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LATE LAST NIGHT: Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa announced he will dissolve the country’s parliament in December and hold an early election in March 2024. The announcement followed Prime Minister António Costa’s resignation Tuesday. Costa has agreed to stay on as caretaker PM until the vote. Aitor Hernández-Morales has the details here, and there’s more below.
SÁNCHEZ COALITION DEAL TRIGGERS PROTESTS
UPROAR OVER CATALAN DEAL: Swathes of Spanish society is in uproar over Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s deal to form a government with Catalan separatists, with several judicial groups calling proposed legislation that seeks to rein in independent judges “inadmissible,” amid growing EU concerns about rule of law in Spain.
ICYMI: Sánchez struck a deal to form a government with Catalan separatists of the Junts party that includes an offer of amnesty for those behind the illegal 2017 independence vote.
New leaf: In the deal signed Thursday, Junts declares its intention to propose a new auto-determination vote, but one that is in line with Article 92 of the Spanish constitution, which allows for referendums in which “all citizens” participate.
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Sticking point: The deal comes with a proposal by Sánchez’s Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) for legal reform — the exact contents of which are not yet known — that would define the action of independent judges as “lawfare” and appoint parliamentary commissions of inquiry to oversee their actions.
Late Thursday: Several judicial groups blasted the proposal as undermining judicial independence in Spain. In a statement seen by Playbook, Manuel Luna Carbonell, secretary-general of the General Council of the Judiciary — an autonomous body designed to protect the judiciary’s independence — wrote that the body “totally rejects” the proposed reform, calling it an “inadmissible interference in judicial independence and a flagrant attack on the separation of powers.”
Backlash: The Association of Prosecutors said the Socialists’ draft reform amounts to an “unprecedented attack on judicial independence that translates into absolute contempt for our rule of law,” according to another statement seen by Playbook.
EU angle: European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders raised “serious concerns” about the deal earlier this week in a letter to Spain’s justice and presidency ministers. A Spanish minister fired back asserting that the law didn’t come from the government, which is currently in a caretaker role, but from lawmakers.
Stand back: The proposed bill is due to be submitted next week to the Spanish parliament and could yet be modified. But the uproar is set to grow.
Taking to the streets: In Madrid, protesters calling for a “national uprising” attempted to storm PSOE headquarters and threw bottles at the riot police deployed to stop them. The center-right Popular Party is organizing additional protests in every major Spanish city on Sunday.
Echoes: As Reynders’ letter underscored, Sánchez’s deal raises rule-of-law objections at the EU level. The Spanish proposal to subject independent judges to political oversight if their rulings are considered a “judiciarization of politics” is redolent of similar moves taken by leaders in Poland and Hungary, which triggered a massive ongoing legal standoff with the EU executive.
On with the plan: For now, Sánchez is expected to make his bid to form a government to the Spanish parliament on Wednesday and will seek to receive yea votes from a majority of MPs on Thursday. Aitor has the details.
CONTENDER FOR EUROPEAN COUNCIL JOB KNOCKED OFF COURSE: In politics, even the best-laid plans don’t withstand contact with reality for very long. Case in point: The shock resignation of António Costa, who was recently billed as a top contender to become the next head of the Council.
Reminder: Costa, the leader of Portugal’s Socialist Party, resigned from the prime ministership earlier this week following a police raid on his official residence after a judge confirmed he was under investigation for corruption.
Not the best look: The move downgraded Costa’s chances of becoming the next Council chief, even if defenders argue he could yet bounce back as others have, overcoming domestic scandals to nab top EU jobs (ahem, Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen).
We had a plan! Costa’s nomination was widely expected as part of a broad agreement with Europe’s conservatives to divvy up the roles of Commission chief, which would go to the EPP’s von der Leyen, and Council president, for the Socialists.
But half of that deal is now in tatters. As Socialists gather in Malaga today for their congress, they’ll be looking for a new heavyweight candidate to put forward for EU top jobs. But there are no obvious choices. As my colleagues Barbara Moens, Jacopo Barigazzi and Aitor explain, one possibility was Pedro Sánchez — but as he’s just struck a deal to stay in government in Madrid, that’s not looking likely.
Tough crowd: Former Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is also a possibility, but she’s faced criticism for joining the Tony Blair Institute. Another Nordic option: Denmark’s PM Mette Frederiksen, though her government’s hard line on immigration may not go down well with other Socialists.
Damned if you do: Finally there’s Frans Timmermans, the former executive vice president of the Commission who’s running for prime minister in the Netherlands. If he wins, he’ll probably want to serve as PM; if he doesn’t, he’ll fall short of an informal requirement that Council chiefs ought to have served as a head of state or government.
No one immune: All of which goes to show: Pacts, deals, stitch-ups and other arrangements are there to be broken. The same could well be true for von der Leyen winning a second term as Commission president — it’s bound to happen until, suddenly, it ain’t.
THIERRY BRETON’S BIG ATOS HEADACHE: Speaking of top jobs, Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton has made no secret of his interest in staying on at the Berlaymont, including as a potential “Plan B” president.
I know what you did last decade: But the Frenchman faces some unplanned turbulence over the troubles of Atos, a tech company he ran for 10 years until 2019, which is now collapsing and being sold off for parts.
Tech-tastrophe: As Océane Herrero, your Playbook author, Pauline de Saint Remy and Sarah Paillou report here, the dizzying decline of Atos is now big news in France, where Breton has been named by a presidential aide as a possible lead candidate for the centrist Renaissance party of President Emmanuel Macron in the EU election next year.
Pointing fingers: Breton’s successors at the head of Atos have blamed him for the company’s problems, while a prominent member of Macron’s party in parliament said Breton’s candidacy was “not a good idea” and that “with Atos, there’s a lot of bullets that will be fired at him.”
It wasn’t me: Breton himself hasn’t addressed the criticism beyond saying that when he left the company, it was the “European No. 1 in cybersecurity, supercomputers, cloud — and no debt.” His defenders have also gone up to bat for him, dismissing criticism of his performance.
EU DEFERS ENTRY EXAM OVER ENGLISH-ONLY TESTING: Meanwhile, in slightly less rarefied air, the EU’s personnel agency EPSO told thousands of wannabe Eurocrats their entry exams had been postponed due to technical glitches with the testing platform. But the real reason was different: Parts of the exam were only in English, Gregorio Sorgi reports.
ISRAEL AGREES TO COMBAT PAUSES: After days of talks with top officials from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, Israel will begin to implement short humanitarian “pauses” in the fighting in northern Gaza each day, the White House announced on Thursday. The four-hour pauses will allow humanitarian aid to flow into the area and civilians to get out of harm’s way, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. Read the full story by our U.S. colleague Lara Seligman here.
Macron chimes in: In carefully calibrated remarks, Emmanuel Macron went further than before in calling for Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip to halt. “We need to work harder to protect civilians. We need a very quick humanitarian pause and we need to work toward a cease-fire,” he told delegates at a peace conference at the Elysée Palace. Read Clea Caulcutt’s story here.
Paris humanitarian conference: World leaders, ministers and foreign diplomats have gathered in Paris for the summit, billed as an opportunity to discuss concrete actions to get aid into Gaza and make pledges to fund aid operations. Many around the table called for urgent action and spoke of their concern for the plight of people in Gaza, a few days after the Hamas-controlled health authority said Israel’s military operations had killed more than 10,000 Palestinians. But there were nuances when it came to calling for a cease-fire.
Cyprus plan to bring aid to Gaza: Several EU countries have thrown their weight behind Cyprus’ plan to supply Gaza with humanitarian aid, but several hurdles remain, mainly over the feasibility of landing large cargo safely in Gaza’s tiny port facilities, Nektaria Stamouli reports. Cyprus, which is only 210 nautical miles from the conflict zone, put itself forward as the natural stepping stone for collecting and inspecting shipments destined for Gaza.
PHOTOJOURNALIST ROW: Meanwhile, Israel has slammed four international media outlets — the New York Times, CNN, the Associated Press and Reuters — over the conduct of four photojournalists in Gaza, claiming they had advance knowledge of the attack by Hamas militants on October 7 that killed more than 1,400 people.
Pushback: The news services strongly rejected the Israeli government’s accusation they had any forewarning of the impending murderous assault, with the New York Times saying the “outrageous” charges endangered journalists in both Israel and Gaza. Elena Giordano has a write-up.
MARCHES DIVIDE BRITAIN: A clash with the U.K.’s annual war commemorations has prompted calls for this weekend’s pro-Palestine rally in London to be stopped. Tensions are running high over the march, particularly after U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman branded those protesting as “hate marchers.” Bethany Dawson, Clea Caulcutt and James Angelos have more here.
NOW READ: My colleague Jamie Dettmer writes today on how Israel is fighting for its life and soul. “As Israel combats an unrelenting, hardline Hamas, this contest between defense and integrity is growing sharper and more poignant,” he says. Read more here.
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TRUMP ALARM BLARES IN EUROPE
DUTCH, SWEDISH GO FRENCH: Donald Trump’s potential win in next year’s U.S. presidential election is now turning typically transatlantic EU countries into ardent Europeanists. Speaking at a conference on Thursday at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, two ministers suggested it’s now high time for Europe to build up its own defense industry, Stuart Lau reports from The Hague.
Facing Russia alone: “The leadership might be changing. And we’ve seen it before with the Trump administration,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hear what Donald Trump has said … He’s saying he’s not going to step in if Europe faces security threats from Russia. And that’s why … it has to be about our ability to act as European countries when it comes to our own security.”
Sweden’s sweating, too: “Like it or not, we have to take more responsibility,” Swedish Defense Minister Pål Jonson said, appearing at the same conference, in response to a question about Trump’s impact on Europe. “And the best way to do that is to invest into our own defense capabilities.”
The €20B question: Speaking to Stuart after the event, Jonson said the upcoming EU defense ministers’ meeting on Tuesday will focus on the European Peace Facility, the budget for supporting Ukraine’s military. He wouldn’t be drawn into speculating whether the earlier target for the fund of €20 billion still stands, saying only that more deliberations would be needed.
Commission should go big on defense: In a more forthcoming answer, Ollongren said the next Commission needs to rethink its structure and have a dedicated member for the defense industry. “I think Thierry Breton — he has a huge portfolio, and part of that portfolio is defense industry … I think he really picked it up, he took it seriously.” However, she added, “I think the next Commission has to do even more, and really prioritize defense industry.”
EPPO VS. OLAF
EPPO MA NON TROPPO: The European Public Prosecutor’s Office is fighting for more resources, Elisa Braun reports. But there’s a problem: The Commission has repeatedly denied its requests. EPPO’s Chief Prosecutor Laura Codruța Kövesi is now on a mission to convince the Berlaymont that it’s worth investing in the office to safeguard EU funds.
What Kövesi said: “We have been in denial … about the level of fraud affecting the financial interests of the European Union in particular,” she said at the International Policy Forum Thursday in Sofia. As Playbook reported before, the total damage to Europe’s budget in 2022 due to misuse of EU funds is €5 billion, according to EPPO estimates.
Get OLAF frozen: EPPO’s chief is also taking aim at OLAF, the EU’s anti-fraud watchdog, following the publication of a report that’s critical of its results. “Whilst the EPPO may genuinely believe that it can make a decent case for a higher budget to enable it to do its job, one should also bear in mind that it probably equally feels that OLAF’s higher budget does not necessarily reflect its actual results on the ground,” an EU diplomat said. “In fact the EPPO has hinted at this in so many words in a recent letter” to Secretary-General of the European Commission Ilze Juhansone.
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IN OTHER NEWS
LATE DEAL ON NATURE RESTORATION: Negotiators from the European Parliament, Council and Commission reached a deal on the controversial Green Deal file overnight. The Nature Restoration Regulation sets new EU rules committing the bloc to restore at least 20 percent of the EU’s land and sea to a good natural state by the end of the decade. Here’s the Council press releases, and here’s the Parliament’s.
Next steps: The political agreement now needs to be formally approved by the Parliament and the Council during a vote in the coming weeks.
BELGIAN PRESIDENCY — FOCUS ON INTRA-EU REFORM: Belgium wants to ensure intra-European reforms go hand-in-hand with enlargement, according to a draft program of the Belgian EU Council presidency dated October 20 and seen by our colleagues Camille Gijs and Barbara Moens. “The Presidency will place a particular focus on the EU’s capacity to integrate new members and advance the reflection on the internal reforms required for a successful future enlargement,” the document reads.
INSIDE MELONI’S HOBBIT WORLD: Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is a Lord of the Rings super-fan. J.R.R. Tolkien’s story was appropriated by the Italian right in the 1970s and has remained a sacred text for Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party. Now, as her government signals a shift in direction at Italy’s cultural institutions, one of their more unusual moves is a major exhibition celebrating Tolkien. Read more from Hannah Roberts.
ENLISTMENT À LA CARTE: Ukraine’s government reckons the best way to have a motivated army to fight off Russian invaders is to allow volunteers to apply for the posts to which they feel best suited. However, some experienced Ukrainian soldiers argue that with a war raging at such scale, it’s a luxury to allow such freedom of choice, Veronika Melkozerova reports.
KAZAKHSTAN TURNS TABLES ON PUTIN: In a move that seemed to catch the Russian-speaking audience, including President Vladimir Putin, by surprise, Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev opened a speech to a visiting delegation from Moscow in Kazakh. Get a look at the visitors’ faces here. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to see a president speaking their own language — except in Russia’s perceived sphere of influence.
— Economic and Financial Affairs Council continues in Brussels. Arrivals at 8:30 a.m. … doorstep by Spanish Secretary of State Esperanza Samblás at 9:15 a.m. … press conference after the meeting. Agenda. Watch.
— NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană travels to Bulgaria together with the permanent representatives to the North Atlantic Council; Meets Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolay Denkov before addressing the NATO multinational battlegroup’s troops stationed in Bulgaria. Joint press conference with Denkov at 1:05 p.m. Watch.
— Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton is in Beijing; Gives a keynote speech at an EU Chamber of Commerce to China event … meets CEO of Alibaba International Digital Commerce Group Fan Jiang … meets China’s Vice Premier Zhang Guoqing … meets French Ambassador in China Bertrand Lortholary … meets Chinese Industry Minister Jin Zhuanglong. Watch recorded.
— Commission Vice President Dubravka Šuica delivers a speech at the EPP Women Congress … delivers a speech via videoconference for the Young European Federalists’ European Congress … delivers a speech via videoconference for the EUniversity Genova Conference.
— Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius is in Chemnitz, Germany; Participates at the Carlowitz Sustainability Prize to receive an award for his work on the Nature Restoration Law.
— Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson is visiting sites of remarkable Belgian renovation projects today, arranged by the Renovate Europe Campaign.
— International Partnerships Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen is in Helsinki, Finland; Attends the state funeral of the former President Martti Ahtisaari … holds a meeting with Finnish Minister for Sports and Youth Sandra Bergqvist … holds a meeting with Finnish Culture and Science Minister Sari Multala.
— Agriculture Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski speaks via videoconference at the 12th…