Limits on public overspending by EU governments should remain suspended until the end of 2022 as the coronavirus pandemic is still choking the economy, the European Commission recommended on Wednesday.
The EU executive suspended the rules a year ago as the European Union sank into its deepest recession since World War II.
This has allowed countries to open the money taps to rescue their economies and help companies survive the pandemic.
EU Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said that, based on current projections, the reprieve should “remain active in 2022 and be deactivated in 2023” when Europe’s economy should have returned to pre-crisis health.
The idea will have to be approved by the EU member states and the commission could face hard questions from the so-called Frugals — richer members such as the Netherlands and Denmark — that are wary of allowing big spending to continue longer than necessary.
Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s commissioner for the economy, argued that the pandemic was still inflicting pain on Europe’s economy and that “for 2022, it is clear that fiscal support will still be necessary.”
“Better to err towards doing too much rather than too little,” Gentiloni, a former Italian prime minister, added.
Known as the Stability and Growth Pact, the rules limit deficit spending at three percent of the overall economy and debt at 60 percent.
The rules are often violated and countries risk penalties for ignoring them, though no government has ever been sanctioned.
The debt limit is especially overshot by several countries, with Italian debt, for example, soaring to a staggering 155.6 percent of the economy.
Instead, the pact mainly empowers the EU executive and fellow member states to keep a careful eye on how national governments run their budgets.
The commission, with the backing of the member states, also signals to national governments what reforms need to be carried out in order to get a thumbs up from the EU.
The EU on Tuesday said it was taking a closer look into billions of euros in aid promised by Germany to firms hit by the closure of coal-fired power plants, over concerns it may give them an unfair advantage.
“Our role is to safeguard competition by making sure that the compensation granted to the operators … is kept to the minimum necessary,” EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager said in a statement.
“The information currently at our disposal does not allow us to confirm this with certainty, and we will now investigate this further,” she added.
Germany has embarked on a plan to phase out coal as a source of electricity by 2038 and has promised 4.35 billion euros in aid to operators RWE and LEAG for lost profits.
The EU executive noted that “at this stage” the “preliminary view is that the German measure is likely to constitute state aid”.
Despite a green reputation abroad, Germany remains heavily reliant on dirty coal, partly because of a decision to abandon nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster.
In the third quarter of 2020, just over half of the electricity produced in Europe’s top economy came from non-renewables, with coal alone accounting for 26 percent.
Climate activists have urged the government to speed up Germany’s coal exit, saying the current timetable is not ambitious enough.
EU member states on Monday approved sanctions to be slapped on four senior Russian justice and law enforcement officials involved in the detention of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Diplomatic sources told AFP the names would be published in the bloc’s official journal on Tuesday, after envoys from member states approved the list of targets drawn up by Brussels.
According to two sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, the targeted Russians are: Alexander Kalashnikov, federal prisons administrator; Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee of Russia; Igor Krasnov, prosecutor general; and Viktor Zolotov, director of the National Guard.
The four are the first individuals to be targeted under the EU’s new human rights sanctions regime, which came into effect in December. They will be banned from travelling to the EU and any assets held there will be frozen.
Navalny was jailed last month after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he had spent months recovering from a poisoning with a banned nerve agent he blames on Putin. The Kremlin denies it was behind the attack.
The imprisoning of Putin’s best-known opponent sparked nationwide protests that saw thousands of demonstrators detained and triggered calls in the West for Navalny’s release — calls now backed by EU sanctions.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Alexander Grushko said Russia would respond, without giving details.
“It’s not a surprise for us. The European Union is continuing along an absolutely unlawful path that is an absolute dead-end,” he said, according to Interfax.
The European Commission said Tuesday it has formally warned six EU countries that their virus-related border curbs could undermine free movement within the bloc.
Letters sent on Monday to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden, highlight a risk of “fragmentation and disruptions to free movement and to supply chains,” commission spokesman Christian Wigand told journalists.
The EU executive is worried the measures go beyond recommendations adopted four months ago seeking a “proportional” balance between slowing the spread of the coronavirus and maintaining movement.
It has given the countries until late next week to respond, failing which it could, theoretically, start proceedings for breach of EU laws.
Germany, however, strongly rejected the idea that its strict restrictions on traffic from Austria’s Tyrol region and from the Czech Republic and Slovakia ran counter to EU rules.
“I reject the accusation that we have not complied with EU law,” German European Affairs Minister Michael Roth said in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of EU counterparts.
He said Germany had made the “difficult” decision because of the fear of highly contagious coronavirus variants and because of Germany’s position as “a transit country in the middle of the European Union”.
The commission’s letter to Germany, obtained by AFP, said Germany was not applying all the ban exemptions set out by the EU recommendations, and noted that the spread of variants in the Czech Republic and Slovakia was no worse than in some other EU countries.
It also took exception to German authorities requiring Covid-19 test results to be issued in English, German, French or Italian, saying results in Czech or Slovak should also be accepted.
The EU’s aim, the letter said, is “the preservation of the functioning of the Single Market during a volatile economic period, as well as the protection of family life during a time of significantly reduced social contacts outside the core family.”
Wigand, the commission spokesman, said: “We trust that we will find solutions with member states concerned without having to revert to legal steps, which can be lengthy”.
EU leaders are to discuss the virus situation in the bloc on Thursday and Friday, during a videolink summit.
Given the rapid spread among minks once the virus has been introduced, periodic testing of random samples should be done rather than farmers waiting until they see signs of the disease among the animals, it said.
The report was compiled by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
According to the agencies, as of January 2021, the virus has been detected at 400 mink farms in eight countries in the EU area.
That includes 290 in Denmark, 69 in the Netherlands, 21 in Greece, 13 in Sweden, three in Spain, two in Lithuania and one in France and Italy each.
The report also noted that the number of farmed minks had “drastically decreased and many countries have already banned fur farming” due to virus outbreaks.
Denmark — formerly the world’s largest exporter of mink fur — in early November ordered a mass cull of all of its more than 15 million minks after a mutated version of the virus was discovered and believed to jeopardise the effectiveness of future vaccines.
Messaging apps such as Messenger or WhatsApp and video calls on Zoom face stricter privacy rules in Europe, after a draft law passed a key EU hurdle on Wednesday.
The EU’s 27 member states approved a proposal that was stuck since 2017, with countries split between those wanting strict privacy online and others wanting to give leeway to law enforcement and advertisers.
Portugal, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, submitted a compromise proposal that was approved by qualified majority at a meeting in Brussels.
“The path to the council position has not been easy,” Portugal’s minister of infrastructure Pedro Nuno Santos said.
“But we now have a mandate that strikes a good balance between solid protection of the private life of individuals and fostering the development of new technologies and innovation.”
France, which wants to give its police forces stronger tools to fight terrorism, wants to limit the law’s curbs on access to private data.
The fight against child pornography was also a major concern of many member states.
But Germany supported far more robust privacy rules, with fewer exceptions.
In the approved text, member states agreed that service providers are allowed “to safeguard the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of criminal offences”.
In addition, companies such as Facebook and Google, can continue to process metadata of their users, but only with consent and if the information is made anonymous.
The final text also lent support to the advertising industry and abandoned a plan to ban so-called cookies that closely track user activity online.
The proposal updates existing EU rules that date back to 2002, under which strict privacy protection is only applied to text messages and voice calls provided by traditional telecoms, sparing tech giants.
Portugal will now negotiate with the European Parliament on a final version of the plan, that would then need ratification by MEPs and the 27 member states.
But the lead parliament’s rapporteur overseeing the negotiation warned that the talks would be rigorous.
“It is to be feared that the industry’s attempts to undermine the directive over the past years have borne fruit — they’ve had enough time to do that,” Birgit Sippel, a German MEP from the centre left S&D group, said.
“We must now analyse in detail whether the proposals of the member states really contribute to better protecting the private communication of users online, or instead primarily serve the business models of some digital corporations.”
A WHO expert sent to China to probe the coronavirus hit out at US intelligence on Covid-19 as his team headed home with few answers about the origin of a pandemic that was forcing more clampdowns in some of the hardest-hit parts of the world.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was set to seek an extension of strict virus curbs, as the European Commission chief prepared to defend the stumbling vaccination rollout in the continent — which accounts for a third of the 2.3 million Covid-19 deaths worldwide.
The coronavirus has infected close to 107 million people, devastating the global economy, and questions over the handling of the initial outbreak in central China sparked an intense diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing.
The WHO mission to the ground zero city of Wuhan wrapped up Tuesday without any concrete answers, with Washington again expressing scepticism about China’s transparency and cooperation.
But WHO team member Peter Daszak tweeted: “Please don’t rely too much on US intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump & frankly wrong on many aspects.”
He said they worked “flat out under the most politically charged environment possible”.
China had repeatedly delayed the WHO trip, and bristled at accusations of a lack of transparency. Beijing warned Washington not to “politicise” the mission after the White House demanded a “robust” probe.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the United States supports the investigation. But when asked if China had fully cooperated with the WHO, he said: “The jury’s still out.”
The WHO team did not identify which animal transferred the coronavirus to humans, but said there was no indication it was circulating in Wuhan before December 2019, when the first official cases were recorded.
WHO expert Peter Ben Embarek also scotched the controversial theory that the virus may have leaked from a lab in Wuhan.
– Vaccine, surge worries in Europe –
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was due to explain the EU’s vaccine strategy to the European Parliament in Brussels on Wednesday, with the bloc’s leadership under growing pressure.
Vaccine supply issues have already caused a diplomatic row after AstraZeneca said it would not be able to immediately ship the doses it promised to Britain and the EU.
At the same time, the resurgence of infections across the continent is adding to the pressure on its leadership.
A stricter lockdown will be imposed in Greece from Thursday — in particular in the Athens region — as Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis warned that his country was facing a third Covid-19 wave.
Wary of infection numbers exploding again, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek to extend strict curbs at least until the end of February as fatigue grows with the partial lockdown in Europe’s top economy.
Immunisation efforts are being ramped in other parts of the world with a number of vaccines.
Peru on Tuesday began administering shots developed by China’s Sinopharm, while Argentina approved the Indian-made version of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
South Korea on Wednesday also authorised the AstraZeneca shot for people aged 18 and above, including over-65s.
A number of European countries have not authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine for the elderly — considered the demographic most vulnerable to Covid-19.
Japan will start vaccinations next week — most likely the Pfizer/BioNTech jab — but it is scrambling to secure suitable syringes so doses won’t go to waste.
– Valentine’s Day worries –
Along with mass vaccinations, researchers and engineers around the world are searching for other ways to help end the pandemic and return life to normal — especially international travel.
Tech-savvy Estonia is working on a pilot project with the WHO on how a globally recognised electronic vaccine certificate might work, including addressing concerns about security and privacy.
A more immediate concern for authorities in many countries this week is Valentine’s Day, with fears that the upcoming celebrations could lead to a surge in infections.
Authorities in Thailand’s capital Bangkok announced the city would not register marriages on Valentine’s Day, a popular day for weddings.
In Brussels, however, where restaurants are closed, some hotels have converted rooms into private dining salons for two.
“We’re over the moon about being here tonight, just like in a restaurant,” said Marine Deroo, a 34-year-old who tried out the concept ahead of Valentine’s Day.
Europe’s race to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines must accelerate to catch up to scientific breakthroughs and outpace emerging variants, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.
“We underestimated the difficulty related to mass production. Normally, it takes five to 10 years to produce a new vaccine. We did it in 10 months. This is a huge scientific success, and we should be rightly proud — but in a way, science has outstripped industry,” she told the European Parliament.
In her first public admission to Europeans — outside of some select media interviews — von der Leyen said her Commission had made missteps in procuring vaccines on behalf all EU countries.
“We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production. And perhaps we were too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time,” she said.
But to have allowed Europe’s wealthiest countries to grab vaccines for themselves and leave others in the cold “would have been, I think, the end of our community,” she said.
– ‘We got it right’ –
There were lessons to be learnt, von der Leyen said, and her Commission would do so.
They included getting more data shared between clinics in EU countries, improving regulations to allow the European Medicines Agency to move faster in authorising vaccines, and especially to clear industrial bottlenecks to vaccine production.
“Industry must adapt to the pace of science,” she said, noting that vaccines can contain as many as 400 ingredients and manufacturing involve as many as 100 companies.
A vaccine production task force under internal market commissioner Thierry Breton was charged with that mission, she said.
“We’re dealing with completely new mRNA vaccines never manufactured at scale before. One of the current bottlenecks is, for example, linked to synthetic molecules… we need more coordination on the supply of key ingredients.”
Von der Leyen warned that European scientists do not yet know if the vaccines will be effective against new mutant strains of the virus that are emerging.
“But we do know these variants will continue to emerge. And we do know that we need to anticipate and prepare immediately,” she warned.
She also said deeply regretted an aborted bid by the Commission last month to try to restrict vaccines being transported into Britain’s territory of Northern Ireland as part of a bitter row with Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, which has failed to deliver vaccine doses it promised to the EU.
But she stressed that “in the end, we got it right” and a hastily set-up EU vaccine export control scheme would not “restrict companies that are honouring their contracts with the European Union” and vaccines to most of the bloc’s neighbours would be unhindered.
The Commission, she emphasised, “will do its utmost to protect the peace of Northern Ireland, just as it has done throughout the entire Brexit process”.
Russia on Friday expelled diplomats from three European countries for taking part in protests in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, after the European Union said ties with Moscow had hit a new low.
With EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Moscow for a rare visit, Russia said it had declared diplomats from Poland, Germany and Sweden persona non grata for participating in “illegal protests” on January 23 in support of Navalny.
The West has fiercely condemned Navalny’s arrest in mid-January, a crackdown on mass demonstrations by his supporters, and a court ruling on Tuesday to jail the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner for nearly three years.
Moscow announced the expulsions just hours after Borrell met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss ties, with the unspecified number of diplomats “ordered to leave Russia in the near future”.
The foreign ministry did not provide details of how they had been involved in the protests, saying only that Russia expects foreign diplomats to “strictly follow the norms of international law”.
Russia has bristled at Western backing for Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent opponent, accusing Europe and the United States of interfering in its domestic affairs.
“Our relationship is indeed in a difficult moment,” Borrell told Lavrov during the talks, adding that the relationship is “under severe strain and the Navalny case is a low point”.
The two men said there were hopes for cooperation in some areas, including on the coronavirus pandemic, but the announcement of the expulsions was unlikely to help ease tensions.
In a statement on Friday, Borrell said he had learned of the decision to expel three European diplomats in his meeting with Lavrov.
Borrell “strongly condemned this decision and rejected the allegations that they conducted activities incompatible with their status as foreign diplomats”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the action as “not justified”, while French President Emmanuel Macron “condemned” the decision.
Sweden’s foreign ministry said the decision was “completely unfounded” and warned that it reserved the right “to an appropriate response”, while Poland said it could lead to the “further deepening of the crisis in bilateral relations”.
Borrell’s visit was the first to Russia by a senior EU envoy since 2017, following years of deteriorating relations sparked by Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Navalny back in court
Ties have further worsened in recent months, after three European labs concluded that Navalny was poisoned with a Soviet-designed nerve agent in an attack in Siberia in August.
He blames Putin for the poisoning, a charge the Kremlin denies.
Navalny was flown to Germany to recover from the poisoning then arrested at a Moscow airport when he returned to Russia in mid-January.
He was accused of violating the parole conditions of a 2014 suspended sentence on fraud charges and on Tuesday jailed for two years and eight months.
He was back in court on Friday on separate charges of defaming a World War II veteran, which could see him jailed for an additional two years.
The hearing was adjourned to Friday, February 12.
The trained lawyer is accused of describing people who appeared in a pro-Kremlin video — including the 95-year-old veteran — as “the shame of the country” and “traitors” in a June tweet.
In court Navalny and his lawyers said the case was politically motivated and a pretext to silence him.
‘Truth is on my side’
“It is clear to everyone that the truth is on my side,” he said, standing in a glass cage for defendants in the Moscow courtroom.
Borrell’s visit drew criticism from some European capitals worried Moscow would spin it as evidence Brussels is keen to return to business as usual, with some in Europe calling for new sanctions on Russia.
The Kremlin on Friday also lashed out against what it called “aggressive and unconstructive rhetoric” from the United States this week.
“We’ve already said that we will not heed patronising statements of this sort,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
President Joe Biden on Thursday said the US will no longer be “rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions” and his officials said they would take action against Moscow over Navalny and for other “malign” behaviour.
An outcry grew in Russia Thursday over a crackdown on protesters, as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visits the country under pressure to confront Moscow over the imprisonment of Alexei Navalny.
Borrell’s three-day visit to Russia beginning Thursday — the first by a top EU envoy since 2017 — comes during a period of unusual turbulence in the country, with police arresting at least 10,000 people during recent nationwide protests in support of Navalny.
President Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic was sentenced this week to nearly three years in prison — his first lengthy jail term — and is due in court again Friday on charges of defaming a World War II veteran.
During the recent demonstrations police detained dozens of journalists, and jails in Moscow and Saint Petersburg were packed with demonstrators serving short jail terms.
On the eve of Borrell’s visit, a court sentenced Sergei Smirnov, chief editor of Mediazona — an online news publication often critical of the government — to 25 days in jail over a re-tweet of a joke that included the time of a recent protest.
The jailing of Navalny, 44, and the crackdown sparked outrage among many Russians.
In a joint statement issued by leading rights group Memorial, prominent rights campaigners said they were concerned by the “unprecedented escalation of baseless violence”.
“Never in the history of modern Russia has there been such a number of beaten, detained and arrested people,” they said.
– ‘Extremely harsh actions’ –
Top broadsheets added their voices to the chorus of condemnation.
“Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed extremely harsh actions of members of law enforcement,” Kommersant said.
“Beatings and mass detentions should not become the norm in our country.”
Business daily RBC said several of its journalists had witnessed “detentions and the use of force” against the media during the protests.
The newspaper demanded that law enforcement explain the arrest of Smirnov and other journalists.
Navalny’s allies called on Russians to take to the streets after he was detained last month on arrival from Germany where he had been recovering after being poisoned.
Borrell is eager to sound out Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the chances of cooperation on issues including enlisting Russia’s help in reviving the Iran nuclear deal and tackling climate change.
But the jailing of Navalny and the police crackdown are expected to dominate the agenda when the two diplomats meet on Friday.
The high-profile visit has drawn criticism from some European capitals worried that Moscow will spin it as evidence Brussels is keen to return to business as usual.
Borrell insists he will deliver “clear messages” to Moscow which has shrugged off Western calls to free Navalny, who has accused Putin of trying to kill him.
– ‘Incredible disgrace’ –
On Thursday, EU foreign policy spokesman Peter Stano called the upcoming talks “a delicate diplomatic balancing act”.
He added however: “We are very clear in what we want to do, what we want to say, what we want to achieve.”
The EU’s ties with Russia have been in the doldrums since Moscow seized Crimea in 2014 and fuelled a war in Ukraine that claimed more than 13,000 lives.
On Thursday, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Brussels and Moscow should be able to freely discuss “all existing differences”.
“We would like to unblock our dialogue,” he said.
Kremlin critics allege a concerted effort to intimidate dissenters and put pressure on Navalny’s family and allies, some of whom have been placed under house arrest for two months.
Moscow’s jails were bursting at the seams following the crackdown, and many protesters were sent to a detention centre for migrants outside the capital.
On Thursday, an AFP journalist saw around 100 people queueing outside the Sakharovo migrant centre, waiting to pass care packages to detainees.
“This is just an incredible disgrace,” 27-year-old Denis Bondarenko said outside the centre, noting his cousin had been randomly snatched off the street.
Calls are growing in Europe for the EU to slap new sanctions against Moscow. An EU statement said foreign ministers would discuss “possible further action” at a meeting on February 22.
EU export rules are preventing Japan from finalising its coronavirus vaccination plan, a Tokyo minister said Tuesday, after the bloc introduced a controversial new mechanism for the shipment of jabs made inside its borders.
With less than six months until the pandemic-postponed Tokyo Olympics, Japan has yet to set out when it will vaccinate its population of 126 million people, although it hopes to give the first doses later in February.
The European Union, which is facing criticism of its own sluggish Covid-19 vaccine rollout, on Friday brought in a new rule requiring drug-makers to seek approval before exporting vaccines to non-EU countries.
“Because of that, we have not been able to finalise our supply schedule,” said Taro Kono, the minister in charge of Japan’s vaccine programme.
Japan has reached deals with Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca to buy enough vaccine doses for its population.
But health authorities want to confirm the vaccines’ safety through domestic clinical trials before giving any of them a green light.
The jab from Pfizer — which, along with AstraZeneca has factories in the EU — will likely be the first approved.
Kono, the outspoken minister for regulatory reform, also called for international measures to prevent so-called “vaccine nationalism” impacting on global health.
Delays have dogged both the procurement and rollout of vaccines in the EU, which has been embroiled in a furious dispute with AstraZeneca.
The bloc accuses AstraZeneca of breaching its contract by delaying deliveries to EU governments while maintaining those under a deal it signed earlier with the United Kingdom.
On Friday, the European Commission launched a scheme to monitor and in some cases bar exports of vaccines produced in EU plants — an emergency measure that has been criticised by the World Health Organization.
Kono said he understood the EU’s predicament, but stressed that the export rules had come in after vaccines became available, and had “started to affect supplies”.
“We realise that the EU has made initial investments and has not been able to secure vaccines that it needs,” Kono said.
“My honest feeling is that I hope they would not do anything to impact a supply schedule that was already decided,” he said.