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EU FIGHT OVER PALESTINIAN AID
COMMISSIONERS TO DISCUSS AID FOR PALESTINIANS: The EU’s fight over aid for Palestinians — of which the bloc is the largest donor — is going into Round 2 today.
Conditions: A large number of commissioners are voicing serious concerns about Neighborhood and Enlargement chief Olivér Várhelyi’s plan to impose additional conditions on that aid, four officials briefed on the internal discussions told Playbook and my top colleague Barbara Moens.
Details: The 27 EU commissioners are set to discuss the controversial and highly political question at their weekly College meeting today. Ahead of the meeting, the teams of 11 commissioners questioned Várhelyi’s plan.
Reminder: Várhelyi triggered a major controversy when he announced a freeze of aid to the Palestinian territories in the wake of Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, and was immediately contradicted by EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell and, later, by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
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Review found no Hamas links: Instead of a freeze, Várhelyi got away with a face-saving “review” of the EU’s aid — meant to check that no money was going to Hamas. That in-house review found that no money was directly or indirectly flowing to Hamas, two Commission officials said, and as the FT first reported. Várhelyi then planned to include additional conditions and external checks on aid, including a ban on EU payments to Palestinians who express support for Hamas or voice antisemitic views.
But but but: As Playbook learned, the teams of 11 commissioners questioned the additional conditions ahead of today’s meeting. Those raising concerns include the offices of Borrell, Financial Services Commissioner Mairead McGuinness, Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn and International Partnerships Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen.
Controversial conditions: How, some of those Commission officials asked, can the EU justify imposing additional hurdles if the review found no problems with the aid to begin with? Another official warned that any future development aid would become almost impossible under the proposed additional conditions and argued the scope of the audit was not to impose extra conditions on future funding, but to review the current money flows.
Questions on aid: The fight goes to the heart of unaddressed questions about the EU’s humanitarian aid. Should it be granted to maintain the status quo and alleviate immediate suffering? Or should EU aid come with more strings attached, to encourage change?
Open debate: Under von der Leyen’s “geopolitical” Commission, the trend is clearly toward more politicized external aid — designed to defend EU interests. But in that case, should the EU also impose more stringent conditions on EU funding for Israel? Speaking of which …
EU PREPS MORE SUPPORT FOR ISRAEL: EU countries on Monday discussed another proposal from Várhelyi, which would see €18 million in support for Israel, according to documents seen by POLITICO (and first reported by Devex).
Details: The money is part of the Commission’s action plan for the regional south neighborhood, with the goal of reinforcing EU-Israel bilateral relations “in a wider effort to strengthen regional stability in support of the Abraham Accords, in particular in light of the Hamas attack.” The EU has a wide set of goals laid out in the plan, including fighting antisemitism and supporting the normalization process between Israel and some Arab countries.
Not so fast: A large group of EU countries have asked for a discussion on the decision, according to an EU diplomat, which will happen today in the NDICI working group, which focuses on neighborhood policy.
ISRAEL-HAMAS DEAL: Meanwhile, the chief of Hamas has told Reuters that the group is nearing a “truce agreement” with Israel. On Monday the White House said a deal on the release of hostages held by Hamas and a pause in fighting was “closer now than we’ve been before.”
ISRAEL’S FEMALE BORDER TROOPS SPEAK OUT: Israel’s predominantly female border surveillance forces — known in Hebrew as the tatzpitaniyot — say their superiors did not heed their warnings of unusual activity inside Gaza in the lead-up to Hamas’ attack. Their claims adds fuel to accusations that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu badly misread the threat from Hamas, Jamie Dettmer reports.
GERMANY’S MONEY WOES
SUBSIDY OWN-GOAL: If the state aid spat between Germany and France was a tug-of-war, Paris has came out the winner. The Commission will give a six-month extension to the “crisis” provisions that allow governments to give money to companies suffering higher costs as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine — including helping to pay companies’ energy bills.
A winner in theory: Berlin was one of the loudest and strongest advocates for extending the exemption, despite warnings from other EU countries who feared the subsidies would undermine the single market, and from economists, who abhor energy subsidies — especially if they go to fossil fuels, as Berlin planned.
Big irony: But last week’s ruling from Germany’s Constitutional Court — which blocked the use of a €60 billion fund to finance the governing coalition’s climate agenda — means Berlin most likely won’t be able to use the extra leeway granted by the subsidy extension to put the country’s industry on steroids. France, however, will.
FLASHBACK: Last year, France and Germany pushed for more subsidies to help cushion industry and households against soaring energy costs, torpedoing a state aid taboo that governments shouldn’t be paying businesses’ operating costs.
Enough, please: Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic and others had asked the Commission not to extend the subsidy exemptions, which were supposed to be temporary and to be phased out on December 31. But Germany and France both pushed for an extension.
Lost battle: With the French and Germans backing an extension, the writing was on the wall. Some of the opposing countries viewed a three-month extension, which had been floated by the Commission, as a compromise they could live with. But the final decision, announced by Brussels on Monday, goes beyond that with an extension until June 2024.
‘Very much in favor’: Despite their newly dug €60 billion budget hole, the German government was “very much in favor of the extension,” said a spokesperson for the economy ministry.
Dutch disgruntlement: The Dutch “are not convinced there is a need — or even a legal basis — for this extended crisis response,” said the Netherlands’ finance ministry spokesperson Pieter ten Bruggencate. “In fact, it poses risks for the level playing field on the internal European market.”
GERMANY’S SELF-INFLICTED WOUNDS RISK GETTING WORSE: As Germany’s infighting coalition government grapples with how to plug the hole in the federal budget following the bombshell court ruling, more financial trouble is looming.
Crucial consequence: Various shadow budgets that Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government created to circumvent Germany’s self-imposed constitutional debt limit may be illegal, according to the ruling. This includes a new plan to cut electricity costs for energy-intensive industries that was agreed in November after many months of coalition fighting over the measure.
Chips subsidies: Likewise, the financing of billions worth of subsidies, which were promised earlier this year to chipmakers Intel and TSMC for building new plants in eastern Germany, is now in question. Hans von der Burchard has the details here.
Budget shutdown: In a sign of how serious the financial gap is, the finance ministry on Monday imposed a temporary freeze on almost all of Germany’s budget for this year, Spiegel reported.
HUNGARIAN ANTISEMITISM EVENT DRAWS CRITICS: An event planned by Hungarian MEPs in Strasbourg today with the participation of Commissioner Várhelyi has drawn criticism from MEPs, who queried whether Viktor Orbán’s government was best placed to stand up for Europe’s Jews, Eddy Wax writes in to report.
Background: Fidesz lawmaker Tamás Deutsch organized an exhibition and a conference entitled “Combating Antisemitism through Education,” with EPP MEP György Hölvényi. The event will “explore successful initiatives that have effectively tackled antisemitism through school education,” and include representatives of Jewish organizations, according to the invitation sent to all MEPs last week.
No thanks, I’m busy: “Given the Orbán government’s poor track record in actually fighting anti-Semitism in his own country, we and probably many of our colleagues find this invitation extremely confusing, and even harder to consider credible,” three MEPs responded in a reply-all to the invitation, seen by Playbook.
The trio of Karen Melchior and Maria Soraya Rodríguez Ramos, both from Renew, and the Greens’ Margrete Auken, added they support “genuine” efforts to fight antisemitism in education. They also raised concerns about the participation of controversial Israeli Minister Amichai Chikli as a speaker.
SCOOP — DE CROO CHIEF OF STAFF SET TO BECOME NEW EU AMBASSADOR: Peter Moors, the chief of staff of Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, is set to become the country’s new ambassador to the EU. The move will come after Belgium’s six-month presidency of the Council of the EU ends in the summer of 2024, eight Belgian diplomats and officials told my colleagues Barbara Moens and Camille Gijs. Moors’ expected appointment, which still has to be formally approved, is part of a bigger reshuffle of Belgian top diplomats, including the other top postings at the Belgian perm rep to the EU.
Reshuffle also includes Michel’s chief of staff: Another contender in the Belgian reshuffle is Frédéric Bernard, Council President Charles Michel’s head of Cabinet. But he also has his eye on a European diplomat posting: Bernard is aiming to become the next EU ambassador to Canada, three EU officials said. You can read more about the other expected Belgian postings here.
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MUSK SUES MEDIA MATTERS: Lawyers for Elon Musk’s X have filed a lawsuit accusing the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters of doctoring images of ads run by major corporations on the platform, placing them next to neo-Nazi tweets. Media Matters claimed the lawsuit was “meant to bully X’s critics into silence.” Read more, from Eric Bazail-Eimil.
ALTMAN DRAMA ROUNDUP: Sam Altman was removed as CEO of OpenAI on Friday. But wait — maybe not! Wait — yes he was, and he’s joining Microsoft. Wait! OpenAI staffers want him back. Whatever happens next, one thing is for sure: Digital policymakers and activists are watching the unfolding saga — closely. Here’s a quick tour de table, collected by my colleagues at our Pro Morning Tech newsletter.
The AI Act champion: Brando Benifei, one of the two European parliamentarians spearheading the Artificial Intelligence Act, said the Altman drama “shows us that we cannot rely on voluntary agreements brokered or commitments taken by visionary leaders but that regulation especially when dealing with the most powerful AI models needs to be sound, transparent and enforceable.”
The AI Act champion, Part 2: Fellow AI Act condottiere Dragoș Tudorache agreed. “There is a genuine tension inside companies working at the frontier of AI between moving fast and preventing risks,” he said. “We need to tread carefully: we don’t want to put any brakes on innovation, but on the other hand we need to make sure we don’t lose sight of our objective to build and deploy human-centric AI.”
Spain’s AI enforcer: Carme Artigas, Spain’s AI minister and chief AI Act negotiator on behalf of the Council of the EU, plumped for a eulogy of Altman (who is alive, well, and a billionaire). “We appreciate the work that Sam Altman did on raising awareness about the importance of [regulating] AI globally and the risks and challenges that new models set for our societies, as well as his commitment to advancing an AI that truly benefits humankind,” Artigas said.
The anti-Altman: Joep Meindertsma, from activist group Pause AI, was the lone fan of Altman’s removal. “We are fortunate that OpenAI was created with a structure that requires the board to prioritize AI safety over all other considerations,” he said.
FIRST FEMALE PM? Dilan Yeşilgöz, a former refugee who succeeded Mark Rutte as leader of the VVD party, is now leading the polls ahead of Wednesday’s election in the Netherlands, and could become the first female PM in the country’s history. Yet Yeşilgöz has a mountain ahead of her to succeed in the election, Eline Schaart and Barbara Moens report.
DEBATE NIGHT: Eline attended one of the final election debates in Rotterdam Monday evening, and wrote in with this dispatch …
Main areas of disagreement: Migration and climate. Yeşilgöz’s VVD and other right-leaning parties are in favor of a much stricter migration policy. “There are too many people coming to the Netherlands at the expense of Dutch people and true refugees,” she said.
Burn of the night: “Yeşilgöz has learned from Mark Rutte to speak in hyperboles and untruths,” green-left alliance candidate Frans Timmermans told his colleagues.
BAUDET ATTACKED AGAIN: Meanwhile, far-right leader Thierry Baudet was taken to hospital in the northern city of Groningen Monday evening after he was hit on the head several times by someone wielding a bottle. His Forum for Democracy party said later on social media that “it appears everything will be OK.”
It’s the second physical attack on Baudet within a month. At the end of October, Baudet was hit on the head with an umbrella as he arrived at a meeting at the University of Ghent.
IN OTHER NEWS
FIRST IN PLAYBOOK: Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her daughter and global health advocate Chelsea Clinton are heading to the COP28 summit in Dubai next month to represent the Clinton Global Initiative, my Global Playbook colleague Suzanne Lynch writes in to report.
The Clintons’ focus will mainly be on the connection between climate and health, with the two participating in several events with partners including the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Atlantic Council and the Clinton Health Access Initiative.
SPOTTED: Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, exploring Brussels’ Sewer Museum.
TUSK’S BUMPY RIDE: A war of words has broken out between Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Donald Tusk, the likely head of the next government, presaging what’s looking to be a difficult cohabitation between the political rivals. “I am the president, but Donald Tusk is not my candidate for prime minister,” Duda told the right-wing Sieci weekly. The problem for Tusk is that should he become prime minister, Duda could wield his presidential veto on laws that Tusk’s government will seek to pass, Wojciech Kość reports.
AMERICA AND EUROPE: A federalized Europe is not in America’s interest, Andrew A. Michta of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council writes in an opinion article for POLITICO. “As the key provider of the Continent’s security, the U.S. shouldn’t be a mere bystander” in decisions around the EU’s future plans, he argues.
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— Foreign Affairs Council. Arrivals at 8:30 a.m. … doorstep by High Representative Josep Borrell at 9 a.m. Watch.
— POLITICO Live Defense Launch event. Welcome remarks by POLITICO’s Senior Defense Editor Jan Cienski at 4:30 p.m. followed by a joint interview with Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury and CEO of Saab Micael Johansson … panel discussion with Ukrainian, Polish, and British ambassadors to NATO and the EEAS’ managing director for peace, security and defense at 5:15 p.m. … closing remarks at 6 p.m. Watch.
— Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is in Strasbourg; receives the chairs of the S&D, Renew Europe and Greens/EFA group … receives MEP Dacian Cioloș.
— NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is in Belgrade; meets Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, press conference at 9:50 a.m. … meets Prime Minister Ana Brnabić … later travels to North Macedonia to meet with the President Stevo Pendarovski … meets Prime Minister Dimitar Kovačevski; press conference at 4:30 p.m. … also meets President of the Assembly of North Macedonia Talat Xhaferi and gives speech to the parliament at 5:20 p.m. Watch.
— Meeting of the College of Commissioners, followed by a press conference by Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis and Commissioners Paolo Gentiloni and Nicolas Schmit on the European Semester Autumn Package at 3:30 p.m. Watch.
— European Parliament plenary session continues in Strasbourg at 9 a.m. Highlights: Debate on strengthening the CO2 emissions targets for heavy-duty vehicles at 10 a.m. … address by Kenyan President William Ruto at 11:30 a.m. … voting at noon … debate on packaging and packaging waste at 2 p.m. … debate on the EP’s proposal for the amendment of the Treaties at 3 p.m. … Q&A on the EU’s commitment to provide 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition to Ukraine at 5 p.m. … Hungary and the rule of law at 6 p.m. Agenda. Watch.
— European Parliament President Roberta Metsola meets French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne at 9 a.m. … inauguration of the Simone Veil building at 9:30 a.m.
— Neighborhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi participates in “Conference dedicated to Combating Antisemitism through Education.”
COMMISSION STAFF SURVEY: The Commission’s 2023 staff survey is now open — and the R&D union is reminding EU staff to take part. More here.
GENDER BALANCE AT THE EP: The European Parliament is considering changing its rules to improve the gender balance of its committees. Eddy Wax has more.
TEENS TO VOTE IN EU ELECTION: Belgium’s Council of Ministers decided that Belgians aged 16 or older can vote in next year’s European election without prior registration. They can also choose not to vote. Belgium lowered the voting age for European elections to 16 in 2022, but young voters would have had to register in advance just like adults. The Constitutional Court opposed this requirement.
CHILD IN THE CITY CONFERENCE: Brussels is hosting this year’s edition of the “Child in the city” conference, taking place until Wednesday. Politicians, experts and urban planners from various countries will be discussing how to make cities safer and more pleasant for children.
CORPORAL PUNISHMENT: The Belgian branch of Defense for Children International is taking Belgium and its Justice Minister Paul van Tigchelt to court over the fact that the country has not yet banned corporal punishment of children. Parliament is continuing to debate the issue, van Tigchelt’s office says. Le Soir has more.
BEST BELGIAN BEER: Dance Rave Dance, an IPA from the Brussels brewery Surréaliste, was named the best Belgian beer at the Brussels Beer Challenge on Monday. Belgium was the overall winner of the competition with 80 medals, followed by Italy (37 medals) and the Netherlands (34). The jury, consisting of 90 members, chose from 1,800 beers from 37 different countries. Full results here.
TREE WEEK: Brussels is celebrating a tree week with various activities, including planting and distributing of trees and — of course — dressing the Manneken Pis as a gardener. Full list of activities here.
THANKSGIVING DINNER: Are you an American in Brussels (or just a curious European) wishing to celebrate thanksgiving in the city? There are multiple events to try out, including … the American Club’s fancy dinner at Brussels Marriott Hôtel Grand Place … dinner at Cinquantenaire Social Club every day between Thursday and Sunday … smoked turkey and southern desserts at Dooley’s American Smoke House … or Thanksgiving at Hard Rock Café. Don’t forget to reserve your spot.
BRUSSELS GUIDE 2024: The new edition of the city’s cultural guide, BRUSSELS 2024, is available from today, with an overview of next year’s cultural events. The guide contains 100 events chosen by 10 cultural journalists.
BEING HUMAN: An exhibition, Being Human, by artist Gonzalo Orquín sheds light on the stories of migrants arriving to Lampedusa in Italy and Bihać in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It opens Wednesday at 11 a.m. at the Migration Museum in Brussels. The exhibition is organized as part of the Spanish presidency of the EU and will run until February 15.
FASHION LESSON: How did the Art Nouveau movement influence fashion around 1900? Find out at a lecture today at 6:30 p.m. at the City Hall of Brussels (in French).
LOCAL FRIDAY: The city of Brussels has launched a counter-campaign to Black Friday called “Local Friday” in support of local shops. More here.
BIRTHDAYS: Neue Zürcher Zeitung’s Kalina Oroschakoff; Andrei Kobyakov, former prime minister of Belarus.
THANKS to Barbara Moens, Suzanne Lynch, Varg Folkman, Hans von der Burchard, Eline Schaart, Jacopo Barigazzi, Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová, editor Jack Lahart and producer Seb Starcevic.
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