters.”

But some files will remain secret: The Council will still be able to argue certain documents should remain confidential, though “they will have to justify it more carefully on a case by case basis,” said Pech, who is now dean at the School of Law of University College Dublin.

Background: Pech sued to obtain an opinion by the Council’s legal service related to a European Commission proposal to link the disbursement of EU funds to rule of law criteria. Sweden was the only EU country that supported his case, while the Council had some big backers for its principle of secrecy in the appeal — including France and the Commission.

An existential issue: POLITICO first reported on the opinion from the legal service way back in 2018. Pech, who obtained a leaked copy of the document, said: “I found the legal opinion so legally poor, so basically mistaken on what’s more an existential issue for the EU legal order, that I decided to ask for the formal disclosure of the legal opinion.”

Try again: Pech first tried to obtain an official copy of the opinion by submitting, like any other EU citizen, a freedom of information request to the Council, which rejected his request twice. He then took his case to the EU’s General Court. After winning an appeal last month, Pech has forced the Council to fully disclose the document which until then was not publicly available.

Why the case matters: “Council makes very active use of secret legal opinions to achieve its interinstitutional negotiation goals and mask purely political priorities behind unsubstantiated legal claims,” argued Pech. “If you don’t actually share or disclose the legal opinion … then no one can actually double check how solid your legal position is.”

Council secrets: The Council “tends to hide behind confidential legal opinions … to undermine the Commission and the Parliament’s efforts to beef up rule of law enforcement,” Pech said.

When politics must stop: The case reaches into the very heart of Brussels, a place built on the principles of rule of law. “This litigation is about making sure that the EU institutions do not intrumentalize their legal services and do not arbitrarily refuse disclosure of legal opinions. They cannot just simply say, ‘well, this is politically controversial, so I’m not going to disclose the legal document,’” Pech said. A spokesperson at the Council declined to comment.

A FRENCH READER WRITES IN: Following our report in Wednesday’s Playbook on Internal Market chief Thierry Breton’s ambitions to become the next Commission president, a senior reader of your trusty morning newsletter reached out to question the likelihood of that ever happening.

Macron says no: “Breton will never become the next Commission president,” the senior French official told Playbook. “Macron doesn’t want it, he’s Renew, and there’s the affair with Atos,” the official said, referring to previous complaints about potential conflicts of interests with Breton’s former company, and the chances of a candidate from the Renew Europe group being chosen to lead the next College of Commissioners.

New blood: It’s likely France will nominate a new candidate for commissioner in 2024 instead of Breton, the senior official added.

KING OF THE CASTLE: Should the top job at the Commission not work out, Breton could instead focus on building his kingdom in the French countryside. He recently bought a castle in the village of Gargilesse-Dampierre, which is ranked among the prettiest places in France, Nicolas Camut writes. Breton is not planning to live there, his team said, and intends to keep it as a cultural space.

WEBER VS. VDL: They are supposed to be political allies, but squaring off over dinner and wine at the center-right European People’s Party’s Brussels headquarters in early July, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EPP leader Manfred Weber tussled over the future of the EU’s environmental policy.

Who’s right? The prickly policy fight between the two Germans is central to what kind of Europe is likely to emerge from next year’s EU election, with Weber seeking to drag the conservative family further to the right, and mop up votes from those frustrated with migration and new green laws.

Everything is awesome: Publicly, von der Leyen and Weber’s teams insist they get on just fine. But Weber’s attempt to shoot down a key pillar of von der Leyen’s green legacy one week after that uncomfortable dinner is the latest open disagreement in an increasingly strained relationship between the two heavyweights of the center-right. Read the full story by my colleagues Eddy Wax, Nicholas Vinocur, Louise Guillot and Suzanne Lynch.

DG COMP EYES NEW CANDIDATE: Florian Ederer — who describes himself as an Austrian, an economist, “but definitely not an Austrian economist” — was approached for the newly vacant position of chief economist at the Commission, reports my colleague Giovanna Faggionato.

After Fiona Scott Morton’s withdrawal, the Competition department is reopening the selection procedure in the coming weeks. While the job ad has not yet been published, Ederer confirmed he was approached by a member of the competition economics team to check his availability for the post.

Killer acquisitions: Currently a professor at Boston University, Ederer obtained American citizenship after years working in the U.S. He is well-known for his research on killer acquisitions — where established giants buy innovative start-ups, eliminating them before they can become serious competitors.

Masks off: Ederer does not fear investigating his own academic community. Recently he made waves with a paper that analyzed sexist, racist and abusive posts on an online forum used by economists and traced many of them back to elite universities.

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SAUDI GATHERING TO TALK PEACE: Saudi Arabia will host a two-day meeting with countries from around the world this weekend, in an attempt to kick-start peace talks in Russia’s war on Ukraine. It follows Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise stop-off in Jeddah en route to the G7 summit in May when he addressed the Arab League and met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Will Beijing join? Brazil, India, Turkey, Japan, a host of European countries and the United States are expected to join the talks. But the big question is whether China will show up. “It matters what China does. Most of the participants last time around regretted that China did not participate,” said one senior European official involved in preparations for the meeting.

Line in the desert sand: Saudi Arabia has walked a fine line since the start of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion, seeking to broker a deal to repatriate Ukrainian children taken to Russia, for example, while remaining in direct contact with Moscow. MBS spoke with Putin last month following the Saudi decision to cut oil production (both countries are members of the OPEC+ oil-exporting group). But the Saudis also maintain strong ties with the U.S., with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meeting MBS in Jeddah last week.

Deliverables: The top target for officials is to agree on a joint statement at the end of this weekend’s meeting — an outcome that eluded negotiators at a similar gathering in Copenhagen last month. Ukraine also sees the meeting as a possible precursor for a long-touted peace summit.

The long view: Though one official told POLITICO’s Suzanne Lynch that a meeting on Ukraine at the heads of state level is possible on the fringes of September’s U.N. General Assembly or at the G20 in India, a more structured peace summit later in the year is also under discussion.

MEANWHILE, ON THE ROMANIAN BORDER: Romanian President Klaus Iohannis labeled Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian ports on the Danube, near his country’s border, “unacceptable,” and accused Russia of war crimes. Moscow has launched a series of air strikes on ports on the Danube after pulling out of the Black Sea grain deal last month. More from Laura Hülsemann here.

Grain charm offensive: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday wrote to developing and G20 countries warning them that Moscow is using the lure of cheap grain “to create new dependencies by exacerbating economic vulnerabilities and global food insecurity,” Reuters reports. Borrell called on the countries to push Russia to return to the Black Sea grain deal, instead of falling for Moscow’s spin.

Kremlin weaponizing food: “As the world deals with disrupted supplies and higher prices, Russia is now approaching vulnerable countries with bilateral offers of grain shipments at discounted prices, pretending to solve a problem it created itself,” Borrell wrote. “This is a cynical policy of deliberately using food as a weapon to create new dependencies by exacerbating economic vulnerabilities and global food insecurity.”

MEANWHILE, IN IRELAND: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the FT in an interview that Ireland must do more to defend its waters and the gas pipelines and cables within them, after Russian ships were spotted close to the country’s coasts earlier this year. “There’s two areas that we’re working on with our [EU, U.S. and U.K.] partners,” Varadkar said. “One is to make sure that [cables and pipelines] are more secure and harder to sabotage. And then, that we could respond to a threat if it did emerge.”

Staying neutral: But Ireland intends to stay neutral and won’t be joining NATO, Varadkar insisted.

RUSSIA’S IMPERIALIST WAR: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ripped the façade off “anti-imperialism,” argues columnist Frida Ghitis in an opinion article for POLITICO. Reaction to the war among leaders in Latin America and Africa has revealed that the term was little more than a cover for anti-Americanism, Ghitis writes.

NGOS CALL FOR GREEK SHIPWRECK INVESTIGATION: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are today calling on Athens to allow an independent investigation into the June 14 shipwreck that is feared to have killed hundreds. The call follows a joint research mission in which the NGOs identified “disparities between survivors’ accounts and the authorities’ version of the events,” according a HRW spokesperson.

NO FAIRYTALE ENDING: Disney’s decision not to air “Atatürk,” a six-part period drama originally billed for broadcast on its Disney+ platform, has caused uproar in Turkey. Officials accused the American network of bowing to pressure from Armenian groups to pull the series, which dramatized the life of Turkey’s founding father. More from Gabriel Gavin here.

MELONI’S CLIMATE TIGHTROPE: On the world stage, Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni talks up the dangers of climate change. But closer to home, even in the face of record heat, fires and floods, her government is far from convinced.

Hot and cold: In the U.S. last week, Meloni and President Joe Biden released a joint statement committing to fight the “existential threat posed by climate change.” But in July, Meloni told a rally of Spain’s far-right Vox Party via a video clip that “ultra-ecological fanaticism” was a threat to the economy. Her government colleagues have made similar statements, Elena Giordano and Karl Mathiesen write.

CHINA’S AMBITIONS: President Xi Jinping wants to project China as a powerful trade partner — or dangerous adversary — to virtually any country hoping to be successful in the 21st century. But among the Chinese people — and increasingly in the chancelleries and boardrooms of Europe — a different story is beginning to be told: Beijing’s march toward global economic domination may not be invincible after all. Stuart Lau and Phelim Kine have more.

— Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli participates at the G20 Ministerial Conference in India, meets with Turkish Minister of Family and Social Services Mahinur Özdemir Göktaş, Executive Secretary at the Ministry of Women of Brazil Maria Helena Guarezi, Acting Vice Minister for Education of the Netherlands Marjan Hammersma.

VOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIP: Around 780 tons of golden sand has been deposited at two sites in the center of Brussels to form the courts for the Belgian volleyball championship, which runs from August 4-6. You can watch the matches for free at Place de la Bourse and Place de la Monnaie. More here.

BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Moritz Körner and Andrea Cozzolino; Former Polish EU Ambassador Jarosław Starzyk; European Commission’s Pascaline Deuquet-Eenens; Ouest France’s Fabien Cazenave; Former French Minister of the Sea Annick Girardin; Meta’s Phillip Malloch; Hage Geingob, president of Namibia.

THANKS to Jacopo Barigazzi, Giovanna Faggionato, Suzanne Lynch, Nicholas Vinocur, Eddy Wax, Louise Guillot, editor Jack Lahart and producer Dato Parulava.

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By JAKOB HANKE VELAwith ZOYA SHEFTALOVICHSUNLIGHT IS THE BEST DISINFECTANT:Victory for transparency: But some files will remain secret:Background:An existential issue:Try again:Why the case matters:Council secrets: When politics must stop: When politics must stopA FRENCH READER WRITES IN: Macron says no: New blood: KING OF THE CASTLE:WEBER VS. VDL: Who’s right?Everything is awesome:DG COMP EYES NEW CANDIDATE:After Fiona Scott Morton’s withdrawal,Killer acquisitions:Masks off:Reach beyond the headlines with Power PlaySAUDI GATHERING TO TALK PEACE: Will Beijing join? Line in the desert sand: Deliverables: The long view:MEANWHILE, ON THE ROMANIAN BORDER: Grain charm offensive: Kremlin weaponizing food: MEANWHILE, IN IRELAND: Staying neutral: RUSSIA’S IMPERIALIST WAR:NGOS CALL FOR GREEK SHIPWRECK INVESTIGATION: NO FAIRYTALE ENDING:MELONI’S CLIMATE TIGHTROPE: Hot and cold:CHINA’S AMBITIONS:Helena Dalli Mahinur Özdemir GöktaşMaria Helena GuareziMarjan HammersmaVOLLEYBALL CHAMPIONSHIP: BIRTHDAYS: Moritz KörnerAndrea CozzolinoJarosław Starzyk Pascaline Deuquet-Eenens Fabien CazenaveAnnick GirardinPhillip MallochHage GeingobTHANKSJacopo BarigazziGiovanna Faggionato Suzanne LynchNicholas VinocurEddy WaxLouise GuillotJack LahartDato ParulavaSUBSCRIBE to the POLITICO newsletter family: