IT’S HAPPENING: Over the past months, the European Commission has secured more than enough coronavirus vaccine doses to (eventually) inoculate every EU citizen. On Thursday, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced EU countries will begin administering jabs between December 27 and 29, calling it “Europe’s moment.”
3-day V Day: Von der Leyen has found a creative way to pretend the rollout will start at the same time across the EU — while admitting they won’t, since not all governments are equally ready. The Commission president declared there’s one single event, called it “EU vaccination days,” and stretched it out over the course of 72 hours. More here.
GOOD FRIDAY MORNING. Emmanuel Macron has COVID-19. The French president was tested after showing symptoms, according to his office, but is able to “continue to work and carry out his activities remotely,” a statement said. He’ll self-isolate for seven days. There was a flood of good wishes from across Europe, bidding him a speedy recovery.
If Paris sneezes, Europe coughs: Macron, who is suffering from symptoms including coughing, fever and fatigue, was in the uncomfortable position of having to alert a lot of people — really a lot! — with whom he’d had contact over the past days: members of his own office and the French government, sure, but also multiple fellow EU leaders. After some virological calculations done in France, European Council President Charles Michel’s worst nightmare was at least put to bed — that last week’s EU summit, where leaders sat in a windowless room for a day and a night, would become a super-spreader event.
Yet still: On Wednesday, Macron presided over the weekly Cabinet meeting and hosted Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa for lunch. On Monday, he saw Michel and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez in Paris. All went into self-isolation, as did Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel. Rym Momtaz has more from Paris.
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DEADLINES ARE SO 2019: “I took stock with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the on-going negotiations,” said von der Leyen in a statement Thursday evening. She said there was “substantial progress” in post-Brexit trade negotiations, but that fisheries are back as the stumbling block, and bridging the differences “will be very challenging.”
A UK official had a similar take: “Talks have made a bit of progress but it’s very hard to see how we’re going to get there,” they said. It’s not because there’s a lot of personal tension, the official said, as Johnson and von der Leyen “have a good relationship. Every time they speak it’s always very cordial.” The trouble is, “We’re not seeing things eye to eye.” Negotiations continue today, working toward a deadline set by the European Parliament — read on just below for more. “It’s not our deadline,” the U.K. official said, “we’re willing to keep going.”
FAMOUS LAST WORDS: The European Parliament is helping Michel Barnier’s negotiating team: On Thursday it added yet another reminder that time’s a scarce resource two weeks before Britain will finally leave the EU’s single market and customs union. The major political groups agreed that it will only consider ratifying a deal if they can start vetting it first thing Monday.
And if not? Make no mistake: no deal by Sunday night doesn’t mean a provisional application with Parliament voting next year, according to trade committee Chair Bernd Lange. No deal by Sunday means “no deal” at all, he said.
Festive season voting session: The Parliament “stands ready to organise an extraordinary plenary session towards the end of December, in case an agreement is reached by midnight on Sunday 21st of December, for the European Parliament to debate the outcome of negotiations and consider granting its consent,” said a statement from Parliament’s Conference of Presidents and U.K. Coordination Group. More here.
So much goodwill: That positioning means quite some goodwill on Parliament’s end. MEPs would forego a holiday break — but more importantly, they would forego insisting even on the most basic customary procedures, such as translating a proposed trade agreement, and engage instead in an operation to roll up their sleeves and get a possible deal through in 10 days.
That’s too much goodwill for the Greens group, whose leaders insisted their own deadline was more suitable — a deadline that passed last week.
One institution’s dilemma: What to prioritize: parliamentary self-assertion or the avoidance of citizens’ pain? “Regardless of the likelihood of the European Parliament’s approval, what is at stake is the seriousness of the parliamentary work,” said Greens leader Philippe Lamberts. The EPP’s Manfred Weber put more emphasis on the fact that “people and businesses in our constituencies will be heavily affected by Brexit.”
Nostalgia! In the meantime, Eurostar announced the comeback of the good old days, when traveling to foreign countries was special, came with a lot of queuing, customs checks, passport stamps and more. All that will be back from January 1, which means passengers should head to the station “a little earlier than usual” for departures, the train operator said in an email to customers. Josh Posaner has more.
Some trolling: Petrit Selimi, a former foreign minister of Kosovo, was keen for company in the non-EU camp, saying he was “looking forward to wait in the same lines in the world’s airports with British friends.”
One deal has been agreed: On no-deal contingency rules for some reciprocal health treatment. More.
THIRD COUNTRIES CENTRAL
END-OF-YEAR DEAL: Negotiations on an EU-China investment protection agreement are moving at full speed, and Brussels reckons there is now an opening to strike a deal in the remaining days of 2020. “Progress has been achieved in a number of areas,” a Commission spokeswoman said. “The EU remains committed to the end-of-year deadline for conclusion of the negotiations, provided we have a deal worth having.” Jakob Hanke has more for POLITICO Trade, Competition and Industrial Policy, Financial Services and Sustainability Pros.
ENLARGEMENT SAGA: The EU unexpectedly failed to reach a deal on the text of the conclusions on enlargement, which ministers were meant to approve on Thursday. Before that, there had been unanimous agreement twice: first, EU ambassadors gave the green light on Wednesday, then environment ministers, who were in town physically, agreed unanimously again to put the item on their agenda to get it formally adopted.
Last minute coup de théâtre: Slovakia and the Czech Republic raised objections: “This time, so-called ‘friends of enlargement’ have vetoed important EU conclusions at ministerial level — after their ambassadors agreed to the texts only yesterday,” said an EU diplomat. “It’s tragic for the Western Balkans that several camps in the EU are blocking each other on enlargement policy.”
This adds a new twist to the saga … after Bulgaria, for bilateral reasons over a dispute on language and historical roots, blocked the start of formal talks with North Macedonia (background from Jacopo Barigazzi here). Before that, there was the French veto over membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania, resolved with a new methodology that makes life harder for aspiring countries.
With friends like these: On paper, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are strong enlargement supporters. The last-minute issue arose on the language included in the draft conclusions. “The text as it stands contained elements including the notion of falsifying history that in our view would be hugely detrimental to the enlargement process and could potentially bring about further complications down the road,” wrote Bratislava and Prague in a joint statement.
If that’s what support looks like: The rather unusual last-minute change of heart led to a fair deal of frustration among diplomats dealing with enlargement. Both Bratislava and Prague insisted they remain “relentless supporters of the enlargement policy” — a policy that’s currently not happening.
CONSERVATIVE WOES CONTINUE
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR: The EPP group is set, in January, to change its rules of procedure to equip itself with an instrument that will in future allow whole delegations, not just single members, to be expelled — and it will, in February, come back to the matter of whether to kick out Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch. That’s according to a compromise found on Thursday, in the aftermath of a quite turbulent group meeting the night before, according to several officials.
Clearing the air: The group’s chief Manfred Weber committed to the two new measures, according to participants of the conciliatory meeting of a smaller group of senior members on Thursday. Several MEPs had thought the measures would be part of the package they voted on the previous night — which involved a rebuke for Deutsch, which passed with around 95 percent support. Alas, no. So this time, Weber will put in writing the two concessions to those who would prefer Deutsch, and Fidesz, out.
Here’s the problem: Manoeuvering the group into this delicate situation was easier than getting it out again. By keeping the group together and Fidesz in the fold, Weber managed to alienate the moderate, liberal wing of his group — and that’s probably the best part of the long story for Deutsch and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Fidesz’s party leader.
Merkel’s legacy: By failing to rein in authoritarian leaders in Hungary and Poland early, the German chancellor made a bad problem worse, argues Matthew Karnitschnig in this analysis of the rule-of-law saga. “Merkel deserves credit for resolving the impasse, she also bears responsibility for creating the problem in the first place,” Matt writes. “For years, she sat quietly as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński set about dismantling their countries’ democracies … By the time the magnitude of what Orbán and Kaczyński were doing — which has included undermining independent media, the courts and minority rights — became clear, confronting the problem was an enormous challenge.” Worth your time.
IN OTHER STORIES
RECOVERY DEAL DONE: Legislators reached a political agreement overnight on the EU’s €672.5 billion recovery fund. Staff-level talks on drafting technicalities are still needed today to tie up loose ends on the Recovery and Resilience Facility, Bjarke Smith-Meyer and Paola Tamma write in to report. But the deal, among political negotiators for the European Parliament and Council, brings the EU grants and loans a step closer. Under the tentative agreement, governments must spend 20 percent of their recovery cash on initiatives that make their economies more digital and a further 37 percent on green projects.
Now read this: Kalina Oroschakoff and Karl Mathiesen report on how the EU’s climate promises survived the pandemic, writing that the threat of the coronavirus actually helped push through the European Green Deal.
BELGIAN SECRETARY OF STATE ACCIDENTALLY REVEALS EU CORONA VACCINE PRICES.
DEFENDING NATO: A year after Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “brain dead,” the military alliance has finally come up with a worthy response to and a blueprint for how it can step into the future, writes Rose Gottemoeller, a former deputy secretary-general of the alliance. Here’s her op-ed for POLITICO.
FINALLY FREED: The crew of two Italian fishing vessels detained in Libya were freed after 108 days in captivity, held by warlord Khalifa Haftar’s troops. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio flew to Benghazi on Thursday morning to meet with Haftar.
PUTIN’S TRUTHS: Russian President Vladimir Putin said there had been no need to poison opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but that if his special services “wanted to, probably, they would have finished it.” Here’s more from David Herszenhorn, who listened in to Putin’s annual news conference, during which a Russian reporter got noticed for a question by holding up a sign saying “I’m pregnant.” When Putin demanded to know what that had to do with her question, and she admitted nothing really, he said: “You cheated us, but nothing wrong with that.”
FASCINATING READ — FAILURE AT THE (FLOOD)GATES: Venice’s new, decades-in-the-making, €5.5 billion flood barrier system was meant to protect the city from disaster. But as the tide rose on December 8, leaving shop and restaurant owners knee-deep in water, it sparked a political blame game, threw a spotlight on the competing economic interests involved and upped the ante in a power struggle between the central government and local authorities. Hannah Roberts has the story.
OVER AND OUT
CORONA CHRISTMAS: Here’s what you can and cannot do around the EU, updated in time for your holidays.
FULL CIRCLE: On Thursday, at the last planned, ordinary meeting of EU ambassadors for the year, Germany’s Michael Clauß handed over a symbol and talisman of Council presidencies to his successor, Portugal’s Nuno Brito: the “Coreper compass”, or rather a sextant. The first folks to give it to their successors as a reminder that the presidency is about steering the ship through rough waters were the Portuguese themselves, back in 2007.
BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Dragoș Benea and Vincenzo Sofo; Former MEP Reimer Böge; IHECS’ Laura Leprêtre; Jesse Glicker of the Buildings Performance Institute Europe.
MANY THANKS: Emilio Casalicchio, Jacopo Barigazzi and our producer Miriam Webber.
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