Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Italy’s leader looks to mend EU fences in visit to Brussels

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Buongiorno and welcome to Europe Express.

Today is Giorgia Meloni’s first trip to Brussels since becoming Italy’s first far -right leader since Benito Mussolini. We’ll examine the stakes of her encounters with top EU officials and why she has made a point recently about tempering her anti-EU rhetoric.

We’ll also hear from the Netherlands, where a court ruling has thrown a spanner in the works of carbon capture technology.

In Greece, the government has reached out to supermarkets in a bid to keep staple foods at affordable prices, given the spiralling inflation.

And in Belgian asylum news, the European Court of Human Rights yesterday said it had issued an order for the Belgian government to provide housing to a plaintiff who has been living on the streets for months. (We wrote here about the plight of thousands of asylum seekers in a similar situation.)

Tamed firebrand

As a rabble-rousing opposition leader, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni was known for her punchy invective against the EU, writes Amy Kazmin in Rome. Just three years ago, Meloni was slamming its “anti-democratic drift,” demanding “the restoration of national sovereignty and the reduced role of the EU”, and calling European bureaucrats agents of “nihilistic globalist elites driven by international finance.”

But as the new prime minister of a country facing recession and rampant inflation, currently receiving an influx of nearly €200bn in common borrowing, Meloni is out to mend fences with the powers that be in Brussels.

While in the EU capital today, Meloni is scheduled to meet Roberta Metsola, president of the European parliament; Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council. They will all use this first encounter to parse out whether the new Italian leader is likely to prove a constructive player or a disrupter set to give them severe headaches in the future.

Even before the election, Meloni had been noticeably toning down her aggressive Eurosceptic rhetoric, as she sought to remake her image as willing to work closely and cooperatively with the EU.

A staunch supporter of the Ukrainian cause, she expressed interest in stronger European defence co-operation; pledged to implement the massive EU-funded reform and investment programme laid out by her predecessor, Mario Draghi, and insisted she would be prudent in the management of public finances.

While many of these same messages were reiterated in a long address to parliament last week, Meloni has also made it clear that her new government will not be submissive and will push for the reforms of EU policies that she believes are in Italy’s best interest. She also won’t be shy of openly expressing her views on EU matters.

For example, Meloni pledged in parliament that Italy would respect the deficit and debt limits imposed by the Stability and Growth Pact, while also making clear that she would advocate reforms allowing Italy to spend more on productive investment.

“The government will respect the current rules,” she said. “At the same time, we will offer its contribution to those that have not worked.”

She has also expressed dismay at the ECB’s moves to raise interest rates as it seeks to curb inflation, a policy that will hit Italy particularly hard, given its high debt burden of around 150 per cent of gross domestic product.

Overall, Meloni could well have numerous differences with the EU in the months ahead. Brussels is now waiting anxiously to see whether she’s as combative in the negotiating room as she is on the soapbox.

Chart du jour: End of globalisation?

In his latest column, Martin Wolf explores the history of globalisation and draws a rather glum conclusion about how it may end this time around, given the nuclear arsenal and the lack of global co-operation in fighting climate change.

No one said that saving the world was going to be easy but EU climate regulations have made it more difficult for at least one project in the Netherlands, writes Alice Hancock in Brussels.

A top Dutch court yesterday dealt a blow to Europe’s largest carbon capture installation, developed by the energy majors Shell and ExxonMobil and the gas companies Air Liquide and Air Products in Rotterdam port.

In a preliminary ruling, the Dutch Council of State, which rules on draft legislation, said that nitrogen emissions should be counted in construction projects, in line with EU law. This means that even if the project being built is ultimately an installation designed to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, no exemptions from the nitrogen emission rules should be granted.

Environmental campaigners have been lobbying against the construction of the carbon capture facility, called Porthos, precisely because of the nitrogen emissions that would go up, rather than meet EU reduction goals.

Porthos said the ruling would “lead to some delay” of at least “several months”. Once up and running, its carbon capture storage should take in 2.5 megatonnes of CO₂ per year, Porthos added, which would contribute to the country’s emissions reduction targets.

In a broadcast interview after the decision, Christianne van der Wal, the Dutch minister for nature and nitrogen policy, said the council’s advice was “clear and simple: You really have to emit less nitrogen and really restore nature. Only then do you have the space to fully grant permits.”

The NGO that has championed the issue, Mobilisation for the Environment, now has six weeks to examine Porthos’s study of potential nitrogen emissions during the construction before reporting back to the Council, which will issue a final ruling.

The Council of State did not rule out that the project may go ahead in the end, after all: “Porthos is delayed, but not off the track,” it said.

Greek discounts

In its attempts to fight soaring inflation, the Greek government has asked big supermarket chains to offer dozens of essential goods at discount prices, writes Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens.

From now on and as long as it’s needed, Greek consumers can go on a mini treasure hunt in the aisles of their supermarket and look for a specific label that confirms that the product in question is sold at a reduced price. (No subsidies are involved.)

Each supermarket chain is free to choose which products will be in this low-cost category, but they have to include all staples such as bread, rice, pasta, feta cheese, and olive oil, among others.

Greece’s inflation for October was below the eurozone average but still very high at 9.5 per cent.

“I’m happy that thousands of citizens who chose today to use our ‘household basket measure’ have a significant benefit in their weekly consumption, and this was our goal”, development minister Adonis Georgiadis told Antenna news.

The ministry has also created a dedicated website where consumers can browse through the discounts at each supermarket — which are allowed to change their list every week. Proving the public’s interest (or maybe just the teething problems of this initiative), the website crashed yesterday under the heavy traffic.

What to watch today

  1. Italy prime minister Giorgia Meloni meets top EU officials in Brussels

  2. German chancellor Olaf Scholz hosts summit with Western Balkan leaders in Berlin

  3. German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock hosts her G7 counterparts in Münster

Notable, Quotable

  • Grain deal: Russia yesterday agreed to resume grain shipments from Ukraine via the Black Sea, ending a four-day standoff that threatened to reignite a global food crisis.

  • Show me the money: Azerbaijan has warned the EU that it will only be able to meet its commitment to double gas exports to the bloc if provided with fresh investment in its pipelines and long-term purchase contracts.

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