Hello and welcome to Europe Express! Every Thursday will profile a person you should keep an eye on. Today, we’re looking at EU top civil servant Céline Gauer, the official in charge of policing national recovery plans.

We will also update you on the all-consuming Madrid electoral campaign in the run-up to next week’s regional elections, death threats and mailed bullets included. And we will hear from Russia, where Putin-critic Alexei Navalny will make an appearance in court for the first time since he arrived at a prison colony.

Brussels has much to prove when it comes to policing the recovery fund cash that will start flowing this year, write FT Brussels bureau chief Sam Fleming and EU correspondent Mehreen Khan. The credibility of the effort will rest in part on the shoulders of Céline Gauer, the European Commission’s Next Generation EU enforcer.

The French civil servant leads the task force within the commission’s secretariat-general that will oversee the rollout of the recovery and resilience plans, which member states are in the midst of submitting.

The creation of the task force after the leaders’ recovery fund deal last summer was in part an attempt to alleviate concerns among some northern European member states about the commission’s patchy record of extracting economic reforms from member states.

National leaders including Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte were particularly worried the commission would be too soft as it doled out hundreds of billions of euros of EU taxpayer money.

It will fall on Gauer and her colleagues to prove them wrong. Her career in Brussels was marked by a long stint as a competition and antitrust official in a variety of roles from 1995-2018, when she won plaudits for antitrust cases in the energy field, before she joined the commission’s secretariat-general.

Gauer has a reputation as a tough interlocutor, with one official describing her as “not suffering fools” while praising her as an “exceptional” bureaucrat. Her hard-hitting approach to talks with EU capitals has won her admirers among northern member states.

One EU diplomat said approvingly that Gauer and her team had been “cracking the whip” in dialogue with member states, which are twinning requests for EU investment funding with reforms to procurement practices, labour markets and tax collection systems.

Martin Selmayr, the former secretary-general of the commission and now EU ambassador to Austria, recalled that he had recruited Gauer to be his deputy in 2018 after being impressed by her performance defending commission policy before a French Senate hearing.

Gauer’s Recovery and Resilience Task Force is working alongside top officials from the commission’s economic directorate-general, led by Maarten Verwey, to assess the quality of member states’ recovery plans — and to police how the money is spent in the coming years.

Their early focus has included demanding highly detailed timetables of milestones and targets to be annexed to EU capitals’ spending plans, making it easier to assess whether member states are delivering on reforms as tranches of recovery fund cash are paid out twice a year.

But it will be hard for the commission to maintain the programme’s credibility over the half-decade in which the recovery plan will roll out.

Governments will fall, legislative timetables will slip, investment projects will go awry and recovery fund cash could go missing. Any decisions by the commission to freeze payouts to member state would incite ferocious political backlash.

The EU has long struggled to police how its money is spent. Gauer and her colleagues face an uphill battle trying to prove this time will be different.

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Madrid is a few days away from a crucial regional vote that resembles a general election and has overshadowed just about everything else, writes our correspondent in the Spanish capital, Daniel Dombey.

Cast into the shade are issues as momentous as Spain’s plan to spend €70bn in grants from the EU recovery package, which was approved by ministers on Tuesday, and the imminent end of the country’s coronavirus emergency rules.

The May 4 election matters because Madrid is Spain’s most powerful and prosperous region, and because the result could throw a lifeline to the opposition People’s party, which has struggled since recording its worst-ever results in 2019 and in a Catalonia regional vote in February.

According to polls, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the outspoken Madrid boss, is on track to all but double the PP’s vote after a turbulent year in which she has sought to soften coronavirus restrictions and accused the national government of strangling the region’s economic success. But she is not certain of gaining enough support to govern without the far-right Vox party.

The tense atmosphere surrounding the race is unlike anything Madrid has experienced recently. Letters containing anonymous death threats — and bullets — have been sent to Pablo Iglesias, Díaz Ayuso’s radical-left counter-candidate and Spain’s former deputy prime minister, as well as to the country’s interior minister and the head of the police. This week, authorities in Catalonia intercepted a letter to Díaz Ayuso also containing bullets.

At a campaign stop on Tuesday, she suggested that tempers will cool after polling day. But the polarisation that has hobbled Spain’s coronavirus response — and which could complicate effective use of the recovery funds — is unlikely to abate.

Jailed Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny will appear in court today — at least virtually — in an appeal against his conviction for defaming a second world war veteran, writes FT Moscow bureau chief Henry Foy.

His appearance will be the first since he arrived at a prison colony infamous for its mistreatment of inmates. He has suffered from chronic back and leg pain, been woken up throughout the night by his guards and gone on a three-week hunger strike to demand access to doctors of his choice.

Navalny, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic and political opponent, was jailed for two-and-a-half years for breaking the terms of a previous suspended sentence. Prosecutors said that his emergency evacuation to Germany in August while in a coma after being poisoned by a Soviet-era weapons-grade nerve agent amounted to breaking his probation.

Today’s hearing will revolve around Navalny’s criticism of a pro-Putin advert, which featured a number of Russians reading the country’s constitution. One, a second world war veteran, sued the activist, though his performance in court suggested the case wasn’t wholly his idea.

Suffice to say, there is little chance Navalny will overturn the conviction, and the Rbs850,000 ($11,000) fine. But the opposition activist has a habit of turning court appearances into impromptu political rallies against Putin’s regime.