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PREDICTABLE CAR CRASH: The Qatargate scandal hasn’t exactly shocked long-term watchers of the European Parliament. Emilio De Capitani, who spent 26 years as a Parliament official before becoming a transparency campaigner, says the spiraling investigation into alleged influence-peddling by Qatar and Morocco is “not at all” a surprise.

Big is powerful: “The way the political groups in the European Parliament work is still very patchy and sometimes grants an excessive margin of discretion to the rapporteur or to the parliamentarian who is in charge of preparing an urgent resolution,” De Capitani told Playbook in an interview. Control and oversight by national delegations “is very limited and almost inexistent if the delegation is of a ‘big’ EU country or if the proposal has been negotiated by a ‘big’ parliamentary committee. This makes it practically impossible to verify what these MEPs are really doing,” he argues.

GOOD MORNING. This is Jacopo Barigazzi, POLITICO’s senior EU reporter, bringing you today’s Playbook from Milan. The Italian city is the other epicenter of the Qatargate scandal — Antonio Panzeri, the former Socialist MEP at the heart of the saga, is a very well-known figure in political circles in town in his capacity as a trade unionist. “I recall him as an hardliner when it was the moment to defend workers’ rights in negotiations,” a former EU official who worked for some time with Panzeri told me over dinner.

Talk of the town: I didn’t attend a single social gathering over the holiday period at which conversation didn’t inevitably turn to the corruption and influence-peddling allegations engulfing the EU. Not least because regional elections will be held next month in Milan and in Rome, amid fears the scandal could further weaken the left’s already slim chances. More on Qatargate below. But first, the latest on the pandemic …

**A message from the United Nations World Food Programme: Hunger should never be used as a weapon. Amid global conflicts, WFP and the European Union are working to reach the millions of people worldwide who don’t know where their next meal will come from, no matter where or who they are.**


GETTING IN LINE: EU countries agreed on a “coordinated precautionary approach” on Wednesday evening in response to the COVID crisis in China, the lack of reliable data on the situation and Beijing’s easing of travel restrictions on January 8, reports my colleague Helen Collis.

It wasn’t all plain sailing, with the meeting running over by several hours and the wording only “encouraging” certain measures as opposed to recommending them, suggesting there wasn’t full consensus from all. Nonetheless, there are several measures that go beyond what countries including Italy, France and Spain have unilaterally imposed. 

What’s on the list: EU countries agreed to “recommend” high-grade face masks on flights to and from China and to issue personal hygiene and health advice to travelers. Meanwhile, countries are “strongly encouraged” to require a negative pre-departure test 48 hours before leaving China. In addition, countries are “encouraged to complement these measures” with random testing of passengers arriving from China and sequencing all positive results; testing and sequencing wastewater from airports with flights from China, and from aircraft; and to continue to promote vaccine sharing and immunization.

Beijing watch: The question now is how China will react, given it has threatened to respond to any “unacceptable” measures imposed on its citizens.

SOME GOOD NEWS … IF YOU CAN BELIEVE IT: China is yet to publicly identify any new COVID variants, the World Health Organization confirmed on Wednesday. However, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also warned that Beijing’s information sharing is not particularly reliable. POLITICO’s Ashleigh Furlong has more.


BETTER RULES, NOT A NEW BODY: Transparency campaigner Emilio De Capitani, who among other roles was a visiting professor at the School of Law at London’s Queen Mary University, argues that to avoid further scandals, the EU shouldn’t set up a new ethics body (as Parliament has requested), but create a stronger legislative framework for all institutions, including the 44 EU agencies.

The issue, as De Capitani sees it, is that while current staff rules apply to EU officials, they only indirectly cover the members of the EU institutions. The latter have negotiated “internal rules and guidelines, codes of conduct, inter-institutional agreements.” But “the problem is that these measures are all a kind of ‘soft law’ which do not create real obligations or rights.” And when these rules aren’t respected, “there is no real sanction, and a very limited impact, so that they are more sort of fig leaves.”

The game changer, for De Capitani, would be “to apply the principle of an open, independent and transparent administration,” which would be possible with the Commission proposing a “procedural code, which can frame the activity of the public administration in all EU institutions.”

How it could be done: De Capitani reckons Article 298 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union could be used to set up a “framework to clearly frame the power of the institutions so as to verify that these rules are followed,” who’s responsible for what, and create clear and strong sanctions for transgressions. And all these activities “should be not only binding but also transparent, because transparency is also another principle of the European Union law but unfortunately, transparency is not yet the main aim of an international organization such as the EU, which is still the playground for bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians.”

Case in point: De Capitani points to his win in 2018 in the EU’s General Court, in a case which established that documents linked to legislative procedures during the so-called informal inter-institutional negotiations are legislative in nature and therefore should be accessible to citizens (background here). Four years after the court ruled in his favor, “these legislative preparatory documents covering an essential phase of the legislative negotiations are still kept in the background and it is almost a ‘mission impossible’ for ordinary citizens to obtain them in due time — while lobbyists regularly get them.”

The strange case: The Parliament’s plenary said back in 2011 that these documents should be proactively published, De Capitani points out — but the Bureau, the powerful body that determines the way Parliament’s work should be organized, has never implemented that change. “This persistent inconsistency between the position of the Parliament plenary in 2011 and of the Parliament Bureau can give the impression that the European Parliament is playing at the same time Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde,” De Capitani tells me.

Rule erosion: De Capitani mentions the role of party officials as a more recent example of rule violation in the EU. He stresses that according to the staff regulations, “an administrative post in an institution should be awarded after a public competition.” Yet this rule “has been slowly eroded by the European Parliament, which has created an internal competition for political groups’ officials” who then work for the General Secretariat. It’s then not surprising when these officials aren’t particularly inclined to denounce their own parties’ wrongdoing.

THE ITALIAN JOB: One of the reasons I wanted to speak to De Capitani was because Qatargate has a strong Italian component, which has deeply upset the Italian community in Brussels. “The drama is that this ends up confirming some negative stereotypes of Italians, who already have to be much better than others to offset this negative image and have a career,” he says.

NO IMMUNITY: Meanwhile, Andrea Cozzolino, the Italian Socialist MEP who Belgian investigators believe was key to Panzeri’s alleged illegal activities, confirmed via his lawyers on Wednesday that he would not seek to invoke parliamentary immunity, while repeating that he’s innocent.

BORRELL TO IGNORE THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: The EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell is in Morocco today and Friday — and while the country has also been implicated in the corruption scandal, he’s not expected to bring the topic up with Rabat.

Just allegations: “Let’s not forget, there are allegations at this point, there is no proof, there is no concluded investigation,” said Peter Stano, the spokesperson of the European External Action Service. He added that Borrell’s trip to Morocco “had been planned for some time.” In an interview with local media ahead of the visit, Borrell didn’t mention the issue.

AND IN ANOTHER ROOM WITH A QATAR-SHAPED ELEPHANT: According to one diplomat, it’s still unclear whether the Council’s Middle East/Gulf Working Party, a group made up of diplomats that also deals with Qatar, will discuss the scandal at its next meeting. Still, officials can’t ignore the Qatargate elephant in the room forever. “Sooner or later we will have to face the issue of the methods allegedly used by these countries,” a second diplomat acknowledged — likely before the Belgian justice system delivers its verdict, which could take a long time.

MEANWHILE, IN FRANCE: Bernard Bajolet, the former boss of France’s foreign intelligence service, was indicted in October for complicity in attempted extortion against a businessman, AFP reported on Wednesday.


HITTING RUSSIAN RAILWAYS: Guerillas have amped up their activities in Russia in the early days of 2023, the Main Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine said on Wednesday. POLITICO’s Veronika Melkozerova, who is on the ground in Ukraine, reports that local partisans again stopped the movement of military echelons on a section of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the Krasnoyarsk region on January 4.

Busy few days: Ukraine claimed it was the sixth time since the New Year that partisans have destroyed signaling, blocked stations or caused other damage to railways in Russia, disrupting military trains. Ukraine’s military intelligence said it had recorded more than 40 cases of railway sabotage last year, as well as other examples of the destruction of railway transformers and locomotives, noting a “significant intensification” after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a so-called partial mobilization in September.

Hitting Russian morale: And Ukraine is seizing upon its deadliest strike against Russian soldiers so far in the war to warn the enemy they are not safe in bases behind the front lines, while Russians are turning on their commanders over the scale of the rocket attack against a building in Makiivka in eastern Ukraine, Veronika reports in this story.

TANKS, PARIS: France will deliver “light” battle tanks to Ukraine, President Emmanuel Macron’s office announced Wednesday. That would make France the first country to send such Western-designed armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine (though several countries have donated Soviet-era tanks). Both France and Germany have been under pressure to send tanks to Ukraine — but Berlin has so far refused. Story here.

It’s not all nein from Berlin, though. Ukraine is swatting away as many Iranian-made drones as Russia can throw at it — and the secret behind Kyiv’s success is largely the German-made Gepard system, POLITICO’s Paul McLeary reports. Berlin has sent 30 Gepards to Ukraine over the past year, with seven more on the way this year.

NOW READ THIS: Wolfgang Ischinger, the president of the Munich Security Conference Foundation, has an op-ed in POLITICO this morning in which he considers the top two geo-strategic challenges for 2023: Ukraine and Iran.

PLAYBOOK CULPA: Monday’s Playbook misstated the change in the value of goods imported from Russia to Luxembourg in 2022. Imports of goods from Russia decreased by 3 percent in February-August, compared with the same period the year before. H/t Luxembourger MP Sven Clement for spotting the error — you can see the corrected version of the graph here.

**Are you going to the World Economic Forum in Davos? Answer our quick survey and find out more about our plans onsite in Switzerland in a few weeks.**


US SPEAKER VOTE UPDATE: The U.S. House of Representatives once again failed to select a new speaker overnight, with Republican Kevin McCarthy losing his sixth ballot and no solution in sight. Our Stateside colleagues consider who could take McCarthy’s place.

ANOTHER TAIWAN VISIT: U.S. trade officials will travel to Taiwan later this month for the first formal round of talks on a proposed trade agreement. Negotiations are moving forward despite objections from Beijing, which considers Taiwan part of its territory and vehemently opposes any country engaging with it in a way that enhances Taipei’s ambitions for full independence. Details here.

TRADE WAR UPDATE: French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire hit back at America’s multi-billion-dollar green subsidies package on Wednesday by announcing Paris’ own wide-ranging raft of incentives to shore up its green industries. Fury has been building in Europe after it became clear that U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act — a $369 billion package for green industry — could drain investment out of the EU and into the U.S. Le Maire said the new bill would include incentives to encourage green industries to stay or bring back production plants to France. Story here from Clea Caulcutt.


META TROUBLES: Things are going from bad to worse for Meta. Still smarting from a drop-off in revenue, mass layoffs and a costly pivot to the metaverse, the tech giant now faces another existential threat, this time to its data-fueled advertising model. In decisions on Wednesday targeting its Facebook and Instagram platforms, Meta is not only on the hook for fines totaling nearly €400 million, but it must also — quickly — find a new legal basis for its sprawling targeted advertising empire. Vincent Manancourt has the story.

TWITTER TOWN: Elon Musk’s Twitter firing spree is sending workers into the arms of unions, the new head of Britain’s Trades Union Congress Paul Nowak told POLITICO’s Graham Lanktree. “Elon Musk is a perfect recruitment tool for the trade union movement,” Nowak said. Since the Tesla billionaire took over the social media platform in October, Prospect, one of the trade union federation’s 48 affiliates, “has seen its membership in Twitter go up tenfold.”

THIRD TERM LUCKY FOR POLAND’S PIS? Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party wants to accomplish something this year that’s never been done in the country’s democratic history: win a third term in office. PiS faces some pretty significant hurdles, but the party is a political bare-knuckles fighter with a track record of winning tight elections, writes Jan Cienski in this essential analysis.

JOINT DECISION: Last year, Germany laid out a bold plan to fully legalize recreational cannabis for people aged 18 and over. But the EU threatens to spoil the party — unless Germany can persuade Brussels to get on board. Louis Westendarp has what you need to know.

**As the Ukraine war puts pressure on the EU’s budget, reviewing the Multiannual Financial Framework will be key in 2023. Follow the Commission’s every move impacting the bloc’s financial fitness with POLITICO Pro Financial Services, request a live demo today.**


— EEAS chief Josep Borrell in Morocco; expected to meet with Prime Minister Aziz Akhannouch and Minister for Foreign Affairs Nasser Bourita. Joint press conference with Borrell and Bourita at 1 p.m. Watch.

— Annual conference of the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg delivers speech at 9 a.m.; German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck speaks at 10:45 a.m. Watch. Full program.

Benedict XVI funeral in the Vatican. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the king and queen of Belgium, the queen of Spain and European leaders including Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán and Poland’s PM Mateusz Morawiecki among those expected to attend. The funeral mass presided over by Pope Francis is due to start at 9:30 a.m. Reuters has a full guide to the event.


BLUE BOOK TRAINEESHIP APPLICATIONS OPEN: It’s that time of year again — registrations are open for the October session of the Commission’s five-month traineeships. Eligible folks can submit applications here; deadline noon January 31.

FLU WARNING: EU activity is expected to resume at full speed next week — but be careful if you’re planning on meeting lots of people: Belgium’s public health institute officially declared a flu epidemic on Wednesday. “The flu has already been back for some time in our country, but now all the criteria are met to be able to talk about a flu epidemic,” the institute said. Here‘s the story.

ON A BRIGHTER NOTE: So we don’t leave you on a flu pandemic warning, I’ll end with a suggestion: Spend a minute reading about the problems faced by a German businessman who wants to sell Trump-branded contraceptives, clothing and drinks — beautifully written by our own Barbara Moens and Paul Dallison.

NEW JOB: Saim Saeed is now associate director in the Brussels office at FGS Global. He was most recently POLITICO’s agriculture editor.

BIRTHDAYS: German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier turns 67; Juan Carlos I, former king of Spain, turns 85; Romanian MP and former MEP Andi Cristea; Former MEP Carolina Punset; Portugal’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ana Paula Zacarias; Member of Catalan parliament and former MEP Ernest Maragall; Bloomberg’s Alex Wickham.

THANKS TO: Nicolas Camut, Helen Collis and our producer Grace Stranger.

**A message from the United Nations World Food Programme: In 2020, WFP was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. With our European Union partners — who received the prize in 2012 — we work together to uphold fundamental humanitarian principles across the globe as we deliver assistance: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. And we continue to raise awareness of the link between conflict and hunger. We look back on 2022 as a year of unprecedented needs and a spiralling global food crisis. But for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who are hungry as a result — because of conflict, climate shocks, or the threat of global recession — the end of a calendar year means little. No matter where or they are, WFP and the European Union will work to reach them as we continue to scale up our life-saving work in 2023.**

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