POLITICO Brussels Playbook, presented by Naftogaz of Ukraine: Bumper interview edition — Socialist fest — All politics is local
By FLORIAN EDER
with ZOYA SHEFTALOVICH
PRESENTED BY NAFTOGAZ OF UKRAINE
MIGRATION IS BACK ON THE AGENDA. The European Union’s attempts to write new rules for common migration and asylum policies are “out of sync” with reality, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told me in an interview this weekend in Madrid. He called for a reset. “I think the main problem is that we are discussing a piece of legislation that is obviously the direct result of totally different geopolitical circumstances,” Muscat said.
All or nothing? Muscat, who was in Madrid over the weekend to attend the Party of European Socialists’ (PES) election congress (before flying to Egypt for a summit of EU and Arab League leaders), said he doesn’t believe there will be agreement on new migration rules any time soon. “Right now, what maybe some people don’t realize [is] it’s not an issue of whether we agree on certain points — but that there is a a clear divide between member states on whether the method should be a piecemeal or an all-or-nothing approach.”
THE REAL PROBLEM: While it’s clear there won’t be an agreement on asylum seeker relocation in the near future, some believe there will never be consensus at all if the EU abandons the current mantra that the asylum package is, in fact, a package. “Where we can start really and truly is … to differentiate between countries that have sea borders and countries that have land borders. That’s two totally different ball games,” Muscat told me. He took a dig at “some colleagues from Central and Eastern Europe, even at the highest level,” some of whom “did not really understand that it’s two different routes.”
Muscat’s point: A land route into Europe can perhaps be closed, but the Mediterranean can’t be. “Say technology allowed us … to have a wall on water,” Muscat said. “I don’t agree with that, but let’s say that another government agrees to do that and there is a technology to do it. It just doesn’t work — for the simple reason there is the international law of the sea where if someone is drowning, it’s not about your opinion on whether they are legal or illegal, but you need to save them. That’s it.”
Is there an alternative way forward, rather than having to agree case-by-case, boat-after-boat, which countries ought to take in the migrants saved at sea? “I think right now there isn’t, to be very frank,” said Muscat. “Yes it’s ad hoc, it’s not predictable, but it’s the only thing we have. We are sowing the seeds of a coalition of the willing. That is for me the only realistic way forward right now because [if] we wait for some sort of grand consensus, it just won’t happen, at least with the current composition of various governments.”
EVERYBODY NEEDS GOOD NEIGHBORS: Speaking of said governments — and the Italians in particular — how are those relationships at the moment? “[Prime Minister] Giuseppe Conte I think is a gentleman,” said Muscat. “And most of the time we just don’t react to what [interior minister and League leader] Mr. Salvini says because we know that it’s exactly what he wants. Maybe we have the advantage of knowing the language, knowing the media and knowing exactly why he said something on the eve of a regional election … we can almost predict when he will tweet and about what.”
Election time: Muscat said another reason there won’t be any agreement on asylum rules soon is that “the worst time to talk about these things is right now. A lot of electioneering is happening — and it’s not electioneering on a European scale. I think most of the things that we are hearing and reading about are just about electioneering on a local level.” His approach: He’ll keep “the doors open for debate and dialogue” and will “not fall for the trap — I think it’s a click bait really and truly,” of getting into public fights.
**A message from Naftogaz of Ukraine: EPC and Naftogaz will host a Policy Dialogue on March 5: “The future of Ukraine’s gas transit route and European energy security.” Speakers include: Former Swedish PM Carl Bildt, Naftogaz COO Yuriy Vitrenko, U.S. Department of State advisor Benjamin Schmitt and SWP’s Kirsten Westphal. Submit your request for participation here.**
GOOD MORNING. Playbook is full-on madrileño today. I sat down with a host of leading Socialists on the sidelines of the PES congress in the Spanish capital — including their (finally official) Commission presidential candidate Frans Timmermans, German Justice Minister Katarina Barley (the SPD’s No. 1 on its election list), and Udo Bullmann, the S&D group’s chairman. We’ll focus on the Socialists’ dealings and doings today. Other news below.
The PES is alive and kicking and its top brass is cooking up plans to win the May European parliamentary election — despite the fact polls suggest it’ll come in second and will need to engage in some very clever game play indeed to nab the big prize, the Commission presidency.
PATHS TO VICTORY: The PES could either seek to secure a “progressive” majority before the election, or it could see what happens afterward. Muscat backs the former strategy. “We need a coalition of progressive forces, from [Greek PM Alexis] Tsipras to [French President Emmanuel] Macron. I totally subscribe to that point of view,” he said. For that to happen, the PES needs to adopt a pragmatic stance — as pure Socialist doctrine “works when you don’t take decisions. It doesn’t work when you are in government. And I’m not too sure that it works in order to take the government,” Muscat said.
That means … “We need to attack in areas where we are not seen as credible enough,” said Muscat, who’ll have been in the PM’s office six years next month. “The creation of wealth, security and immigration.”
In the other corner … is Udo Bullmann, who leads the Socialist MEPs in Parliament. “There needs to be shift” in European politics, Bullmann told me, and “we’ll start negotiations with all democratic forces” — after the election. But “we don’t want a cheap deal, no backroom solutions.” He added that the Socialists’ problem in the past was not a question of insufficient pragmatism, but that “parties didn’t dare say anything of substance.”
The Socialists have an election dilemma: Should they choose power or ideology? Maïa de La Baume and I have the story.
TIMMERMANS IS THE MAN: The PES Spitzenkandidat “has shown over time as a vice president of the Commission that he’s very pragmatic,” Muscat told me, referring to the Dutch Labour politician. “Pragmatism doesn’t mean betraying your principles or your ideals. It means making sure that you’re in government first of all, that you’re in a position to take decisions.”
When I asked the German SPD’s lead candidate in the European election Katarina Barley about Timmermans’ top qualities, she said “he has this mixture of a very warm and approachable nature and a very clear positioning when it comes to the foundations of the European Union and its values.”
Plus: Timmermans “calls himself a male feminist, and he really is, that takes courage, although perhaps less as a Dutchman than, say, as a Romanian,” Barley said (we spoke in German). Asked about Timmermans’ role in the election campaign in Germany, Barley said “he’ll have to travel all over Europe; we can’t overstretch him, but he will certainly join us at some events.”
**Is EU migration policy doomed to fail? Is agriculture policy compatible with the pursuit of ambitious climate goals? POLITICO’s European Elections Great Debates on April 2 in Brussels will convene MEPs from the eight political groups for two important debates on migration, and the compatibility of agriculture and climate policies. For more information, visit our website.**
A EUROPEAN PUBLIC SPHERE?
ALL POLITICS IS LOCAL: “I don’t think these are European elections,” Muscat said, referring to the May parliamentary ballot. “At the end of the day these are series of national elections where people vote, I would dare say, for anything but Europe.”
Translation: Those gathered in Madrid over the weekend may think the European election “is about Europeans vs. anti-Europeans, Social Democrats against conservatives, [Hungarian PM Viktor] Orbán vs. Timmermans. [But] at the end of the day I don’t think people in Turku in Finland or in some Parisian suburbs really care about that. So I think it’s 27 national elections, which will be fought on national issues. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but I think that’s the reality.”
THE FAR-RIGHT THREAT: Far-right parties are “overplaying their possibilities,” Muscat said. “They will score a substantial improvement in their numbers — but they will fall short of the expectations. And we all know that elections are expectation games.” All that matters is “whether you meet the expectations or not.” Muscat wouldn’t be surprised if the traditional parties “deliver a stronger than expected performance, while the extremists will maybe fall a bit short.”
Barley disputed that it’s all about expectation management. She said she senses voters’ interest in the May election “is huge” — and “that’s very encouraging, I can feel it everywhere. The events are full. There’s awareness — that of course helps us, because the fear is always that the right-wing populists mobilize better than we do.”
SPD plan: “The right-wing populists appeal to emotions and low instincts,” Barley said. She wants to counter that “with positive emotions. I think it is very important to convey the feeling of what it means to stick together. It’s important to open up the globalized world to our own children and grandchildren, to tell them what peace means, not just in abstract and theoretical terms. This is a difficult task because it is easier to stir up negative emotions than positive ones. But that’s the task we face.”
Compromise isn’t weak: “There is currently a tendency to seek to emphasize the uncompromising in many political debates,” Barley said. She wants her party to be a unifying power. “It is so important that, at the end of the day, no matter what, you have to bring [people] together in society if you want social peace. If you don’t take the whole population with you, you risk a phenomenon like the right-wing populists, who want to turn the whole thing back completely.” Compromise is “the art of politics, and the essence of politics,” and Barley wants the SPD to be “the party for social peace and cohesion.”
SHE DID WHAT? I asked Barley what the most frequent reaction was to her decision to give up a ministry to become an MEP instead. “Many say ‘wow, I wouldn’t have thought [you’d do that],'” she told me. “My party colleagues … have great respect for my decision. Whether they would have done it themselves is another question.” Barley decided to make the switch “because Europe really needs convinced Europeans. That may sound pathetic now, but I’m serious. And because I want to achieve the best possible result for my party. We are on our way up, I hope this will continue.”
RULE OF LAW
SOCIALIST (AND OTHER) RULE-OF-LAW ISSUES: This weekend’s most political meeting in Madrid was perhaps a secretive one between Timmermans, PES President Sergei Stanishev, Bullmann, and Liviu Dragnea, chairman of Romania’s ruling Social Democrats. “We confronted [Dragnea] with the upcoming debate that in Romania there’s allegedly an investigation going on against Timmermans and [Justice Commissioner Věra] Jourová,” Bullmann told Playbook. “That’s absurd, and of course we had to talk about that.”
Good enough? Bullmann said Dragnea “distanced himself” from whatever is going on in Romania’s judiciary, and promised to wholeheartedly back Timmermans as the PES’ top candidate in the European election. “There was no lack of clarity from our side that those who want to be part of our family need to stick to the rule of law,” Bullmann said.
Next steps: Timmermans himself told Playbook he was “very strict and very clear” in the aforementioned meeting. Dragnea “wants to talk to us, he doesn’t want to leave the family, he wants to work for possible misunderstandings to be cleared up. Over the next few weeks we will see if we can do that,” Timmermans said.
Back to work: Putting on his Commission first vice president hat, Timmermans on Saturday said he’ll follow up “as soon as next week” with the Romanian government. “I don’t know whether we will succeed. I also don’t know whether Dragnea really means what he says.” Timmermans said he had heard that Dragnea told Romanian media all the problems had already been resolved, but “unfortunately it’s not like that.”
Is it a burden to be responsible for upholding the EU’s rule of law while at the same time campaigning as Spitzenkandidat? “The irony is,” Timmermans said, that the Polish and Hungarian governments are “the only ones” who accuse him of politicking. “They try to get off the hook in such a way, to make me stop, but I won’t do that. In a national election, it is also customary for a minister to campaign before the election and remain a minister. This is new only for us.”
MEANWHILE, OVER AT THE EPP: Sweden’s Moderate Party will push for the EPP to expel Fidesz in the wake of Orbán’s campaign against Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Ulf Kristersson, the Swedish party’s leader, said his “aim is to, in accordance with the EPP statutes, gather [support from] seven member parties from five different countries to exclude Fidesz.” Maïa de La Baume has more.
Weber calls for anti-Semitism action: Manfred Weber, the EPP’s candidate for European Commission president, called Sunday for a pact against anti-Semitism. Jacopo Barigazzi has more.
THERESA’S BAD TRIP: The walls are closing in on Theresa May — even in Egypt, writes Tom McTague, who traveled with British PM to the Red Sea coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for an inaugural EU summit with Arab country leaders Sunday night. May gave the Brexit can another hefty kick down the road, by explicitly ruling out holding a second parliamentary vote on her divorce deal this week. She promised only that she would bring her deal back for a second “meaningful vote” by March 12 — less than three weeks before Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU — sparking fury in the U.K.
Awkward corner: If you can handle it this early in the morning, watch this excruciating video of Giuseppe Conte teaching Theresa May to play pool last night.
No deal into desert: “If someone thinks the EU will give in to any sort of change in tack from what’s being done so far, it’s a mistake,” Muscat said. “There are no exceptions to the single market, to the four freedoms. This is what we really believe in.” But Muscat urged his fellow EU leaders to focus on a long-term plan to convince the U.K. to rejoin the EU within a generation. “Our aim should be that, in our generation, we make sure that the European project thrives in a way that the next generation of British politicians ask for their country to [rejoin] the European Union,” Muscat told me. “It will be a different EU for sure,” he added.
Now read this: Ancient Greek history offers cautionary tales about states that hit the self-destruct button, writes Christian Oliver — and Britain would do well to learn from them.
OVER AND OUT
UKRAINE’S CRISIS OF FAITH: The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s split from the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church earlier this year — one of the biggest schisms in Christian history — is creating major rifts in communities across Ukraine, reports Christopher Miller.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: MEP Béla Kovács; Daily Mail’s John Stevens; Former Spanish PM José María Aznar; CNN’s Hadas Gold.
Celebrated Saturday: MEP Renata Briano; Former Maltese MEP Therese Comodini Cachia; POLITICO’s chief U.K. correspondent Tom McTague; Cambre Associate’s Anne-Claude Martin; CEO of Dell Michael S. Dell.
Celebrated Sunday: Energy and Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete; MEPs Janusz Zemke and Jean-Marie Cavada; Norwegian PM Erna Solberg; Katrine Camilleri, Maltese lawyer and director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, and POLITICO 28 alum; Estonia’s Independence Day.
THANKS: To Natasha Bernard and our producer Jillian Deutsch.
**A message from Naftogaz of Ukraine: Ukraine’s central role in European gas is under threat due to the development of alternative transit infrastructures, such as Nord Stream 2. Negotiations between Gazprom and Naftogaz concerning the post – 2019 transit are still ongoing under the mediation of the EU, which has repeatedly underlined its preference to maintain a gas transit role for Ukraine for energy security reasons. On March 5, EPC and Naftogaz are hosting a Policy Dialogue which will reflect upon the prospects for the continuation of gas transit through Ukraine, its relevance for EU energy security, how developments within this transit route could impact the regional geopolitical landscape and which international ramifications it would entail. Submit your request for participation here.**