Fri. Jan 21st, 2022

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A week of diplomacy kicks off formally in Geneva today, with Russia hoping to withdraw US and NATO concessions on Ukraine, while the west plays out expectations of a breakthrough. We will unpack what last night’s preliminary US-Russia talks have yielded and what to look for in the coming days.

Meanwhile, on the Covid-19 front, with travel plans still being disrupted by pandemic restrictions, airlines are still flying close to empty planes – so-called ghost flights – to hold their prestigious slots at major airports in Europe. We will examine the arguments of environmentalists and opposition politicians and what the EU Transport Commissioner has to say about them.

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Conversations, but no breakthrough

A week of intense diplomatic efforts to avoid a Russian attack on Ukraine began last night with a private dinner between the Kremlin and the White House’s chief negotiators, writes Henry Foy in Geneva.

In an apartment overlooking Lake Geneva, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov described what he described as more than two hours of “difficult but business rights” talks with US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman. held. (Read more here)

The formal talks begin today, with negotiations between the US and Russian delegations on demands by Moscow to rewrite the European security architecture. Ignore them, President Vladimir Putin warned, and Russia could take military action. It has stationed 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine as threatening leverage.

The problem is that many of the demands – including a ban on Ukraine joining NATO, an effective halt to the Western military alliance’s eastern expansion, and restrictions on major military deployments in countries that were in Moscow’s orbit during the Cold War – has already been rejected. by the US and NATO as completely unacceptable.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it straight yesterday: “We will see if there are grounds for progress [but] “It is very difficult to see that happening when there is a constant escalation, when Russia has a gun to the head of Ukraine.”

Instead, Western negotiators hope that Moscow can be positioned with arms control negotiations, a downsizing of missile deployment and possible promises about what weapons the US cannot place in Ukraine. Few expect any breakthrough.

After the bilateral showdown in Switzerland, the Russians go to Brussels.

But not for talks with the EU: On Wednesday, they will meet NATO’s 30 members. Thursday is another talk show hosted by the even larger group, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna.

Absent from all these talks are EU representatives. Successfully cut out of negotiations by Moscow, Brussels in recent days claimed seat at table in future rounds. But the forecast for this does not look good.

In a maintenance With the FT, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was “prepared for the worst” and its deterrence is “credible and strong” if the risk of a conflict with Russia materializes. When asked about the American promise that there would be no discussions about Europe without Europe present, he was concise: Europe will of course be present – by the dozens of NATO members based on the continent.

Wednesday will provide a neat symbol of the gap between the EU’s desired influence on defense and security issues and reality, thanks to a peculiarity of the bloc’s meeting calendar.

That day, EU defense ministers will be in Brest, on the French coast, discussing, among other things, Paris’ desire for more ‘strategic autonomy’, and a greater role for the bloc in military affairs now being handled by NATO.

Meanwhile back in Brussels, Stoltenberg and the alliance with Russia will struggle over the future of the missile systems and troop deployments that keep the continent safe.

Chart of the day: Stiffer faster

ECB's asset purchases € 120 billion G2050_21X

Climate policies are likely to keep energy prices higher and could force the European Central Bank to withdraw its stimulus faster than planned, said Isabel Schnabel, the ECB’s executive responsible for market operations. The ECB announced a “step-by-step” reduction in its asset purchases last month, but other central banks – including the US Federal Reserve and Bank of England – are tightening policies. (More here)

Airline Ghostbusters

Green campaign and some EU governments blame Brussels for almost empty “ghost flights” forced to fly during pandemic, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.

German airline Lufthansa said last week that it would run 18,000 near empty flights during the winter season to maintain lucrative landing slots at major airports. This is due to EU-wide rules requiring carriers to use at least 50 percent of their landing slots or run the risk of losing them (down from 80 percent in normal times).

But the phenomenon of ghost flights, which includes 3,000 owned by Brussels Airlines (owned by Lufthansa), has sparked outrage among people such as climate activist Greta Thunberg and Belgium’s transport minister, who thinks the rules contribute to unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions (here is the FT’s story about their complaints).

Belgian environmental group Inter Environnement Wallonie calculate it that the 18,000 ghost flights will release 700,000 tons of CO2 and destroy another 2m sq m of Arctic ice.

700 000

Tons of CO2 released by Lufthansa’s ghost flights

EU Transport Commissioner Adina Valean responded to the criticism, making it clear that the rules are not going anywhere fast. Valean told Europe Express the 50 per cent threshold offers “flexibility” to carriers not to operate empty flights, gives security to airports that might otherwise sell the slots to other carriers, and offers consumers regular routes.

“Unused slots represent a loss for the airport, for other airlines and for the traveling public and the economy as a whole, because it means that an airline is blocking a slot that would otherwise be used by another airline,” Valean said. told Europe Express.

The European Commission has the power to set the threshold for this winter and the summer season, under emergency legislation adopted during the first phase of the pandemic. Brussels has also provided a “safety valve” for airlines that can stop flights completely during travel restrictions and not lose their slots.

Valean said so far only Lufthansa has raised objections to the commissioner. She added that many low-cost airlines have managed to “adapt quickly” to travel in the pandemic – emphasizing a division between major carriers and cheaper airlines over the rules.

What to watch today

  1. US and Russian officials meet in Geneva over Ukraine

  2. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg receives Ukrainian Foreign Minister Brussels

  3. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Eurogroup chief Paschal Donohoe speak to the press after meeting in Berlin

. . . and later this week

  1. NATO-Russia summit takes place in Brussels on Wednesday

  2. EU defense and foreign affairs ministers meet on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday in Brest

  3. Poland leads an OSCE meeting in Vienna on Thursday, with Russia and Ukraine at the top of the agenda

Remarkable, quotable

  • Chaotic post-CAP: The British government has found no way to measure whether £ 2.4bn of annual post-Brexit farm payments will provide value for money and is failing to support English farmers facing sharp cuts in EU-style subsidies, according to a damning parliamentary. report published yesterday.

  • Mass arrests: Kazakhstan kept on nearly 6,000 people about their role in deadly unrest, including a “significant number of foreigners,” the president’s office said yesterday, as part of what it called an anti-terrorist operation with the help of Russian-led forces.

  • The left, away: Three months before the presidential election, the once powerful French left is splintered and nowhere near reaching the Elysée Palace, with none of the left-wing candidates having enough votes to indicate that they have a chance of qualifying for the round.

  • Financial failure: German nut Uniper acknowledged that it was forced to seek € 10 billion in new credit lines as unprecedented increases in natural gas and power prices caused a sudden swelling of liabilities on futures contracts. Bankers now fear a scramble for credit among the region’s smaller companies.

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Today’s Europe Express team:,, Follow us on Twitter: @henryjfoy, @MehreenKhn, @valentinapop.

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