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It was supposed to be a national holiday in Belgium today, the fête nationale, but festivities have been overshadowed by the fallout of deadly floods in recent days. At least 31 people have lost their lives and about 70 are still missing. A day of mourning was declared yesterday and a minute of silence was observed at noon throughout the country — including in EU institutions.

Given the sombre mood and the rescue efforts still under way, some have wondered if the traditional military parade in Brussels is appropriate — especially since emergency workers who will march along are so badly needed elsewhere. According to local media, several firefighter units want to boycott the festivities.

Across the Channel, plans are under way to test the limits of Brussels’ patience (and its responsiveness during summer break), as the UK government is expected to unveil a strategy today that seeks to eliminate most checks in the Irish Sea. This comes after UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab accused the European Commission of undermining the UK’s sovereignty over Gibraltar.

On its last day before the summer break, the commission yesterday also came under fire for shying away from a more robust defence of media freedom, given the latest revelations of the government of Hungary spying on investigative journalists. That same spyware — developed by an Israeli firm — was potentially used to tap Emmanuel Macron’s phone, allegedly at the request of Moroccan officials. (More here)

And we will hear from Shoshana Zuboff, a US academic who focuses on privacy and a rare supportive American voice on the EU’s planned regulation for Big Tech.

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Hungary, again

The spying scandal surrounding Israeli firm NSO Group has complicated the European Commission’s rendering of the rule of law report, after a consortium of newspapers revealed that the spyware was allegedly bought by the Hungarian government to tap journalists’ phones. 

In one instance, according to The Guardian, a targeted journalist was seeking information on a Russian bank relocating to Budapest despite suspicions it was a front for Russian intelligence.

Hungary’s interior minister said on Monday that no illegal surveillance had taken place and that the country’s intelligence service was subject to audits that could prove it. 

NSO Group has denied the media reports and said its product was being sold “solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts”.

Vera Jourova and Didier Reynders, the commissioners who fielded questions from journalists yesterday, sought to reassure everyone that spying on journalists was unacceptable. 

The commission will rely primarily on its own services to figure out what happened in Hungary, Reynders said. If Hungarian authorities launch their own inquiries, fine, but “we will use different sources of information”, he said.

And if it turns out that the government of Viktor Orban had indeed spied on reporters, the commission has various tools at its disposal: taking Hungary to court (for the umpteenth time), freezing its EU funding (also not a first and arguably hurting the Hungarian people more than their leaders) or escalating the Article 7 procedure (which would not lead to the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights, because Poland would veto that step). 

And, Jourova added, the commission was working on a recommendation to all member states on the safety of journalists, given the increased number of reported cases of harassment, threats and violence against reporters.

Ultimately, the commission is likely to proceed with its best-known strategy: delay and hope this too will blow over.

Chart du jour: Cheap cash

For merchants cash is still the least expensive payment option for a €25 transaction, marginal cost, (€ cents)

Online transactions and digital currencies may be all the rage these days, but for merchants, cash is still very much king, at least when it comes to the cost of doing business. The FT’s Martin Wolf takes a deep dive into the brave new world of digital currencies and why central banks are crucial for building trust in these technologies.

Taking on Big Tech

US voices in recent weeks have been broadly critical of the EU for wanting to regulate or tax Big Tech, but Shoshana Zuboff, the retired Harvard Business School professor and author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, is all in favour of the European efforts.

In an interview with Javier Espinoza in Brussels, Zuboff said that the proposed EU regulation put forward in December, in combination with existing data protection rules and plans to oversee artificial intelligence, was finally debunking the myth that Big Tech was untouchable.

“The Digital Services Act, the Digital Markets Act, the GDPR, the legislative proposals for democratic governance for artificial intelligence — all of these represent a powerful first step in rejecting this myth that cyber space is impervious to the laws that govern our actions in other dimensions of society,” she said.

This year, Andreas Schwab, the German MEP in charge of steering the debate over the DMA, said the focus should be on curbing the power of the five biggest tech companies — all of which happen to be American.

This prompted a backlash in the US, with the White House requesting EU officials tone down what it described as anti-American sentiment. 

Zuboff’s remarks also come as legislators in the US are pushing for an overhaul of antitrust rules to empower competition amid concerns that Big Tech companies have become too big and are undermining rivals. Some of the proposals even include the notion of breaking them up.

Efforts are also under way on both sides of the Atlantic to force Big Tech groups to pay their share of taxes. The world’s leading economies agreed this month a deal for a global minimum corporate tax rate, backed by the Biden administration. An EU proposal to impose a digital levy has been delayed until autumn, however, mainly at the insistence of US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen.

What to watch today

  1. EU environment ministers meet in Slovenia to discuss last week’s Green Deal proposals

  2. Belgium holds its national day military parade

Notable, Quotable

  • Early strain: Renewed tests of blood samples collected in Italy as early as October 2019 have revived a debate over whether coronavirus was circulating in Europe before Chinese authorities confirmed the first case in Wuhan. The samples were collected as part of a lung cancer screening program.

  • Belfast boom: Unrest and upheaval in Northern Ireland have not stopped the flow of investment into Belfast from financial and professional services firms, with US banking giant Citigroup and local firm FinTrU among those planning to add hundreds of jobs.

  • Women only: Swiss bank UBS has launched a portfolio called Carmen that invests only in women-led hedge funds in an effort to improve diversity in a traditionally male-dominated sector.

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Today’s Europe Express team:, Follow us on Twitter: @valentinapop, @javierespFT.



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