GOOD MORNING. This is Nick Vinocur seeing out the week, as leaders of the Group of Seven countries — the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and Canada, plus the EU — gather in Japan. And it looks like they may have a special guest joining them over the weekend: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to travel to Hiroshima in person to make his case for more military and economic support for Ukraine, my colleagues Eli Stokols and Stuart Lau report.
DRIVING THE DAY: LEADERS GATHER IN HIROSHIMA 4
CHINA CENTER STAGE: Leaders of the world’s advanced democracies converge today on Hiroshima, the site of nuclear devastation almost 78 years ago, to grapple with the two greatest threats to their security now: Russia’s war on Ukraine, and China’s increasingly aggressive stance toward Taiwan.
Dark days: The so-called Doomsday Clock, developed by U.S. scientists to indicate how close humanity is to nuclear disaster, stands at 90 seconds to midnight, the closest to catastrophe it’s ever been. China is building up its arsenal; Russia continues to obliquely threaten Ukraine with nuclear attacks. (The West retains the ability to wipe out most of humanity, too.)
Meeting halfway: The challenge for the G7 leaders is to be united on both China and Ukraine — despite the fact the Europeans in the group have shown less interest in confronting Beijing than their U.S. or Asian counterparts.
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Translation issues: “There’s a feeling that there’s a little bit of a gap, perhaps, between where the Europeans are on some China issues and where the U.S. is,” said Zack Cooper, former aide to the U.S. National Security Council. Read the full story by Stuart Lau, Eli Stokols and Phelim Kine.
Supporting Kyiv: On Ukraine, the G7 seems more united, though there are question marks over how far the West — particularly Washington — is ready to go to help defend the country against the Russian invasion.
Long game: Our D.C. colleague Nahal Toosi reports that U.S. officials are already planning for the possibility of allowing the war to turn into a frozen conflict that could last decades.
European jet push: That could explain ongoing dissonance on the question of delivering Western fighter jets to Ukraine. While some European countries including Belgium have said they will start training Ukrainian pilots on Western planes, and British and Dutch leaders announced an “international coalition” on jets earlier this week, diplomats say Washington is holding out when it comes to the crucial U.S.-made F-16s Ukraine has been calling for.
US sign-off: There are plenty of F-16 jets in European air forces — and many are due to be replaced with more modern F-35s, meaning the older models could be up for grabs. But capitals can’t deliver the fighter jets to Ukraine without U.S. approval — which isn’t forthcoming.
Déjà vu: Sound familiar? It’s similar to when Germany was blocking countries from transferring their Leopard II battle tanks to Ukraine, but with wings rather than tracks.
Regifting: A Pentagon spokesperson contacted for Nahal’s piece pointed to a January statement, in which a senior U.S. Department of Defense official said “I don’t think we are opposed” to third-party transfers. But that’s not the same thing as the Biden administration giving countries the green light to send F-16s to Ukraine.
Which could explain why Zelenskyy decided to make an in-person appearance in Japan. With the fate of his country hanging in the balance, amid Russia’s barrage the outcome of Ukraine’s long-awaited spring counteroffensive depends on the extent to which G7 countries decide to help Kyiv see off the Moscow menace.
Security test: Having the world’s top leaders in one place at the same time, along with Zelenskyy himself, poses quite the challenge to Japan’s security services, which haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory of late. Just last month, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida was attacked with a smoke bomb while preparing to give a speech at a political rally; former PM Shinzō Abe was assassinated on the campaign trail last year. Kishida pledged to increase security at the G7 after his close call, and no doubt the visiting delegations will be beefing up their own security arrangements too.
G7 FOCUS ON ECONOMIC SECURITY: The G7 countries will aim to finalize their leaders’ statement today. It’s likely economic security — a concept that Japan, which holds the group’s presidency, is keen on — will feature heavily.
So, what is it? Economic security is a slightly euphemistic phrase with differing interpretations across the G7. The leaders’ statement may reduce some of those ambiguities. A key tenet, though, is reducing risk in supply chains and ensuring positive ties with the Global South to prevent rivals like China undermining trade or threatening national security.
Everyone on the same page: With European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen preparing to outline a new Economic Security Strategy by late June as a framework for the EU to de-risk from China, Japan sees an opening to promote that concept in pursuit of a global strategy, Stuart Lau reports.
Italy at the G7: In 2019, Italy became the first G7 country to join China’s global infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to the surprise of allies in the West. Now, Italy’s right-wing leader Giorgia Meloni is ready to tell her G7 counterparts she is prepared to sever ties with Xi’s landmark foreign policy project, according to one senior diplomat familiar with her government’s deliberations. More here by Giorgio Leali, Stuart Lau and Gregorio Sorgi.
Export controls: The G7 leaders are expected to discuss economic security also in the context of national security, according to three G7 officials involved in the discussion, who spoke on condition of anonymity as talks were ongoing. They will likely exchange views on export controls, outbound investment screening and anti-coercion.
BEWARE, CIRCUMVENTORS: Circumvention of sanctions will be at the top of the agenda, according to an EU official who briefed the media anonymously. Both “entitles and countries” are under negotiation, the official said.
Japan’s warning: “G7 members are aware of the need to respond to the issue of sanction evasion and circumvention,” Japan’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hikariko Ono told POLITICO. “It is important for us to continuously send out the message about the need to address the issue, and also urging the third parties to cease any assistance to Russia.”
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EU CLAMPDOWN ON FOREIGN INFLUENCE: As G7 leaders focus on China, officials in Brussels are finalizing a proposal to combat foreign influence across all 27 member countries. Its presentation has been delayed until June 7.
ICYMI: First revealed by Playbook, this proposal is the thorniest aspect of Ursula von der Leyen’s “Defending Democracy” package, which she trailed last September in her State of the Union speech. NGOs and some lawmakers have been up in arms.
Diplomats are also paying attention. “We will likely take a careful approach,” one EU diplomat writes in. “Naturally we welcome proposals aimed at strengthening our democracies and increasing transparency. However, we should tread very carefully when we design these measures in order to avoid unintended side-effects that have the opposite effect or hurt our ability to address the abuse of similar-sounding measures in third countries.”
INTERVIEW — CHINA’S INFLUENCE IN EUROPE: Playbook sat down with the Commission’s special adviser on foreign interference, Ivana Karásková, a Czech academic and expert on Chinese influence. We talked about the thinking going into the Commission’s work on foreign money flows.
Before COVID, “There were covert efforts to influence civil society and academia, but mostly what we saw was a Chinese focus on spreading positive energy about China. What we see since 2019 is a hardening of the approach with more covert activity, more direct information and the rise of the ‘wolf warriors,’” she said.
Uneven picture: In some countries, awareness of Chinese influence operations is high because they have a history of Russia-backed action, Karásková said. “Elsewhere, it’s complete denial. It’s very uneven in terms of awareness. There are some countries where the discussion isn’t even happening at all.”
Blind spot: “The whole of Western Europe is not looking [for foreign influence]. And yet there are cases that are so blatant.” One example: the Cross Cultural Human Rights Center (CCHRC), an independent research institute operating under the Free University of Amsterdam’s mantle, that paid back a subsidy after its funding connections to the Chinese Communist Party were revealed.
Scripted reality: In early April, an investigative report authored by Karásková revealed China Radio International, a state-owned broadcaster, was giving content including written scripts to two commercial radio shows in the Czech Republic, which were then airing about 30 minutes of it per day, six days per week, for a total of about 1,000 episodes — without ever disclosing the deal to listeners.
CCP special: “They weren’t saying Xi Jinping is the best leader on the planet. But a huge number of episodes praised the Chinese Communist Party” — including by saying that the quality of a beer manufacturer improved when its was taken over by the CCP.
To each their own: Less than a month after the report was published, both shows quietly stopped airing the content from China Radio International. “It’s absolutely on the public to decide what kind of news they want to consume or what kind of research they want to give their trust to, but it would be good to do this with full knowledge of who is funding it,” said Karásková.
Smoke and mirrors: “It’s getting more difficult” to detect what programs have received Chinese funding. “It’s very difficult to say now.”
What’s more: China and Russia are reinforcing one another. “We see Chinese media using more and more Russian sources, and vice versa: Russian media like Sputnik and RT are quoting more and more Chinese diplomats and professors, using them as a source to back information.”
Bottom line: “Europe is really open. It’s not time to close, but to shed light on where the financial flows are actually going and to which end,” Karásková said.
GREECE’S COMPLEX ELECTION 1
MITSOTAKIS AHEAD IN GREEK ELECTION POLLS: Greece is a bastion for Europe’s conservatives, and Sunday’s election looks as if it will benefit Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has maintained support despite a train crash, a spying scandal and a cost-of-living crisis. But don’t expect a straightforward story — this one could get complicated.
Syriza 2nd: As our Eastern Mediterranean correspondent Nektaria Stamouli reports, Mitsotakis’ New Democracy party has a safe lead over its main rival, the left-wing Syriza, in the polls.
Short a full deck: Yet New Democracy is unlikely to get enough votes — 45 percent — to win an outright majority in parliament, and Mitsotakis has already ruled out trying to form a ruling coalition after Sunday’s election. Which means Greeks will probably have to do it all over again — voting, that is — in a few weeks’ time.
Come again? That’s correct. Mitsotakis has little interest in ruling as part of a coalition with Syriza or the Socialist PASOK party, whose leader accused the prime minister of having had his phone wiretapped. So Mitsotakis is holding out for the next election, when he has a better chance of winning an outright majority thanks to a system which grants the winning party up to 50 bonus seats.
All of which is likely to depress turnout. “It’s very difficult to get people to vote in the first place. When you tell them there will be a second vote, it’s even harder. Greeks are already disillusioned and tired. For those who don’t live near their polling station, they might decide not to travel home to vote,” Nektaria tells Playbook from Athens.
Build the wall: Perhaps in an effort to invigorate his base, the PM is campaigning on extending the fence along the Turkish border — and making the EU pay for it. Sound Trumpian? Well, it shouldn’t. “I don’t have thick blond hair, so I think the comparison is not particularly relevant,” Mitsotakis says in an article hosted on his website. Nektaria has more here.
The meh-lection: Nonetheless, unlike previous elections which have been freighted with meaning, this ballot isn’t seen as fateful. Uncertainty about Greece’s continued use of the euro has vanished. The country has achieved a remarkable economic turnaround and has one of the fastest-growing economies in the eurozone.
But but but: Greece still has its share of difficulties: A bloated bureaucracy, chronic tax evasion, a debt load of about 170 percent of GDP, and the eurozone’s only junk-rated bonds, to name a few.
Complexity: “These may not be the most crucial, but they are certainly the most complex elections we have ever had,” said Angelos Seriatos, head of research at pollster Prorata.
Wild card: Of course, anything is possible in a demokratia. Syriza, polling around 29 percent, could seek to join forces with PASOK, at around 10 percent, to form a government. Or New Democracy could get spooked by a high Syriza result in the first round and try to form a government with PASOK. However, that party’s leader, Nikos Androulakis, has said he wouldn’t accept Mitsotakis or Syriza boss Alexis Tsipras as prime minister — a proposal both have rejected.
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POLAND’S BID FOR EU CASH: Poland’s government is desperate to unlock €36 billion in grants and loans from the EU’s pandemic recovery fund, but to get the cash it needs to finalize a law rolling back legal reforms that Brussels said undermined judicial independence. President Andrzej Duda in February sent the bill to be examined by the Constitutional Tribunal — but the court is locked in a civil war, reports Wojciech Kość.
THIERRY BRETON ON TIKTOK IN CANNES: Montana’s favorite social media app is the official partner of the Cannes Film Festival, as noted by our friends over at EU Influence. And Europe’s industry commissioner had a few stern words, encouraging TikTok to “put as much enthusiasm into protecting our data and that of our children” as it does on “working on their marketing plans and lobbying.” Zing!
PUIGDEMONT RULING: The Spanish Supreme Court’s decision to suspend former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont from his public duties violated his rights, the U.N.’s Human Rights Committee has ruled.
WEEKEND LISTENING: EU Confidential podcast host Suzanne Lynch is joined by Christian Oliver, POLITICO’s head of news, and Antoaneta Roussi, our cybersecurity reporter and Bulgaria expert, who reveal how Bulgaria’s mafia state is reaching its breaking point.
FRIDAY FUNNY: Paul Dallison’s latest Declassified humor column is up, and it’s a doozy: “Take that, Russian raccoon! The battle of Kyiv Zoo heats up.”
— G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Council chief Charles Michel, leaders of the G7 and Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy expected to participate.
— Bilderberg Meeting in Lisbon, Portugal. European Parliament President Roberta Metsola and Commissioners Paolo Gentiloni and Didier Reynders participate.
— Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis in Almaty, Kazakhstan for the EU-Central Asia Economic Forum. Roundtable and press statement at 10:30 a.m. Watch.
— Happening Saturday: Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius will give a TEDx talk on the circular economy.
BRUSSELS, CITY OF TRASH 1
BRUSSELS SLOWLY DROWNING IN WASTE: The introduction of the waste collection reform in Brussels, designed to prevent waste bags sitting out on the streets for too long, seems to be doing exactly the opposite. The rubbish is piling up on streets, with residents complaining that they were not informed of the changes or that the trash is not being collected despite them complying with the new rules.
Is Brussels the new Paris? Some of the streets in Belgium’s capital are starting to look like Paris during its garbage-collectors’ strike — though no one here is striking (yet). “Reforming waste collection is a good thing. The problem is nobody is aware. No city has more elected officials and levels of governance. But there is almost no dialogue with the citizens. The paradox of Brussels,” tweeted Wim Schaerlaekens.
The paradox: In some cases, the waste collectors did come — not to pick up the trash, but to put stickers on it. The stickers feature a link to the new online waste calendar, and indicate that the bags were put outside at an incorrect time. The municipality of Evere had over 6,000 rubbish bags on the street on Tuesday, according to politician Ridouane Chahid.
Reminder: Recycle bio-waste into orange bags. General waste (in the white bags) will now be collected once a week.
Night collections: The new system also means that night collections (between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m.), abolished six years ago, have resumed on some streets in Brussels. Waste collectors have previously expressed discontent, resulting in minor strikes, but have not managed to overturn the city’s decision. The reason for bringing back the night rounds was to reduce rush-hour traffic — and the number of bags littering the streets.
Criticism: Brussels Minister of Public Cleanliness Alain Maron (you had one job!) drew criticism during a mini-debate in the parliament. The waste collection reform should be evaluated within few weeks, he said. On Wednesday, a group of activists moved some rubbish bags to the front of Maron’s cabinet building.
Let us know: Are you experiencing issues with the new waste calendar in Brussels? Share your story.
BRUSSELS CORNER 1
DIRECT FLIGHTS TO CHINA: There will be a direct flight from Brussels to Shenzhen, China every Wednesday and Sunday starting June 21, Brussels Airport announced.
BRUSSELS PRIDE: The biggest event in support of inclusivity, tolerance and rights of LGBTQIA+ people — Brussels Pride — takes place this Saturday. A parade will make its way through the city center from Mont des Arts from 2 p.m. and is expected to finish at around 5 p.m. (all Brussels Bubblers are invited to join the EU institutions’ float). Here’s the route. Additionally, Pride Village representing various organizations will be set up near Mont des Art, at Boulevard de l’Empereur, from noon to 6 p.m.
MORE PRIDE EVENTS …
RAINBOW PEDESTRIAN CROSSINGS: Ahead of each year’s Pride, some of Brussels’ pedestrian crossings get a rainbow makeover. A zebra crossing at the Montgomery roundabout was repainted this year, prompting Woluwe-Saint-Pierre Mayor Benoît Cerexhe to express his discontent in a long Facebook post.
Mobility minister reacts: “I am not going to compromise on inclusiveness in our city. Everyone is welcome, everyone can be themselves. Every year we paint a number of crosswalks in rainbow colors. We do that every year, in honor of Pride. And we’re going to keep doing that,” said Elke Van den Brandt.
#TRAINBOW: Speaking of rainbows, SNCB has put in service a rainbow-colored train to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (May 17). The train will run on different lines throughout Belgium for several months. In addition, Brussels-Central and Tournai stations will be illuminated in the colors of the rainbow until May 22.
Belgium’s protection framework: Belgium scored second place in an evaluation of legislation and policies on sexual diversity this year by ILGA-Europe (an umbrella group for European LGBTQIA+ organizations), owing also to the addition of discrimination against sex characteristics as an aggravating factor in the Criminal Code in 2022. But according to UNIA, Belgium’s center for non-discrimination, violence against LGBTQIA+ community increased in 2022 despite the legal advances. According to a report published Wednesday, 44 percent of the cases UNIA handled involved physical violence, representing the highest percentage in five years.
GOODBYE TO A LEGEND: Today is Playbook producer Grace Stranger‘s last day at POLITICO Towers, as she rides off into the sunset for a plum new gig with ABC Radio in her native Australia. The team at Playbook wishes her the very best in her next adventure — good luck Grace, we’ll miss you!
BIRTHDAYS: MEPs Liudas Mažylis and Miapetra Kumpula-Natri; Maltese Minister for Energy, Enterprise and Sustainable Development Miriam Dalli; Former MEPs Danuta Jazłowiecka, Werner Kuhn and Bolesław Piecha; President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda; POLITICO’s Helen Collis; EEAS’ Eamonn Prendergast; European Commission’s Clémence Robin; François-Xavier Vauchelle from Danone; OECD’s Carol “CJ” Guthrie; Sydney Simon of the U.S. House of Representatives; Ashraf Ghani, former president of Afghanistan.
SATURDAY: European Commissioner Dubravka Šuica; former European Commissioner Mariya Gabriel; MEPs Peter Liese and Giuliano Pisapia; Ouarda Bensouag, Manfred Weber’s Head of Cabinet; European Parliament’s Richard Freedman; Kostas Rossoglou of Shopify; Red Hat’s James Lovegrove.
SUNDAY: Former MEP Molly Scott Cato; Welt’s Tobias Kaiser; Ross Rattanasena of JPMorgan Chase & Co; BBC presenter and Spectator Chairman Andrew Neil; Former Irish President Mary Robinson; Ireland’s former Finance Minister Michael Noonan; Anna Smith Lacey of the Hungary Initiatives Foundation; Filipe Ramalheira (ANTICI); POLITICO’s Charles Stevens.