Not my fault – POLITICO



Sorry not sorry.

That was the essence of European Council President Charles Michel’s response to fierce criticism of his decision, on a visit to Ankara Tuesday, to take a seat next to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was relegated to a sofa.

Michel came under heavy attack from across the European political spectrum all day Wednesday over the episode — swiftly dubbed “sofagate” — particularly as one reason for the joint visit was to stress the importance of women’s rights.

But in a Facebook post on Wednesday night, Michel insisted the images of the meeting had given a false impression. He did not apologize for his actions nor did he suggest he was in any way to blame.

“Some of the images that have been transmitted have given the impression that I may have been insensitive to this situation. Nothing is further from reality or from my profound feelings,” said the former Belgian prime minister, writing in French.

He said “strict interpretation by the Turkish services of protocol rules” had “produced a distressing situation — different, even diminished, treatment of the president of the European Commission.”

But Michel insisted that while noting the “regrettable character of the situation,” he and von der Leyen had chosen not to aggravate it with a public incident and to prioritize the substance of their discussion.

That version of events did not appear to square entirely with von der Leyen’s actions or the Commission’s account of the episode. Von der Leyen made clear her displeasure at the time with an exclamation, variously interpreted as a German “ähm” or an English “erm,” and a wave of the hand — signals so unambiguous they sent video clips of the incident surging around the internet.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Commission made no mention of von der Leyen and Michel having jointly decided to ignore the episode. Its chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, said von der Leyen had decided “to give the priority to the substance of the questions over protocol or form.” He did not say Michel had been part of that decision, nor did he defend the Council president’s actions.

Michel’s account also struck a different note from earlier attempts to explain away the episode by EU officials, who stressed the Council president came higher than his Commission counterpart in the diplomatic pecking order.

Michel, in his Facebook post, said he was “doubly distressed” — by the impression that he was indifferent to the “protocol clumsiness toward Ursula” and by the fact that the episode had “obscured the major and beneficial geopolitical work which we achieved together in Ankara.”



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Stephen Brown — An audio appreciation – POLITICO



This special edition of the EU Confidential podcast reflects on the life and career of Stephen Brown, the POLITICO Europe editor in chief who died of a heart attack last month at the age of 57.

Brown pursued an outstanding career as a foreign correspondent that took him from the tip of South America to the Arctic Circle. He then made a leap of faith to enjoy an extraordinary second act as he flourished like never before, helping to change the face of European journalism.

But Brown was never self-important or pompous, and his self-deprecation and dry humor shine through in his own words and in the memories of friends and colleagues.

The program offers a chance for POLITICO readers and EU Confidential listeners to learn more about the man who drove so much of the publication’s journalism over the past six years.

POLITICO’s EU editor, Andrew Gray, presents this audio appreciation. It features contributions from people who worked with Brown from Buenos Aires to Brussels and the voice of Brown himself, from public appearances and interviews over the years.

Contributors include Juan Bustamante, Reuters video journalist in Buenos Aires; Paul Taylor, former European affairs editor at Reuters and now POLITICO columnist; Matthew Kaminski, editor in chief of POLITICO in the United States; and POLITICO Europe’s Hans von der Burchard, Saim Saeed, Lili Bayer, Zoya Sheftalovich, Sarah Wheaton, James Randerson and Eddy Wax.

The program was made by Cristina Gonzalez and Andrew Gray. It features music by Craig Winneker and Bjarke Smith-Meyer. Special thanks to Natasha Bernard, Camille Gijs, Eddy Wax and the University of Cambridge Careers Service.



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No recognition of Russian vaccine on travel certificates – POLITICO



For Lithuania, including jabs that aren’t authorized by the EU’s drug regulator, like Russia’s Sputnik V, in the Commission’s proposed vaccine certificate program is a red line, according to Simonas Šatūnas, the country’s acting ambassador to the EU.

Lithuania is “firmly convinced that only [European Medicines Agency] authorized vaccines should be part of Digital Green Certificate,” Šatūnas told POLITICO.

The certification proposes to create a registration system that allows for the recording of vaccination status, as well as previous coronavirus infections and COVID-19 test results. The program is meant to ease travel throughout the EU.

Speaking on French television on Sunday, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said the Commission is aiming to roll out the certificate program by mid-June.

So far, the Russian vaccine is undergoing a rolling review at the EMA but hasn’t yet gotten the green light. The drug regulator is due to inspect the facilities where the jab is produced in April.

Rather than relying on non-approved jabs like Sputnik, Europe should focus on ramping up production of the home-grown vaccines in which it has invested, the ambassador said. German pharmaceutical businesses BioNTech and CureVac, for example, have both received EU public money.

Recognizing only EMA-authorized vaccines is a way of emphasizing the credibility of EU institutions like the drugs regulator and the EU’s disease monitoring agency, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Šatūnas explained.

It’s also a way of signaling support to the European pharmaceutical industry, he added.

While Moscow denies the claim that Sputnik is a geopolitical vaccine, the jab has appeared in contested hot spots such as eastern Ukraine and Russian-backed enclaves in Georgia. Sputnik has also played a role in Slovakia’s growing political crisis, which led to Prime Minister Igor Matovič announcing on Sunday that he will step down after other parties objected to his purchase of the Russian-made vaccine.



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Scotland’s ex-leader Alex Salmond launches rival pro-independence party – POLITICO



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EDINBURGH — Scotland’s former First Minister Alex Salmond will stand against the party he once led with a vow to help win a “supermajority” for Scottish independence.

Speaking at a press conference Friday, Salmond announced the creation of his new pro-independence Alba Party. It will compete with the Scottish National Party he once led for a combined 20 years.

“The party’s strategic aims are clear and unambiguous — to achieve a successful, socially just and environmentally responsible independent country,” Salmond said.

The former first minister — who left the Holyrood Scottish Parliament in 2016 — has been embroiled in a public feud with his successor Nicola Sturgeon over her government’s handling of harassment complaints made against him.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the release of two separate inquiries into the affair cleared Sturgeon of breaking the ministerial code but also criticized her government’s conduct. Salmond has said he intends to move on from the issue, but has vowed fresh legal action against the Scottish government.

His new party will stand candidates using Scotland’s regional list system. In Scotland’s electoral system, citizens are given a constituency vote and a regional vote.

SCOTLAND ELECTION POLL OF POLLS (CONSTITUENCY VOTE)

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Most pre-election polling indicates the SNP are set to dominate the constituency system, which Salmond’s party will not be standing in.

Salmond said U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who has repeatedly rejected calls for a second Scottish independence referendum — would “find it much more difficult to say no” if his party helps to deliver a “supermajority” of pro-independence MSPs in the Scottish Parliament.

During Friday’s press conference, Salmond announced the defection of three former SNP members and politicians who would stand for his party in May’s Holyrood election.

Asked by POLITICO if he expected any more SNP politicians to join him in defecting to the Alba Party, Salmond said he is “planting our flag in the wind, and we’ll see who rallies to the banner.

“That’s the important point of making the announcements and I’ve tried today to give as much of a flavor of what the party’s about to enable us to recruit support,” Salmond said, pointing to a deadline of next Wednesday to register candidates for the election.

But a spokesperson for the SNP said, “At this time of crisis, the interests of the country must come first and should not be obscured by the self-interest of someone who shows no sign whatsoever of reflecting on serious concerns about his own conduct.”

POTENTIAL SCOTLAND INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Salmond was cleared of all criminal charges last year, but in court it emerged he had privately apologized for “unacceptable behavior” toward women.

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, whose party opposes Scottish independence, said, “Alex Salmond is a discredited figure who admitted appalling behavior towards women during his time as SNP first minister and right-thinking people will want nothing to do with him or his new party.”



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Michel invites leaders to discuss vaccines at virtual summit – POLITICO



European Council President Charles Michel on Tuesday invited EU heads of state and government to a virtual summit on Thursday and Friday, to discuss coronavirus vaccines as well as economic and digital policy, and to briefly touch on relations with Russia and Turkey.

The latest discussion on the shortage of vaccines stands to be more painful than getting jabbed with a big needle. The distribution of vaccines in the EU remains painfully slow compared to countries like the U.K. and the U.S., and politicians and citizens are increasingly frustrated.

Michel had hoped to hold the summit in person, but was forced to switch to the online format because of surging coronavirus infections in several EU countries.

It’s not clear there is anything leaders can do that will quickly result in a large additional supply of vaccine doses.

“On COVID, our top priority is to speed up vaccination campaigns across the EU,” Michel wrote in his invitation letter. “To this end, the ongoing work to boost vaccine production, increase vaccine deliveries and ensure more transparency and predictability of supplies should be intensified. In addition, we will address COVID certificates and the international dimension.”

So-called vaccine certificates are not much easier to deal with. Countries that have large tourism sectors are counting on the certificates to help restart travel before the summer holiday season. But officials warn that it will be difficult to develop the needed technological platform, and that some countries dislike the concept because of data privacy concerns.

In his letter, Michel said U.S. President Joe Biden would join the summit briefly on Thursday evening and “share his views on our future cooperation.”

Thursday’s videoconference will start at 1 p.m. while Friday’s session will start at 9:30 a.m. Friday’s meeting will include European Central Bank President Christine Legarde and Eurogroup President Paschal Donohoe.

Thursday’s session will also touch on relations with Russia and Turkey. Michel is expected to report on his phone call Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Leaders will also discuss “stepping up” engagement with Turkey, Michel said.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.



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Top aide to Malta’s former prime minister charged with corruption – POLITICO



A senior aide to former Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat late on Saturday was charged with money laundering, corruption and fraud.

Keith Schembri, Muscat’s former chief of staff, appeared in court alongside 11 others charged with similar offenses. He pleaded not guilty but was denied bail.

Investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was murdered in 2017, had accused him of being part of widespread corruption within Muscat’s inner circle.

The Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, set up after her death, welcomed the news and said in a statement that Schembri’s arraignment had been “overdue.” It added: “Prosecuting Schembri today brings us a step closer to a Malta where no one is above the law. It is the country Daphne fought for and the one we all deserve.”

Schembri resigned from his position in November 2019 after his name was mentioned by Yorgen Fenech, a businessman who is the main suspect in the Caruana Galizia murder, and was questioned by police shortly after. Muscat left office in January 2020 following protests over how he handled the investigation into the murder.

In September 2020, Schembri was arrested in connection with an alleged €100,000 kickback related to passport sales to wealthy foreigners.

Simon Busuttil, a former opposition leader in Malta and now secretary-general of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, said that Schembri’s arrest was a “historic turning point in our fight for justice.”

“Daphne, this one’s for you,” he wrote on Twitter. “We’re finishing what you started.”



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Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is safe – POLITICO



Several days after most EU countries suspended the use of Oxford/AstraZeneca’s vaccine over blood clot concerns, the bloc’s medicines regulator concluded Thursday the vaccine is safe and effective in preventing COVID-19 and its benefits far outweigh the risks — but it could not eliminate a possible link to a rare type of clot.

Emer Cooke, executive director of the European Medicines Agency, said the safety committee PRAC concluded the vaccine is “not associated with an increase in the overall risk of thromboembolic events or blood clots.”

An analysis of a small number of cases of “rare and unusual but very serious clotting disorders” concluded “we still cannot rule out definitively a link between these cases and the vaccine,” she added.

In light of this, EMA recommended raising awareness of these possible risks to make sure that they’re included in the product information. It also called for providing information to health care professionals and vaccinated people to help spot and mitigate any possible side effects.

EMA is launching additional investigations to understand more about these rare cases, Cooke added.

It comes after 20 EU countries, starting with Austria, either suspended, entirely or partially, their vaccination program with Oxford/AstraZeneca’s jab — despite statements from the drugmaker, the EMA and the U.K.’s drugs regulator that stood by the safety of the vaccine with regard to blood clots.

Austria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Luxembourg all suspended use of a specific batch of the vaccine. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Cyprus, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Bulgaria, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg halted the entire rollout with the jab.

It will now be down to each country to decide whether to resume vaccinating people with the jab.

Some health experts fear, however, that European capitals’ decision to ignore the EMA’s advice last week — and instead halt the Oxford/AstraZeneca program nationally — will now weaken those countries’ abilities to convince people to accept the jab again.



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UK move to lift nuclear cap is ‘insurance policy,’ says minister – POLITICO



Britain’s foreign secretary has defended plans to lift Britain’s cap on its stockpile of nuclear warheads.

Dominic Raab said the move — expected to be outlined Tuesday in a long-awaited review of security, defense, development and foreign strategy — gives the U.K. the “ultimate insurance policy” against “hostile states.”

The U.K. is reportedly planning to lift the current cap from 180 to 260 warheads, ending a post-Cold War trend towards gradual disarmament.

Raab cited potential Iranian nuclear proliferation as one of the reasons to increase British stockpiles.

Pressed to justify the decision on the BBC’s Today program, Raab said: “Because over time as the circumstances change and the threats change, we need to maintain a minimum credible level of deterrent. Why? Because it is the ultimate guarantee, the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states.”

His comments came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepared to unveil the findings of his sweeping review of Britain’s global policy, which is expected to focus on a pivot towards Asia following Britain’s departure from the EU.

When pressed on the most immediate threats to Britain, Raab expressed concern over the use of chemical weapons and a growing danger of cyberattacks — “not just people’s individual bank account … but also critical national infrastructure.”



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Kurz recruits other EU leaders to complain about vaccine distribution – POLITICO



Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz joined forces Saturday with four other Central European leaders to complain about the allocation of coronavirus vaccines.

Kurz’s and his counterparts from Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovenia and the Czech Republic called for vaccine distribution to be discussed at an EU summit. In a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, they noted that jointly purchased vaccines aren’t being delivered to EU member countries equally, based in proportion to their population.

The Commission’s response: Don’t blame us. It restated what has been well known for months — that some countries didn’t sign up for all the vaccines they were entitled to, and others bought up the extra doses.

The Commission pointedly noted that it had wanted strict pro-rata distribution but EU national governments opted for a more flexible approach. “It would be up to the Member States to find an agreement if they wished to return to the pro rata basis,” the Commission said in a statement.

In Austria, opposition politicians accused Kurz of picking a fight at EU level to distract from his own government’s shortcomings on the vaccination front.

Austria is ranked 19 out of 27 in terms of proportion of population vaccinated in the EU, and the other signers of Saturday’s letter are also in the bottom ranks. They’re middling performers when it comes to distribution of their supplies on hand, according to a POLITICO analysis.

In their letter, published by Austrian media, Kurz and the four other leaders write that “in recent days,” they have “discovered” that “deliveries of vaccine doses by pharma companies to individual EU member states are not being implemented on an equal basis following the pro rata population key.”

They suggest that the resulting uneven pace of vaccinations undermines the Commission’s goal for the bloc of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by the summer, and widening inequality will ensue as some countries achieve herd immunity faster than others.

Kurz, who has also criticized the EU’s speed of vaccine approvals, went public with his complaint about the divergence from the proportional distribution on Friday. In a press conference, he cast the system as a “bazaar,” and said the government had done its own analysis of vaccine deliveries.

Yet it’s been no secret that countries didn’t ultimately stick to the population key. Several capitals, including Sofia, opted to bet heavily on the cheaper AstraZeneca shot, while Germany, France and others bought their unwanted allotments of the pricier mRNA vaccines.

An EU official said Michel’s office had received the letter from Kurz and the other leaders. Michel has already told leaders he’s planning a Council summit for March 25 and 26 and vaccine coordination is on the agenda, the official noted. 



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EU’s UK ambassador denies ‘vaccine nationalism’ amid export row – POLITICO



The EU’s ambassador to the U.K. denied the bloc is involved in “vaccine nationalism” but demanded more transparency from Britain as tensions simmer over the export of coronavirus jabs beyond borders.

“I refute completely the accusation that the EU is protectionist or has engaged in vaccine nationalism,” João Vale de Almeida told British broadcaster ITV’s Robert Peston on Wednesday night.

The EU has been criticized and at times accused of protectionism over a new vaccine export control mechanism it says is intended to ensure suppliers are fulfilling their contractual obligations.

European Council President Charles Michel claimed in a written rebuttal of that criticism Tuesday that the U.K. had imposed its own “outright” ban on the export of vaccines produced inside British borders. He issued a fresh plea for transparency from London on Wednesday in an interview with POLITICO.

But the claims have sparked anger from the British government, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab dismissing the suggestion as “completely false” in a letter to Michel, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain had “not blocked the export of a single COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine components.

Vale de Almeida told ITV Wednesday night that the war of words had “put transparency on the table” regarding the export of vaccines beyond borders.

“Vaccine producers can only be held to their commitments to supply doses if countries are transparent about exports,” Vale de Almeida said, speaking from Brussels. “This is why we support greater transparency … it is important that we know what is going on.”

Though Britain has not imposed a direct export ban on vaccines, the government’s contracts with vaccine producers have ensured Brits have received jabs at a quicker rate than other Europeans. EU leaders have claimed this achieves the same effect as an export ban and demanded more clarity on the inner workings of the contracts.

Statistics presented by the European Commission to EU diplomats on Wednesday show that as of March 9, some 9.1 million doses had been exported from the EU to the U.K., according to diplomats and officials who were briefed on the data.

The spat over vaccines comes amid a separate row between Britain and the EU over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol, following Britain’s move to unilaterally extend grace periods on some goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Vale de Almeida described the split with the U.K. as a “difficult divorce,” but said that it was wrong for the U.K. to have acted alone over the Northern Ireland checks and confirmed the EU would launch legal action in the “coming days.”

“There is absolutely no alternative to the Ireland/NI Protocol, and both sides need to work towards its full implementation,” he said.

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