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Brussels Playbook: Das Auto strikes back — Crackdown on violence against women — Israel protests

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DRIVING THE DAY: UNDEAD AUTO

BERLIN GETS COLD FEET: Today, EU countries were supposed to give the final sign-off on a landmark law that effectively bans the sale of new gasoline and diesel-powered cars from 2035. The vote was meant to be a formality — EU countries and the European Parliament last year agreed on the law, which is a cornerstone of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s plan to make the bloc climate neutral by 2050.

But in a highly unusual move, Germany is threatening to derail the plan at the last second — forcing a delay of the vote until the Commission passes new exemptions that many warn will undermine the law.

Officials in Brussels are fuming. “This block is not at the 11th-hour or even at the 12th-hour. We had a deal, the law was agreed and voted in the European Parliament,” said one official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations with Berlin. “If you can’t rely on political agreements anymore, it gets really dangerous,” the official added. “I’m not exaggerating — you can imagine what other countries will do after this precedent.”

Why is Berlin doing this? The official’s assessment was clear: The FDP, the pro-business liberal party in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government, “are playing hardball after their defeat” in Berlin’s regional election last month.

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In Berlin, FDP boss Christian Lindner, who has been leading the charge to save Das Auto, was defiant. “I can support” this pressure, he told public TV about Germany’s position in Brussels. “Yes, it’s true, the FDP is ensuring technological neutrality.” He told the anchor that it’s “not you, nor me who will decide which technology prevails on the market — but the customers and producers.”

BLAST FROM THE PAST: Time for another Playbook history lesson. When Bertha and Carl Benz created the first combustion engine car in 1886, they might have had a premonition about the roaring success it would be. But they almost certainly couldn’t imagine that it would one day be banned in their home country, because of the risk it posed to the planet.

Existential engines: Every child in Germany has heard of the Benzs; and of Nicolaus Otto, who invented the internal combustion engine; and of Rudolf Diesel, who came up with, well, the diesel engine. Every German kid has learned about the first modern car, which entrepreneur Emil Jellinek named after his daughter Mercédès.

After World War II, Das Auto became even more central to Germany’s psyche and economy, as the Allies banned much of its industry from making weapons, rockets and planes and encouraged it to focus on automobiles. (BMW’s logo, previously associated with a rotating propeller, is reminiscent of the company’s past as an engine maker for the Luftwaffe.) From the 50s, mass production of cars and the complex ecosystem of medium-sized suppliers that developed around it became one of the foundations of Germany’s post-war wealth.

Pragmatic or naive? So it’s actually surprising how little resistance much of the country (and even its carmakers) put up when the EU announced it would ban this technology from 2035. Just imagine the French reaction if Brussels were to ban nuclear power plants! But perhaps the lesson most Germans took from the Benz legacy is an embrace of disruption, rather than a fear of change. Today, these pioneers would probably be developing flying passenger drones or climate-neutral rockets — they would not be lobbying politicians to cling to a 150-year-old technology.

PUSHING AND PULLING: A tug-of-war battle is now on full display between Brussels and Berlin. In the Berlaymont, many officials say the ball is in Germany’s court — Scholz needs to sort out Berlin’s internal politics. But that assumes Scholz is on Team Brussels here. On Monday, the German chancellor said he expected the Commission to come forward with a proposal on how vehicles with traditional combustion engines could be sold after 2035, as long as they are powered with synthetic green gasoline made from renewable energy and known as “e-fuel.” So while the FDP is playing the bad cop, it has the chancellor’s backing — and can point to a coalition agreement last year in which the Greens also backed exemptions for traditional cars that run on climate-neutral synthetic petrol.

Not happy: Officials in Brussels argue the e-fuels exemption would create a giant loophole that would undermine the entire regulation. Indeed, cars that run on e-fuels can also use normal gasoline — which will still be available at pumps after 2035. “That would mean you can still buy cars that emit CO2 after 2035,” said the EU official quoted above.

A solution may hinge on a yet-to-be-invented mechanism that would shut off the petrol engine if it detects traditional, oil-based petrol in the tank, rather than green synthetic e-fuels.

Further reading … in this excellent piece by Hans von der Burchard, Gabriel Rinaldi and Joshua Posaner.

SANCTIONS INCOMING

CRACKDOWN ON GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE: The Council is expected today to agree on sanctions to punish rape and sexual violence against women, two diplomats told my colleague Jacopo Barigazzi. The approval would arrive on the eve of International Women’s Day.

What’s in the package: Nine individuals and three organizations are expected to be listed under these measures, which will be part of the human rights sanctions regime, said one of the diplomats. They stressed that this is the first time this framework will be used to punish violence against women.

Broad reach: The human rights sanctions regime has the peculiarity of being “horizontal,” which, in EU jargon, means that it’s not restricted to a place or geographical area. In fact, these new sanctions will be applied to crimes committed in Ukraine and Russia, but also in Iran, Syria and other places. “This package of sanctions is not just a one-off event. We will not hesitate to expand the list to include other perpetrators of sexual violence,” Wopke Hoekstra, the foreign minister of the Netherlands, one of the countries that pushed for these new measures, is expected to say in a press release that will be published today.

Where are the sanctions against corruption? It’s good to crack down on violence against women, diplomats agreed — but some pointed out that another Commission plan has gone missing: sanctions to target corruption. The idea to start working on a regime to target serious cases of corruption in third countries has been floating around since the run-up to the approval of the human rights sanctions framework in December 2019.

No political capital: So far, the debate has focused on whether corruption can be targeted via the human rights framework, or if it requires a new regime. But, despite the long discussions and the Qatargate corruption scandal that has engulfed the European Parliament, it seems there’s still no urge to wrap this one up. According to two diplomats, the next discussion on the topic is scheduled for the end of the month. 

Frustration: “We need a strong tool to target perpetrators of serious corruption. Under the existing EU sanctions regimes this is not possible,” said a senior diplomat involved in the discussion. “We are not aiming at targeting any concrete country. But we want to pass a clear message to those responsible for corruption that we will cut off channels to bring illicit money into the EU,” the diplomat added. 

Reminder: Ursula von der Leyen, somewhat unexpectedly, in her last State of the Union speech said the Commission “will also propose to include corruption in our human rights sanction regime.” And if the Council fails to agree on that, the ball will be back in the Commission’s court.

QATAR FLIGHTS UPDATE

TOP OFFICIAL APPROVED HIS OWN FREE FLIGHTS: Ever since POLITICO broke the news that top EU transport official Henrik Hololei flew for free with Qatar Airways while Brussels was negotiating an aviation deal with Qatar, the Commission has insisted Hololei’s sponsored flights had been checked and deemed appropriate. But guess who approved the move? On Monday, a Commission spokesperson was forced to admit Hololei greenlit the decision himself.

Conflict of interest about conflict of interest: Hololei, the spokesperson said, had decided that his acceptance of free flights from Qatar did not present a conflict of interest. This decision was in line with the current rules that allow directors general like Hololei to approve their own travel arrangements. There is no documentation available to support Hololei’s reasoning for this decision, which has faced mounting pressure and scrutiny, the Commission also admitted. Read more by Suzanne Lynch and Mari Eccles.

**Don’t forget to join Mathieu Pollet, POLITICO’s tech reporter, on March 21 at our POLITICO Live’s event “Telecoms drumbeat for the future of connectivity”. He will discuss what’s needed to make connectivity future-proof with top-notch speakers including Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière, deputy CEO Europe, Orange; Phillip Malloch, director of economic and social policy, Meta; Konstantinos Masselos, chair 2023, BEREC; and Roberto Viola, director general, DG CNECT, European Commission. Register now.**

FOCUS ON ISRAEL

ISRAEL PRO-DEMOCRACY PROTESTS IN BRUSSELS: A protest is expected in front of the European Parliament in Place Luxembourg at 5 p.m. today by Israelis, European Jews and others concerned about controversial plans by Israel’s ruling alliance of far-right and ultra-religious parties to curb the power of the Supreme Court, Eddy Wax writes in to report. 

What’s this about: Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Israel over the past nine weeks (more than 180,000 last Saturday) to protest against the government’s plans to weaken the independence of the judiciary. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition is pushing through bills to give the government more say in the selection of judges, to deny the High Court of Justice the right to rule on legislation that may be in conflict with so-called basic laws and to reintroduce the death penalty.

Protesters fear Israel’s leaders want to prevent the Supreme Court from ruling against settlements in the West Bank, and that Netanyahu — who has faced corruption probes — wants to effectively grant himself immunity from being found unfit to rule.

Israel’s government has argued that clipping the court’s wings is necessary to balance the powers between the government branches, arguing judges have too much sway over elected leaders.

Protestors urge EU to speak up: The organizers of today’s protest in Brussels — members of a group called “Saving Israeli Democracy” — are urging the EU institutions to condemn Netanyahu’s planned legislation. They plan to hand over to Parliament President Roberta Metsola a letter addressed to her, as well as to Ursula von der Leyen, the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell and Council chief Charles Michel, in which they say they are “deeply concerned that if it is completed as proposed, the ongoing legislation by the Israeli government will have devastating impacts” on Israel’s relationship with the EU.

NOW READ THIS: Netanyahu is “increasingly aping the techniques used by European far-right populist governments to erode democracy,” argues Dvir Aviam Ezra, an Israeli-Dutch lawyer and human rights activist based in Tel Aviv, in this opinion piece for POLITICO. If Bibi gets his way, he continues, “my country may well soon become the Hungary of the Middle East — holding elections but possessing little of the characteristics that define a healthy democracy.

WHAT’S HAPPENING ON THE GROUND: The violence in the West Bank is at “the highest levels … since the U.N. started data collection” in 2005, according to the Director of UNRWA Affairs in the West Bank Adam Bouloukos. The comment came as the Deputy Commissioner General of the U.N.’s Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, Leni Stenseth, traveled to Brussels on Monday for the 7th annual EU-UNRWA Strategic Dialogue. H/t Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová.

IN OTHER NEWS

DEFENSE MINISTERS MEET: EU defense ministers meet today in Stockholm to discuss joint weapons procurement for Ukraine. EU industry chief Thierry Breton is eyeing ways to turbo-charge a new EU program for joint weapons procurement and to use it as a front-line vehicle for getting Europe’s manufacturers scaled up to wartime production needs. Read more.

Kyiv holds on in Bakhmut: Ukrainian army commanders agreed on Monday to strengthen positions in Bakhmut, defending the eastern town that has become the epicenter of Russia’s grinding front-line attacks, reports my colleague Veronika Melkozerova.

Meanwhile, in Russia … Joseph Stalin’s reputation is undergoing a rehabilitation, reports Eva Hartog. “On Sunday, the hundreds of Stalinists who came to Red Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the Soviet dictator’s death were full of bravado and admiration for a man responsible for mass executions, a network of labor camps and forced starvation,” Eva reports from on the ground. “But that was not a side of the dictator that was at the forefront of the minds of those who showed up to commemorate him.”

Meanwhile, in China: Foreign Minister Qin Gang made inflammatory comments overnight, claiming an “invisible hand” is “using the Ukraine crisis to serve certain geopolitical agendas” and saying that China must improve relations with Russia. “Conflict, sanctions and pressure will not solve the problem … The process of peace talks should begin as soon as possible, and the legitimate security concerns of all parties should be respected,” he said. Qin’s comments, chock full of these sorts of Kremlin talking points, were made on the sidelines of an annual parliament meeting in Beijing — Reuters has a write-up.

Beijing’s not arming Russia, Qin claims: China “has not provided weapons to either side of the conflict,” Qin also said. “So on what basis is this talk of blame, sanctions and threats against China? This is absolutely unacceptable.” He was referring to reports that Washington has been warning its allies that China is considering sending drones and ammunition to Russia, and the U.S. attempting to gather support for sanctions against Beijing should it do so.

GREEK CRISIS: Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was supposed to be preparing to call an early election — instead he’s dealing with protestors throwing Molotov cocktails at police as a wave of public rage convulses Greece following a train crash that killed 57 people, reports Nektaria Stamouli.

TURKISH ELECTION UPDATE: The Turkish opposition has united behind Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as its candidate for the May election, to face off against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

AGENDA

— Education, Youth, Culture and Sports Council at 10 a.m. Arrivals and doorsteps at 9 a.m., press conference expected at 3:10 p.m. Watch.

— Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Canada; visits Canadian Forces Base CFB Kingston at 4 p.m.; joint press conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at 6:15 p.m. Watch.

— Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič in Madagascar.

— NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg receives Albanian President Bajram Begaj at NATO HQ in Brussels; joint press point at 1 p.m. Watch.

Stoltenberg then travels to Stockholm for two-day visit. Meets Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson; joint press conference expected around 6 p.m. Watch.

— Commission VP Věra Jourová in New York; attends 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

— Launch of the 2023 Annual Report of the Council of Europe’s Safety of Journalist Platform; press conference from 10:30 a.m.

— Italian journalist Lucia Annunziata launches her new book “L’inquilino” in the European Parliament at 2:30 p.m.; Parliament President Roberta Metsola, Vice President Pina Picierno and Commissioners Frans Timmermans and Paolo Gentiloni to attend.

BRUSSELS CORNER

FIREFIGHTERS PROTEST: Firefighters from across Belgium will demonstrate in Brussels today to demand more personnel and resources, reports Bruzz. The protest will start at 10 a.m. in front of the Cathedral of St. Gudula and continue to Arts-Loi. Protest route map here.

PSA IF YOU’RE TAKING A EUROSTAR OR THALYS TODAY: The mass general strike in France against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms will affect train connections to Belgium today and on Wednesday, with some trains expected to be delayed or canceled. Check Thalys and Eurostar before you travel.

FOR THE FRENCH POLITICS FANS: POLITICO is launching Dimanchissime, the Sunday edition of the Playbook Paris newsletter. It’ll be published every Sunday afternoon from March 26 and be written by Antoine Comte. Playbook Paris subscribers will receive it automatically and new readers can sign up here.

UPDATE ON VANDECASTEELE CASE: Iran said it is willing to exchange imprisoned Belgian NGO worker Olivier Vandecasteele, reports Le Soir.

ROYAL PALACE TO REDUCE ITS ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT: The renovation of the facades of Brussels’ Royal Palace officially kicked off Monday. One of the goals is to make the building more energy efficient. “We are restoring 700 [window] frames with the objective of reducing our [energy] consumption by 20 percent,” said a press release about the project. “It is therefore as much an energy project as an aesthetic one.”

KLAUSY PRIZE: Belgium on Monday awarded Klaus Welle, the German former secretary-general of the European Parliament, the decoration of Grand Officer of the Order of Leopold — its highest civilian honor. Welle “was a key player in developing what may be called an open parliamentary space in the heart of Brussels,” said Belgium’s Permanent Representative to the EU Willem van de Voorde. “Thanks to his efforts, this space now boasts landmarks such as the Visitors Centre Parlamentarium, the House of European History, the Wiertz House and Citizens Garden, and Station Europe.”

NEW JOB 1: Andrea Orizio is Italy’s new permanent representative to the EU Political and Security Committee. He was previously the head of the OSCE mission to Serbia, deputy head of mission the Italian Embassy to Egypt, and has held several roles at the Italian foreign ministry.

NEW JOB 2: The current acting director of education at UNRWA Marta Lorenzo will become a director of the UNRWA representative office to the EU, replacing Matthias Burchard.

BIRTHDAYS: MEP Antoni Comín I Oliveres; Former MEP Fabio De Masi; Seldia’s Laure Alexandre; POLITICO’s Vincent Manancourt; Lyndon Olson, former U.S. ambassador to Sweden.

THANKS TO: Jacopo Barigazzi, Gregorio Sorgi, Barbara Moens, Eddy Wax, Playbook reporter Ketrin Jochecová and producer Grace Stranger.

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