Seven Days in Europe

A two-day EU summit started yesterday in Brussels, with EU leaders set to look at statistics showing where each country stands in terms of public deficit, labour taxes and retirement ages. A discussion paper prepared by EU council chief Herman Van Rompuy lists several ‘priority’ measures aimed at countering the recession in many member states in 2012. Ireland, Greece and the UK carry the largest public deficits – above eight percent of GDP – while Sweden is the only EU country on budget surplus.

Greek MPs have pushed through a series of health budget cuts despite protests outside the parliament in Athens. Eurozone finance ministers are meeting before the EU summit to consider whether Greece has done enough for the 130bn euro (£110bn; $175bn) bailout. In the early hours of Thursday, Greek MPs backed a bill to cut health spending on drugs and extend pharmacy opening hours. The vote came after parliament approved 3.2bn euros of spending cuts, including a reduction in the minimum wage.

The European Central Bank (ECB) has issued a second round of cheap three-year loans in order to help cash-strapped eurozone banks. In total, the bank is lending almost €1 trillion. The programme has so far been used mainly by Spanish and Italian banks to shore up funding gaps and buy government bonds. But it has done little to boost confidence in the sector, as evidenced by the record sums being ‘parked’ overnight in the ECB instead of circulating among lenders.  Nordic banks such as Sweden’s Nordea and Swebank said they would not take up the loans as they come with a “stigma” of a bank in need of help.

Ireland will be the first country in the eurozone to give a democratic verdict on the German-backed rules for the single currency after Dublin announced it would hold a referendum on the treaty. Irish prime minister Enda Kenny told the Dáil that the Republic’s chief law officer had advised the cabinet that “on balance” a referendum should be held under the terms of the Irish constitution. Ireland, which has twice rejected EU treaties, must hold a referendum on any international treaty that has an impact on the country’s sovereignty. The plebiscite on the EU fiscal compact would have to be held by Easter and by June at the latest.

The EU has recalled all its ambassadors from Belarus in dispute over sanctions. The decision came after Minsk expelled the bloc’s representative and the Polish envoy after the EU announced it was imposing restrictions on 21 people because of human rights violations.  The EU has already blacklisted at least 160 Belarusian officials. Brussels announced those measures – as well as a visa ban and asset freeze of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko – in January. Foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement that the move is “an expression of solidarity and unity.” The move is a reaction to Minsk’s decision, earlier the same day, to give marching orders to the EU ambassador and the Polish ambassador.

Serious human rights violations in Azerbaijan have harmed the image of Europe’s yearly pop festival Eurovision. Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of authorities bulldozing homes and evicting families in order to make way for parks, roads, luxury housing and a shopping mall next to the new-build Crystal Hall finals venue. Eurovision spokeswoman Michelle Roverelli said that she feels sorry for the victims. But she added: “The song contest is a non-political event. It’s not about evictions. It is about entertainment. We go in, we do our show, and then we move onto another country … We cannot fight for these people.”

EU diplomatic sources say objections raised by Lithuania, Poland and Romania are not serious enough to stop ministers recommending that Serbia gets official candidate status. French foreign minister Alain Juppe told press in Brussels on Monday that the Balkan country is heading for the upgrade. Lithuania, Poland and Romania later at the meeting raised concerns that Moscow has too much influence on Belgrade and that Serbia is mistreating its so-called “Vlach” Romanian minority.

Changes made by Google to its privacy policy are in breach of European law, the EU’s justice commissioner has said. Viviane Reding said that “transparency rules have not been applied”. The policy change, implemented on Thursday, means private data collected by one Google service can be shared with its other platforms including YouTube, Gmail and Blogger. Google said it believed the new policy complied with EU law. It went ahead with the changes despite warnings from the EU earlier this week. Data regulators in France had cast doubt on the legality of the move and launched a Europe-wide investigation.

A tiny Spanish country town believes it has found a way to make unemployment, debt and economic crisis disappear in a puff of smoke – by leasing out its land for marijuana plantations. The town hall of Rasquera in Catalonia on Wednesday voted to sign a €1.3m (£1.1m) agreement with a cannabis association in nearby Barcelona to plant marijuana for its 5,000 members. It will allow the association to plant on a seven-hectare stretch of town hall land – roughly the size of 10 football pitches. “This is a chance to bring in money and create jobs,” explained mayor Bernat Pellisa of the Catalan Republican Left party, as older townsfolk worried that he was turning Rasquera into a drugs mecca. Pellisa said he had sought legal advice that the scheme, part of a set of “anticrisis” measures passed at a packed town hall meeting, did not break Spain’s ambiguous cannabis laws.

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