World News

EU regulators checking if Fitbit deal will boost Google's clout

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – EU regulators are checking whether Google’s purchase of Fitbit might allow it to drive rival makers of wearable devices, app developers and other online service providers out of the market, and boost its dominance in online advertising and search.

Healthcare providers are also being asked whether they would see Google as a rival if it is allowed to buy the fitness tracker company in a $2.1 billion deal criticised by privacy and consumer groups, according to EU documents seen by Reuters.

The EU queries underscore the importance of Fitbit’s (FIT.N) trove of health data generated from its devices, which are used to monitor users’ daily steps, calories burned and distance travelled, and how this could further extend Alphabet Inc-owned (GOOGL.O) Google’s market power into a fast-growing area.

A 47-page questionnaire to potential rivals asks if the deal will reinforce Google’s dominance in general search and online advertising and how the smartwatches and fitness trackers market will develop if the Fitbit deal does, or doesn’t, go ahead.

“In your view, would the aggregation of Fitbit’s data to Google’s database strengthen Google’s position in the supply of online search advertising services?” regulators ask.

They want to know if users will have another option should the prices of Fitbit’s devices go up, and whether Google will provide its operating system for smartwatches at less favourable terms, or even stop providing them, to Fitbit’s rivals.

App developers for mobile payment services, digital service distribution, navigation, translation, virtual assistant and search are all being asked if the deal will result in lower prices and more choice, or the opposite.

Another 11-page questionnaire asks healthcare providers whether their customers would migrate to a new Google competing service in the event Google has access to Fitbit’s devices or data.

The European Commission is scheduled to decide on the deal by July 20.

Australia’s antitrust regulator has warned against the deal, while U.S. and EU advocacy groups have also voiced criticism.

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Taking EU helm, Germany's Merkel calls on Europe to show resolve

BERLIN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged European Union leaders to reach agreement on a multi-billion euro coronavirus recovery fund, calling for resolve and saying Europe was facing the most difficult situation in its history.

Echoing Merkel’s urgency as Germany took the helm of the bloc, the EU’s chief executive Ursula von der Leyen joined the chancellor via video link to warn that the next six months were crucial after the region reacted slowly to the coronavirus and now faced a severe economic downturn.

“We are clear where the difficulties are but we all know it would be good if we agree in July. If we need more time it would be a less good variant,” Merkel said, also referring to plans for the new seven-year EU budget.

“There must be a deal in the summer, I cannot imagine any other variant so we will work very hard to show a sign of our resolve. We know that Europe is in the most difficult situation in its history,” she told a news conference.

With almost 35,000 deaths from COVID-19 recorded in Italy alone, lockdowns across most of the European Union have shuttered businesses, upended livelihoods and indebted governments as they seek to shield workers.

A Commission proposal for a 750 billion euro ($843.08 billion) rescue fund has been largely welcomed by EU leaders but must still be agreed, and fiscally conservative northern countries led by the Netherlands are loath to see their taxpayers pay for grants to southern European states.

“In such times, solidarity is a test,” Merkel said, in a veiled reference to frustration across Italy and Spain, the EU countries most affected by the novel coronavirus and which have questioned the value of the union in the crisis.

Although the rotating, six-month presidency gives only limited power, as Europe’s most respected leader Merkel faces huge expectations that she can negotiate a breakthrough on the recovery fund and a new 2021-2027 budget for the bloc.

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UK says significant differences remain on Brexit free trade deal

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom and European Union concluded several days of “useful” face-to-face talks on a Brexit free trade deal on Thursday but London said significant differences remained.

“The negotiations have been comprehensive and useful,” UK chief negotiator David Frost said. “But they have also underlined the significant differences that still remain between us on a number of important issues.”

“We remain committed to working hard to find an early understanding on the principles underlying an agreement out of the intensified talks process during July, as agreed at the HLM on 15 June,” Frost said. “Talks will continue next week in London as agreed in the revised terms of reference published on 12 June.”

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EU court rules against BlackRock tax break claim

LONDON (Reuters) – BlackRock is not exempt from paying value added tax (VAT) on part of a service from an outside supplier to help manage its funds, the European Union’s court ruled on Thursday.

The world’s biggest asset manager had argued that it should not have to pay VAT on all the service, as special investment funds are exempt from the tax, but Britain’s tax authority disagreed.

The First Chamber of the Court of Justice ruled on Thursday that a “single supply of management services, provided by a software platform belonging to a third-party supplier for the benefit of a fund management company, which manages both special investment funds and other funds, does not fall within the exemption provided for in that provision.”

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EU says 'essential' that freedoms be protected in Hong Kong

BRUSSELS (AFP) – EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday (July 1) said it was essential that existing rights remain observed in Hong Kong after police made the first arrests under China’s new national security law.

“The European Union considers it essential that the existing rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents are fully protected,” Borrell said in a statement.

These include “freedom of speech, of the press and of publication, as well as freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration”, the statement added.

Hong Kong police said they had arrested at least 180 people on Wednesday – including seven under a new national security law – as thousands of protesters defied a ban to rally on the anniversary of the city’s handover to China.

Borrell said Brussels was “assessing the implications of such a law and will continue to raise its concerns in its dialogue with China”.

EU foreign ministers in May had rejected the idea of imposing sanctions because of the law, saying they would not solve the crisis.

The Hong Kong question is now likely to be on the agenda again at the next EU foreign ministers meeting on July 13.

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EU reopens its borders to 14 nations but not to U.S. tourists due to coronavirus – The Denver Post

BRUSSELS — The European Union announced Tuesday that it will reopen its borders to travelers from 14 countries, but most Americans have been refused entry for at least another two weeks due to soaring coronavirus infections in the U.S.

Travelers from other big countries like Russia, Brazil and India will also miss out.

As Europe’s economies reel from the impact of the coronavirus, southern EU countries like Greece, Italy and Spain are desperate to entice back sun-loving visitors and breathe life into their damaged tourism industries.

More than 15 million Americans are estimated to travel to Europe each year, while some 10 million Europeans head across the Atlantic.

Citizens from the following countries will be allowed into the EU’s 27 members and four other nations in Europe’s visa-free Schengen travel zone: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, Montenegro, Morocco, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

The EU said China is “subject to confirmation of reciprocity,” meaning it must lift all restrictions on European citizens entering China before it will allow Chinese citizens back in.

Countries considered for the safe list are also expected to lift any bans they might have in place on European travelers. The list is to be updated every 14 days, with new countries being added and some even dropping off depending on whether they are keeping the disease under control.

Still, many people both inside and outside Europe remain wary of travel in the coronavirus era, given the unpredictability of the pandemic and the possibility of second waves of infection that could affect flights and hotel bookings. Tens of thousands of travelers had a frantic, chaotic scramble in March to get home as the pandemic swept across the world and borders slammed shut.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States has surged over the past week, and President Donald Trump also suspended the entry of all people from Europe’s ID check-free travel zone in a decree in March.

In contrast, aside from a notable recent outbreak tied to a slaughterhouse in western Germany, the virus’s spread has generally stabilized across much of continental Europe.

European Union countries hastily slapped restrictions on who could cross their borders in February as the virus spread in Italy. Then in mid-March the Europeans limited all non-essential travel to the 27 EU member states plus Liechtenstein, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland..

Non-EU citizens who are already living in Europe are not included in the ban.

The EU list does not apply to travel to Britain, which left the EU in January. Britain now requires all incoming travelers — bar a few exceptions like truck drivers — to go into a self-imposed 14-day quarantine, although the measure is under review and is likely to ease in the coming weeks. The requirement also applies to U.K. citizens.

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EU crisis: Panicked Merkel admits she faces huge battle to unify splintering bloc

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The German Chancellor hopes to reinvigorate the bloc when she takes over its rotating presidency. With Brussels on the brink of chaos, the veteran leader will be at the helm of the EU’s decision-making process until the end of the year. Leaked government documents have revealed she has a number of crises to overcome, such as the bloc’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and post-Brexit trade talks.

Mrs Merkel has told colleagues in Berlin her first task is to heal the divisions that have arisen across the bloc during discussions over a recovery fund that will provide aid to the most pandemic-stricken regions and industries.

According to draft government programme for the six-month period: “During the German EU presidency we will do everything in our power to master this task together in a forward-looking way and to make Europe strong again.”

Europe is facing its worst recession since the end of the Second World War after governments were forced to shut down their economies to halt the spread of COVID-19.

The EU must also agree on its next seven-year budget, with the €1trillion plan already a highly controversial topic amongst member states.

And then there is the post-Brexit trade talks, which must be concluded by the end of the year after Boris Johnson refused to extend the transition period.

Daniela Schwarzer, director of the DGAP foreign policy think-tank, said the health and economic crises that the bloc faces are likely to drive a wedge between even the most united capitals.

She said: “Still, Berlin must help make 2020 the year in which the EU gets set up to cope with the future.”

But Ms Schwarzer added the focus on recovery would allow the bloc to push forward with its green and digital agendas.

Alongside the big ticket issues, senior German sources have said Mrs Merkel would strike to tackle the EU’s lop-sided trading relations with both China and the United States.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday an EU-China summit in Leipzig which was cancelled should be rescheduled as soon as possible.

Mrs Merkel has already placed pressure on her 26 EU neighbours to support the €750 billion bailout package put together by the European Commission.

She stood firm behind the proposal put forward by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

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The blueprint calls for the EU to collectively raise €750 billion on the international markets before distributing €500 billion in grants and €250 billion in loans to pandemic-stricken regions and industries across the bloc.

Mrs Merkel yesterday told reporters: “Talks won’t fail because of us.

“But there will be no new proposal.”

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One of her first tasks will be marshalling EU leaders ahead of a summit on July 17 and 18, where they will discuss the recovery package.

French President Emmanuel Macron, after a meeting with his German counterpart, said: “We have reached a moment of truth for Europe.

“With this resolute Franco-German commitment, we can turn it into a moment of success.”

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Venezuela tells EU ambassador to leave country

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has ordered the European Union’s ambassador to leave the country within 72 hours.

Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa’s expulsion came hours after the EU placed sanctions on 11 Venezuelan officials.

They were sanctioned for acting against the national assembly headed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

Mr Guaidó declared himself interim president last year but has failed to remove Mr Maduro.

The opposition leader has the backing of the EU and the US.

In his announcement on Monday broadcast on state television, speaking of the EU, Mr Maduro said: “If they can’t respect Venezuela, then they should leave it.”

He added: “A plane can be loaned for her [Pedrosa] to leave.” Venezuela’s air space is currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier on Monday, the European Council said the 11 officials were added to the sanctions list “because of their role in acts and decisions undermining democracy and the rule of law in Venezuela”.

There are now 36 Venezuelan officials who have been placed under EU sanctions, it said.

Those newly-added to the list include Luis Parra, who in January declared that he, not Mr Guaidó, was the rightful Speaker of the assembly.

Mr Guaidó declared himself interim president last year, arguing that Mr Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate. His position at the head of the opposition-led National Assembly was the basis of his claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.

He is recognised as such by more than 50 countries, including the US, the UK and most in Latin America and the EU

Speaking on Monday, Mr Maduro said the EU “recognises a puppet as president”.

Some four million people have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to the United Nations, amid a severe years-long political and economic crisis. The oil-rich country suffers from high unemployment and shortages of food and medicine, and hundreds of thousands of people are said to be in need of humanitarian aid.

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Maduro gives EU ambassador 72 hours to leave Venezuela

CARACAS (AFP) – Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro on Monday (June 29) gave the head of the European Union mission in Caracas, Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa, 72 hours to leave the country after the bloc announced sanctions against 11 Venezuelan officials.

“Who are they to try to impose themselves with threats?” said Maduro.

“We will sort it out in 72 hours… she will be given a plane to leave, but we will arrange our things with the European Union.” Venezuela’s airspace is currently closed to commercial airplanes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Relations have been tense since 2017 when Venezuela became the first Latin American country to receive sanctions from the EU, including an arms embargo.

Among the officials sanctioned on Monday was opposition legislator Luis Parra, who backed by Maduro is contesting the leadership of the opposition controlled National Assembly with its president Juan Guaido.

Guaido used his position as head of parliament to challenge Maduro’s authority in January 2019 by declaring himself acting president after the National Assembly deemed the socialist leader a usurper over his controversial re-election in 2018 in a poll widely branded fraudulent.

Guaido is recognised as his country’s interim president by more than 50 nations, including the United States and much of the European Union.

Parra, though, declared himself National Assembly president in January while security forces loyal to Maduro prevented Guaido from entering the building for a re-election vote he was widely expected to win.

Initially allies, Parra fell out with Guaido after he was linked to a corruption scandal relating to a food distribution program,e run by Maduro’s government.

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Merkel and Macron seize control: Leaders warn EU to back €750bn bailout or face disaster

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel stood firm behind the proposal put forward by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The blueprint calls for the EU to collectively raise €750 billion on the international markets before distributing €500 billion in grants and €250 billion in loans to pandemic-stricken regions and industries across the bloc. But the recovery fund – dubbed “Next Generation EU” – has received considerable opposition from the fiscally conservative states, such as Sweden, Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands.

The so-called Frugal Four want the money distributed with strings attached, meaning countries could be forced to sign up to austerity measures in order to access the cash.

They have also called for the fund to be smaller and more of the cash to be distributed in the form of low-cost loans.

Mrs von der Leyen’s proposal is based largely on a Franco-German model that was released by Paris and Berlin earlier in the year.

EU leaders are due to discuss the plans to save the virus-ravaged bloc on July 17 and 18 at a summit in Brussels.

In preparation for the showdown, Mrs Merkel hosted Mr Macron in Meseberg, Germany, in order to strike up a joint position.

She told reporters: “Talks won’t fail because of us.

“But there will be no new proposal.”

Mr Macron added: “We have reached a moment of truth for Europe.

“With this resolute Franco-German commitment, we can turn it into a moment of success.”

The bloc is set to be hit by the deepest recession in Europe since the Second World War.

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Mr Macron said: “We hope we can find a solution, even if there is still a long way to go.”

The EU aid package would offer support to the bloc’s hardest-hit economies like Spain, Italy and Greece.

Their economies are all forecast to shrink by at least 10 percent this year.

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These southern countries have maintained consistently high public debt levels while their neighbours in the north have taken a more fiscally conservative attitude to spending.

This has prompted fears that funds could be misused by Madrid, Rome and Athens.

Italy, Spain and Poland would be the biggest beneficiaries from the grants under the initial proposals put forward by the European Commission.

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