MacroScope

Juncker’s star fading?

EU leaders didn’t get far last night in addressing the voter backlash dealt to them in European elections but it seems less likely that Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker will end up with Brussels’ top job, a first indication that things are on the move.

Britain’s David Cameron has been determined to block the arch federalist from becoming European Commission president and, after the strong showing by far-right and far-left parties, others also seem to see the need for a newer broom, possibly even Angela Merkel.

Juncker is a veteran of EU politics and is a consummate deal-maker, and as head of the centre-right EPP group which topped the weekend polls should be the heir presumptive. But he is very much of the old school.

Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi all focused on revving up Europe’s economy last night, but it remains to be seen if they can find common ground on how. The British and Dutch talked again of less Europe where it is not required.

What seems certain is that further integration within the euro zone to underpin the single currency is now a very distant prospect although many economists say it is needed to avoid a repeat of the bloc’s debt crisis. Any treaty change is very unlikely.

Evening of reckoning

EU heads of government and state dine in Brussels this evening to discuss their response to a big slap in the face from the bloc’s electorates.

Italy’s Matteo Renzi, who bucked the trend by winning handsomely as an incumbent prime minister, has the wind in his sails and has pledged to change Europe’s focus towards growth and job creation after years of fiscal austerity in response to the euro zone’s debt crisis.

A French official said President Francois Hollande would back Renzi’s call for more pro-growth policies and tell fellow EU leaders that Europe had reached “the alarm level”. Even Germany’s Angela Merkel – the one who really counts – is talking about Europe’s people not caring about treaty change but job security and prosperity.

Russian sanctions … and France

After the EU widened its sanctions to include Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, the commander of Russian paratroopers and two Crimean energy firms, Ukrainian prime minister Yatseniuk is in Brussels today for talks. The EU is looking to shore up the situation to allow national elections to take place on May 25 and, along with Washington, has set any disruption of that vote as a red line.

Vladimir Putin, perhaps fearing significantly tougher sanctions, has belatedly given rhetorical support to the election. Whether it can legitimately take place given the chaos in parts of the country remains an open question.

The latest additions bring to 61 the number of Russians and Ukrainians the EU has slapped with asset freezes and visa bans and for the first time it has targeted companies after foreign ministers agreed to broaden the scope of sanctions. However, only broader trade and financial sanctions would really bite and on that, Washington is much keener than Europe which is heavily dependent on Russia for its energy needs.

A question of gas

A Ukrainian soldier sits on top of an APC at a checkpoint outside the city of Slaviansk

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in Washington for talks with Barack Obama after Europe and the United States imposed wider sanctions on Russia.

Obama is already looking ahead to a third round of measures and has hinted at impatience with Europe, saying there had to be a united front if future sanctions on sectors of the Russian economy were to have real bite. At home, the Republicans are accusing him of weakness so will he put pressure on Merkel to move ahead in a way that the European Union has shown it is entirely unready to, at least yet?

The east of Ukraine remains in turmoil with pro-Russian separatists, who have seized civic buildings and police stations in a number of cities and towns, saying Ukrainian forces had launched a big operation to retake the eastern town of Slaviansk. That would mark the first significant military response from the government in Kiev.

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.

A question of gas

Vladimir Putin will meet senior Russian government officials to discuss Russia’s economic ties with Ukraine, including on energy after state-controlled natural gas producer Gazprom said Kiev missed a deadline to pay a $2.2 billion bill.

In previous years, gas disputes between Moscow and Kiev have hurt supplies to Europe. The Ukraine government has said it would take Russia to an arbitration court if Moscow failed to roll back gas price hikes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian agents and special forces of stirring separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine, saying Moscow could be trying to prepare for military action as it had in Crimea. Armed pro-Moscow protesters occupied Ukrainian government buildings in two cities in the largely Russian-speaking east.

Ukraine inching back to the brink

Pro-Moscow protesters in eastern Ukraine took up arms in one city and declared a separatist republic in another yesterday and the new build-up of tensions continues this morning.

The Kiev government has launched what it calls “anti-terrorist” operations in the eastern city of Kharkiv and arrested about 70 separatists. Moscow has responded by demanding Kiev stop massing military forces in the south-east of the country.

Russia’s own forces remain massed just over the border and Ukrainian President Oleksander Turchinov said Moscow was attempting to repeat “the Crimea scenario”.

Sanctions loom for Russia

The European Union, as we exclusively reported yesterday, has agreed on a framework for sanctions against Russia, including travel restrictions and asset freezes, which goes further than many expected. The list of targeted individuals is still being worked on but will be ready for the bloc’s foreign ministers to look at on Monday.

Angela Merkel will speak to the German Bundestag about the standoff with Russia. Merkel has been cautious about imposing anything too tough as she tries to convince Vladimir Putin to agree to a “contact group” that would reopen communications between Moscow and Kiev. But yesterday she said measures would be imposed next week – after a Crimean referendum on joining Russia which the West says is illegal – unless diplomatic progress is made.

There is no sign of Vladimir Putin coming to the negotiating table and no question of western force being deployed. In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said his government was ready to negotiate over Moscow’s concerns for the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea – a possible diplomatic avenue? The U.N. Security Council will discuss the crisis in an open meeting later.

Marathon banking union talks

Shots were fired at an international team of monitors in Crimea over the weekend, violence flared in Sevastopol as thousands staged rallies and Angela Merkel, who perhaps has the most receptive western ear to Vladimir Putin, rebuked him for supporting a referendum on Ukraine’s southern region joining Russia. But in truth we’re not much further forward or backwards in this crisis.

The West from Barack Obama on down has said the referendum vote next Sunday is illegal under international law but it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle if Ukraine’s southern region chooses to break away. The best guess – but it is only a guess – is that barring an accidental sparking of hostilities, there is not much percentage in Russia putting its forces in Crimea onto a more aggressive footing in advance of the vote.

Euro zone finance ministers meet and are joined by their non-euro counterparts for an Ecofin on Tuesday. They have the mammoth task of finalizing everything on banking union that was set out in principle by their leaders at a December summit, since when not much has happened.

Fundraising for Kiev

If the hastily drawn up timetable is adhered to an interim Ukrainian government will be formed today. Whatever the line-up, it is likely to repeat its urgent call for aid.

The West, led by the EU, is trying to drum up support – Brussels has already talked with Japan, China, Canada, Turkey and the United States on possible help — but the signals are that big money will only flow after May 25 elections when a permanent government is in place. Can it wait that long? The IMF adds that conditions it imposed on a previous loan offer would still apply, strings that it would be tough for any government in Kiev to meet.

Russia’s next step is the great unknown question but it seems safe to presume that the $12 billion outstanding from its $15 billion bailout of Ukraine will not be forthcoming, at least for now. There is also the prospect of the cut-price charged for its gas zooming back up.