POLITICO Brussels Playbook: Vax on — EU fight club — Family saga – POLITICO

VACCINE FOR CHRISTMAS: The EU is very likely to approve its first coronavirus vaccine next week. The European Medicines Agency’s human medicines committee is set to meet to decide on the BioNTech-Pfizer jab on December 21 — eight days sooner than the original date set. In a statement, the EMA said it had received additional data from the drugmakers, which allowed the regulator to speed up the procedure. Ashleigh Furlong has more.

Political pressure was in the air. Remember the behind-closed-doors discussion among EU leaders last week, on speed vs. thoroughness in the vaccine authorization process? Turns out political pressure wasn’t needed, an EU official said — the EMA is aware of the stakes and went into 24/7 mode weeks ago. The Commission would still need to confirm an EMA recommendation. The regulator said this would happen “within days,” a Commission official spoke of “hours.”

Careful what you wish for: Swift authorization is great, but to ensure the vaccine is delivered quickly and simultaneously throughout the Continent, governments need strategies and functioning infrastructure. Some may need to speed up significantly — not all countries are equally prepared, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned leaders in the summit room last week. Make no mistake, those who are ready haven’t shown much willingness to wait for the laggards to catch up.

NOW READ THIS: “A visit to Addis Ababa in October by a high-level delegation including EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was designed to showcase a donation of 7.5 tons of coronavirus testing kits,” report David Herszenhorn and Jacopo Barigazzi. “Instead, it ended up setting off fears of a super-spreader event at the African Union headquarters and among top Ethiopian officials.”

GOOD MORNING. Was there ever another contender? Knuffelcontact — aka “hug-buddy” — is of course the Flemish word of the year.

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RULE OF LAW ROW       

INTER-INSTITUTIONAL FIGHT CLUB: The European Parliament is set to harshly criticize the European Council’s compromise on the new rule-of-law mechanism in the EU budget. A draft resolution, to be voted on in plenary today and seen by Playbook, “reminds” folks that the conclusions EU leaders agreed on last week on the budget conditionality are “superfluous” and “the applicability, purpose and scope of the Rule of Law Regulation is clearly defined in the legal text.”

A seminar on constitutional affair in 12 articles: There’s a ‘reminder’ that the European Council “shall not exercise legislative functions” and therefore, any political declaration “cannot be deemed to represent an interpretation of legislation”; plus a ‘reminder’ that well-crafted laws don’t need additional guidelines or explanatory notes — and in this particular case, “the text agreed is sufficiently clear.”

Parliamentary self-assertion: The resolution was put forward by a broad coalition consisting of the four main centrist groups and their leaders — the EPP’s Manfred Weber, S&D’s Iratxe García, Dacian Cioloş of Renew and the Greens’ Ska Keller and Philippe Lamberts, together with each group’s budget experts.

Why the fuss? The resolution means, on the one hand, making quite some noise over a declaration deemed “superfluous.” But then, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán keeps insisting the European Council — where unanimity is the norm and guarantees a veto right — is formally boss. So it couldn’t hurt to give a little reminder that the legislative machine more often than not works independently from leaders’ good advice — remember, for example, how often EU summits have called for the completion of the single market without the Council or Parliament being particularly impressed.

POLICY PRIORITIES        

GREEN DEAL ON-BOARDING: This morning, the Commission is launching the European Climate Pact — an attempt to bring ordinary people on board the green policy train. Executive Vice President Frans Timmermans’ special guests are chef Massimo Bottura, former race car driver Nico Rosberg, and indeed regular citizens taking climate action — the Commission will today announce it will be partnering with the global Count Us In campaign.

‘DIGITAL SOVEREIGNTY’: In a massive and long-expected overhaul of its rules for the digital economy, for its biggest actors included, the Commission’s proposals, released Tuesday, aim to boost digital competition and protect people from harmful and illegal content online. Massive fines are the measure of choice to secure both goals. Here’s more on the proposals in detail from our tech team, and here are five challenges to the new digital rulebook.

Global balancing act: Europe is pushing for greater control over the online world while also boosting its digital economy. “Now, the U.S., us, the Australians, the Japanese are part of a global conversation about how to balance things because the most important thing here is that with size comes responsibility,” Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said. “All business operating in Europe — they can be big ones, they can be small ones — can freely and fairly compete online just as they do offline.”

Even bigger picture: German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier was among many commentators who said they are pleased with the proposals at first glance, putting them into a bigger frame: “Together with my French and Polish counterparts, I launched an initiative last summer to modernize European competition law,” Altmaier said, referring to a joint paper released in July 2019. He’s hoping for a reform of the rules for offline businesses following the proposals for the online economy.

But first things first: What became clear this week even without the Commission’s new set of tools — which eventually contained more heft than diplomats settled on a few days ago — is that platforms will need to act on illegal content. There was a timely precedent Tuesday, with an adult video platform engaging in a purge of all unverified content — before, and unrelated to, the new EU rules. Which raised a question, in the words of a diplomat: “If Pornhub can, why can’t Facebook?”

FAMILY SAGA       

BUYING TIME: Tamás Deutsch wrote to apologize for a Gestapo analogy he used to describe EPP group leader Manfred Weber’s push for a rule-of-law mechanism in the new EU budget. “It was a mistake on my part, for which I am sorry. Also, I take back the unfortunate comparison I used,” the Fidesz MEP wrote to the whole EPP group in an email seen by Playbook.

Note the coincidence: The email — with the subject line: “Apology message” — arrived yesterday, the day before the political group was set to discuss, and possibly vote, on Deutsch’s exclusion from the group. Maïa de La Baume and Hans von der Burchard have the story.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word: The email was Deutsch’s first substantive apology — until now, he was only sorry to have been misunderstood. In a statement earlier this month, he branded the exclusion initiative an “attack” on him which “exhausts the notion of domestic violence within a political family.”

Long road to the ‘s’ word: In a group meeting last week where the case was discussed, Deutsch took the floor to claim “a totally false interpretation of an interview of mine two weeks ago” was the basis of the initiative, according to two people in the room. Days later, his prime minister and Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán lamented “emotional reactions” to the affair. Reminder: Deutsch had compared a fellow EPP politician with the Nazis.

Buying time: Deutsch wrote in Tuesday’s email that he wants to stay a member of the EPP, expressing his “hope that we can cool tensions and continue our work together for the betterment of our common European Union in a moment of crisis when unity is more needed than ever.”

Name a famous German move? Freeze! Again, the EPP is waiting for the CDU to decide what it’s going to do. Daniel Caspary, head of the German EPP delegation — the biggest in the group and actually in the whole European Parliament — is among the CDU members who are showing no readiness to sanction Deutsch, at least not immediately. “I’m advocating that there be an intense debate on Wednesday and that we then use the Christmas season to reflect and make a decision in the new year,” Caspary said.

Instead: Why not wait for the EPP party structure to make a decision on Fidesz’s membership next year, once physical meetings are perhaps possible again, before formally voting on Deutsch’s expulsion from the parliamentary group? That, as a reminder, is indeed the question on the table, not any broader one about the identity of the center-right. The delay would allow time for a new CDU chair to be elected in January.

Translation: So Weber, who last week said “enough is enough” and was prepared to hold a vote today, doesn’t appear to have the backing of his group’s biggest national delegation to exclude a member who accused Weber of applying Nazi methods, because his own capital is too concerned Fidesz would leave the EPP if Deutsch is kicked out. Expect plenty more on this — the group meeting is due to start this evening at 6 p.m.

NUCLEAR ALARM       

OSTROVETS INSPECTION CANCELED: The European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) will not be able to carry out a planned inspection of the Ostrovets nuclear power plant in Belarus this week, Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson said Tuesday. The group is supposed to check whether its priority recommendations have been implemented and produce a report in early 2021. “The Belarusian regulator did not participate in the necessary preparatory technical meetings scheduled for [Monday] to prepare the onsite visit of the peer review team,” Simson told members of the European Parliament’s industry, research and energy committee, America Hernandez wrote in to report. “In these circumstances … our ENSREG team leader had no other option than calling off the visit … and postponing the peer review mission.”

Electricity imports from Belarus into the EU stopped November 3, when Ostrovets was connected. Last week the European Council asked Brussels to investigate measures to block imports from countries with unsafe nuclear plants, after Lithuania presented evidence of malfunctions.

LE PERSONNEL       

APPEAL REJECTED: The EU’s General Court on Tuesday evening rejected an appeal by jailed Catalan separatist leader Oriol Junqueras against the decision by European Parliament President David Sassoli to strip him of his seat in the EP. More here.

BOTTLENECK UNCORKED: The Commission has appointed John Watson as deputy secretary-general for interinstitutional and external relations, filling a position that has been vacant since Ursula von der Leyen took office a year ago. The Irishman is an old hand in the Commission’s most central department, where he has worked for the past 13 years.

But he won’t start immediately. “The date of effect of this decision will be determined later,” according to a Commission note. Watson is the Commission’s man in EU ambassadors’ meetings, aka an acting head of unit, plus an acting director for the single market, and the Commission will need to find a replacement for both roles. Must be hard for von der Leyen to find good personnel, despite a pool of more than 30,000 civil servants.

ELYSÉE DIPLO CELL MOVES: After going through a period of tumult, with burnouts and departures, as we told you here, the team of advisers working on foreign affairs at the Elysée, known as the diplomatic cell, has been beefed up. Over the past few weeks three new diplomats have joined the team, though their nominations aren’t official yet, Rym Momtaz writes in to report.

Chloé Goupille, who served at the embassy in Berlin and had a short stint at the World Bank Group in Washington, now handles the Franco-German relationship and Eastern Europe, after Alexandre Adam took over as Europe adviser. Cécile Ondoa Abeng, who worked on multilateral issues, human rights and Latin America at the foreign ministry, now handles the Americas, as well as outreach to think tanks (a novel role within the team). Walid Fouque, a sinophone who was deputy head of the Far East at the foreign ministry, now handles Asia and Oceania.

DISHONORABLE MENTION: Italian recipients of the Légion d’honneur are returning their awards in protest after President Emmanuel Macron gave France’s highest order of merit to his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during a state visit last week. Many Italians were already aggrieved at what they see is a lack of solidarity from Paris in the case of murdered doctoral student Giulio Regeni, reports Hannah Roberts.

NEW ROLE: Former European Parliament President Martin Schulz won’t run for a Bundestag seat again in next year’s election, he told Aachener Nachrichten, his hometown newspaper. Schulz was on Monday elected chairman of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, and he wants the Social Democratic foundation to be “seen as a leading think tank that provides a space for debate and discussion,” he said.

NEW CHAIR: Constanze Stelzenmüller will be the first holder of the Fritz Stern chair on transatlantic relations, the Brookings Institution announced.

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OVER AND OUT       

NEW PODCAST: Jack Blanchard will host a new weekly podcast, with each episode lifting the curtain on how Westminster really works and looking in-depth at political issues which typically only get broad-brush treatment in the wider media. Listen to a trailer here and sign up to get email alerts when a new episode is out here.

POLITICOS ON THE MOVE: A slew of promotions and new appointments in the POLITICO newsroom — you can check out the full details from our Editor-in-Chief Stephen Brown. Congratulations to all!

BIRTHDAYS: Viorica Dăncilă, former prime minister of Romania; Former MEP Claudia Țapardel; Irish Independent’s Hugh O’Connell; OLAF’s Clemens Kreith; Danish chef René Redzepi, a POLITICO 28 alum.

Big date for … German composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who would have turned 250 today. Giorgio Leali has this lovely piece on key Beethovenian moments from European history.

MANY THANKS TO: Our producer Miriam Webber.

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