Summit in Malta
The leaders of the 28 EU member states came together in Valletta, Malta, last week Friday (3 Feb) for an informal summit. All 28 leaders agreed on measures to curb the flow of irregular migrants from Libya to Italy (the Malta Declaration), mainly through cooperation with the Libyan authorities. The Central Mediterranean route is currently the main gateway to Europe, with about 180,000 arrivals in 2016. Leaders in Malta decided to train, equip and support Libyan coastguards to stop people smugglers and increase search and rescue operations. The EU will work together with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). “We have decided to support member states’ bilateral activities directly engaged with Libya,” Tusk said, welcoming the Memorandum of Understanding signed the day before by the Italian and Libyan Prime Ministers. High Representative Federica Mogherini stressed that the “European approach is based on partnership. We don’t believe in walls or bans.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the EU aims to do deals with Jordan and Lebanon, similar to the EU-Turkey deal, in order to stem the flow of irregular migrants. However, Libyan authorities have voiced their concerns over the EU’s plans, labelling them as “unacceptable”. They would rather welcome assistance aimed at creating jobs and tackle day-to-day issues. It is unclear how the EU can proceed with the implementation of the proposed partnership between Libya and the EU/Italy when there is opposition from the local Libyan authorities.
The second official part of the summit contained of the preparations for the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. The 27 heads of state – the UK did not participate in this part of the summit – reflected on the political future of the EU27. However, before that Theresa May briefed the other leaders to work “patiently and constructively” with the US, describing the UK as a bridge between Europe and the US. Many leaders indicated that they do not need advice about foreign policy. For instance, the French President François Hollande said: “The UK cannot represent the US. It is Europe that must determine its relation with the US.” Also Angela Merkel was very clear when she stated: “We, as the 27, have it in our own hands to determine how strong, how good, how quick and how precise Europe is and how we solve our problems.” Dalia Grybauskaitė, the Lithuanian President, did not mince her words, when she said that she did not see any necessity of bridges, and continued: “Today we are communicating with the United States mainly on Twitter.”
The Refugee and Migration Crisis
European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans criticised the EU member states for not meeting their goals regarding the relocation of – mainly Syrian – refugees from Greece and Italy until September 2017. So far only 12,000 of 160,000 have been relocated. Timmermans threatened to sue countries, if they break the rules, namely Austria, Denmark, Hungary and Poland, which have not accepted a single refugee until now. They might face being sanctioned via infringement procedures. Timmermans asked for more burden-sharing actions from member states: “If some believe that you can have a sustainable migration policy just by better border controls, just by looking at the situation in countries of origin, just by fighting smuggler rings – they are misguided.”
Member states such as Hungary, however, remained defiant. Earlier this week, it was announced that the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will introduce measures to hold immigrants in detention “shelters” for indefinite time, in order to stop them traveling freely within Hungary and the Schengen area. The proposal suggests that asylum seekers will be kept in government camps until their legal status has been resolved. The planned measures were harshly criticised by Human Rights Watch: “Blanket detention of asylum seekers goes against Hungary’s obligations under the Refugee Convention and EU law. [...] There are clear cut criteria where detention may be used. It should always be decided on a case-by-case basis and never as a general measure.” Observers are worried about the living conditions in the camps, since journalists will be barred from visiting them.
Contrary to the Hungarian developments, Sweden has received its fair share of migrants. The Swedish government has, however, been criticised in an article by its National Audit Office, for mishandling the refugee crisis in 2015. The agency highlighted failures in the training and social housing allocation. However, the article closes on a positive note, stating that “lessons must be learned to ensure efficiency.”
European Economy steadily improving
The European economy is doing better than expected. However, the latest Eurobarometer survey showed that worries like immigration and terrorism are still dominating and that the Euro remains a scapegoat for the challenges the EU is facing. “Growth is not enough to beat populism,” ING economist Brzeski said. Nevertheless, in 2016 the GDP in the eurozone was up by 1.7 percent (compared to 1.6 percent in the US). But the lack of a passionate advocate for the currency union contributes to growing populism. Other analysts say that it will take time for economic indicators to filter through to voters. Barclay economist Philippe Gudin commented on the necessary changes in order to secure more support from mainstream politics: “There needs to be more political ownership. Either we will strengthen Europe, or it will fall apart.”
As a sign of growing confidence with regards to the European economy, during this week’s conference of the Committee of the Regions (7th Feb), investors and the banking community agreed to put €1 billion into the modernisation and digitalisation of Europe. The aim is to build a smarter and more sustainable Europe. According to Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and social theorist, those measures are essential in order to combat climate change and create jobs. He further highlighted that other countries, including China, have been watching the smart Europe initiative closely.
When Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), spoke at the European Parliament during the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs (ECON) on Monday (6th Feb), he dismissed renewed talks about some member countries dropping the Euro. He stressed that the Euro was “irrevocable”. He further warned of a relaxation of rules for banks, saying that this was “the last thing we need”, despite acknowledging that the eurozone’s economy is improving.
Protests in Romania over anti-corruption reforms
Romania saw its biggest protests since the 1989 revolution, sparked by a controversial anti-corruption decree pushed through by the Social Democratic government on 31st January.
The decree which was aimed at decriminalising corruptions offences when sums of less than €44,000 were involved has been scrapped in the meanwhile – as a result of the protests. It sparked such outrage with half a million people taking to the streets angered by what was seen as an attempt by the government to pardon many of its own people, and also for the lack of consultation and transparency in introducing the decree without debate. The Romanian President Klaus Iohannis also accused the government of ignoring the rule of law. The Government however survived the protest and said a revised bill will be put to Parliament. “I don’t want and I don’t wish to break Romania apart,” Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu said on Saturday night.
This incident was also criticised by a number of western governments. The European Commission said in a statement: “The fight against corruption needs to be advanced, not undone. We are following the latest developments in Romania with great concern.” Romania has been monitored by the European Commission since it joined the EU a decade ago but it has been praised in recent years for efforts in tackling corruption. However, latest developments threaten to undermine that progress. Since the repeal of the decree, protests have not subsided, as many do not trust the government and fear that the new legislation might contain some of the same elements in a different form. In an interview with Euractiv political analyst Octavian Milewski went even as far as to label current protests as a “second democratic revolution”. Protests are continuing also because the government rejects calls to resign.
Working together against anti-globalisation sentiments
China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency on Monday (6 Feb) rebuked President of the European Council Donald Tusk for his comments on China being one of the key external threats to Europe, alongside Russia, radical Islam and the Trump administration. (Tusk made those remarks in an open letter to the 27 EU heads of state or government on the future of the EU before the Malta summit.) Xinhua said the accusation was “groundless as well as outrageous” given that “China’s development provides an enormous opportunity for Europe and [that] both sides benefit from strong and stable bilateral ties.”
On one hand, Xinhua believed that stronger trade links with China can boost Europe’s “fragile economy” at a time when “rising threat of protectionism and uncertainty in relations with other major world powers” have dampened Europe’s growth prospect. Data shows that in the first ten months of 2016, bilateral trade increased to a new high despite global downturns. On the other hand, China and Europe have a track record of working closely on global governance (e.g. ratifying the Paris Accord) and security issues such as facilitating peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
All these, Xinhua asserted, prove that “China is a partner to the European Union”. The editorial concluded by warning that “biased views” expressed by senior European politicians will not do any good to “the friendship and mutual trust built over the [past] 42 years.”
Complementing this view that the EU and China could work more closely together, the two sides have vowed to fight against protectionism. Another Xinhua news report quoted EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom as saying “If rising protectionism from elsewhere is a threat to the Chinese economy, we stand ready to engage and fight against it together”. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang on Tuesday (7 Feb) welcomed her remarks and said China would make joint efforts with the EU to safeguard the open and free multilateral trading system.
The EU on the following day announced that “anti-dumping” duties on Chinese solar panels will phase out in 18 months. The EU imposed the duties in 2013 after European panel manufacturers complained they were being forced out of business by “under-priced” Chinese imports. The duties almost triggered a trade war as China resorted to tit-for-tat tactics by launching anti-dumping and anti-subsidy investigations focusing on solar-grade polysilicon, a key component of solar panels, from the EU.
In another commentary against anti-globalisation sentiments in the Global Times (7 Feb), an anonymous Chinese commentator going by the name of Ai Jun (a homonym for “love the army” chided France for turning its back on foreigners and globalisation. Entitled “France cannot restore greatness by closing its doors” Ai Jun contrasted the past glory of France with the current dire economic situations. France used to produce the world’s fastest high-speed trains, the world’s first supersonic passenger plane, and the most advanced nuclear power plant. Yet, it is suffering from 10 per cent unemployment rate, over 3 per cent budget deficit, about €60 billion ($81.60 billion) of trade deficit and a ballooning public debt.
Ai Jun explained that it is the anti-globalisation rhetoric and “political correctness” to blame as they have taken a toll on France’s “creativity, imagination and tolerance to diversity” that had long underpinned its greatness. The author then defended globalisation and called on the French authority to undertake necessary economic reforms to “make France great again”.
US, EU should establish dialogue to address legitimate concerns, says Times of India
Commenting on the recent spats between the US and EU, the Times of India (TOI) published an editorial on Monday (6 Feb) calling on the two sides to establish an official dialogue to address each other’s “legitimate concerns”.
The TOI firstly acknowledged that Europe was offended by President Trump’s travel ban which risks “creat[ing] a generalised hatred of the West in Muslim countries”. Trump’s moves to call NATO an obsolete organization with many countries free riding on US military spending, and to question the EU’s sanctions over Russia, also irritated European leaders.
That said, the TOI opined that Europe should not boycott the recently inaugurated US president or advocate “a path of confrontation” by making “inflammatory proposals” such as barring him from making state visits. This is because the TOI felt that there are some elements of truth in Trump’s views on European affairs and, therefore, his arguments “must be taken seriously”. For example, the newspaper found it rather ironic to hear French President François Hollande talking about the “indispensability” of NATO when “France stayed out of the alliance for most of its history”.
On that account, the TOI suggested Europe to establish a dialogue with the US, while “being open to accommodating Trump’s concerns.”
As the first step to address transatlantic disunity, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, travelled to Washington on Thursday (9 Feb) to “identify common ground” on such issues as climate change, Syria, Libya, Ukraine and the Middle East Process with the inner circle of the new US administration. US Vice-President Mike Pence will also visit the EU institutions after he attends the Munich Security Conference (17-19 Feb).
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