The EU unveils Asia-Europe connectivity plan amidst geo-economic competition
In an earlier EUC commentary, we argued that the EU did not have a concrete geo-economic strategy to compete with other world powers for influence. Yet, the EU on Wednesday (19 Sep) launched its vision on how to better connect Europe and Asia The vision aimed at bringing “the European way” to increase transport, energy, digital and human connectivity with Asia, on the basis of a rules-based, multilateral approach. The emphasis on “the European way” of strengthening connectivity led to speculation that the plan is a belated response to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which builds infrastructure across the Afro-Eurasian continent in “the Chinese way”. (Critics of Beijing have accused China for loading countries with debt or offering poor value for money under the BRI.)
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, however, denied that the EU plan was a reaction to BRI or any other international initiative, “be it in Beijing, Washington, Moscow or Timbuktu”. She explained that the reasons for unveiling the connectivity proposals included the need to step up engagement with Asia in accordance with the 2016 EU Global Strategy and to respond to, international calls for “a sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based approach to connectivity”.
Critics said the EU plan was too cautious and unrealistic. The money Brussels would invest on the plan will be up to €60 billion whereas Beijing is willing to back the BRI will trillions of dollars thanks to its enormous foreign reserve. One unnamed diplomat told Financial Times that the EU plan was “more of a status report and it completely lacks an attractive narrative”. In the case of BRI, China has promoted it with historical resonance and contemporary policy priorities in terms of achieving the “Chinese Dream” and regional joint development. Proponents of the EU plan, on the other hand, stressed that it was not meant to set Brussels and Beijing in opposition but with a view to possibly co-operating with China and influencing its approach in areas such as environmental standards and tendering practices.
The new EU proposals come weeks before the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on 18-19 October in Brussels. Ms Mogherini confirmed that this connectivity plan would be at the centre of the work in October, a “very Asia-oriented month”, and that she hoped that before the summit, EU foreign ministers would approve the strategy. The approval may, however, not be a straightforward process because of divisions within the EU. Currently 11 EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe are participating in a China-led 16+1 forum; and the US President Donald Trump wrote on Monday (17 Sep) reaffirming Washington’s support for increased connectivity in Eastern Europe and improved ties between the region and the US. As Beijing and Washington compete for influence in this part of Europe, the risk of EU being divided by outside powers should not be underestimated.
Low Expectations for outcome of summit in Salzburg, as bitter disagreements over migration ensue
The agenda for the European Council meeting in Salzburg on Thursday and Friday (20-21 September) includes Brexit, internal security, and immigration.
Brexit discussions are still underway. The EU promised Ireland with a “safety net”, pushing to avoid a re-establishment of border control between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
On migration, it is also expected that the EU will determine new “hotspots” for migrants, distributed among the countries of migrants’ first entry. The last European Council in June had mentioned the idea of establishing refugee camps in third countries, but some leaders reacted negatively to the notion of outsourcing refugee management to undemocratic countries. The Dublin II Regulation which safeguards EU asylum roles and procedures will also be discussed, with the possibility of revision. Due to ongoing divides and tensions, European heads of state are beginning to lose hope that the summit will bring them closer to a consensus on the various issues.
In view of the bitter disagreements among EU countries over migration, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, has expressed that North African countries cannot be expected to act on issues of migration when the EU itself is still unable to solidify a plan for migrant processing. Cochetel also explained that most North African countries already had some mechanisms in place for migrants intercepted or rescued at sea, but the EU’s cooperation is required in order to create a genuine international network.
UK stays firm on Brexit Chequers deal as EU seeks to improve Irish sea proposal
The EU and the UK have come to a shared understanding of how to reach a Brexit deal, which is to be decided in a soon-to-be-arranged November summit. While there are still issues to be dealt with, such as the UK border with Ireland, and the timetable could be extended further, diplomats on both sides are looking to push forward the deal before critics can nitpick it. The withdrawal treaty is reportedly 80 to 95 percent complete and the remaining negotiations will focus on “a political declaration” that will decide the future framework for EU-Britain relationship.
Negotiators on both sides have agreed on the need for a future “political joint committee” with officials from both sides helping to stem possible disagreements. Britain’s Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has said the UK has “made compromise” and “shown ambition”, and thus, he said the ball is now in the EU’s court. He says the UK will not agree to a customs border in the Irish sea, pointing to the “backstop provision” pushed forth by Ireland and the EU. This would entail the checking of goods coming into Northern Ireland from the UK but EU chief negotiator. Michel Barnier has said in a noted conciliatory tone that “we are ready to improve this proposal”.
One proposed way is to invisibilize the sea border by using technology to “de-dramatised customs checks”. Barnier hopes that by using technological means to enforce control checks without a spatial border, a solution could be in sight.
Prime Minister Theresa May, is sticking strongly to her Chequers plan in a deal or no deal stance despite detractors from her own government. She said it was the only model which will unify the nation and not enforce a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Amidst the call for a second people’s referendum by London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to reconsider leaving, and only contingent support for the Chequers plan within the Parliament, Theresa May still insisted that “We are leaving on March 29”.
Poland suspended from EU judiciary for violating rule of law; Trump backs Poland as Three Seas Initiative kicks off
On Monday, 17 Sep, Poland was suspended from EU judicial organization as the European Network of Councils for the Judiciary (ENCJ) declared that The Polish Judicial Council (KRS) is no longer seen to be independent from political influence. This decision came in the wake of controversial government reforms in July by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which came into power in 2015. These recent judicial reforms lowers the retirement age for Supreme Court Justices and would result possibly in the forced retirement of judges. In addition, the reforms also give too much power to the Polish president on deciding the terms of the judges, and is seen by the EU to undermine rule of law.
The defence by Poland’s right-wing led government, which argues that reforms were needed to overhaul the judiciary system after the fall of Communism, did not convince the EU Commission.
Poland also faces Article 7 procedure for these reforms which could cause it to lose voting rights in the Council. President Andrejz Duda has fired at the EU for ignoring Poland’s right to self rule, saying EU is “an illusory community from which there are little results for us”. PiS members echoed the sentiments but expressed no desire to leave the EU. Amidst the disagreements with the EU, Poland is backed by President Trump who claims he supports a US armored division in Poland to ward off Russia. The military base has been requested by Duda since May, who offered up to USD 2 billion to make it happen. This is seen as a potential violation of NATO regulations and provocative towards Russia.
The Three Seas initiative, promoted by Poland and supported by the US, kicked off in Bucharest on Monday (17 Sep) and brought together 12 countries from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. The summit seeks to boost connectivity within the countries and cooperation in energy, transport, environmental protection. EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker also attended the Summit in what is thought to be an attempt to put the pro-American project into an EU perspective.
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