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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 16 Nov 2018

posted by eucentresg

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Germany and France takes a united stance for international peace against USA
On Tuesday (13 Nov), German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered her last speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg and spoke on the future of Europe, highlighting the importance of European unity and common values.

Speaking on migration, Merkel called for strengthening of European institutions in border protection (Frontex) and a common asylum procedure. She warned that individual nations must be willing to give up some “national jurisdiction” in order for common border control to be effective and for Frontex to do their job properly. She also called on EU member states to stand together as a European community to handle migration flows and refugee integration. Merkel also emphasised the need for reforms to the eurozone but left the proposals, seemingly, to France. However, she underscored that economic success forms the basis of Europe’s strength and is essential for the bloc to have a voice in the world.

Speaking after the centennial of the armistice that ended World War I, she echoed the French President’s proclamation that “a true European army” is needed to “defend against China, Russia, and even the USA”. This drew applause as well as booing from European Parliament. The call for a European army has also chafed US president Trump, who has been called out by French President Macron for being a self-proclaimed nationalist. Macron had rebuked Trump by saying that “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism”. Trump tweeted that this was Macron’s attempt to improve his falling approval ratings back home. Merkel’s speech is seen as support for her French counterpart over the US amidst frayed transatlantic ties. It seems that Europe has grown tired of Trump’s increasing protectionism and disregard for international agreements; the last straw being his thinly veiled attempt to draw out of NATO.

Hence, Merkel’s speech emphasized that Europe can no longer “rely on others without reservation” while also pointing out that a European Army will not replace, but complement NATO. While no concrete framework for a common army yet exist, she backed the formation of a European intervention unit and a common arms acquisition policy. The initiative has recently seen Finland joining in as the latest addition and 10th participant.

The Paris Peace Forum, initiated by President Macron, seeks to become an annual gathering to discuss democracy and international cooperation in an environment “somewhere between a trade fair and a think-tank conference”. The forum, which was attended by Russian President Putin and skipped by Trump, aimed to uphold multilateralism and democracy against nationalistic viewpoints. However, discussion on critical issues concerning the middle east and other humanitarian crises were absent and this has led some to question whether it is truly necessary or if it is another echo chamber.

 

Internal clashes within the EU over Romania’s corruption, the Italian budget, and migration
Amidst divisions over migration, budget rules, and challenges resulting from corruption, across Europe, various high-ranking centre-left and left-wing politicians have urged progressive forces to form a pro-EU narrative and unite against those that reject the EU project. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) organised a conference on 11 November, where SPD leader Andrea Nahles propounded the urgent need for a common strategy against right-wing forces in light of the elections next year. She urged progressive forces such as left-wing, socialist, social-democratic and ecological leaders to shape a common strategy, not unlike the coalition governments in Portugal and Spain.

This week European Commission is still in a standoff with Italy over the latter’s 2019 budget. Italy was previously tasked by the EU to redraft its 2019 budgetary plan, which had defied the EU’s fiscal rules. Despite the EU’s threat of sanctions against the country, Italy has decided not to change its budgetary targets. However, the Italian government did include some safeguards to prevent the deficit-to-GDP ratio from exceeding 2.4%, and expressed their intention to sell properties belonging to the state. In response to Rome’s defiant stance, the Commission could launch the excessive deficit procedure (EDP) against Italy as soon as November 21, which consists of strict economic demands. If these demands are still ignored, the Commission may resort to sanctions of up to 0.5% of GDP – amounting to 9 billion euros for Italy.

Concurrently, the European Commission is wrestling with Romania over concerns on corruption. On Tuesday, 13 November, Brussels accused Romania of backsliding in the fight against corruption. This accusation comes at a time when Bucharest is preparing to take over the EU’s rotating presidency. It is also the most scathing critique Romania has received since it joined the EU in 2007. This can partly be attributed to a larger fear on the EU’s part that Bucharest will head down the same path of democratic backsliding as Poland and Hungary. Brussels tasked the Romanian government with appointing a new anti-corruption prosecutor instead of trying to advocate legal changes that would weaken the judiciary’s independence. The attempted judiciary reforms have also sparked protests across the country.

A study by the German Economic Institute noted that support for democracy has fallen in ex-communist Eastern European countries. They explained this decline with a parallel trend of corruption in Eastern Europe almost doubling over the same period. According to them, the increased experiences of corruption in these states undermine the support for democracy. This study captures the essence of the EU’s worry that backsliding on corruption would lead to backsliding on democracy among Romania and its neighbours.

Romania’s neighbour, Bulgaria, has also come under the spotlight. It is the sixth EU country to leave the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Hungary, Austria, Poland, Czech Republic and Croatia have already announced that they would be withdrawing from the deal. Tsvetanov, the leader of the ruling GERB party in Bulgaria, announced on Monday, 12 November, that Bulgaria would not sign the pact so that they can appease protestors at home.

Croatia’s management of migrants has also come under scrutiny. Since early 2018, refugees have been attempting to cross into Croatia through Bosnia-Herzegovina. This border section is monitored by Donji Lapac police officers, who are legally obliged to hand over information and documents if requested by the ombudsman. Croatian ombudswoman Lora Vidović is authorised by parliament to oversee the protection of human rights, but when she visited the police station in Donji Lapac, the officers refused to grant her access to their database. According to Vidović, this is a “complete disregard and circumvention of a number of Croatian laws and international conventions ratified by Croatia”. In October, she presented a scathing report to the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee, but the parliament was reluctant to investigate the issues of police treatment of migrants and evasion of their legal obligations. Faced with no other choice, Vidović intends to raise the issue to a higher level – the Council of Europe and the EU.

On other hand, Turkey has been praised by EU auditors for assisting refugees, but irregularities continue to persist. According to the auditors, the Facility for Refugees in Turkey has largely addressed the needs of refugees swiftly, but there was some difficulty tracking EU funds and beneficiaries. This is due to the refusal by Turkish authorities to disclose information. The EU had previously provided Turkey with 3 billion euros to address the needs of refugees in the area. Auditors also identified other issues such as dissatisfactory municipal infrastructure and socio-economic support.

 

Brexit deal reached remains UK in EU customs union
A Brexit deal was announced on Tuesday(13 Nov) with a draft withdrawal text that was 585 pages long and a much shorter “political declaration” that outlines the future of EU-UK relation. The deal was passed after UK Prime Minister narrowly won the cabinet’s vote on Wednesday.

In this agreement, the transition period, which is set at December 2020, has the potential to be extended indefinitely if given notice by July 2020. On the key issue of the Irish border, “a single customs territory” will be established between UK and EU. Additionally, a customs backstop means that Northern Ireland will be under different regulations than the UK. This would not sit well with Brexiteers or Northern Ireland as it means that Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the country under the backstop and that UK would remain in the customs union.

For Brexiteers, this amounts to being a vassal state and would undermine UK’s freedom to negotiate trade deals with countries like USA and China without being constrained by EU rules. However, PM Theresa May has promised that UK will not be indefinitely tied to the customs union due to a backstop review mechanism that will allow it to leave. On other issues, UK citizens living in the EU27 will not be allowed freedom of movement within the union and the UK will still be subject to the European Court of Justice for any EU law that needs interpreting. However, supporters of the deal say it will only cause “short-term pain” and that Britain will prosper when it is free from the EU.

The Brexit deal also faces negative reception from the public as a Hanbury strategy poll reveals 45 percent of the people think Parliament should reject it. The populace is split three ways amongst those those who want a clean break with the EU, those who want a second referendum, and those who are unsure. The numbers weigh against May as only 15 percent agree it was a good deal while 29 and 27 percent respectively think the deal is a betrayal of the 2016 referendum and that the UK is worse off for the deal than before.

Shortly after the draft deal was made, May faced a series of resignations from her cabinet. The minister formerly in charge of Brexit negotiations, Dominic Raab, and former Work and Pensions Secretary Ester McVey resigned citing what they called a threat to the union in their resignation letters. Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara resigned and published his resignation letter in a tweet saying that the agreement does not do justice to the referendum and leaves the UK in a “half-way house” with an indefinite timeline as to when it will achieve sovereignty. Conservative Party Vice Chairman Rehman Christhi also resigned. On top of these resignations, May is also likely to face a leadership challenge from her party with leading Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg calling her to step aside.

It increasingly looks like May would have a tough time winning parliamentary support for the deal, and there is no clear answer as to what would happen next if she cannot retain enough support to drive her Brexit plan through.

In the meantime, on the EU side, president of EU Council Donald Tusk has confirmed that a special summit will be held on 25 November to finalize the draft agreement. Chief negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, commented there there is a lot more work to be done on both sides. Currently, it is being “scrutinized” by the EU27 ambassadors who will meet by the end of the week to discuss the mandate that will determine the future political relation between UK and EU. The decision is expected to be reached by Tuesday.

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