MacroScope

EU leaders meet for a gas

France's President Hollande talks with German Chancellor Merkel  during a meeting on the sidelines of a Europe-Asia summit in Milan

A two-day summit of EU leaders is supposed to focus on climate and energy policy including efforts to enhance energy security following the threat of interruptions to gas supplies from Russia.

That is no small issue. Russia and Ukraine have failed so far to reach an accord on gas supplies for the coming winter but agreed to meet again in Brussels in a week in the hope of ironing out problems over Kiev’s ability to pay.

An agreement was reached on the price Ukraine would pay Russia’s Gazprom as long as it paid in advance for the deliveries. But Moscow is still seeking assurances on how Kiev would find the money to pay. It’s likely the EU will have to step in there.

Putin had threatened to cut gas supplies to Europe if Ukraine stole from the transit pipeline to cover its own needs this winter. Any interruption to flows to western Europe, via Ukraine from Russia, would deal another blow to already struggling EU economies.

The EU summit, held a day after the European Parliament confirmed the line-up of the new European Commission under Jean-Claude Juncker, will urge Russia to do more to stabilise Ukraine, according to a draft statement seen by Reuters, but diplomats expect no change in sanctions on Moscow in the near future.

Britain back on board for action in Iraq

An Iraqi SWAT trooper covers his ears as he fires a mortar bomb during clashes with Islamic State militants, north of Muqdadiyah

U.S. air strikes in Syria continued overnight with a monitoring group saying at least 14 Islamic State fighters were killed.

Having sat out so far, Britain said it would join strikes against militants but only in Iraq for now – which has asked for such help – not Syria. IS holds swathes of land in both countries.

Parliament is to reconvene on Friday and, unlike last year when action to stop Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons against his own people was voted down, all the main parties are now broadly in support. Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet will meet today to finalise what they will put to parliament tomorrow.

Middle East war takes another step

Shi'ite fighters from Mahde Army launch rockets during heavy fighting against Islamic state members at Bo Hassan village, near Tikrit

The United States and some Gulf allies have launched air strikes inside Syria against Islamic State militants.

A combination of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk attack missiles sounds like a formidable barrage so if intelligence about where the militants are is good, a significant blow could have been dealt.

Washington said Saudi Arabia, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar were involved though their precise role is unclear. It made no mention of European involvement and Britain has said it was not part of it.

All to play for

A "No" campaign poster is seen in a field after being vandalised by a "Yes" supporter on the outskirts of Edinburgh

The latest Scottish opinion poll puts the unionist camp ahead by 52 points to 48 – still way too close to call given the statistical margin for error.

The last two polls have given the “No” campaign clinging to a narrow lead following a dramatic narrowing of the gap and one survey giving the separatists a lead. So has the “Yes” momentum stalled? If you chart the numbers over the past two weeks you might think so but if you did so over the past two months you would say emphatically not.

YouGov, purveyors of the latest poll, noted that on their figures the “No” camp has gained ground for the first time since early August. The last two surveys were the first to have been conducted since it became clear that the nationalist vote was on the charge. Has that concentrated minds? Who knows.

The long and winding road to sanctions

Russia's President Vladimir Putin talks to reporters during a meeting in Brasilia

If it’s true to its word, the European Union will impose sweeping new sanctions on Russia this week, targeting state-owned Russian banks and their ability to finance Moscow’s faltering economy.

EU ambassadors will continue discussions on the detail of new measures, most significant of which would be banning European investors from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state.

An embargo on arms sales to Moscow and restrictions on the supply of energy and dual-use technologies is also on the table but it looks like restrictions to supplying technology to Russia will include oil but exclude the gas sector.

EU slowly tightens screw

A coffin of one of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 downed over rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, is carried from an aircraft during a national reception ceremony at Eindhoven airport

The EU is slowly tightening the screw on Russia, with senior officials proposing yesterday to target state-owned Russian banks in its most serious sanctions so far. Ambassadorial talks on how precisely that is to be done continue today and the measures are likely to be enacted next week.

One key proposal is that European investors would be banned from buying new debt or shares of banks owned 50 percent or more by the state. These banks raised almost half of their 15.8 billion euro capital needs in EU markets last year. That is a big deal and there are increasing signs of investors turning their back on Russia lock, stock and barrel. However, with its giant FX reserves, the central bank can provide dollars to fund external debt for a considerable period of time.

The ambassadors did agree to add more people and entities to the EU’s asset freeze list, using expanded criteria including Russian companies that help to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. The 15 individuals and 18 entities, half of which are companies, will be named today. Russian shares are down about 1 percent in early trade.

A dissenting voice

A train carrying the remains of the victims of Malaysia Airlines MH17 arrives in Kharkiv

Interesting intervention from former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin late yesterday who warned that Russia risked isolation and having its efforts to modernize derailed.

That sort of internal criticism is rare but Kudrin has done so before without censure which suggests Vladimir Putin is – or has been – willing to hear it. Kudrin added that Moscow should not intervene militarily in eastern Ukraine.

EU foreign ministers came up with more promises of tougher action against Russia without quite showing the colour of their money. Meeting in Brussels they discussed restricting Russian access to European capital markets, defence and energy technology, asking the executive European Commission to draft proposals this week.

Common cause for Washington and Tehran in Iraq?

Iraq is going up in flames and there appears to be no question of the West putting boots back on the ground in contrast to 2003 when the United States and Britain invaded to topple Saddam Hussein and set in train a decade of chaos that has now exploded again.

Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite Muslim cleric has urged his followers to take up arms against a full-blown Sunni militant insurgency to topple Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The chances of ISIL militants taking heavily armed Baghdad are slim but that doesn’t mean conflict will not continue and, with Iraqi Kurdish forces seizing control the oil hub of Kirkuk just outside their autonomous enclave in the north, the prospect of the country splitting along sectarian lines is real.

Over the weekend, ISIL’s advance on Baghdad slowed but spread northwest, with Sunni militants seizing Tal Afar, a town close to the Syrian border.

Nearer to the brink

De-escalation?  Forget it. Ukrainian forces killed up to five pro-Moscow rebels in the east yesterday and Russia launched army drills near the border in response.

The big question now is whether Russian troops will cross into eastern Ukraine following a constant stream of warnings from Moscow about the security of Russian speakers there.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to have a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, following last week’s Geneva accord which aimed to pull things back from the brink. Kerry said yesterday that Russia’s “window to change course is closing” and U.S. President Barack Obama said tougher sanctions were ready to go. There is no question of Western military intervention.

Talking the talk

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi delivers a speech in Amsterdam which will fixate the markets following his recent statement that a stronger euro would prompt an easing of monetary policy.

Most notably via his Clint Eastwood-style “whatever it takes” declaration the best part of two years ago, Draghi has proved to be peerless in the art of verbal intervention. But even for him there is a law of diminishing returns which may require words to be backed up with action before long. 

In the 12 days since he put the euro firmly on the ECB’s agenda, the currency has actually weakened a little and certainly shied away from the $1.40 mark which many in the market see as a first red line for the euro zone’s central bank. That is probably because investors expect action from the ECB  soon and if so, there are good reasons to think they may be wide of the mark.