Christian Lindner
Christian Lindner is likely to be one of the power brokers in the next German government © Bloomberg

Guten Morgen and welcome to Europe Express.

We are now 10 days away from the German federal election and while the race for the top job is down to two lead candidates, the field is more crowded when it comes to potential occupants of key ministries. Today, we’ll bring you the profile of liberal leader Christian Lindner, who could scoop up the finance ministry in one or two coalition scenarios.

Meanwhile in Strasbourg, the European Commission today is set to put forward recommendations for how governments should protect journalists (rather than intimidate them), following a string of assassinations of investigative reporters in the past few years.

And in Italy, volte-face virtuoso Matteo Salvini is weighing his options on Covid passes, a not-so-popular measure that the government is about to introduce today for workers in several sectors.

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Mini-Schäuble in the making

He is the man with a strong chance of becoming Germany’s next finance minister. Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democrats, will be a top contender for the post if the FDP enters government in the wake of Germany’s September 26 election, writes Guy Chazan in Berlin.

But what will that mean for Europe?

Lindner’s fiscally conservative party has its fair share of Eurosceptics. It was famously split over whether to bail out Greece during the eurozone debt crisis. Lindner is firmly pro-European, but he could also prove an awkward customer for some of Germany’s European partners.

That was clear, for example, in his interview yesterday with the Financial Times. Take the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact. The bloc is now in the middle of a debate about how to reform its debt rules, which were suspended during the pandemic. But Lindner sees no need for change.

“Over the past few years the Maastricht criteria have shown themselves to be appropriate and sufficiently flexible,” he said. “For that reason, the eurozone should work towards reinstating them, and soon.”

Asked what his European priorities would be as finance minister, he replied that the key goal is to reduce economic disparities between member states. But not through “transfers”, with richer countries subsidising poorer ones. Instead, the focus should be on improving investment conditions in the private sector. So far, so frugal.

He said he favoured a “common European banking and financial market”, and seemed open to a common deposit insurance — long a sticking point for the Germans — saying it would “strengthen the market position of private banks”. But there was a caveat: such a scheme “must take into account the special situation of German savings and co-operative banks”. And they have been the main brake on reform.

Lindner sounds suave on Europe but the FDP’s manifesto is more explicit.

Limits on budget deficits and debt-to-GDP ratios are the “foundation of European fiscal policy”. The party wants to reform the SGP to “tighten sanctions” on those EU member states that keep violating the pact’s rules. Meanwhile, the corona recovery fund must remain a “one-off”.

The idea of introducing additional EU taxes is “incompatible with the European treaties and we reject them”. Germany’s partners can’t say they weren’t warned.

Chart du jour: Hot EU bills

Column chart of EU inaugural bills on Sept. 15  compared to latest secondary market yield for select countries showing Yields on EU's inaugural bills

The EU’s freshly minted debt is proving sufficiently attractive to investors that yields on new bills sold by the commission yesterday started out lower than their German equivalents. The development was surprising given it is Berlin’s crucial decision to stand behind the EU’s massive borrowing programme, alongside the other member states, that drives investor appetite for the new paper. The European Commission issued €3bn of three-month securities and €2bn of six-month securities. Antoine Bouvet, a rates strategist at ING, said the relative scarcity of EU bills likely drove up their price at the auction, pushing yields down deeper into negative territory. “This is a new asset so free float is very limited so far, compared to a lot of liquidity sloshing around looking for similar assets to buy.”

Protecting the fourth estate

Journalist murders, online attacks from sitting heads of government, and declining press freedom have become grim features of the media landscape in the EU, writes Mehreen Khan in Strasbourg.

Later today, Brussels will try to counteract some of these trends with proposals to help provide better protection to journalists. It is the first time the European Commission will step into a territory where it has lamented having limited legal ability to act: protecting the independence of Europe’s fourth estate.

The physical and online safety of journalists has come under the spotlight following high-profile murders of figures such as anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana-Galizia in Malta and Jan Kuciak in Slovakia. Earlier this year, Greek reporter Giorgos Karaivaz and Dutch crime journalist Peter R de Vries were shot dead.

Flowers placed at the spot where Dutch journalist Peter R de Vries was shot in Amsterdam
Flowers placed at the spot where Dutch journalist Peter R de Vries was shot in Amsterdam, in July © ANP/AFP via Getty Images

In her State of the Union speech on Wednesday, commission president Ursula von der Leyen promised to table a Media Freedom Act to give Brussels some legal firepower to curtail growing political interference and crackdowns on media plurality across Europe. “Media companies cannot be treated as just another business. Their independence is essential,” she said.

Today’s recommendations on journalistic protection provide modest attempts to help raise awareness about the extent of online harassment for journalists as well as threats to their livelihoods and lives. About 900 attacks against journalists were registered last year, according to the commission’s figures.

The proposals include recommendations for EU countries to establish special units within police forces to investigate crimes against journalists that can also act as “digital shelters” for journalists subject to online threats.

The subject is particularly pertinent during the Slovenian presidency of the EU whose prime minister Janez Jansa has been widely criticised for personally targeting journalists on his Twitter feed and condemned by the Council of Europe for creating a hostile environment for journalists.

Vera Jourova, EU executive commission vice-president for values, will present the proposals alongside French commissioner Thierry Breton. “It is extremely dangerous when the violence comes from the mouth or tweets of political leaders,” she told Europe Express. “This unfortunately happens in Europe too. And it is disgraceful.”

Salvini vs Covid passes

Matteo Salvini has always been a man who appears more comfortable in opposition than in office. The challenge for the rabble-rousing League leader now that his party has signed up to Mario Draghi’s unity government is to find the right balance between complaining and appearing constructive, writes Miles Johnson in Rome.

One issue that Salvini is finding particularly awkward is the Italian government’s rolling out of so-called Green Passes for vaccinated workers. Today, the Draghi cabinet is expected to extend the number of people who will require Green Passes to legally go into work.

Salvini has railed against making the passes compulsory for non-healthcare workers. Yet top members of his own party, notably economic development minister Giancarlo Giorgetti, have pushed back in public against the League leader.

Rome-watchers have been trying to judge whether this apparent split is a sign of Salvini losing influence inside his own party at a time when he has been narrowly overtaken on the Italian right by Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy.

For some political analysts the open disagreement between Salvini and Giorgetti over Green Passes is simply an updated version of various “good cop, bad cop” routines that the party has used when it has been part of coalition governments in the past.

Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey and an expert on the League, has referred to this strategy as “one foot in, one foot out”; an attempt to retain some of the credibility of being in opposition by picking certain issues to attack its own coalition government.

Yet in the new Italian political landscape it is clear that Salvini’s once unchallenged strategy of transforming his party from focusing on the industrialised north to central and southern Italy is no longer working.

Salvini has repeatedly shown that he is not yet willing to discard his old play book, such as his defence of a League politician who attempted to rename a public park after Mussolini’s brother.

If the League’s new strategy of pivoting towards the centre continues to lose support in the polls then it is possible Salvini will increasingly revert to the old routines that made him popular in the first place.

That, in turn, will test the patience of more moderate members of his party, and potentially increase tensions within the Draghi coalition.

What to watch today

  1. Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel meets France’s president Emmanuel Macron in Paris

  2. The European Commission puts forward a recommendation on the safety of journalists

Notable, Quotable

  • Taking on China: The EU has announced plans to step up its challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative through investments in infrastructure and bans on forced labour, as part of an initiative dubbed “Global Gateway”.

  • Cash for chips: The EU must offer at least €20bn in subsidies if it wants to “move the needle” on computer chipmaking in the bloc, said the CEO of Soitec, a French supplier of the silicon wafers that are used to make chips.

  • Bulgaria vote, take 3: President Rumen Radev has set the country’s third parliamentary elections this year for November 14, the same day voters will cast ballots in a presidential election, Radio Free Europe reports.

  • Soul sisters: The two Scandinavian commissioners, Margrethe Vestager of Denmark and Ylva Johansson of Sweden, were spotted knitting during the State of the Union speech about “strengthening Europe’s soul”, delivered by their boss, Ursula von der Leyen.

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