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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 1 Dec 2017

posted by eucentresg


Thorny issues around migration top priority at EU-Africa summit
On Wednesday (29 Nov) the fifth summit between officials of the European Union (EU) 28 and African Union (AU) 55 kick-started in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The two-day summit is titled “Investing in youth for a sustainable future” – youth as a key priority as 60% of the African population is under the age of 25. Nevertheless, the proverbial elephant in the room is still colonialism, which has left a deep and difficult legacy. Against the backdrop of challenges around migration and terrorism, which have both fuelled a rise in populism across Europe, the summit is seen as potential turning point for broader and deeper ties between the EU and AU. France and Germany are expected to join forces, on the issue of migration agreements with African countries.

However, there are other issues at stake. States, in particular China, are competing for influence in the continent. The country plays a growing role in aid, investment and security. This led European Parliament President Antonio Tajani to urge the EU that “Before it’s too late, we need a radical change that puts the African continent on top of the EU’s political agenda.” To demonstrate its commitment, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, last week (23 Nov) announced an investment plan for Africa, which could raise a minimum of €44 billion in private cash by 2020.

Nevertheless, some experts are more cautious on the prospects of EU ties with Africa. According to Geert Laporte, deputy director of the European Centre for Development Policy Management think tank, deep-rooted reasons for the mistrust between the two blocs, such as weak African institutions, incoherent EU foreign policy and the colonial past, have never been addressed. “I recognise the same … hollow wordings of mutual trust and comprehensive partnership.”

And although the official agenda includes a whole range of topics such as economy, trade, security and human rights, the thorny issue of migration from Africa to Europe is expected to dominate the summit. The EU is already cooperating with African transit countries and countries of origin. The migration pressure has increased significantly due to strong population growth, mismanagement in some African states and climate change. “You don’t solve a problem by tackling its consequences. You have to resolve it at the roots, with the causes — and that’s what we’re working on in our partnership [with the EU], on development, investment, training, peacekeeping, governance — so we improve the living conditions of people and don’t have phenomena like this,” said AU Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat during a visit to Brussels last week. An op-ed by Elissa Jobson in Politico pointed out that “Europe’s panic over migration alienated many of its African partners, but it also offers them a rare opportunity for closer cooperation.”

Recent revelations of migrant slave markets in Libya threatened to overshadow the summit. Libya is the main transit country for people who cross the Mediterranean in order to reach European shores, and around 10,000 people have died since 2015 in their effort to do so. “We absolutely have to redouble efforts to re-establish order in Libya because now we have a situation where there is no state and therefore no rule of law,” highlighted Mahamat. As a first step to tackle the situation in Libya, EU and AU leaders announced on Wednesday (29 Nov) plans to implement an emergency evacuation operation of migrants who are threatened by human traffickers in Libya.

The increasingly dire situation in Libya has also led to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to call for “legal ways” for migrants to reach Europe. He pointed out in an interview on Tuesday (28 Nov) that Europe “will clearly need immigration in the coming decades.”

Also ahead of the summit, the Italian interior ministry announced on Tuesday to beef up its efforts to boost the Libyan coast guard – in cooperation with the EU. The plan will cost €285 million and cover the period until 2023. It aims to create operational centres in Libya to “help search and rescue operations at sea” and to improve coordination between the Libyan and Italian coastguard. However, the EU and Italian efforts have been criticised by human rights advocates, given that people rescued at sea are returned to Libya where they often face dire conditions, including slavery.


Glyphosate row jeopardising grand coalition talks in Germany
Talks to form a so called grand coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD) and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) are set to commence on Thursday (30 November), when the party leaders are scheduled to meet with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (formerly SPD, and foreign minister under Merkel). After the coalition talks between the CDU, the Liberals (FDP) and the Greens collapsed, Martin Schulz, the leader of the SPD, initially ruled out another grand coalition, but at the end of last week he budged from his position and indicated his party was open to talks. Germany has had a grand coalition for the past four years, but the SPD suffered huge losses in the national elections in September this year, which led Schulz to profess that the SPD could only regain its support by being in opposition.

Financial markets and European politicians were relieved after it became clear that another grand coalition is being explored. However, with the holidays around the corner, formal talks are unlikely to begin until January, further delaying French President Macron’s reform plans of the EU for which Germany’s support is seen as crucial.

But before the “exploratory talks” between the SPD and CDU even started, the renewal of glyphosate sowed mistrust between the two sides. On Monday (27 Nov) German Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt of the CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister party) voted in Brussels to approve the extension of the controversial pesticide by five years, reversing the earlier abstention of Germany. Deutsche Welle saw Schmidt’s move sceptical: “Caretaker governments such as the one in charge of Germany at present traditionally do not reverse policies of their predecessors.” Diplomats are saying that the key swing vote came from Germany, otherwise there would have not been the necessary (qualified) majority for a five year renewal. However, Merkel said that the Schmidt’s behaviour “didn’t reflect the instruction that the government agreed.” Schmidt’s move obviously angered the SPD, which has been strongly against an extension of glyphosate, causing bad blood between the parties. SPD parliamentary leader Andrea Nahles accused the CDU of a “massive breach of trust”, while Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks (SPD) said that her ministry had not agreed to the extension, accusing Schmidt of overstepping his authority in acting alone.

But Germany’s U-turn is also having an impact on other EU member states. Or as Parliamentary chief of the German Greens, Anton Hofreiter, said: “Yesterday’s decision was not only an affront to millions of people but also against Germany’s most important EU partner: Macron.” While northern and eastern European countries largely voted in favour of a renewal of the glyphosate license, France and Italy blocked it. After more than two years of fierce political debate over whether the pesticide is carcinogenic and harmful to the soil, the EU vote also triggered an immediate backlash from Paris and Rome. Both announced that they will still ban glyphosate over the next three years.


Irish border replaces divorce bill as the key obstacle in Brexit talks
In a bid to unblock the Brexit negotiations ahead of the European Council summit in Brussels early next month, the UK has offered a larger potential “divorce bill” to the EU – which could be more than €50 billion (£44 billion). But London insists that the offer is conditional on a final deal on future trading relations being agreed. It means that should the next round of negotiations break down in acrimony, any “deal” on money agreed this week could still be torn up. The strings attached to the expanded financial offer do not, however, allay the concerns of Eurosceptics and diehard Brexiteers who believe that Theresa May has given too much. Cricitising the UK government for “dancing to the tune of the European Commission” in the Brexit negotiations, prominent Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg demanded to see an itemised bill (plus a guarantee that the UK would not pay up unless the EU granted it a trade deal).

With this markedly more generous Brexit bill offer and two sides within “touching distance” of each other on the issue of citizens’ rights, Brexit negotiations look set to enter phase 2 that centres on hammering out a post-Brexit trade deal between the EU and the UK. However, the third issue – which had been somewhat overshadowed by the acrimonious discussions on the size of the Brexit bill but could actually prove much more contentious – the Irish border emerged as the obstacle to a breakthrough in the upcoming EU summit.

The UK government has since day one made it clear that there cannot be any border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. This stance implicitly means that if there is a border between post-Brexit UK and the EU, it will lie between the two Irelands – the British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Tensions between Dublin and London have been ratcheted up in the past few weeks culminating in Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar last week publicly threatening to block Brexit talks unless the UK adequately addresses Ireland’s concerns about the re-imposition of a hard border with Northern Ireland. Dublin outlined 5 key Brexit demands for it to back phase 2 of Brexit negotiations. The first commitment demanded by the Irish is a written assurance that there will not be regulatory divergence “in EU-related matters such as to require a hard border”. The second — closely linked — red line for Dublin is that there is a written commitment to avoid “customs complications” and “customs divergence” between Northern Ireland and Ireland. A third commitment sought by Dublin is for the UK to guarantee nothing is done which might damage the Good Friday agreement. Fourth, Dublin wants a binding commitment to maintain the common travel area between the UK and Ireland. The Irish government’s fifth demand is that it wants a guarantee that discussions over specific border issues will continue after phase one and not just be subsumed into the UK-EU talks on the future relationship. So far, the rest of the EU27 have been resolute in their support for Ireland, citing its “unique” position with respect to Brexit. Pro-independence Northern Irish party Sinn Féin also backs Dublin, warning that an increase in security on the Irish border could lead to acts of “civil disobedience”.

Apart from the thorny Irish border issue that cast a shadow over Brexit talks, the EU-UK relationship is recently soured by disputes over the UK’s commitment to the security of Europe. Speaking at a security conference in Berlin on Wednesday (29 Nov), the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier likened the Brexit referendum, which took place six months after France called for solidarity in the fight against IS, as a British decision to not stand “shoulder to shoulder with the Union”. Therefore, the UK will lose “levers for wielding influence” over European security, as “the logical consequence of the sovereign choice made by the British”. Specifically, the UK will not continue to participate in the EU’s ambassador-level political and security committee (PSC). No UK ambassador will be sitting on the PSC and that the British defence secretary would no longer take part in EU defence minister meetings. The UK will also be unable to take command of EU-led operations or lead EU battle groups, nor could it be a member of the European Defence Agency or Europol.

Expectedly, Barnier’s claims provoked fury in Whitehall. In response, Theresa May’s official spokesman highlighted “the leading role Britain has played and continues to play in combatting Daesh…The Prime Minister has been absolutely clear in her commitment to the ongoing security of Europe and of the European Union and her determination to continue cooperating with the EU, sharing information and standing together against IS and terrorism in all its forms.”

As Brexit date draws nearer, the UK is making plans for its economic development post-Brexit, starting with attracting more trade and investment from China and embracing Belt and Road Initiative. Bilateral trade in goods and services hit £59.1 billion last year, up 8.9 percent on 2015. In the same year, China invested $11.15 billion (£8.4 billion) into the UK. A good way to take bilateral trade to a new height is to sign free trade agreement, but it seems that the UK needs to build up some negotiating experience first for the country has not had an independent trade policy for decades.


China-CEE Summit rattles the EU
The 16+1 summit of Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries and China took place on Monday (27 Nov) in Budapest. Conceived in 2011, the 16+1 mechanism now includes China, 11 EU members: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and five EU hopefuls: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Apart from adopting the so-called “The Budapest Guidelines for Cooperation”, the two-day economic summit saw the launch of several investment projects, including most notably a 350km high-speed rail line from Belgrade to Budapest. Currently, the journey between the Serbian and Hungarian capitals by rail takes eight hours. The planned railway would allow passengers and cargo to travel up to 200 kilometers per hour, cutting travel time to less than three hours.

The flagship railway project has created tensions within Europe even before construction began on Tuesday (28 Nov). Originally set to start in 2015, the project was delayed because the EU probe looked into whether it follows the EU’s procurement rules, which stipulate that public tenders must be offered for large infrastructure projects. The Commission apparently fears that its members may cease to respect EU rules when competing for investment from, say, China. (Conversely, the constraints of EU rules partly explain why China has had more success in Western Balkan countries like Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where EU regulations are not applicable.) More significantly, for some CEE countries like Hungary, Beijing is a potential source not only of capital but of political leverage that could play to their advantage as their relationship with EU institutions become more tense. And to the extent that the project is expected to become the main gateway for Chinese goods shipped to Europe via the Greek port of Piraeus, big ports of the north like Rotterdam and Hamburg could end up losing a lot of trade volume.

While Brussels viewed the summit with suspicion and occasionally characterising it as a “seduce and divide” strategy, Chinese officials and scholars have been tirelessly banging the drum for the event. Chinese ambassador to the EU Zhang Ming wrote an open letter in EU Observer, arguing that Chinese invest in and engage with CEE countries because the region connects Asia and Europe and is where China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the EU’s Investment Plan can meet. In a similarly sanguine tone, China’s Xinhua News Agency ran an editorial calling for a “less anxious, more active” EU that can participate constructively in the “win-win” 16+1 mechanism. The editorial also stressed the significance of China-CEE cooperation for the EU, not least in terms of addressing the development gap between Western and Central and Eastern Europe.

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