Gibraltar issues causing a rocky start for Brexit talks
On Friday (31 March) the European Council issued draft negotiating guidelines, which set out the priority to deal first with issues connected to the UK’s divorce before defining its future relationship with the EU. The guidelines contain a specific clause on the status of Gibraltar, stating that a post-Brexit agreement between the EU and the UK must have Spanish approval, effectively giving the Spanish power to veto. This has caused the first major dispute since Article 50 was triggered and revived a long-standing conflict between Spain and the UK.
Gibraltar is a non-self-governing territory under British administration and although its residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, a Spanish proposal for joint sovereignty of Gibraltar was rejected. The harsh British reaction over the Council’s guidelines – for instance former Conservative leader Michael Howard suggested May would be prepared to go to war to protect the territory – led to Alfonso Dastis’, the Spanish Foreign Minister, reaction: “I frankly think that someone in the U.K. is losing his temper, but there’s absolutely no reason for that.” Apart from Gibraltar, the the guidelines include other UK border issues, such as between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Adding to UK’s headache is the European Parliament, whose members had earlier on said that they would play the “bad cop” in the negotiations. The Parliament met this week (5 April) to debate and vote on its Brexit resolution which outlines the “red lines” for the upcoming negotiations. Some MEPs made it very clear that they could veto the final deal, despite not participating directly in the negotiations. For instance, Danuta Hubner, a Polish MEP said that “If the Parliament rejects the deal, there is no deal. What it will say at the end of the process is legally binding.” The resolution urges the UK to honour “all its legal, financial and budgetary obligations” up to and after its withdrawal, and warns that the UK can only begin trade talks with non-EU countries after leaving the bloc, otherwise it will be excluded from EU discussions on trade and other policy areas.
Hungary’s illiberal policies raised concerns
Despite significant domestic and foreign criticisms, the Hungarian government passed a bill on Tuesday (4 April) targeting the Soros-funded university. The Central European University (CEU) is currently accredited in Budapest and New York and will not be able to operate under the new rules. Critics have described the move as an attack on academic independence and it has caused days of protests in Budapest. However, the government insists that the new measures are a “fight for national sovereignty.”
The move against the CEU is just one example of the Hungarian government’s pressure on civil society and crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs, which some critics see as a further sign of deterioration of democracy and political freedom in Hungary. “Foreign-funded is equated with anti-Hungarian,” Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, stated.
Another example of this illiberal tilt and challenge to European values is the attack of Prime Minister Orban on the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). He used the annual congress of the European People’s Party (EPP – of which his Fidesz party is a member) to say that the ECHR’s judgments are a “threat to the security of EU people and invitation for migrants”. A few days after his return from Rome and signing the Rome Declaration which contains promises to promote values such as peace, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the government launched a campaign called “Let’s stop Brussels”. All Hungarian citizens are being sent a survey containing questions asking citizens “what Hungary should do” about EU policies that threaten Hungarian independence.
Hungarian actions, particularly its attack on the CEU has led to debates in the European Parliament. The EPP’s leader in Parliament, Manfred Weber tweeted: “Freedom of thinking, research and speech are essential for our European identity. EPP group will defend this at any cost.” He also called on the Commission to assess the law against the CEU. There was also call on EPP by some leftist MEPs to expel Fidesz MEPs from the political group. One went as far as to call for the expulsion of Hungary from the EU.
Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Finland
Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Finland on 4-6 April. The visit took place on the occasion of the centenary of Finland’s independence and was also Xi’s first state visit to Northern Europe. (To know more about China-Finland relations, click here for an interactive factsheet prepared by China Daily.)
During the visit, the two countries pledged to strengthen ties and deepen cooperation in an attempt to build “a future-oriented new-type cooperative partnership”. In addition to promoting connectivity, trade and investment within the framework of the Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative, China and Finland agreed to step up exchanges between their governments, legislative bodies, judiciary authorities and political parties to cement closer political ties.
In his signed article entitled “Our Enduring Friendship” that was published by Helsinki Times on Monday (3 Apr), Xi engaged in a friendly dialogue with the Finnish people, paying tribute to Finland’s unique “sisu” spirit that is embodied in scenic and unspoiled lakes and forests, the development philosophy that values diligence and innovation, and the kind and honest people.
After leaving Finland, Xi will meet US President Donald Trump in Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Bloomberg accordingly tied Xi’s Nordic stopover to a well-conceived Chinese foreign strategy. On the economic front, the trip to Finland shows that Europe is still important in terms of economic affairs, especially given that Trump espouses “America First” policy. On the diplomatic side, China counters Trump’s calls for a breakup of the EU following Brexit, by expressedly throwing its weight behind what would soon become the 27-nation bloc.
French President Francois Hollande visits Indonesia
French President Francois Hollande visited Indonesia on 29 March, and it was the first state visit by a French president in the past three decades. Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Hollande witnessed the signing of five memorandums of understanding covering defence, sustainable urban development, research, technology and tourism. Notably the French delegation also signed $2.6 billion worth of investment commitments in three sectors: energy ($1 billion), infrastructure, transport and tourism ($1.1 billion), and in the retail sector ($500 million).
However, some commentators like Julia Suryakusuma argue that the French-Indonesian ties are not defined solely by business and security cooperation; rather there is also a cultural dimension to their bilateral relations. Suryakusuma, writing for the Jakarta Post, recalled her experiences at a cultural event organised by a French international school. Instead of presenting French dances, Suryakusuma noted that the show consisted of Sundanese dances as well as pencak silat, the traditional Indonesian martial art. In order to prepare for the performances, 60 pupils went to Jelekong, learning painting techniques, practicing pencak silat and jaipong, and eating Sundanese food while sitting on the floor. Amazed by the immense cultural immersion during and before the event, Suryakusuma hoped that Hollande’s visit could stimulate more art and cultural exchanges between the two countries, not least because deepening cultural understanding could “be one of the ways to combat terrorism”.
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