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By SUZANNE LYNCH
with ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH
DRIVING THE DAY: EU DEFENSE MINISTERS MEET
UKRAINE AND BELARUS IN FOCUS: EU defense ministers meet today in Brussels amid continuing concern about the situation at Europe’s eastern fringes, with a build-up of Russian troops at the Ukrainian border and the migration crisis orchestrated by Belarus occupying minds.
Agenda: The defense ministers will discuss the latest developments in the east in their morning session, before NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg joins them for a working lunch.
Alert: The NATO chief warned Russia on Monday against taking any “aggressive actions,” in a press conference following a meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Noting a “large and unusual” build-up of Russian troops on the border, Stoltenberg said: “We know that Russia has been willing to use these types of military capabilities before to conduct aggressive actions against Ukraine.” That echoed a similar warning by Kuleba in an interview in Monday’s Playbook.
Franco-German response: In a joint statement following a meeting with Kuleba, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas warned of “serious consequences” for Russia if it threatens Ukraine, highlighting their commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
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BELARUS: Meanwhile, as expected, EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday backed a new set of sanctions against Minsk. The final list of entities is yet to be decided, but the EU will target “airlines, travel agents and everybody involved in this illegal push of migrants,” EEAS chief Josep Borrell said at a press conference after the meeting.
Aircraft leasing: EU-based companies leasing planes to Belarusian airline Belavia will also be impacted, a move that will particularly affect Ireland. Around half of all planes operated by Belavia are owned by Irish-based aircraft leasing companies, which will now move to recover them. Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said it was “the right thing to do.”
Russian contractor targeted: As POLITICO’s Jacopo Barigazzi notes, in a significant move, ministers also agreed to target Russian private military contractor Wagner. Le Drian accused the company of carrying out “destabilization actions,” particularly in Ukraine in 2014. While the sanctions will impact Wagner’s current activities in Africa, they are designed to potentially go further and illustrate how closely intertwined the Belarus and Ukraine issues have become for the EU.
Minsk response: Authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko accused the EU of trying to “scare” Minsk with sanctions. “We will defend ourselves. We cannot retreat,” he said, without specifying a response.
EU calling: In the latest sign of increased communication between the EU and the Lukashenko regime, which has been diplomatically isolated since last year’s sham election, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to the Belarus president on Monday, a day after Borrell spoke with Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei.
Repatriation flights: In a sign of possible de-escalation, Iraq announced it would organize a repatriation flight for those trapped on the border between Belarus and Poland on Thursday, though it would be “voluntary.”
Polish politics: But in Poland, the crisis seems to have revived a sense of patriotism. The country’s National Bank announced it would accelerate the issuance of a special collectors’ coin “dedicated to the defense of the Polish eastern border.” It seems safe to assume the migrants currently stranded at the border won’t be receiving their monetary momento.
Polish concerns: Warsaw may have the support of the EU as it faces off against the Lukashenko regime. But a letter sent by the group leaders of the EPP, S&D, Renew, the Greens and the Left in the European Parliament to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urging the EU not to approve Poland’s recovery money until all conditions on rule of law standards are met shows that support only goes so far.
Opinion — don’t call it a migrant crisis: The standoff on the border between Belarus and the EU is not a migrant crisis, but a geopolitical one, and it’s important to call it that, argues Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in this opinion piece for POLITICO.
OTHER BUSINESS 1: While the security situation in the east will dominate today’s Defense Council, ministers are also expected to discuss the launch of a coordinated maritime presence in the Indo-Pacific, two diplomats told Jacopo. The EU in January launched a pilot project for an EU-coordinated maritime presence in the Gulf of Guinea, and the proposal is to replicate it in the Indo-Pacific.
OTHER BUSINESS 2: Today’s meeting will also allow the defense ministers to discuss the sensitive issue of EU-NATO cooperation. (Six EU countries are not NATO members.) A new EU-NATO declaration is expected to be presented before the end of the year, though the timing could be pushed back. European Council chief Charles Michel met Stoltenberg on Monday to discuss how to “foster synergies,” noting that “deeper cooperation between the EU and NATO is a corner stone of EU security.”
NATO and the US made clear after last month’s meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels that they want any EU defense capabilities to be “complementary” to the Alliance — a view shared by eastern members wary of anything that undermines it.
CONGRESS DELAYED BY 6 MONTHS: Hotels were booked, dinner reservations made and political pairings arranged for politicians due to miss their regular parliamentary business. But the European People’s Party (EPP) shindig that was due to take place in Rotterdam Wednesday and Thursday has been postponed.
COVID bites: The decision, which was made last week, was inevitable after Dutch party D66 canceled its own congress due to the pandemic. Instead, members of the largest political grouping in the European Parliament will descend on Rotterdam for their Congress on May 31. Just as well, given that the Netherlands has imposed a partial lockdown, with restaurants and bars now closing at 8 p.m.
Tusk successor: This means the election to replace Donald Tusk as EPP president will likely be pushed back to the end of May. (The former Polish prime minister had signaled he would step down.) Current EPP group chair Manfred Weber has indicated his interest in that post.
Key week for EPP: The real drama will be at the group level as MEPs gather in Strasbourg next week for the plenary session. The EPP is in the process of selecting its candidate to replace David Sassoli as the Parliament president in January (though the agreement to replace the Socialist with a center-right member is far from settled).
Runners and riders: Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola, who stepped in for Sassoli at the State of the Union address in September, announced her candidacy to colleagues on Monday evening, and is said to have Weber’s support. Austrian MEP Othmar Karas is the only other candidate to officially declare. Others in the running are Dutch MEP Esther de Lange and former Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz — many are supportive of the idea of having a pro-European figure from an eastern country at the helm of an EU institution, given current tensions between Brussels and eastern members.
Gender balance: One electoral quirk is that EPP rules require at least a third of candidates to come from the other gender. Should three women run, one male candidate will not be enough. Spanish MEP Esteban González Pons is being mentioned as a potential fifth candidate.
Timetable: In a note circulated to EPP members last week, Weber announced candidates must declare their interest by noon next Monday, with a vote by secret ballot scheduled for Wednesday. The German EPP group chair received a frosty reception from national delegation leaders and other EPP members last week when he suggested delaying the process until the December session, Playbook is told, so the vote is now going ahead next week.
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IN OTHER NEWS
BUDGET DEAL: The Council and the European Parliament late Monday reached a provisional agreement on the 2022 EU budget, with €169.5 billion in commitment appropriations and €170.6 billion in payment appropriations. The Council said in its press release that next year’s budget “reflects the EU’s main priorities: economic recovery, fighting climate change, and the green and digital transitions. It also leaves enough resources under the expenditure ceilings of the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework to allow the EU to react to unforeseeable needs.” Here’s the Parliament’s press release. The deal must still be formally endorsed by Council and Parliament, expected by the end of the month.
BREXIT LATEST: Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney will meet European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič for lunch today as talks on the Northern Ireland protocol continue between EU and U.K. officials. It comes as the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator prepares to brief the Working Party on the U.K. on the sanctions options on the table should Britain invoke Article 16 of the protocol.
UK SLEAZE LATEST: A former chair of the U.K.’s Conservative Party helped secure lucrative protective equipment contracts for multiple companies during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, reports POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio.
UN PALESTINIAN AGENCY IN FOCUS: The work of UNRWA — the United Nations’ relief and works agency for Palestinian refugees — will be in focus in the coming days as the international ministerial conference takes place in Brussels. Speaking to Playbook, Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini said the aim of the conference, which is being hosted by Sweden and Jordan, is to promote a more sustainable funding path. “There is a discrepancy between the very strong political support given by member states and the resources being made available,” he said.
Background: The EU is one of the main supporters of the agency, which pays the salaries of tens of thousands of teachers, doctors and other frontline workers helping Palestinian refugees. The EU as an entity, together with contributions from individual EU countries, is responsible for about two-thirds of the agency’s funding.
Funding challenge: But Lazzarini said the agency is facing a funding crisis. Though the U.S., under the presidency of Joe Biden, has re-upped its commitments, donations from the Gulf region, the U.K. and to a lesser extent the EU have decreased in recent years.
Controversy: As always when it comes to politics in the Middle East, the subject of EU funding for UNRWA is not without controversy. Some members of the European Parliament have raised questions about the content of textbooks used by teachers employed by the U.N. agency.
EU meetings: Among the events scheduled over the next few days, Lazzarini will sign a new EU-UNRWA Joint Declaration with Josep Borrell. He is also due to meet European Commissioners Jutta Urpilainen, Janez Lenarčič and Olivér Várhelyi.
GREECE IN SPOTLIGHT: A report by the International Rescue Committee to be published today highlights the plight of unaccompanied children arriving in Greece. It says that over the past four years, 37,000 unaccompanied children have been registered in Greece, but just 469 were allowed to join their families elsewhere in Europe — a quarter of all those who applied to do so. Greece argues that a low response from other EU countries is behind the numbers.
XI-BIDEN TALKS: U.S. President Joe Biden opened a virtual meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping overnight by calling for the U.S. and China to collaborate on climate change and other “vital global issues.” Xi highlighted four areas of priorities with Biden, according to state media Xinhua: international cooperation to face challenges; bilateral cooperation on economic, energy, military, tech, digital and green policies; preventing a “derailed and uncontrollable” relationship; and stepping up coordination on global hotspot issues, our colleague Stuart Lau writes in to report. POLITICO’s Phelim Kine has a write-up.
TAKING ON CHINA’S STEEL: The EU and the U.S. want to gang up against China’s coal-fired blast furnaces in a green steel alliance. POLITICO’s Barbara Moens and Steven Overly take a closer look at how that is going to happen. The short answer? No one knows.
IN FOR THE LONG HAUL: Eurozone inflation will stay elevated for longer than previously expected, European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde conceded Monday — but she stuck to her call that it will drop below the central bank’s 2 percent target over the medium term. POLITICO’s Johanna Treeck has more.
SWISS UPDATE: Significant differences still remain between the EU and Switzerland as talks got underway in Brussels on Monday on finding a solution to stalled discussions between the two sides. “It takes two to tango,” Maroš Šefčovič told reporters following his meeting with Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis. “What we now need from Switzerland is the unambiguous political will to engage with us on the real issues that count, and a credible timetable.” They agreed to meet in again in January, with the EU pushing for progress on a deal next year. Hans von der Burchard has the details for POLITICO Financial Services, Trade and Health Care Pros.
TASTY TALE: The European Food Forum, a platform where MEPs and industry lobbyists discuss EU food policy, is being accused of being an engine for Italian interests, POLITICO’s Eddy Wax reports.
— EU defense ministers meet in Brussels, 10 a.m. Press conference expected at approximately 3 p.m.
— Meeting of the European Defense Agency (EDA) steering board at 9 a.m.
— EU-Uzbekistan Cooperation Council, 10 a.m. Press conference expected at approximately 11:40 a.m.
— Court of Justice of the EU releases ruling in case C-821/19 Commission v Hungary, on the criminalization of asylum seekers; and a judgment in the joined cases C-748/19 Prokuratura Rejonowa w Mińsku Mazowieckim (C-749/19, C-750/19, C-751/19, C-752/19, C-753/19, C-754/19) regarding the rule of law in Poland.
— European Tourism Forum (1:20 p.m.). Press conference expected at 5:15 p.m.
— Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni participates in the G7 Finance and Central Bank Governors’ meeting; delivers opening speech at the MFA conference organized by DG ECFIN; holds a videoconference call with Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary.
— Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has scheduled meetings with Greek Finance Minister Christos Staikouras and economist Joseph Stiglitz.
— Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi meets with Foreign Affairs Minister of North Macedonia Bujar Osmani; Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia Ararat Mirzoyan; Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al Safadi; Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo Besnik Bislimi; Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Bisera Turković.
— Commissioner Janez Lenarčič meets Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Philippe Lazzarini.
— “International Ministerial Conference: Sustaining the Rights and Human Development of Palestinian Refugees” convened by Sweden and Jordan. Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi participating.
**Join us on November 22 from 6:00 p.m. CET in Brussels at POLITICO Live’s event “France to the Fore” with Clément Beaune, minister of state for European affairs. Register today.**
BELGIUM EYES NEW COVID RULES: The Belgian government has brought forward to Wednesday a meeting on possible coronavirus restrictions that was due to take place on Friday. It comes amid rising COVID cases in the country and the decision by the Netherlands to impose a partial lockdown.
Now read this: Europe is better prepared for a second pandemic winter as case numbers again spiral into record territory, with countries investing heavily to expand the number of beds in their hospitals’ intensive care units. But the same can’t be said of burnt-out front-line health staff, reports POLITICO’s Carlo Martuscelli.
BIRTHDAYS: MEPs José Ramón Bauzá Díaz, David Casa, Damien Carême and Franco Roberti; Former MEP Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso; Journalist Judith Mischke; U.K. Mission to the EU’s Dimitrios Mavridis; American Express’ Caroline Emch; Activist Panti Bliss, aka Rory O’Neill, also a POLITICO 28 alum.
MANY THANKS: Paul Dallison, Jacopo Barigazzi, Hans von der Burchard and our producer Grace Stranger.
CORRECTION: This newsletter was updated to correct the Belgian institution that brought forward a meeting on coronavirus restrictions to Wednesday.
**A message from Goldman Sachs: Five themes will shape the path towards net-zero, according to Goldman Sachs Research. 1. National commitments and further cuts to emissions by 2030 are critical to reaching net-zero by 2050. 2. Carbon pricing and offset schemes are a key instrument for high-cost de-carbonization, but require tighter standards, stronger supervision and better global liquidity. 3. Carbon labelling could empower consumers to choose low carbon goods and manage their carbon budgets. 4. The rise of ESG is driving capital towards de-carbonization, but regulatory uncertainty and a lack of global coordination are generating structural underinvestment in key materials, energy and heavy transport sectors, raising price inflation and affordability concerns. 5. A complex ecosystem of low carbon technologies will be needed to reach net-zero. To keep global warming below 1.5°C and reach net-zero by 2050, we expect a cumulative US $56 tn of green infrastructure investments. Learn more.**
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