Brussels Playbook: Moldova plotters thwarted — Foreign agents law? — EU top jobs race

Brussels Playbook: Moldova plotters thwarted — Foreign agents law? — EU top jobs race

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GOOD MORNING. This is Nick Vinocur, bringing you Playbook from one of the dirtiest places in Europe — Paris. Streets are lined with shoulder-high piles of rubbish as garbage collectors strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s planned pension reform. It’s a shocking sight (though not in the tony 7th arrondissement, where the mayor hired private garbage-disposal crews), with experts arguing on TV over whether the inevitable rat population explosion poses a risk to human health (spoiler: it will).

In a win for Macron’s government, the right-leaning Senate signed off on the bill late Saturday, but more protests are planned ahead of a key vote in the National Assembly, likely on Thursday, and anything could happen. In the meantime, there’s no letup in sight for the garbage strike. Courage, les parisiens! 

DRIVING THE DAY: MOLDOVA IN MOSCOW’S SIGHTS

MOLDOVA ON EDGE: The small country lodged between Romania and Ukraine is quickly turning out to be the hottest concern on the EU’s exterior border, as police announced Sunday they had arrested seven people accused of fomenting unrest during anti-government protests.

Told you so: The arrests come after a drumbeat of warnings from Moldova’s pro-Western government and U.S. officials, who had explicitly warned about an attempt to stir trouble using Russian-linked agents infiltrating the country.

Tough words: “I send a warning to the traitors of the country that they will soon stand before the court, no matter how much money and help they receive to destroy our country,” said Moldovan Minister of Internal Affairs Ana Revenco. Read the full story from Sarah Anne Aarup here.

Pro-Russia march: Despite tough talk from the pro-EU government of Prime Minister Maia Sandu, thousands of pro-Russian protesters marched in the capital city of Chisinau on Sunday, chanting anti-Sandu slogans — the latest in months of rallies organized by the party of Kremlin-friendly oligarch Ilan Shor, according to media reports.

Europe watching: The events raise hard questions for the EU: How far is Brussels prepared to go to support an EU-candidate country facing a Moscow-led destabilization campaign? The EU already provides funding to Moldova — €13 million to help civilians fleeing Russia’s war on Ukraine and €150 million in loans and grants. Moldova is also seen as a key partner in managing migration flows, receiving help from Frontex.

Alarm bells ringing: But Moscow’s efforts to challenge Sandu’s government will nudge the EU to clarify its support for Chișinău even more. Moscow has already tightened its grip on Transnistria, the breakaway region between Moldova and Ukraine that’s led by pro-Russian separatists and where Moscow has stationed thousands of troops. A similar power grab in Moldova would rattle the bloc, bringing Russia’s influence even closer. 

Wide awake now: Experts don’t expect Russia to invade Moldova, and the alleged efforts to whip up unrest could be part of a wider attempt to distract from Ukraine. Nevertheless, Moldova now has the West’s full attention.

NOW READ THIS — FRANCE PUSHING PROTECTIONISM IN UKRAINE DEFENSE PLAN: As Russia’s war puts a heavy strain on EU arms, there’s infighting in Brussels over how best to reload, with the latest skirmish focusing around a procurement fund intended to ramp up production of arms in Europe, reveal my colleagues Suzanne Lynch, Eddy Wax and Jacopo Barigazzi.

FOREIGN INTERFERENCE

PLAYBOOK SCOOP — A FOREIGN AGENTS LAW FOR THE EU? A survey making the rounds in Brussels has non-profits and consultancies spooked that they’ll soon have to report foreign revenue to the bloc under binding rules being prepared by the office of Commission Vice President for Justice Věra Jourová, three sources told Playbook.

Receipts, please: In the survey, which was seen by Playbook and carried out by a third party on behalf of the Commission, respondents are asked to spell out whether they receive funding from outside the EU. The question has some worried that they are effectively putting themselves on a future list by answering a survey that is merely meant to inform the Commission’s work on a draft law.

Are you a threat? This question about funding “took a lot of people back,” said Nick Aiossa, head of policy and advocacy at Transparency International, who said he participated in an oral questionnaire with the third party conducting the survey. “The guiding questions suggested they were evaluating whether Transparency International was a threat to democracy.”

What’s the problem? Some NGOs voiced concern that if Europe goes ahead with its own version of the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, it could be weaponized by strongmen like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to clamp down on pro-democracy forces in their country. 

Defense of democracy: A spokesperson for Jourová did not immediately answer a request for comment. Her office is in charge of developing a “defense of democracy” package, touted by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union speech, the aim of which is to protect key institutions from undue influence by foreign actors. The law is slated to be finalized toward the end of May.

But the timing is awkward. Georgian protesters took to the streets en masse last week against a law that would have declared media and non-governmental organizations that receive more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad as “agents of foreign influence.” (ICYMI, my colleague Dato Parulava filed an excellent on-the-ground report from Tbilisi.) The protests forced Georgia’s government to withdraw the bill. “It’s odd that we’re having this conversation as this is happening in Georgia,” said Aiossa.

**Don’t miss out POLITICO Live’s event “Telecoms drumbeat for the future of connectivity” happening next Wednesday, March 21! Headlining speakers including Meta’s director of economic and social policy, Phillip Malloch and Orange’s deputy CEO Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière. They will debate on the Commission’s fair share initiative alongside with EU policymakers and regulators. Register here.**

TOP JOBS WATCH

WHO WANTS TO BE A COMMISSION PRESIDENT? We’ve written about top jobs chatter on the European right. Now Playbook turns to the left, where talk about who’s best placed to be Spitzenkandidat, or lead candidate, for president of the European Commission is picking up pace among Socialist and Democrats in the wake of the Qatargate scandal, as lawmakers decamp to Strasbourg for their monthly pilgrimage.

In Iratxe’s words: S&D group leader Iratxe García would appear well-placed to nab the nomination. But she struck an ultra-cautious note during an interview with my colleague Eddy Wax. “It’s a decision that the Party of European Socialists and the group of Socialists and Democrats has to take. Our group doesn’t work based on personal decisions; it works based on common decisions which are about whether they’re the best decisions for all,” García said.

Nothing personal: Pressed on whether she even wants the job, García added: “I as always am ready to collaborate with the group and the party to elect the best people, and it’s not up to me to consider on an individual level who the best person is. Politics is not the area for resolving personal desires.”

Hedging their bets: A few reasons why García is treading carefully: 1) She could easily be called back to Spain to serve as a minister in Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government, as the Brussels rumor mill would have it; 2) The fallout from Qatargate, which has emboldened the claims of those who say the Spitzenkandidat shouldn’t come from Southern Europe.

Enter Katarina Barley. In comments to Eddy and POLITICO’s Sarah Wheaton, Parliament Vice President Katarina Barley didn’t deny that she was in contention for the top job. “People are talking about a lot of people and I’m part of that, which is an honor,” said the German lawmaker, who has been outspoken about corruption allegations hanging over current and former S&D colleagues.

Also ran: Another name doing the rounds: Belgian Socialist Kathleen Van Brempt, though more as a potential stop-gap in case García is called back to Madrid, Eddy reports.

The Finnish option: One more name to consider is Sanna Marin, Finland’s star prime minister who faces a reelection battle early next month. According to POLITICO’s poll of polls, she could be on track to cede the job to a center-right group headed by ex-Finance Minister Petteri Orpo (ICYMI his Playbook interview here). If Marin loses, her colleague in the European Parliament, Miapetra Kumpula-Natri, has touted her as a possible Spitzenkandidat who could unite the left in the wake of Qatargate: “Sanna Marin has everything. She is well known, experienced and has an outstanding record as prime minister during a tough period,” Kumpula-Natri told Finnish media Yle in January.

And there’s always Frans Timmermans. The Dutch executive vice president of the European Commission ran the last time around and came up empty after national leaders circumvented the Spitzenkandidat process and put forward their own choice — von der Leyen. Would Timmermans run again? Let’s just say the rumor mill is fairly quiet on this one.

ITALY CONFIRMS NEW EU AMBASSADOR: Rome has named diplomat Vincenzo Celeste as its new top representative to the EU, confirming rumors that have been circulating for months amid curiosity about whom Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni would name for the job. Previously posted to London as well as Damascus, Sofia and Brussels, Celeste, born in Naples, was most recently director general for European and international trade at the Italian foreign ministry.

Job shuffle: Celeste will be replaced in the director general role by another well-known name in Brussels: Nicola Verola, who is currently deputy DG in charge of EU affairs and has previously worked in the EU capital. As for the current permanent representative, Pietro Benassi, former sherpa and former ambassador to Germany — he’ll go back to Rome at the end of the month having reached retirement age, Jacopo Barigazzi writes in to report.

FINANCIAL AFFAIRS

US BAILS OUT BANKS: U.S. federal authorities took aggressive action Sunday to end days of global uncertainty and panic, agreeing to backstop all depositors for two failed lenders, Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank, and to prevent runs on any other financial institutions. The Fed announced that it would offer cash loans of up to a year for any bank putting up safe collateral — which in theory would allow banks to handle deposit withdrawals of any amount, my Stateside colleagues report.

UK fallout: Meanwhile, over in London, government ministers were locked in late-night talks to try to sell SVB’s U.K. arm and pull together an emergency rescue package for over 3,000 British tech companies with up to £7 billion collectively deposited in Silicon Valley Bank. Details here, and in this morning’s London Playbook, out in an hour.

Now read this: Three days before SVB’s failure, big bank lobbyists and executives were triumphant, having convinced key Republican lawmakers to publicly warn Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell against tightening regulations on the industry, reports Zach Warmbrodt.

EUROGROUP MEETING: Against that backdrop, the finance ministers of the eurozone countries gather in Brussels today for their regular Eurogroup meeting. No doubt the drama across the Atlantic (and the Channel) will be a topic for discussion.

Also on the agenda 1: Ministers are also due to give their first response to the Commission’s long-awaited fiscal rules proposal, unveiled last week. Brussels wants to tweak the Stability and Growth Pact — the bible of EU economic governance which obliges countries to adhere to debt and deficit targets, which was suspended at the start of the pandemic. The new proposal will give countries more flexibility in reaching their targets.

Also on the agenda 2: The digital euro and the recent inflation figures, ahead of the ECB’s rate-setting meeting later this week in Frankfurt. The bottom line: More pain is in the offing for European mortgage-holders as the bank is expected to raise rates further Thursday.

IN OTHER NEWS

NAVALNY DOCO WINS OSCAR: “Navalny,” the documentary about the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his imprisonment since his return to Moscow, won the Academy Award for best feature documentary overnight. Navalny’s children and his wife Yulia attended the ceremony and joined the film’s director on stage to accept the award. “My husband is in prison just for telling the truth. My husband is in prison just for defending democracy,” Yulia Navalnaya said. “Alexei, I am dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong my love.” More here.

The other big winner: German World War I film “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which took out best international feature.

ORBÁN FACES MONEY TRAP AS EU PRESSURE BITES: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has won loyalty from a host of businesspeople, small-town politicians, television personalities and even musicians on the simple reasoning that supporting him is a good career move. Keeping such a system running, however, requires vast resources. And for years, EU funds played a key role in sustaining it. But now, the EU has made access to billions in coronavirus recovery funds contingent upon a long list of reforms, while suspending billions more in regular EU funds over rule-of-law concerns.

Pulling on the string: If state resources were suddenly distributed on merit, and if the prime minister’s closest family members and friends faced investigations over a long list of corruption allegations, the Orbán system could unravel, key experts told my colleague Lili Bayer.

COMMISSION INDUSTRIAL PLAN ‘STUCK IN THE 1960s’: While Ursula von der Leyen has pushed the clean energy cooperation message in Washington, at home she’s drawn fire from one of Brussels’ most august think tanks — Bruegel — for her “crude protectionism and dirigisme” of the Net Zero Industry Act, a draft of which POLITICO has obtained. In an op-ed shared in advance with Playbook, Bruegel Director Jeromin Zettelmeyer and several analysts call the draft “a return to industrial planning of the 1960s” and reminiscent of the “failed” Plan Calcul, which aimed to protect the French computing industry.

CRITICAL RARE MATERIALS ACT: Europe’s lack of a reliable home-grown supply of fossil fuels left it dangerously vulnerable to Russia’s hostage diplomacy. The fear in Brussels now is that China could use its dominant role in raw material supply chains to exert similar pressure in the future, report Charlie Cooper, Antonia Zimmermann and Sarah Anne Aarup. So, later this month, Brussels is due to set out a strategy for securing its supply lines of lithium, rare earths and other key minerals.

INTERESTING READ 1 — AI DRUGS: Medicines designed by artificial intelligence for conditions including lymph cancers, inflammatory diseases and motor neurone disease are reaching trials in humans, but there’s still one significant hurdle to overcome: The availability of data, reports Ashleigh Furlong.

INTERESTING READ 2 — MACRON’S AFRICA RESET FALTERS: Emmanuel Macron’s overhaul of France’s Africa strategy has fallen flat, writes Paul Taylor: “If you’re France, in Africa, you simply can’t win. No one is going to take your professions of good faith, political neutrality, partnership and brotherly love at face value.”

**On March 21, Luca de Meo, CEO of Renault and chairman of ACEA will join our senior policy reporter Josh Posaner for an exclusive one-to-one interview. The interview takes place during POLITICO Live’s event “Made-in-Europe: How to keep pace in the electric car race?”. Interested in receiving the recording of the interview? Sign up today!*

AGENDA

— Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumers Affairs Council at 9:30 a.m.; arrivals and doorsteps at 8:30 a.m.; joint doorstep by the Swedish Minister for Social Services Camilla Waltersson Grönvall and Ukrainian Minister for Social Policy Oksana Zholnovych at 3:45 p.m.; press conference around 4:45 p.m. Watch.

— Eurogroup meeting 3 p.m.; arrivals and doorsteps at 1:30 p.m. (Eurogroup President Paschal Donohoe expected at 2:45 p.m.); press conference with Donohoe, Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni and ESM Managing Director Pierre Gramegna expected around 6:30 p.m. Watch.

— Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Strasbourg; meets with Parliament President Roberta Metsola at 4:15 p.m.

European Parliament plenary session resumes in Strasbourg at 5 p.m. Bureau meets at 6 p.m. Full agenda. Watch.

— EU High Representative Josep Borrell in Algeria; press point at noon; meets Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Watch.

— European Commission publishes annual Safety Gate report on dangerous non-food products; Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders press conference at 1 p.m. Watch.

— Commission VPs Frans Timmermans and Valdis Dombrovskis receive French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.

— Commission VP Věra Jourová in Prague; meets with independent Russian journalists, with President and CEO of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Jamie Fly, and with CEO of Economia Lenka Černá.

— Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen visits Bogota, Colombia.

— Commissioner Stella Kyriakides receives Minister for Finance of Cyprus Iakovos Keravnos.

BRUSSELS CORNER

BELGIAN HAZING TRIAL RESUMES: After a failed attempt last spring, the trial of 18 people accused of being responsible for the death of student Sanda Dia resumes today. The 20-year-old engineering student died following a brutal initiation ceremony in 2018, as he sought to join the Reuzegom club, a fraternity run by students from wealthy Antwerp families. During the ritual, he was forced to drink large amounts of fish sauce, and the high concentration of salt in his blood killed him.

Sven Mary, a prominent criminal defense lawyer in Belgium (who is also defending Greek MEP Eva Kaili in the Qatargate probe), is representing Dia’s family. The trial was put on hold last year because Dia’s family filed an appeal against narrowing the scope of the incidents taken into consideration. Camille Gijs and Barbara Moens have a backgrounder on the case here.

BRUSSELS GOVERNMENT BANS TIKTOK: The Brussels government on Friday banned its officials from having TikTok on their work phones. Does this mean the end of the Belgian Federal police and Bruxelles Capitale-Ixelles TikTok accounts, which have proven something of a hit on the Chinese-owned video app?

BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Chris MacManus and Luděk Niedermayer; Former MEP José Inácio Faria; Journalist Paola Totaro; UBS’ Jakub Bielamowicz; Paul Gaitzsch of the German federal ministry of the interior.

THANKS TO: Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová, Jacopo Barigazzi, Camille Gijs, Suzanne Lynch, Eddy Wax and our producer Grace Stranger.

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Nicholas Vinocur

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