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February 13, 2018

Will Zijlstra survive Dachagate? Will Rutte III?

Dutch Foreign minister Halbe Zijlstra, one of Mark Rutte's most important lieutenants in the VVD, faces a very uncomfortable debate in the Dutch lower house Tweede Kamer today. The opposition will grill him over his misrepresentation of a private conversation held between the former Shell CEO Jeroen Van der Veer and Vladimir Putin in 2006. Zijlstra admitted to lying about himself being present, claiming he did so in order to protect Van der Veer as a source. But it turns out he also misrepresented what Van der Veer told him - about Russia treating the Baltics as part of its sphere of influence. The question is not what the opposition will do with this in the Tweede Kamer, but how Mark Rutte's coalition partners will handle the situation.

The political commentary in the Dutch press is, by now, scathing. NRC lists him in a special feature about notorious political liars, and its political correspondents Thijs Niemantsverdriet and Mark Kranenburg note that the reasons given by Rutte's coalition partners for continuing to support Zijlstra sound contrived and meant to save the coalition more than anything else.

One should recall that Zijlstra was the VVD's chief negotiator in the coalition talks alongside Rutte. Zijlstra is supposed to go to Russia this week to discuss the downing of flight MH17 over the Donbass rebel regions in Eastern Ukraine, killing all on board including over 190 Dutch. Zijlstra has accused Russia of spreading misinformation about the incident. Martin Sommer, in a comment at Volkskrant, argues that Zijlstra's self-aggrandising lying makes him vulnerable to Russian pressure and thus damages the Netherland's national interest.  Zijlstra also told Volkskrant that Rutte knew the Dacha story was a lie. This all weakens the Dutch position in the MH17 affair.

Rutte insists his minister remained credible, but anonymous sources in the coalition started telling the press that maybe the content of the conversation was also inaccurate. Then, in an extraordinary development, Volkskrant decided that Zijlstra was putting their own credibility as a newspaper on the line, and blew the cover on Van der Veer as the story's source. Van der Beer says he took Putin's description of Greater Russia as a historical observation, and that Zijlstra's interpretation that Putin would like Russia to have greater influence over the former Russian empire is logical. But Van der Veer denies that Putin's words or his own rendering of them could be interpreted aggressively. And the bit about Kazakhstan being "nice to have" is an embellishment by Zijlstra.

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February 13, 2018

Costa's initiative to cover Brexit shortfall

Brexit means fewer revenues for the EU, but not necessarily fewer expenditures. If anything the EU financing needs are to rise, with more substantial funds for defence and security. Portugal is now stepping forward with the suggestion of three new taxes at the EU level to make up for the financing gap due to the 'loss' of the UK's of €13bn net contribution (€17bn gross).

António Costa proposed three taxes to be levied on online platforms, polluting companies, and international financial transactions, according to Publico. They are to be collected from multinationals operating at EU level, not at the national level. Costa argues that a green tax is on the EU agenda anyway. As for the internet tax, he pointed to France with its special arrangements for online platforms, and suggested that this could be achieved at the EU level as well.

Costa also accepts Jean Claude Juncker's proposal to increase the member states' contribution to the EU budget from 1% to 1.2% of GDP. Costa is due to present his tax plans at the next meeting of the European Council on February 23. 

Don't get too excited about this new EU tax proposal, it is not happening any time soon. The tale of a common financial transaction tax, first debated in the European council in 2010, is a sober reminder of how even if you get the member states to agree on common initiative its momentum peters out eventually as the implementation meets various obstacles. Costa may use his reputation to deliver the undeliverable in Portugal to aim for a similar goal at EU level, backed by his finance minister as eurogroup president and an Emmanuel Macron as a new role model for the European vision quest. But it will take a lot of favourable circumstances to sail through.

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