11-09-2018 | EYE ON GREECE | EU

11-09-2018 | EYE ON GREECE |

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Inspectors back for post-bailout assessment amid debt warnings

As foreign auditors returned to Athens on Monday, for the first assessment of Greece’s finances since the country exited its international bailouts last month, a top European official stressed that debt relief will depend on the continuation of economic reforms.


EU ponders pension cuts after April

The European Commission is, according to sources, examining an alternative scenario that would leave the pension cuts due in January open until April, in an effort to respond to government pressure to this end but without offering a definitive answer for the time being.


Regling: Debt relief measures interrupted if Athens retreats on agreed-to reforms

European creditors took less than a day to react to the leftist-rightist coalition government in Athens, following a more-or-less package of future tax breaks and spending measures unveiled by Greek PM Alexis Tsipras over the weekend – with the latter mostly eyeing next year’s general election.


Turkey calls for ‘reexamination’ of mufti status

Turkey has called on Greece to “re-examine” a provision voted through Parliament last month that stipulates Muslim religious leaders (muftis) in the Greek border region of Western Thrace must retire at the age of 67.


Moscow disputes Ecumenical Patriarchate’s status

The Russian Patriarchate has openly disputed the first-among-equals status of the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate after the latter’s decision to grant independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Moscow.


Cash remains king in Greek realty

The majority of real estate transactions in Greece are carried out in cash, as banks continue to underfinance the property market because the majority of buyers do not have the credit profile for a substantial loan.


ATHEX: Stocks recover after week and a half of losses

The improvement in the mood on global markets along with the rise in the prices of Italian and Greek bonds and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s rather measured financial pledges at the Thessaloniki International Fair over the weekend – which appeased traders – led to a significant rebound of Greek stocks on Monday after a week and a half of constant decline for the benchmark.







KATHIMERINI:  The tax for large property holders terrifies the middle class

ETHNOS:  School year begins without lack of teachers

TA NEA:  Shield against pension cuts

EFIMERIDA TON SYNTAKTON:  European terrifies its own self when looking in the mirror

AVGI:  The country moves on

RIZOSPASTIS:  The government is attempting to vindicate the Memoranda and ‘whitewash’ American imperialism

KONTRA NEWS:  New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is going to visit the Thessaloniki International Fair ‘weaponless’

DIMOKRATIA:  Do they wish for a civil war [due to the ‘Macedonian’ name issue]?

NAFTEMPORIKI:  Hunt for investment capitals


WEBER STEP BACK FROM ORBÁN: Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party group leader and Spitzenkandidat hopeful, has a warning for Hungary’s Viktor Orbán: The PM needs to compromise on issues such as his NGO law and the Central European University if he wants his EPP family to vote against opening an Article 7 procedure that could suspend Hungary’s EU voting rights. “We expect the Hungarian government to make a move towards their EU partners. Europe’s fundamental values must be respected by all,” Weber told Playbook in Strasbourg.

That’s a red line that, for once, is pretty easy to follow up on: His short speech to European Parliament this afternoon is Orbán’s opportunity to either give in (at least for now), or to escalate his row with (many, but not all) EU partners and, increasingly, his own party family.

Coincidence? As Weber took the first step towards abandoning his CSU party’s best European buddy, Angela Merkel’s CDU on Monday made its support for Weber’s Spitzenkandidat candidacy official. (Günther Oettinger did a good job in his pro-Weber campaign, it seems.) Must be pure coincidence.

YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, from the ÖVP party, told ORF television in an interview that aired Monday evening: “We decided that the Austrian MEPs [from the EPP group] will vote in favor of an Article 7 procedure.” Meanwhile, Othmar Karas, the leader of the European Parliament’s ÖVP delegation, said that if a majority votes in favor of triggering the procedure, Orbán’s Fidesz party will be suspended from the EPP. That, Kurz said, would be “a very normal thing.”

Further reading: Martha M. Robbins writes in a study — “A Demographic Analysis of Male Life History and Social Structure of Mountain Gorillas” — that silverbacks lead their troops for an average of 4.7 years before being challenged by younger competitors.

WHAT WILL ORBÁN DO? Who knows. His spokesman Zoltán Kovács sought to discredit the critical Parliament report by Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini about Hungary’s democratic record as a “witch hunt” and “a desperate attempt on behalf of leftwing politicians who are trying to set up a tribunal.” (Donald Trump sends his regards.) And the Hungarian government published a 109-page (counter-) “information sheet.” Jacopo Barigazzi has more.

Here’s a hint: The Commission has kept track of the various and numerous infringement procedures it has started against Hungary since Orbán’s ascension in 2010. The collection is assembled in a 31-page document, which Playbook has seen. It suggests that in most cases Orbán has blinked first — but also takes one step back after every two steps forward.

A few examples: A procedure against Hungary’s Media Act from 2010 ended with the government agreeing “to amend the media law so that it complies with all aspects of EU law that the European Commission has raised,” the document says. What happened to Hungary’s tax exemptions for local liquor? “Letter of formal notice under Article 260 TFEU (26 February 2015) — Hungary complied with the judgment of the Court (C-115/13).” A discriminatory tax on foreign retailers: “Hungary allowed the legislation to expire without extension.”

Laws that endangered the independence of the Hungarian central bank: “Letter of formal notice Article 258 TFEU (17/01/2012) — Hungary amended its law on the National Bank of Hungary, in line with the Commission’s requirements.” A new tax on advertising, which the Commission said discriminated against foreign media companies: “The Hungarian authorities accepted to modify the Advertising Tax Act. The Commission accepted their commitments and closed the EU Pilot file.”

The same happened in the highest-profile case so far, when the Commission fought against what it said was an attempt to weaken the independence of Hungary’s judiciary in 2012 (as well as against a forced early mass retirement of judges, which may ring a bell elsewhere in the EU). After an exchange of letters between then Commission Vice President Viviane Reding and then Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navracsics, “Hungary adopted amendments to the legislation on the administration of justice largely in line with the requirements of the European Commission and the Council of Europe.”

Bottom line: Anything could still happen — past actions are indicative, but we wouldn’t bet on history always repeating. And most importantly: Infringement procedures sound — and are — terribly technical, but a European Court of Justice ruling is a European Court of Justice ruling, and it sets a red line that’s hard to disregard (except on the relocation of refugees).

Case in point: Poland’s Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, when asked whether Warsaw might ignore the ECJ’s verdict on the early retirement of judges, said it certainly would not, the Polish Press Agency reports.


LREM AND ALDE? ‘NOT AT ALL’: French President Emmanuel Macron was quick to call Guy Verhofstadt’s bluff and have an associate declare that his La République En Marche party had no intention of joining ALDE after the next European election. Asked about Verhofstadt’s comments, the movement’s head Christophe Castaner told Reuters: “Pas du tout” — “not at all.” An LREM official told Maïa de la Baume that “our wish is not to root ourselves in any existing scheme but to be able to rally European progressives in the widest possible way before and after the elections.“

ALDE’s surprise: Pavel Telička, a Czech member of ALDE group and a Parliament vice president, said Verhofstadt’s claim that Macron’s LREM and his own ALDE would create a new movement and campaign together in next year’s European election was a “surprise” to him and that he would seek “clarification” from the liberal leader.

“My feeling is that it’s [the new movement] not that advanced,” Telička told Maïa, adding that ALDE first had to carry out its own internal debate. “We continue to speak to En Marche and are close with them, but we need to see that we have a good coherence on the program.” He cautioned that ALDE and LREM have “differences” on some things. ALDE will debate those issues at the end of September.

The Hof’s conversion to Macronism: Telička also expressed bemusement at Verhofstadt’s comments on the Spitzenkandidat process. (The ALDE leader said his group was initially in favor but then “became very critical.”) Telička said ALDE supported the lead candidate process. “I want to talk to [Verhofstadt] and have a debate,” he said. Jo Leinen, the Socialists & Democrats’ leading MEP on the Constitutional Affairs Committee, called Verhofstadt’s remarks about the Spitzenkandidaten “more than astonishing,” and reminded the Hof that he himself was the Liberals’ lead candidate in 2014.

What does it all mean? Verhofstadt and Macron may be against the lead candidate process, but large swathes of Parliament are in favor of it. (Let’s not forget the solemn institutional oath to elect only Spitzenkandidaten Commission presidents.) Perhaps what that really means is that ALDE, and Macron, have given up on the race for the Commission presidency, and are focusing on other top jobs in next year’s carousel.


CHANNELING NAPOLEON’S SPIRIT: Carmelo Abela has a spectacular office, loaded with history. “This is the place where Napoleon used to sleep,” Malta’s 46-year-old foreign minister told me as he showed me around his room via Skype. But he’s not completely sure what to make of his surroundings — of the painting behind him he says he doesn’t like very much, of a bust of the Frenchman who ruled over the island for two short years. “I hope he’s not spying on me,” Abela joked.

I spoke to Abela to gauge the temperature on the migration frontline ahead of Jean-Claude Juncker’s Wednesday State of the Union speech and next week’s Salzburg summit.

Stronger European border guard: As Juncker prepares to set out a Commission proposal for a strengthened European Border and Coast Guard (EBCG) on Wednesday, Abela issued a warning that a new mandate for the EU’s agency shouldn’t mean more power for Brussels. “Our position is that we believe that there should be no further competence shift to the European Border and Coast Guard,” he said. “It’s member states, in accordance with international rules and regulations, who are responsible.”

When it comes to Malta’s assessment of the Commission’s expected proposal, a thumbs up or down will “depend of the amount of funding that will be available for the EBCG” and “on the assets that it will have — [and] whether these will be provided by member states,” Abela said. The EU’s naval mission in the Mediterranean, known as Operation Sophia, is important to Malta and should not suffer as a result of shifting priorities, he added. “We need to see how the EBCG will operate in conjunction with Sophia.”

Still friends with Rome? Italy and Malta have recently engaged in a war of words over where the migrants rescued by Sophia ought to be dropped off. But Abela says the two countries have a lot in common. “The argument that they make, we can agree on. It’s maybe the way they express themselves, or some of them express themselves,” he said, trailing off. “I think we should engage more, discuss more,” he added, insisting that “on a bilateral level between Malta and Italy, I have to say that relations are still strong.”

Any progress since June European Council? More specifically, any sight of those disembarkation centers? “I am not aware that countries in Africa, more precisely in North Africa have accepted, or that they were even asked to host such centers,” Abela said. “It’s still work in progress when we talk about migration … we need to continue working on how all member states can take some form of responsibility and what form this responsibility will take.”

MAJORITY RULES: Juncker is expected to propose allowing EU foreign ministers to make decisions via majority votes rather than the current unanimity rule. Abela said faster decision-making isn’t necessarily better, pointing to his time in the home affairs portfolio as evidence. “We took decisions not by unanimity but by majority … Then you had member sates who took the decision to court, and even today you have member states who have not implemented fully the pledges that they made,” Abela said. “The question is not exactly the method but whether we stick to the decisions we made.”

But that’s not a ‘No.’ “If we expect unanimity under every circumstances, I don’t think we’ll come to many decisions,” Abela acknowledged, pointing to the fact that it’s difficult for so many EU countries to agree on a decision. “We need to see how we can be more efficient in taking decisions … imagine with more member states in the future joining the EU — I think it is an issue that needs to be addressed.”

MALTA’S RED LINES: “Well, there are competences for member states. One that comes to mind is taxation and I think that’s pretty clear for us.”


… IN COURT: Who has the right to police the internet? The French privacy watchdog will today face down Google in a European Court of Justice hearing over how far the region’s “right to be forgotten” should extend in the digital world. Mark Scott, who’ll be covering the hearing in Luxembourg, brings you up to speed.

… IN BARCELONA: As Catalans celebrate their national day, Diada, Regional President Quim Torra is betting the upcoming trials of pro-independence leaders can create a new window of opportunity like the one he says Catalonia had — and missed — last year to push for a break with Madrid. Torra speaks with Diego Torres about the future of the Catalan independence movement.

… IN SWEDEN: Sweden’s anti-establishment landslide may not have materialized on Sunday, but the country’s political system did receive a jolt of unprecedented magnitude, and here comes the fallout. Paulina Neuding writes in an op-ed for POLITICO that “while the establishment escaped the severe punishment polls had predicted, the immediate aftermath indicates Sweden — that erstwhile bastion of rock-solid political stability — has entered uncharted waters.”

Matt Karnitchnig, meanwhile, argues that Sweden’s election was all about the rise of the far right. “Donald Trump was right: ‘Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,’” Matt writes.

… IN RUSSIA: Chinese soldiers will join Russia’s largest military exercise since the Cold War. More from the FT.

HAPPENED ON MONDAY: The European Parliament’s environment committee backed a 45 percent cut in CO2 emissions compared to 2021 levels by 2030, much more than the 30 percent reduction proposed by the European Commission, and a world away from the 20 percent sought by the auto industry. Kalina Oroschakoff has the details.

NOT HAPPENING: Italy’s PM Giuseppe Conte said he will withdraw his application for a professorship at Sapienza University in Rome out of “personal sensitivity,” although he rejected criticism that it represented a conflict of interest. Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli has an update on her scoop from last week.