THE NETHERLANDS HAS LOCKED DOWN FOR 5 WEEKS. “There was no choice,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last night, in his second televised address to the nation in a decade. Schools, museums, gyms and hairdressers will be shut, with only essential shops allowed to open. Dutch households will be permitted a maximum of three visitors during Christmas celebrations. More here.
GOOD MORNING. Pot plants are good for you, so will you please get some? The European Parliament offers MEPs, upon request, “two suitably sized plants … either for their own office or the offices of their assistants in Brussels,” wrote David Casa, the quaestor dealing with “adequate greenery,” in a note to fellow MEPs, seen by Playbook.
Why the generosity? “As studies show, plants have a positive impact on the working environment, making it more attractive, improving air quality, and boosting well-being in general,” the note says. Now imagine if MEPs just used their monthly €4,563 general expenditure allowance to buy a plant or two for their own offices?
No no, these things need to be done properly. And so Parliament “proposed to put in place a generalised and structured approach for the distribution of plants in offices, and to bring forward guidelines in this regard.” Now, on to today’s big news …
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GRAND DIGIDAY: When the von der Leyen Commission today unveils its most talked-about piece of (non-corona) legislation so far, it’ll be setting rules for the digital world for a generation, according to Thierry Breton. “We need to organize our digital space for the next decades,” he told Playbook on Monday. “Many large platforms seem to have become — to take an analogy from the banking crisis — ‘too big to care’ about the effects they have on citizens, businesses and even our society and democracy at large.”
Main goodies: The EU’s internal market commissioner, together with digital Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, will present the proposals today. They foresee “common rules, ex-ante obligates, better oversight, speedy enforcement and deterrent sanctions,” Breton said. That way, “we will ensure that anyone offering and using digital services in Europe benefits from security, trust, innovation and business opportunities.”
What doesn’t work any more, if it ever did: “We have tried in the past to address gatekeeper issues through competition cases. But these cases took years to instruct,” Breton said. “In the meantime, the harm is done, and SMEs and innovators lose the opportunities of the digital world, as they are often squeezed out of the market.” With the Digital Markets Act, by contrast, the EU “will go fast, ensuring legal certainty in the single market and protecting our SMEs.”
The approach is ‘a major change of paradigm,’ said Breton. “We will be able to prevent harmful behavior before it even takes place.” The proposals on the overhaul of EU rules on digital services and markets will be “very ambitious,” Breton said of the two regulations. To avoid 27 different methods of implementation and enforcement, they “go hand in hand and will be directly applicable.”
Further reading: Thibault Larger, Mark Scott and Laura Kayali looked at the making of the new laws — and report on how behind closed doors and sometimes in public, Vestager and Breton have collided.
NO DEAL … ON ERASMUS: British students stand to lose access to the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme, after the bloc and the U.K. failed to reach a deal for the country’s post-Brexit participation in the exchange program. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs the two sides weren’t able to get on the same page — and closed the chapter without a result, even if talks continue. Cristina Gallardo and Maïa de La Baume have the news for Brexit Transition and EU Budget Pros.
Quite the hike: Asked about the negotiations over Erasmus+, Nathalie Loiseau, a member of European Parliament’s U.K. coordination group, said: “We are far from an agreement. There are indeed other points than the level playing field, governance and fisheries which remain to be solved. Nothing is impossible to a willing heart, but it’s like climbing the Himalaya from the northern side.”
DEAL IN THE MAKING … ON PROCEDURES: A diplomat reported from Barnier’s briefing of EU ambassadors on Monday morning that there’s a “narrow path” to a trade deal — but in the absence of any substantial progress (or at least progress Barnier can talk about without undermining his negotiating strategy), Brussels engaged in procedural planning.
Sidelined parliaments: With only 17 days left until the Brexit transition period ends, there is still no trade deal, and also no explanation from senior officials of how the European and British parliaments can possibly fulfill their responsibility to scrutinize and ratify — or reject — any agreement on a new trading relationship. More on this from our Brussels team.
Bear with Barnier: On Monday evening, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saw the leaders of the main groups in Parliament to talk deadlines, scenarios and legal solutions for each of them — and to convey the message that the European Parliament is not being treated as a negligible body on purpose. It’s just that you either care more for the honor and pride of the institution, or for the concrete impact on peoples’ lives that a no-deal scenario, even for just a few days or weeks, would entail.
Outcome: Should there be a trade deal by this weekend, the European Parliament could still ratify it by the end of the year — that was, according to participants, the offer made by the EPP’s chief Manfred Weber, the S&D’s Iratxe García and Dacian Cioloș of Renew Europe, who together represent von der Leyen’s majority in Parliament.
NEVER MIND: It’s still a “no” from Budapest and Warsaw, but that doesn’t matter. The new rule of law — or “budget conditionality” — mechanism was adopted in Council by qualified majority, despite the nay votes of Hungary and Poland, according to a Council document on the outcome of the written procedure on the file. It’s now with the European Parliament, where it sailed through the committees involved on Monday — by 56 votes for vs. 10 against — and will be voted in plenary on Wednesday.
Side notes: Fidesz MEP Tamás Deutsch, who risks being expelled from the EPP when the group meets on Wednesday, voted against the rule-of-law mechanism, according to the voting list — alongside MEPs from the conservative ECR, far-right ID, one Green and one non-affiliated lawmaker — just as his government did on Council side. And careful, there’s one more chance for national parliaments to hold up the budget package: Each country will have to ratify the decision on new own resources for the EU budget.
Hurrying up: The Council moved fast over the weekend, after EU leaders agreed on a compromise on the rule-of-law conditionality, and by Monday morning had completed the written procedures on the individual parts of the budget package. The Multiannual Financial Framework, the Recovery Instrument and the own resources decision were all adopted unanimously, as required, and sent on to the respective next steps in the process.
Parliament is keen for the rule-of-law mechanism: From next year on, “violations of the rule of law that affect the soundness of fiscal management and European financial interests can be sanctioned effectively,” said Monika Hohlmeier, chair of the budgetary control committee. The Council summit conclusions that made the overall compromise possible? “Legally, this declaration is not binding and therefore cannot retroactively limit or modify the agreements made,” Hohlmeier said. “Only the agreed legal text applies.”
Council’s crystal clear: And while other MEPs made more noise, it’s the Council itself that states the leaders’ declaration doesn’t change a comma in the legal text. It “respects the content and objectives of the [rule of law] Regulation and is compatible with it,” the Council’s Legal Service said in a note to delegations, as I first reported.
Verbatim: “In particular, no element … is in conflict with the Regulation, contradicts it or amends it,” says the note, which was drawn up upon the Netherlands’ request and presented to EU ambassadors on Friday. The summit conclusions rather offer “clarifications, interpretative assurances” and express “a common understanding as to how the Regulation will be applied in practice.”
NOW READ THIS: Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, who is responsible for the rule of law, has given an interview to the FT, in which she says the EU’s new “river of money” highlights the need for the additional safeguards, but that Brussels would not use its new powers in an “activist” way.
WHEN SOFT POWER IS NOT ENOUGH: Regime change in Belarus has yet to happen, despite months-long protests, despite sanctions, and despite international pressure for disputed leader Aleksander Lukashenko to allow free and fair elections. Now, it’s time for “a next, bold step,” close to 100 MEPs write, proposing to make the European Parliament the exile headquarters of the Belarusian opposition, as “we have this fight at our doorstep.”
Office, staff, impact? The MEPs want to create an office which “would be titled and serve as Democratic Belarus Representation Office (DBRO),” they wrote in a letter to David Sassoli, obtained by Playbook. This would be “a symbol of freedom and unity against dictatorships, and will be the main gateway with the necessary EU credentials to represent the new Belarus.”
A new structure: The list of 95 signatories, gathered by MEPs Andrzej Halicki and Andrius Kubilius, includes some of the main political groups’ big names. They propose, as a vehicle to promote human rights, to create “office and administrative means” for future laureates of Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize. They would be equipped “for a year, until the next award cycle,” with “all necessary assistance … to have a proper capacity to act internationally.”
Stepping up: The letter cites the European Parliament’s commitment to “promote the legitimate interests of the ones, who are fighting for democracy,” adding that perhaps words aren’t enough: The office “will be offering a platform to unite the efforts of many of Sakharov Prize Laureates in our joint fight for democracy and against all authoritarian regimes.”
MEANWHILE, PARLIAMENT IS IN (GHOST) SESSION: The Elysée has been desperate for the European Parliament to return to France, and on Monday it finally got its wish: President David Sassoli gave a 30-minute address in the Strasbourg hemicycle and expressed his “emotion” at being back in the French city … and promptly headed back to the Belgian capital. Maïa de La Baume has more on the farce.
EUROPEANS ♥ CORONA INTEGRATION: Eighty-nine percent of Europeans agree the EU should play a greater role in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and 91 percent want EU countries to work together more closely. That’s according to a new eupinions survey among 13,000 Europeans, out overnight. Asked about hygiene, distancing and mask-wearing discipline, 90 percent said they comply with the rules put in place by their respective government. Here’s the study.
IN OTHER NEWS
TODAY’S TOP READ: A Bellingcat, CNN, Der Spiegel and the Insider investigation has “identified a long-running FSB operation to trail Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny, including a number of chemical weapons experts involved in the research and development of Novichok.” Read how they did it here, and check out this doorstep by CNN’s Clarissa Ward of one of the alleged FSB operatives implicated in the story.
NOTHING HAS CHANGED: Iran’s execution of journalist Rouhollah Zam doesn’t change the EU’s desire to revive the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran, the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday. Jacopo Barigazzi has the details.
CABLE GUYS: Portugal is pushing for a pan-European investment plan to roll out a network of undersea cables and upgrade the Continent’s digital infrastructure when it takes over the presidency of the Council next month, Laurens Cerulus reports.
GREEN REFERENDUM: French President Emmanuel Macron last night confirmed he will put to a referendum a proposal to enshrine climate and environment protection in the French constitution. More from Louise Guillot.
IT’S OFFICIAL: The Electoral College officially voted on Monday to make Joe Biden the 46th president of the United States, formalizing his victory under constitutional procedure.
What’s in Biden’s in-tray? A trade deal with the U.K. But while some chapters of the deal were close to being agreed by both sides under the Trump administration, significant differences remain in some key areas — and negotiations have been complicated by the changeover in Washington, Anna Isaac reports.
Meanwhile: U.S. Attorney General William Barr is leaving his position, following months of complaints from Donald Trump.
OVER AND OUT
CHAMPAGNE FOR CHRISTMAS: “What a year it’s been,” wrote POLITICO CEO Shéhérazade Semsar-de Boisséson to all staff on Monday, adding that “COVID-19 meant it did not turn out as planned and it hasn’t been an easy year.” Burying the lede, she added that “despite all odds, we were able to … grow by 15%!”
BIRTHDAYS: Former MEP Marina Albiol; GRIP’s Solene Jomier; Tara Corrigan; Bloomberg’s Natalia Drozdiak; European Commission’s Fabrizio Larcher; dpa’s Louis Posern.
MANY THANKS: To our producer Miriam Webber.
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