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Europeans talk to Russia while seeking back-up gas

Good morning and welcome to Europe Express.

A week of dizzying diplomatic meetings seeking to de-escalate tensions with Russia kicks off today in Moscow and Washington. These include EU meetings with the US over potential back-up supplies of gas in case Russia were to invade Ukraine. We’ll bring you up to date with who’s going where and what the expectations are.

Meanwhile, in Brussels, after some tentative signs of thawing in EU-Poland relations, President Andrzej Duda will meet the heads of the European Commission, European Council and Nato today — his main focus being also Ukraine.

And after being one of the first EU countries to impose extra travel restrictions to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, Portugal as of today is scrapping the additional Covid-19 test for incoming tourists (including Brits) — and so is Greece.

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Shoring up supplies

Europe’s diplomatic efforts to defuse the Ukraine-Russia crisis are amped up today as France’s Emmanuel Macron visits Vladimir Putin in Moscow, and Germany’s Olaf Scholz travels to Washington to see President Joe Biden, writes Mehreen Khan in Brussels.

Two of Brussels’ senior officials will also be in the US capital on a mission to help Europe wean itself off Russian gas.

Top diplomat Josep Borrell and EU energy commissioner Kadri Simson will meet counterparts Antony Blinken, secretary of state, and energy secretary Jennifer Granholm to revive the dormant EU-US energy council. It is the latest leg in a European charm offensive to coax the world’s liquefied natural gas producers to bump up their exports to the EU as tensions with Moscow show little sign of abating.

Asking the US and others to pump more LNG into Europe’s energy network is an immediate priority. But as the FT reports, the EU is considering a number of other ways to protect consumers from soaring energy costs in the event of a full-scale military conflict in Ukraine.

These include examining how to prevent the rising cost of gas from bleeding into household bills.

The idea of “delinking” energy costs from the price of gas has been a perennial demand of France and Spain since the autumn — when wholesale electricity prices hit records in Europe. At the time, the notion was consistently dismissed by commission officials as a drastic and unnecessary step (here’s an overview of how the marginal price system works).

The Russia crisis is forcing the commission back to the drawing board. Diplomats have told Europe Express that ways of temporarily muting the pass-through of gas prices to electricity costs may be part of a package of measures to be presented to EU leaders in March.

But achieving this temporary delinking is beset with complications, and Brussels is anxious not to damage the functioning of the market. Ideas for a price cap or the use of an average price of electricity have been criticised by the EU’s energy agency, Acer, for risking more volatility and endangering security of supply.

Another option under consideration is providing countries with a time-limited emergency derogation from the system to protect consumers.

Such carve-outs were not considered during Russia’s 2014 conflict in Crimea and if they go ahead would mark an unprecedented break with the rules of the EU’s single energy market.

Polish diplomacy

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda is heading to Brussels and Berlin this week for talks on Ukraine, amid signs that the tensions to Poland’s east are also prompting Warsaw to try to resolve some of its own international disputes, writes James Shotter in Warsaw.

While in Brussels today, Duda will meet the heads of Nato, the European Commission and the European Council, before joining Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron in Berlin later this week.

“France, Germany and Poland are all taking various types of actions [in relation to Ukraine] . . . Each of these countries has its contacts, and it makes sense for the leaders of these three great European countries to exchange [information on] these contacts,” Jakub Kumoch, Duda’s top foreign adviser, said last week.

Duda’s trips come as Poland attempts to ease sources of conflict with its neighbours and shore up relations with its allies in the face of Russia’s military build-up around the borders of Ukraine.

Last Thursday, Poland’s conservative-nationalist government resolved a long-running dispute over a Polish lignite mine near the Czech border that has soured relations between Prague and Warsaw.

The same day, Duda put forward a proposal to amend aspects of the judicial overhaul that has sparked a serious rift between Brussels and Warsaw.

“We do not need this fight,” he said at the time. “In the face of all the threats that are occurring, all the shocks on the international scene, we need calm reflection, we need calm conversations, and above all we need to stand together as one force.”

Polish judges’ organisations have dismissed Duda’s proposals as purely cosmetic, while allies of hardline justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who favour a more uncompromising approach to Brussels, have criticised them as a recipe for anarchy in the country’s judicial system.

But Duda’s move was welcomed by arguably the country’s most important ally, as the US embassy in Warsaw expressed appreciation for Duda’s “engagement” in “relations between Poland and the EU.”

One move that may still raise eyebrows in Brussels, however, is Duda’s decision last week to travel to Beijing and be the only EU elected leader present at the opening of the Winter Olympics (Luxembourg’s grand duke was also there) — which were also attended by Vladimir Putin who secured the support of China for his opposition to Nato expansion.

The US, the UK and the other EU countries had refrained from sending high-ranking officials to the Olympics in protest at the human rights abuses in Xinjiang province.

Chart du jour: Brethren no more

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Ukraine’s trade with Russia collapsed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the start of the war in eastern Ukraine. Once allies, the two countries are now at their lowest point in relations since Kyiv declared independence 30 years ago. (More here)

Gearing up for spring

In another sign of how Europe is gradually relaxing Covid-19 restrictions, passengers landing in Portugal and Greece will no longer have to show negative test results from today, writes Peter Wise in Lisbon.

Lisbon announced the change on Thursday, with Athens following suit 24 hours later, as the two tourism-dependent countries seek to remove barriers that might discourage holidaymakers from booking early spring breaks. Portugal’s hoteliers’ association welcomed the measure as “very positive”.

Portugal’s tourism industry recovered somewhat last year after a disastrous 2020, but bed nights were little more than half the level recorded in 2019 and domestic holidaymakers remained abnormally in the majority for a second consecutive year. Last year’s tourism numbers in Greece were about 60 per cent of the 2019 level.

The Covid-19 testing requirement, in addition to proof of vaccination or recovery, was introduced early December as Portugal’s authorities sought to limit the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant. PCR tests had to be made within the previous 72 hours and rapid antigen tests within the previous 48 hours. Greece introduced a similar measure three weeks later.

As of today, travellers arriving in both countries will still be required to show a valid EU “green pass” or equivalent document, such as a UK recovery and vaccination record, showing that they have been fully vaccinated or recently recovered.

Portugal is the world’s third most-vaccinated country against Covid-19 after the United Arab Emirates and Brunei, with more than 89 per cent of its population having been fully jabbed. The level in Greece is approaching 70 per cent.

What to watch today

France’s President Emmanuel Macron meets Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow

Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz meets US President Joe Biden in Washington

EU and US foreign affairs and energy policy officials meet in Washington

Poland’s President Andrzej Duda meets EU and Nato officials in Brussels

ECB president Christine Lagarde speaks in the European parliament

. . . and later this week

Weimar triangle meeting takes place in Berlin tomorrow among the leaders of France, Germany and Poland

EU health and foreign ministers meet for an informal joint council in Lyon on Thursday

Some EU leaders join France’s Emmanuel Macron at the One Ocean summit in Brest on Friday

Notable, Quotable

I expect our first rate increase to take place around the fourth quarter of this year

ECB prediction: Dutch central bank governor Klaas Knot has become the first member of the European Central Bank governing council to say publicly it should raise interest rates this year, warning that eurozone inflation will stay at 4 per cent for most of this year.

Nuclear exercise: US officials believe that Russia is planning to hold a nuclear weapons exercise this month as a warning to Nato not to intervene if President Vladimir Putin decides to invade Ukraine, according to a Congressional aide with knowledge of the closed-door briefing.

Metaverse rules:  UK regulators will impose strict rules on tech giants setting up and using the metaverse, according to the experts working on a forthcoming Online Safety Bill supported by the British government. Failure to comply with the rules could lead to potential multibillion-pound fines.

Swiss-gate: French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, who returned from Ukraine last week, ruffled some feathers in Bern when she told Le Point she hoped the EU won’t turn out to be a “big, flabby Switzerland” when standing up to Russia. The Swiss embassy in Paris tweeted back at her, saying that Switzerland “has been working for decades for peace and security . . . alongside our partners like France and the EU”.

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