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France, Germany, Portugal pitch EU levies and Ukraine ‘Marshall plan’

Bom dia from Ponte da Barca, the picturesque village on the Lima river in northern Portugal, where the EU affairs ministers of France, Germany and Portugal are today discussing the future of the EU with students at the Commission’s summer camp.

Playbook sat down with the three ministers — Laurence Boone, Anna Lührmann and Tiago Antunes — who today also publish an op-ed calling for a more federal EU, equipped with its “own resources” (meaning taxes or levies) that can help meet the challenges of rebuilding Ukraine and fighting climate change.


TIME TO TALK EU FUNDING: France, Germany and Portugal want to get the ball rolling on additional levies or taxes to help finance the EU’s next 7-year budget.

Launching the debate ahead of the 2024 election: “It’s key that this is discussed during the campaign and in the run up to the elections,” Portugal’s European Affairs Secretary Tiago Antunes told Playbook in an interview alongside his German and French colleagues. “And also it’s key that we discuss it with the young people. That’s the reason why we started having this discussion here.”

The need for the EU’s ‘own resources’: “We know that we will have to repay the next generation EU bonds,” France’s Secretary for European Affairs Laurence Boone said, alluding to the billions in joint post-COVID debt that Europe will have to repay. Europe will also need additional funds “for Ukraine’s reconstruction, and the climate transition and energy interconnection issues which keep us busy.”

What type of levies? “We have agreed with the Commission on a roadmap which includes several suggestions for own resources that need to be elaborated,” Germany’s Minister of State for Europe Anna Lührmann said, referring to a document that proposed a financial transaction tax and a corporate sector levy. But Lührmann added: “I’m always also very interested in additional creative proposals.”

In discussion: Boone said “there has been one thing which has been discussed for quite a while, which is the financial transaction tax. The Commission made other proposals that we should examine swiftly,” alluding to Brussels’ proposal from June for additional contributions from EU countries based on company profits.

What’s the timeline? Lührmann said EU countries would debate the proposals “in the fall,” adding “it will take some time because new own resources need to be ratified by EU members.”

A ‘MARSHALL PLAN’ FOR UKRAINE: “Europe will need to play a key role, as the U.S. did with the Marshall Plan, to be there and help reconstruct Ukraine,” Portugal’s Antunes said about the gargantuan effort that awaits the Union.

Asked whether that also meant building modern democratic administrations in accession countries, instead of just ticking boxes and hoping that money will reach its intended purpose, Lührmann said Europe will need “to provide very specific technical support, sending experts to help build a sound administration, a judicial system, and so on.”

From rule of law to the media: France’s Boone said this also meant “helping accession countries” to “strengthen the rule of law … the judiciary, independence of the media, the fight against corruption, the funding of parties — all these are very essential.”

All while keeping tabs on where the money is going: “Indeed, when we think about reconstruction, just as when we think about EU funds, there needs to be better governance,” Boone said, adding: “We’ve asked the Commission to make proposals how to coordinate this type of technical support from EU countries to Ukraine.”

THINKING DIFFERENTLY ON ENLARGEMENT: “We need to think differently about enlargement. It used to be, once you fulfill all the criteria, you may be allowed to join. Now we are saying, it’s actually in our fundamental security interest to have you join. We will support you in fulfilling the necessary criteria. That’s a different mindset. And I think this mindset has really arrived in all EU capitals, also in Brussels,” Lührmann said.

‘Gradual accession’: The three countries are mulling a new approach to let Ukraine and other candidate countries join the bloc in several steps, allowing for gradual accession which would essentially result in a “Europe of several speeds” as floated by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Stick and carrot: “The three of us are looking a lot at some proposals on gradual accession,” Boone said. “It used to be that you have to fulfill all criteria and until then, not much changes for you,” but under this new way of gradually joining the EU, “when a country makes progress, then it can get a reward right away.”

What about Ukraine in the single market? Asked whether that meant allowing Ukraine to join the single market, or participate in some EU programs, Lührmann said: “It’s something that our experts are looking at now, we’re in this very exciting phase where we are putting the pieces of the puzzle on the table.”

And what of Ukrainian elections? Asked whether they believed Ukraine should hold elections during the war — a debate that Kyiv is currently having — the three ministers said they had not yet discussed the topic.

EU REFORM: On Wednesday, Playbook reported on comments by Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg who said that governments that are calling for EU reform before enlargement are actually saying that they don’t want new members. Not surprisingly, the three ministers argued the contrary was true. “When we say we need to reform, it’s not to create an obstacle to enlargement but on the contrary … to create the conditions that will allow us to have new members getting in,” Antunes said.

Eyes on QMV: “What we see … is that the current framework, whether it is budgetary or policies or decision-making procedures, is not fit for a Europe with 30-something members. Sometimes it’s already very, very difficult, as you know, with 27,” Antunes said. Boone added: “We need to reform to make the decision-making process easier … we are discussing qualified majority voting.”

Need for speed: Lührmann said she was keen on agreeing to abolish national vetoes using the so-called Passerelle clause, which would avoid lengthy treaty change, but would still require EU countries to agree unanimously to the change. “We are working towards reform steps by the end of this year, in particular using the Passerelle clause to move to qualified majority voting instead of unanimity on certain foreign policy decisions.”


FOREIGN MINISTERS MEET IN TOLEDO: Ukraine and Niger will be the key topics on the agenda for today’s informal meeting of foreign ministers in Toledo, Spain, after Wednesday night’s dinner at the beautiful San Juan de los Reyes Monastery, my colleague Jacopo Barigazzi reports from on the ground.

Soldier targets: Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, spotted last night in the narrow streets of Toledo, will attend the meeting’s morning session. Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, announced Wednesday that he is proposing to increase the target of Ukrainian soldiers trained by the EU to 40,000 by the end of the year.

Targets that are not targets: Talks on a dedicated fund to keep Ukraine’s military supplied for the next four years, at a cost of up to €20 billion, are also set to continue. One of the points still to be settled is whether this figure should be a a target or a ceiling (as proposed by the EEAS).

Ceilings that might be targets: “We follow the proposal of the High Representative, which is ‘up to,’ so it’s a sort of a sort of a ceiling, it’s not a goal in itself,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren told POLITICO. But outgoing Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš gave a different answer ahead of the summit, telling POLITICO that “It should be 20 billion.”

Damage assessment: The ministers will today also have lunch with the exiled Foreign Minister of Niger Hassoumi Massoudou and ECOWAS Commission President Omar Touray, before ministers discuss the situation in the region, after news broke of yet another coup, this time in Gabon. As Jacopo scooped on Wednesday, EU countries are discussing imposing sanctions on Niger’s junta.

**Where does Europe stand in achieving the Digital Decade 2030 targets when it comes to connectivity? Join us on September 18 at POLITICO Live’s Spotlight “Connecting the Future: Unleashing Europe’s Telecoms Single Market Potential” to hear from Renate Nikolay, deputy director general, DG Connect, and MEP Andreas Schwab (EPP, Germany). Save your seat as soon as possible!**


SOCIALISTS SHOOT BACK AT WEBER’S MIGRATION COMMENTS: The Party of European Socialists has slammed comments made about migration by EPP chief Manfred Weber in his interview with Playbook on Wednesday, in which he pointed to “moralizers” in the EU who say the bloc “can’t talk to Tunisia, that they are no partners for us, because there are some videos from the desert or something.”

Moral high ground: “No sensible European politician should ever dehumanise asylum seekers or migrants,” Giacomo Filibeck, executive secretary general of PES said. Referring to Weber’s comments alluding to an episode in which 27 migrants reportedly died on the Tunisian border with Libya, Filibeck added: “The reports of migrant deaths at the Tunisia-Libya border are very concerning … To hear these reports callously dismissed by Christian Democrats is shocking and a departure from the fundamental values of the EU.”

EU TRADE CHIEF DOMBROVSKIS FACES LATVIAN RIVAL: Riga is bracing itself for a heavyweight bout between two former prime ministers for a top job in the European Commission. Outgoing PM Krišjānis Kariņš is tipped to face off against the EU’s trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis. Dombrovskis confirmed his interest in a third term at the Commission on Tuesday. 

Gloves off: Dombrovskis and Kariņš, who hail from the same center-right political party, both have strong profiles for a top EU job, my colleagues Barbara Moens and Bjarke Smith-Meyer report today. Both men could campaign in next year’s Parliament election as MEPs candidates, Latvian officials said — a strategy that served Dombrovskis well in 2019. A successful campaign could make it clear who has stronger support within Latvia to take on the biggest jobs available.

VDL IS BACK: With the final days of August upon us, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is back in action ahead of a busy term. She will have lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron today in Paris. The two are likely to take stock of some of the big issues of the coming months like accession and budgetary woes.

‘IT’S A FUCKING TRAP’: THE GREAT DIGITAL EURO CONSPIRACY: The European Central Bank has yet to sell its digital euro project to everyday citizens. But before the digital currency has even launched, it’s already fueling conspiracy theories, writes Bjarke.

POLAND’S ELECTION: Poland’s ruling conservatives are betting that prayer, straw-weaving contests and homegrown disco hits can win them this fall’s general election. Bartosz Brzeziński reports that to win a third term in office, the Law and Justice party need the support of rural voters — but that support is not guaranteed.

RUSSIAN CRUDE FLOWS FREELY: Fuels refined from Russian crude are flooding into Europe, prompting Kyiv to call for tightening sanctions against Moscow. In an interview with POLITICO, Oleg Ustenko, an economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, appealed for the EU to close the “loophole” that allows third countries such as India to buy Russian crude products before selling them on to Europe. More from Gabriel Gavin.

NO SOROS RETREAT FROM EUROPE: “We are not leaving” — that’s the message from Chair of the Open Society Foundations Alex Soros in an opinion article for POLITICO. “Europe remains of huge strategic importance to the work of the OSF” he says, but adds that “When looking at the current state of Europe, however, it’s clear that our foundation needs to change.” Read more here.

**DSEI is the world’s premier hybrid defence and security event, and returns to ExCeL, London from 12 – 15 September 2023. The event is crucial in bringing governments, the armed forces and the international defence industry together. There is still time to register as a visitor at the link here.**


— Informal meeting of foreign affairs ministers in Toledo, Spain. Arrivals and doorsteps with High Representative Josep Borrell and Spain’s acting Minister for Foreign Affairs José Manuel Albares at 8.20 a.m. … roundtable at 9 a.m. … press conference at 5.30 p.m. Agenda … Watch.

— Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is in Paris, France. Has lunch with President Emmanuel Macron.

— Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen visits Turku, Finland. Participates in the Europe Forum.

— Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski participates in exchange on the Black Sea grain deal at the European Parliament, organized by the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

— Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis hosts Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for an informal dinner in Athens to discuss bilateral, regional and European matters with a focus on migration.