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Brussels Playbook: COVID decisions loom — Borrell heads to Ukraine — Trump backs Orbán

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POLITICO’s must-read briefing on what’s driving the day in Brussels.

By SUZANNE LYNCH 

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DRIVING THE DAY: TIME FOR ANOTHER COVID RETHINK

OMICRON BITES: It’s crunch time for Europe as countries across the Continent face the first big dilemma of the new year — how to manage the return to school and work for millions of citizens amid rising coronavirus case numbers.

Europe, the epicenter: After a second COVID-dominated Christmas, Europe finds itself once again at the epicenter of the global pandemic. More than 4.9 million infections were reported in Europe in the seven days running up to January 1, AFP reports. In a reminder of how Europe is becoming terra non grata, even Kuwait has urged its citizens to flee European countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain due to soaring case numbers.

Not all bad news: France reported 67,641 new confirmed cases in a 24-hour period on Monday — that’s much lower than the 200,000-plus figure a few days ago. But Mondays traditionally see the lowest number of cases reported each week, and the seven-day average of cases has now reached an all-time high of 167,338.

Numbers still rising: Countries are still grappling with increasing cases as Omicron rips through the population. Poland’s health minister said restrictions could be introduced by the end of the week if numbers keep growing; the Netherlands reported an uptick in new cases to 14,623 on Monday compared to 11,440 a week ago, despite a strict lockdown, while Ireland reported 17,000 new cases, with hospitalizations worryingly high.

Decisions loom: France and Italy are due to make key decisions on the controversial issue of vaccine passes imminently. The French government is proposing limiting its “green pass” to enter different places only to people who have been vaccinated or have proof of recovery — no longer offering the option of presenting a negative test. Italy on Wednesday will decide on mandatory vaccination for workers.

Touchy subject: In a reminder of the sensitivities around the subject, some French MPs say they have received death threats over plans for the green pass. In the Netherlands, authorities dispersed protesters, arresting 30, over the weekend as demonstrators took to the streets of Amsterdam to protest lockdown measures, in defiance of restrictions.

Calculation: Amid fierce debate, most European countries have opted to reopen schools, though there is widespread alarm about the impact of the latest coronavirus wave on critical staff such as health workers and teachers. Check out this explainer from POLITICO’s Helen Collis, outlining how EU countries have reduced quarantine times in a bid to stave off critical labor shortages.

It’s the economy, stupid: Balancing the responsibility to keep people safe with the need to protect the economy will be the key dynamic informing policy decisions in the economic arena this year in Brussels. The impact of the pandemic promises to influence everything from the upcoming negotiations on reforming EU budget rules to the debate about how to channel investment into the green economy. Another one to watch will be this Friday’s inflation figures for December — a key indicator as the European Central Bank tries to contain the pressure on prices in the year ahead.

UKRAINE IN FOCUS

BORRELL HEADS EAST: The EU’s most senior diplomat, Josep Borrell, begins a two-day visit to Ukraine today, ahead of a key meeting between U.S. and Russian officials in Geneva next week. The European External Action Service (EEAS) was keen to stress the significance of the fact that Ukraine is Borrell’s first foreign visit of 2022. But as Playbook’s Jakob Hanke Vela wrote last week, Europe has found itself on the sidelines of a diplomatic tug-of-war that is increasingly being fought by Washington and Moscow.

The details: Borrell will visit the eastern front — where Russian-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian government forces in a war that has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 2014 — marking the first visit by an EU high representative to the conflict zone. He will then travel to Kyiv to meet with government officials.

Washington calling Europe: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with the foreign ministers of the so-called “Bucharest Nine” on Monday. The group comprises NATO’s easternmost members, and are all members of the EU — Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Hungary — the latest indication of outreach by the Biden administration.

Context: Borrell’s visit comes ahead of a key week of diplomatic activity between Russia and the West, led by the United States. Russian and U.S. officials are due to meet in Geneva on January 9 and 10, led by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. A meeting of the NATO-Russia Council will follow on January 12, followed by an OSCE meeting later in the week.

Russian demands spark NATO debate: Russia’s list of demands set out in December — including a request that NATO effectively annuls a 2008 pledge that the alliance would expand — may have ironically encouraged more countries to consider NATO membership. In his traditional New Year’s Eve address, Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said his country would apply for membership “should we ourselves so decide.”

Not so fast: Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer border with Russia, is one of six EU countries that are not members of NATO. But while Russia’s threats have reignited a debate within the country about the benefits of joining the alliance, the most recent polls suggest there is still not a majority in favor of this.

One to watch: Finland’s stance on the forthcoming EU-NATO declaration currently being debated by European diplomats will be one to watch: France has placed EU defense at the heart of its priorities for its six-month stint at the helm of the Council of the EU presidency, which began this week. Significantly, Niinistö took a jab at the EU’s defense capabilities in his New Year speech, saying the EU “must not settle merely with the role of a technical coordinator or sanctions” in the face of Russian aggression. “The sovereignty of several member states, also Sweden and Finland, has been challenged from outside the Union. This makes the EU an involved party,” he said.

TRANSATLANTIC POPULISM

TRUMP ENDORSES HUNGARY’S ORBAN: He’s still at it. Former U.S. President Donald Trump has been busy issuing declarations from his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida since leaving office almost a year ago. While most of his endorsements have been aimed at Republican election hopefuls who follow his “America First” mantra, Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán got a shout-out Monday ahead of this spring’s election in the Central European country.

Hungary First: “Viktor Orbán of Hungary truly loves his Country and wants safety for his people,” Trump said in a statement, punctuated by his signature exclamation marks! “He has done a powerful and wonderful job in protecting Hungary, stopping illegal immigration, creating jobs, trade, and should be allowed to continue to do so in the upcoming Election. He is a strong leader and respected by all. He has my Complete support and Endorsement for reelection as Prime Minister!”

Illiberal rulers unite: Trump met Orbán in 2019, showering him with praise at a meeting at the White House — a visit his predecessor Barack Obama had eschewed. More recently, Trump’s former Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Budapest Demographic Summit, while Fox News host Tucker Carlson broadcast his popular evening show from Budapest for a week this past summer.

Political playbook: Orbán’s similarities with Trump are clear — both effectively and cynically fired up a sense of victimization and polarization among their respective electorates, honing in on hot-button cultural issues like immigration. Whether that playbook works for Orbán this time round when Hungarians go to the polls in the spring remains to be seen, as he faces a formidable challenge from opposition candidate Péter Márki-Zay (interviewed by Playbook earlier this year). Like Trump, Orbán could find himself on the losing side, with polls pointing to a tight race. As Trump would say (neglecting to glance in the mirror) — no one likes a loser.

Elections to watch: The vote in Hungary is just one of the elections to watch in Europe this year that could shake up political dynamics across the Continent. Emma Anderson has more.

**EU commissioners Mairead McGuiness and Paolo Gentiloni will speak at POLITICO Live’s Finance Summit on February 10-11 in Paris and online. Watch them address the state of Europe’s financial recovery, sustainable finance and much more. Don’t miss out and register today!**

TAXONOMY LATEST

GERMANY UNITED: The German government has sought to project a united front after members of the Green party within the ruling coalition hit out at the European Commission’s plan to classify nuclear as a green energy source in its long-awaited, so-called taxonomy proposal unveiled at the weekend. A spokesman for Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the government considers nuclear to be “dangerous” and therefore it cannot support the plan, though it will not join any legal action against the Commission as threatened by Austria.

#OlafSchummelt: But as our colleague Hans von der Burchard reports, the hashtag #OlafSchummelt (meaning “Olaf cheats”) did the rounds on Twitter, and was shared by some Green politicians. The anger reflects a view that Germany is seen to have struck a deal with French President Emmanuel Macron to allow a green label for nuclear in return for the same for gas for investment purposes, if the plan goes through.

Greenwashing: Meanwhile, the reaction to the taxonomy proposal ahead of discussions by member countries continued to pour in on Monday. European consumer group BEUC blasted the draft proposal as “actively misleading consumers about the sustainability of their investments.”

“What is at stake here is not even about banning nuclear and fossil gas or not. They might be needed for the transition, but that does not mean that they should be advertised to consumers as ‘green,’” the group said in a statement.

IN OTHER NEWS

IRAN TALKS RESTART: Negotiators returned to the table Monday in Vienna in the latest attempt to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). This great explainer by Stephanie Liechtenstein looks at the major sticking points and some of the potential solutions.

Another nuclear agreement — to avoid war: The U.S., China, France, Russia and the U.K. issued a rare joint statement overnight, vowing to avoid nuclear war: “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons — for as long as they continue to exist — should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war. We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented.”

BREXIT ANNIVERSARY: It’s just over a year since Britain officially left the European Union, but there is still much unfinished business to resolve, not least of which related to the treatment of Northern Ireland when it comes to trade across borders. POLITICO spoke to politicians, diplomats and experts on both sides of the Channel about what Brexit has taught them, one year on. Read the key takeaways here.

.eu no more: Meanwhile, around 48,000 internet domain names belonging to U.K. citizens and organizations — including pro-Brexit site Leave.eu — have been indefinitely taken offline from Monday, following the revocation of their .eu addresses by the agency in charge of registrations. Sam Stolton has more.

WARSAW SCRAMBLES TO MINIMIZE HACKING BACKLASH: Poland’s nationalist government is trying to downplay allegations that it improperly bought Pegasus phone hacking software from an Israeli company to spy on its opponents. Wojciech Kość has the full story.

GET TO KNOW THE NEW DUTCH GOVERNMENT: It’s a new year and there’s a new Dutch government officially set to take office next week. Lukas Kotkamp lays out the eight things to know about the incoming Cabinet.

PETRA IN PARIS: Ukraine’s culture minister has complained to Netflix about the portrayal of a Ukrainian character in its hit series “Emily in Paris.” Petra, the character in question, shoplifts, fears deportation and — perhaps the biggest indignity in a show focused on aesthetics — is portrayed as having poor fashion sense. “Unacceptable” and “insulting” is how Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko put it. The Guardian has more.

BRUSSELS CORNER

NEW FOOD LOBBY BOSS: Dirk Jacobs has been appointed the new director general of FoodDrinkEurope, replacing Mella Frewen, who stepped down after almost 15 years in the role.

POLITICO Live is back with the first event of the new year. On Monday, January 10, POLITICO’s Policy Editor Nick Vinocur will sit down with European Commissioner for the Internal Market Thierry Breton. Here are the details.

BIRTHDAYS: MEP Gabriele Bischoff; Former Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern; Information Technology Industry Council’s Vivien Zuzok; Spotify’s Francesco Versace; David Muir; Onet’s Bartosz Węglarczyk; Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, former prime minister of Kuwait; Myanmar Independence Day.

MANY THANKS to editor Emma Anderson our producer Grace Stranger.

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More from … Suzanne Lynch