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It’s getting crowded in Prague today as 44 delegations descend upon the Czech capital for the inaugural European Political Community summit. One leader happy to escape the strife at home is Britain’s Liz Truss, who is just emerging from a bruising party conference and a week of market turmoil prompted by her tax and spending plans.
Today’s regional forum is just the opening act, as EU leaders stay on tomorrow for an informal summit most likely revolving around the energy crisis. In an interview with the FT, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo slammed the idea of replicating the Iberian model in the entire bloc. We’ll look at what he had to say about his country’s success in exempting Russian steel products and diamonds from the latest sanctions package adopted yesterday.
Back in Brussels, there are signs that one of the longer-running personnel sagas in town could be getting closer to a resolution: EU council chief Charles Michel is considering Thérèse Blanchet to be the next secretary-general of the council, according to people familiar with the discussions. Michel’s spokesman declined to comment. The influential post has been open ever since Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen quit the post in the spring to go back to his native Denmark. Blanchet, who is director-general of the Council legal service, is a French national but support from Paris is unclear. In any case, Michel will need to win over a much wider range of capitals if he is to seal the deal.
Sweet Czech relief
For Boris Johnson it was Kyiv. It seems Liz Truss is another British prime minister who likes a European getaway when the going gets tough at home, write Andy Bounds and Henry Foy in Prague and Valentina Pop in Brussels.
Johnson visited the besieged Ukrainian capital three times in five months and his phone calls with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy often coincided with press coverage of scandals at home.
Truss has just endured a bruising Conservative party conference in Birmingham. So the chance to network — and pose for photos — with European leaders will be welcome. Her hope will be that it burnishes her credibility as a stateswoman and a staunch supporter of Ukraine.
Truss will have some credit in the bank when she arrives in Prague today. The inaugural European Political Community meeting would have been a less significant affair were she and Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to have turned down invitations.
It was conceived by France’s President Emmanuel Macron to discuss common interests such as energy and migration, which cannot be solved by the EU alone. With 44 leaders (though the Danish PM might be late after announcing early elections yesterday) present, they will be split into smaller groups discussing different topics before a dinner at Prague castle.
Truss (and Erdoğan) are key to Brussels’ efforts to paint this as more than just another EU-led exercise. She’s also keen to avoid that vibe: expect to hear lots about defence and security and the UK’s leading role in supporting Kyiv. “Europe is facing its biggest crisis since the second world war. And we have faced it together with unity and resolve,” Truss is expected to tell the opening plenary session. “We must continue to stand firm.”
On the sidelines, however, she is expected to use the opportunity to talk about post-Brexit relations with the EU. Truss has scheduled meetings with Macron, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte (to talk about migration) and Czech premier Petr Fiala. Other one-on-one meetings are also on the cards but were unconfirmed yesterday.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Europe Express yesterday that the high turnout to the inaugural EPC “shows that, at this moment, there is a need for a forum to talk and in a very visible way, it shows how much Belarus and Russia are completely isolated”.
On Truss, De Croo said that “we still regret Brexit, but we turn the page”, highlighting the important role the UK plays on security and trade. “I’ve met her once in Madrid, we were on a panel together, but it’s a good occasion to talk again.”
Chart du jour: Hold my beer
If you thought the market-moving UK “mini” Budget was big, Germany topped that (and any fellow eurozone packages) by far. In this explainer, Valentina Romei unpacks the €200bn funding programme announced recently to cope with the energy crisis, the government’s justifications and the likely impact it will have on the rest of the internal market.
Diamonds are forever (unsanctioned)
While everyone was focusing on Hungary and some Mediterranean nations haggling over the Russian oil price cap, Belgium quietly made sure two of its lucrative industries (steel in French-speaking Wallonia and diamonds in the Flemish hub of Antwerp) were shielded in the eighth sanctions package, write Valentina Pop and Henry Foy.
On the import of Russian steel products, Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo told Europe Express that his government needed to make sure the sanctions didn’t hurt his country more than they hurt Putin, especially with the current energy crisis and high inflation. “The moment we take sanctions, and the impact is that a few weeks later, major industrial activity stops and thousands of people lose their jobs — that’s not the goal of sanctions.
“So yes, we made sure we were not questioning the sanctions in itself, we just made sure that in some cases, there is enough of a transition period, which I think is necessary.” A two-year transition period for the steel industry winding down Russian imports was agreed in the final text.
On diamonds, De Croo said his government didn’t intervene as the industry lobbied the EU commission directly and made sure that diamonds were left out of the sanctions draft.
There was one wrinkle, however. The commission seems to have forgotten to inform the EU diplomatic service, which listed Russian diamond exporter Alrosa in its initial draft put to ambassadors last week.
This created a small kerfuffle in that round of talks, when the commission noticed the slip-up and said Alrosa should be left out. The Polish ambassador, Andrzej Sadoś, initially put up a fight and said he didn’t have a mandate to take anything out, but eventually was forced to relent.
De Croo points out that diamond imports from Russia have been on a declining trajectory, though only since July, months after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Belgian parliament and shamed the “people for whom the diamonds sold in Antwerp are more important than the battle we are waging”.
“From what I’ve understood, they explained [to the commission] in which way they will wind [diamond imports] further down,” De Croo said, which seems to have convinced EU officials to leave them out of this round.
But before winding down, Belgian jewellers imported over €360mn worth of diamonds in June, on the back of ending contracts, said De Croo’s spokesman.
What to watch today
EU and 17 non-EU leaders, including Liz Truss, meet in Prague for the inaugural European Political Community summit
Guilty gilt: The UK government’s borrowing costs started rising again yesterday after Liz Truss failed to convince markets and the Bank of England said it had declined to buy any bonds for the second day in a row under its programme introduced a week ago to prop up long-term debt.
Awkward guests: Turkey has made a formal complaint to Sweden about an “ugly” satirical TV show that mocked President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a time when Stockholm is courting Ankara’s approval for its Nato membership bid and with both countries’ leaders set to meet in Prague today.
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