Brussels briefing

Commissioner snussed out of job

Brussels is agog over the firing of the commissioner in charge of health and consumer policy after the anti-fraud squad, Olaf, found that his friend was looking for €60m to get him to legalise selling snus.

Snus, tobacco in a tiny pouch placed under the top lip, can only be sold in Sweden and they hoped commissioner John Dalli would legalise its sale throughout the EU in his forthcoming tobacco directive.

The ex-commissioner is vehemently protesting his innocence and says tobacco companies are trying to blacken his name and prevent the legislation going through.

But the Swedish snus company say they are honest whistleblowers, victims of pharmaceutical companies that want to kill the snus market, as research shows it’s more successful in weaning people off cigarettes than their pills and nicotine patches.

MEPs get cold feet

There are some EU issues that strike fear into the heart of even the most conscientious Europe correspondent, and one of them is MiFID. It stands for Markets in Financial Instruments Directive and, like many such acronyms, it’s not important or even relevant to the ordinary person.

It attempts to regulate high-frequency trading, where 80% of orders exist for a few milliseconds, and commodity derivatives blamed, for pushing up food prices.

However, MEPs got cold feed when it came to banning insurance firms paying a commission to investment advisers, seen as leading to mis-selling to the public. This is despite three of the most banker-friendly countries in the EU — the UK, Netherlands, and Finland — banning commissions for advice on various financial products.

The Tánaiste’s Secret Service

Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore turned up in Berlin during the week to speak at the prestigious Socialist party foundation, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, which promotes education in democracy.

There he met Peer Steinbrück, fellow Socialist and the man who could be the German chancellor this time next year if he defeats Angela Merkel — or else her finance minister in the expected coalition government.

He reminded Mr Gilmore he does not like Ireland’s corporation tax regime or its bank debt funding plans.

Unfortunately, the Tánaiste had only announced he was going to Berlin hours before his departure, giving very few media the chance to be there. Is the foreign service under Labour becoming the Secret Service?

Cold war

It’s chilly in Finland and about to get colder. The country that boasts big exports in fur is being pulled apart by a debate on banning fur farming.

More than 55,000 have signed a petition aimed at shutting down farms that raise animals whose pelts sell for a lot of money when made into fur wear.

There is a strong coalition against a ban, including parts of government that appreciate the millions it brings in.

Banker at centre of wrong sex scandal

Charlie McCreevy once famously said that Luxembourg wasn’t a country, it was a bank.

Now its main banker, Yves Mersh, head of the central bank, is in the middle of a sex scandal. Not the usual kind of sex scandal, more of a gender issue. His prime minister and president of the eurozone ministers, Jean- Claude Juncker wants him to be on the ECB board.

But the European Parliament said no go — it’s time to have at least one woman on the ECB’s executive board.

Belgium moves to restructure motor trade

Belgium has been hit hard by Ford’s decision to close three factories in Britain and the Belgian city of Genk, where 4,300 jobs will be lost.

Peugeot and Opel have formed an alliance and applied for state aid of €7bn to the French government. It comes with conditions, such as a limit to job cuts and more say for unions. The government wants to reform business tax so the rich pay more, but the opposition is shouting for more competitiveness with wage cuts.

The Belgian jobs have been transferred to Spain, where Peugeot, Nissan, Renault, and Seat have expanded production. They say this is due to the state delivering the demands of the industry, including wage agreements and labour market reform. Belgium is now trying to figure out how to restructure so it can maintain its social security benefits but stop losing out to regions where workers are bearing the brunt with low or no pay.

Investigating the investigators

The European Ombudsman is getting an interesting job courtesy of Labour MEP Phil Prendergast.

She has asked him to look into how Olaf, the EU’s anti-fraud office, investigated allegations against the Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner, John Dalli, who is from Malta.

The Munster MEP is not happy about the way the body charged with investigating funny business involving EU institutions or officials did their job.

There are, she said, serious questions surrounding the procedural integrity of the process, and she wants the Ombudsman to investigate.

Catholic stronghold a in secular bloc

More than three quarters of Lithuanians say they are Catholic in spite of — or perhaps because of — five decades in the clutches of the atheistic Soviet Union.

But what has amazed Lithuanians even more is that, even after being independent for more than two decades, the number of Catholics has decreased by less than 2%.

They are putting this down to being a small country in a bloc that they find distinctly secular and which some suspect is socialist at heart and intolerant of the Christian church.

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Saturday, July 24, 2021

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