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By JAKOB HANKE VELA and SUZANNE LYNCH
with ALI WALKER
UKRAINE AND RUSSIA AT ONE TABLE: Political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany meet in Paris today for talks in the so-called Normandy Format, in another attempt to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from starting a new war in Europe. Speaking Tuesday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron said he hoped the meeting would pave the way for talks at leaders’ level in Berlin in the near future.
WEST GETS MORE SPECIFIC ON SANCTIONS: Officials on Tuesday said Western allies plan to impose export restrictions to cut Russia off from crucial technologies, as well as financial sanctions.
No more hi-tech: “The export control options we’re considering alongside our allies and partners would hit Putin’s strategic ambitions to industrialize his economy quite hard,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters on a briefing call. “It would impair areas that are of importance to him, whether it’s in artificial intelligence or quantum computing, or defense or aerospace or other key sectors.” Experts say such restrictions can be painful, because the EU and U.S. are leaders in certain technologies for which there are no alternatives from China.
Allies are also preparing to cut off Russian banks from access to financial markets.
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But allies are still unsure about when to trigger those sanctions, write Lili Bayer and David Herszenhorn.
Securing Europe’s gas supply: The U.S. also has been working with allies to ensure Europe has adequate energy supplies should Putin decide to stop natural gas flowing into the EU through Ukraine, officials said.
US Congress in town: A delegation of US Congress members, led by House foreign affairs committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, is in Brussels today for meetings. The cross-party group landed last night and is scheduled to meet representatives from NATO and the EU today, including EEAS Secretary-General Stefano Sannino and chair of the European Parliament foreign affairs committee David McAllister. They will then travel to Kyiv tomorrow for further discussions on the security situation in Eastern Europe and the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine’s border and in Belarus.
PUTIN MAKES EYES AT ITALIAN BUSINESS: The Russian president will this morning address major Italian businesses such as Barilla, Enel, Eni, Pirelli and Unicredit at an event via videolink organized by the Italian-Russian chamber of commerce. But he shouldn’t expect the same dovish response from Rome as he got after annexing Crimea in 2014, writes Giorgio Leali.
What’s next: Macron and Putin have scheduled a phonecall for Friday.
IRISH FISHING BOATS VS. RUSSIAN NAVY: Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney briefed his EU counterparts this week on plans by Russia to conduct military drills 240km off the southwest coast of Ireland next month. In reality, there is little that Ireland can do as the operation will take place in international waters. But Irish fishermen are not impressed by Putin’s maneuvers, and plan to peacefully disrupt the operations, a local fishing organization told POLITICO’s Louis Westendarp.
PUTIN MAKES NATO GREAT AGAIN: As Playbook wrote Monday and Paul Taylor argues brilliantly in his column, Putin has managed to resurrect the transatlantic alliance.
CAN SCHOLZ LEAD? That’s the question on the lips of Western allies this week — but also of Germans themselves. EU countries were perplexed by Scholz’s politically toxic opposition to sanctioning Nord Stream 2 — which he later gave up. His decision to block arms shipments to Ukraine, including those of EU partners, is now further undermining the bloc’s unity. And in Germany people are questioning his pandemic leadership, after Scholz said he would impose a vaccine mandate, only to not follow through.
Scholz’s inaction “is damaging the transatlantic relationship more than Trump ever did,” writes Süddeutsche Zeitung. “When the American president does more to prevent a war in Europe than the German chancellor, there is something wrong with German foreign policy.”
Standing next to France’s Emmanuel Macron at a joint press conference in Berlin on Tuesday evening, there was an evident contrast between the leaders. While Macron gave a clear, if grim, analysis of Russia’s actions; Scholz wavered and tiptoed — too fearful or unable, it seemed, to deter enemies and reassure allies.
Macron warned that the Kremlin was seeking to destabilize former Soviet Union countries and that Russia was becoming “a force of instability” in Europe. Scholz did not find such clear words.
Asked if France and Germany would send troops to defend NATO’s Eastern members if Russia started a war, as the U.S. was preparing to do, Scholz riffed about the OSCE and its historical importance in securing dialogue, while Macron made clear no one should doubt the unity of NATO. (Indeed, Macron has already announced France will send troops to Romania to ramp up NATO presence in the East.)
In another case of German friendly fire, EU officials and diplomats tell Playbook and POLITICO’s Stuart Lau that Berlin has been working behind the scenes to undermine a common position against China. Officials said Scholz’s office feared the EU was becoming too aggressive in its defense of Lithuania against Beijing’s economic coercion.
The chancellery has been “calling everyone who speaks German in the Commission” to tone down the pressure on China, after France last week said Beijing had gone too far with its attacks on the single market, one of the officials said. If anyone believed Berlin was actually following the odd strategy of now-former Navy Chief Kay-Achim Schönbach who said Europe needed Russia as an ally against China shortly before losing his job, clearly that’s not the thinking in the chancellery. Berlin has no strategy, but favors the path of least resistance — and its allies are starting to notice.
DIVVYING UP: A scramble for the coveted roles of committee chairs and vice-chairs is in full swing this week in Brussels, a week after Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola was elected as the new European Parliament president.
Pulling the strings: It’s not for nothing that lobbyists are keen to get face time with the key figures on committees and subcommittees. The roles are among the most powerful in the EU institutions given that chairs and vice-chairs often play a role in shaping the direction and priorities of final negotiations and legislative proposals.
Big names: So far it’s been more of the same — German S&D MEP Bernd Lange remains at the helm of the international trade committee; German Christian Democrat David McAllister has been reelected as chair of the foreign affairs committee; while Italian Social Democrat Irene Tinagli will chair the ECON committee until 2024.
New faces: There were some new faces, however. In a first, the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality — otherwise known as FEMM — has elected a male MEP as chair. Robert Biedroń, a Polish MEP from the S&D Group, was selected on Tuesday.
‘Special place in hell’: Channelling his inner Madeleine Albright, Biedroń told Playbook why he’s up for the challenge. “I believe there’s a special place in hell for men not helping women in their fight for equality,” he said, quoting the former U.S. secretary of state. “We as men have a responsibility to stand side by side with women.”
“I have noticed in politics that men tend to be involved in fields where there is money, an emphasis on spending public funds,” he added. “When it comes to important issues like poverty, social issues, education and so on, women are often in the committees but there is no money. This is a huge inequality.”
Fighting for Polish women: Biedroń brings a particular perspective to the role given the clampdown on women’s rights in Poland. “When Poland joined in 2004, many women and men dreamed that we would live in a union of equality. Now women in Poland have less rights than they did in 2004,” he said, referencing the country’s abortion laws.
“I am on this committee because I dream that one day women in Poland — and wherever they live in the European Union — will all have equal rights, because I believe Polish women deserve the same rights as French, Dutch or Spanish women,” he said.
Today, several committees including development (DEVE), Civil Liberties (LIBE) and Environment and Health (ENVI) choose their leadership for the next two and a half years.
METSOLA STAFFS UP: As the selection process for the committee roles continues this week, Metsola has also been staffing up in the president’s office. Jüri Laas, a Swedish-Estonian and former Council spokesman, has been appointed as her spokesperson, Maïa de La Baume reports. A number of Finnish names are also in circulation for key posts — perhaps not surprising given that Metsola’s husband is a Finn who previously worked in the Finnish government and once ran for the European Parliament himself.
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IN OTHER NEWS
EU COUNTRIES TO APPROVE COMMON CHARGER TODAY: EU deputy ambassadors are set to sign off on plans to establish a common charger today, based on a recent compromise text drawn up by the French Council presidency and obtained by our POLITICO Pro colleagues. Once EU countries have green-lit the plans, negotiations with parliament on the final details of the law can start in spring. Sam Stolton has more for POLITICO Pros.
RULE OF LAW MECHANISM: The Court of Justice of the European Union will issue a hotly anticipated ruling on February 16, on the legality of the EU’s new mechanism that links EU funding to respect for the rule of law.
When Poland and Hungary love the ECJ: The lawsuit against the mechanism was launched by Warsaw and Budapest (something critics might consider an uncharacteristic embrace of an independent judiciary). The European Commission has refrained from using the mechanism while the lawsuit is pending.
NEW COVID RULES: EU ministers backed new nonbinding rules that will allow people to travel throughout the EU with proof of vaccination, recovery, or a negative test, without having to face quarantine or additional testing measures. Ministers at Tuesday’s General Affairs Council signed off on the rules, which aim to make travel less restrictive.
It comes as BioNTech/Pfizer launch a study of a new coronavirus vaccine that targets the Omicron variant.
BORIS JOHNSON FACES POLICE PROBE: Pressure continues to build on Boris Johnson as London’s Metropolitan Police confirmed it is investigating a series of lockdown-busting parties at No. 10 Downing Street. However, independent investigator Sue Gray’s report could still be published as early as this week.
HAWKISH US FED PRESSURES EUROPE: European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde will find herself under fresh pressure from markets to adjust course if the spillover from today’s U.S. Federal Reserve policy moves starts to threaten the eurozone’s nascent recovery, writes Johanna Treeck in Frankfurt.
ANTWERP’S DIAMOND INDUSTRY BATTLES BANKS: Diamonds may still be a girl’s best friend — but banks are becoming less keen, reports Hannah Brenton from Antwerp.
**One month into the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union, POLITICO journalists will hold a Pro Briefing Call on February 1 to review the ongoing negotiations on digital platform regulations (DSA/DMA), digital sovereignty and the European green taxonomy. Not a Pro yet but interested in attending? Email [email protected]. This Call will be held in French.**
— Meeting of the College of Commissioners.
— European Council President Charles Michel visits Slovakia and Austria. Meeting with Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger, press conference at 3:30 p.m. Meeting with Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer, press conference at 6:30 p.m.
— EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell co-chairs the EU-G5 Sahel Ministerial meeting.
— Commissioner Johannes Hahn meets Poland’s economic development and technology minister, Piotr Nowak.
— Commissioner Mairead McGuinness in Frankfurt. Meeting with ECB President Christine Lagarde, and Mark Branson, president of the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin).
— Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi visits Ukraine.
— Commissioner Ylva Johansson in San Francisco. Meets executives from Google/Youtube, Apple and Meta/Whatsapp, TikTok.
— Commissioner Thierry Breton meets Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
— NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meets U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
SCHOOL RULES: Belgian education and health ministers are meeting this morning to look into new quarantine measures in schools, after many classrooms had to close across the country, writes Camille Gijs. Currently, a class must shut as soon as four COVID cases have been detected and infected children must remain at home. But Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke is suggesting a temporary easing of the rules — children with no symptoms who have had a high-risk contact in their family would be allowed to go to school (though for other activities, the quarantine obligation remains). The proposal will be discussed this morning.
BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Rasa Juknevičienė, Reinhard Bütikofer and Eva Maydell (a POLITICO 28 alum); Former Danish PM and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen; Former MEP and Belgian politician Sander Loones.
Thanks to our producer Max Fahler.
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