EU leaders agreed to delay Brexit beyond 29 March
British Prime Minister Theresa May went to Brussels on Thursday (21 May) to seek a delay on Brexit following her failure to get her deal through Parliament twice. In her letter to European Council President, Donald Tusk, May has asked for an extension–until June 30. Her letter also underlined the political complexities and uncertain legislative process with regards to ratifying her deal.
Following much deliberations, the 27 EU leaders reached a unanimous decision to grant the UK a delay until 22nd May if British MPs approve Prime Minister May’s withdrawal deal when it is put to vote for the third time next week. Should the deal again be voted down, the EU will back a shorter delay until 12 April allowing the UK to either “crash out on the 12 April”, seek a longer extension or revoke Article 50. The reason for the 12 April deadline is that this is the date in which the UK would have to indicate whether it would participate in the 2019 European Parliament elections if a longer extension is needed.
Emerging from the long meeting, European Council President Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, in a press conference said “all options remain on the table”, except the re-negotiation of the deal. Mr Juncker added that the Commission “had worked tirelessly to negotiate the withdrawal deal and respond to requests from the UK for further reassurances” on the Irish backstop.
According to a report by Politico, the EU27 unanimous decision was reached only after “tortuous debates”. There were initially “fierce disagreements among the EU27” over how best to respond to May’s extension. The debates went into extra time over dinner, upending the summit agenda which was supposed to have a planned discussion about China and the EU’s place in the world. The Politico report added that Brexit had unfortunately “hijacked the EU’s more substantive policy agenda”.
Following the decision by the EU27, PM May also held a press conference to explain the agreement on the Brexit delay to reporters. During the exchange, she reiterated her opposition to a long delay that would require the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections. She was also against the idea of revoking Article 50 despite the fact that 2 million people have signed a petition to revoke Article 50. She added that she would begin the process of persuading British MPs to back her deal in the third vote.
The EU will gather Thursday (21 March) at their summit dinner in Brussels to discuss heightened defensive strategy against China, possibly indicating an end to the free and easy access that Chinese businesses have enjoyed so far in Europe. This comes a week after Brussels labeled Beijing as a “systemic rival” in a published policy paper that threatens to heightens scrutiny of China’s investments in Europe. EU leaders are widely expected to fold to pressure from Berlin and Paris and approve of a law that will restrict the access of Chinese companies to the EU’s public procurement market.
EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini told reporters after the China-European Union High-Level Strategic Dialogue on Monday (18 March) that she counted on the EU-28’s full backing with regards to the EU’s new stance towards China. “I did not hear any reservations or criticism towards our approach,” she added.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in attendance at the Strategic Dialogue to discuss ways to promote multilateralism and finalise the agenda for the China-EU summit in April. Wang said that China and the EU should continue to strengthen their strategic partnership and communications.
“China-EU relations have maintained a sound momentum of development and cooperation in many areas and have achieved some fruitful outcomes… the two sides also have a consistent position and common aspirations in maintaining multilateralism,” Lu Kang, the foreign ministry spokesman for China, said. The Chinese Foreign Ministry had characterized the visit as a “highlight” of China-Europe diplomacy on Wednesday (20 March).
However, European Commission officials said that Brussels wants the EU member countries to agree to a strategy of “reciprocity” at Thursday’s summit dinner.
“We are fully open,” European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen said of the EU’s economy. “China is not, and it raises lots of questions,” Katainen told Reuters. He made the argument that China can no longer claim special status as a developing country.
This discussion comes just as Chinese President Xi Jinping is slated to visit Monaco, France and Italy to boost ties and garner support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Estimated to cost $900 billion, the BRI is an ambitious global development campaign launched by Xi in 2013. By building immense amounts of new infrastructure to connect countries across the globe, China hopes to stimulate economic growth and trade across Asia, Africa, and Europe through this “21st century silk road.”
Italy is the first G7 country to sign the BRI deal. Rome’s deal with China on trade and infrastructure investment has fuelled objections from Washington as well as Brussels. Although the Italian government is signing a watered-down version of the non-binding Memorandum of Understanding, it nonetheless signifies a “major member of the EU is breaking ranks with the bloc,” Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London said. “Italy’s move… will be very reassuring to some eastern EU members which are much more ready to engage China more on China’s than the wider EU’s terms,” he added.
China has recently pledged greater collaboration with American and European companies on the BRI projects in a bid to counteract criticisms against it for promoting Beijing’s influence at the cost of host countries.
Other high-priority issues expected during the trip include trade and Huawei in relation to the next generation of 5G networks in Europe. Even with pressure from the US, EU member states have not ruled out Huawei from their 5G networks yet. Experts see Xi’s trip to Europe as the “latest sign of Beijing’s courtship of Europe as it searches for allies while dealing with its trade war with the US.”
EU sets vision for Cybersecurity framework and look to ethics for improving AI
EU’s Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel spoke at the 15th year anniversary of the EU’s cybersecurity agency (ENISA) on Tuesday (19 March). Referring to the recent parliamentary adoption of the Cybersecurity Act, which extends ENISA’s mandate and establishes a cybersecurity certification scheme, she said “it is essential that the certification scheme gets off to a good and fast start” as global actors are watching the EU. However, there are still problems with the framework, particularly with regards to spending and the voluntary nature of opting into the scheme. Experts think coordination between member states is crucial to make the scheme effective.
Meanwhile, there are still concerns about the roll out of Chinese 5G network infrastructure which the US claims have severe cybersecurity vulnerabilities. This is precisely why, according to the lead MEP for the cybersecurity file in the European Parliament, Angelika Niebler (EPP), it is a particularly pertinent time to take measures in bolstering cybersecurity. Chinese telecom company Huawei’s response has been to be “part of the solution, not the problem”.
Additionally, the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become a crucial topic as a number of tech giants–six in the US Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, IBM and Apple) and three in China (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) control the communication infrastructure of modern society, along with our data. It is within this context that competition for AI between China, US, and EU is taking place. Washington’s approach as been to let the private sector take the reins on AI research and development. Meanwhile, China has taken a state-driven approach to the AI industry.
Despite Beijing’s clearly stated goals for China to become the world’s leader in AI, Huawei’s chief representative to the EU, Abraham Liu has highlighted Huawei’s intention to contribute to developing AI by reinvesting in AI and working with European developers. By allowing developers to use platforms developed by Huawei, Liu emphasised “a joint effort across the entire value chain” as well as the importance of transparency for sectors such as law and health. He also warned against over-regulation and the need for evidence-based research led by top educational institutions.
However, Europe’s secret weapon against AI competition from China and USA may be relying on ethical guidelines and criteria for transparency to achieve “trustworthy” AI technology.Pekka Ala-Pietilä, who chairs the EU’s high-level expert group on AI sees ethics and competition as being intertwined. This is important because AI, as a deep learning system, gets better the more information it is given; Europe currently has some of the strictest rules in the world for the use of personal data which some feared may hamper developments in AI. However, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel believes ethical guidelines will be enablers of innovation for artificial intelligence and not hold Europeans back.
Ala-Pietilä and her group of 52 experts will be releasing the final version of its broad guidelines for the ethical use of AI in April. Later in the year, a second document listing recommendations for boosting European investment in AI will follow. While the two documents do not carry legal weight, they will provide lawmakers with a roadmap for how to regulate the emerging technology and set “global standards” for AI. Professor Virginia Dignum says the goal is for AI to be ethically and socially responsible. Still, the bloc is falling behind its competitors in availability of raw data as Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, acknowledged: “it is not enough that you want to do [AI] in a way that corresponds to our basic values — you also need the raw material.”
In tandem with the EU’s approach, according to an opinion by Amy Webb, the way to tackle the AI challenge may be for Western democracies to see tech titans as strategic partners, rather than enemies or competitors. She argues that regulating the private sector is not the way to go but rather to focus on”human-centered” collaboration and setting standards and guardrails that could evolve over time.
EU Election Update
The dominant pan-European, center-right European People’s Party (EPP) suspended Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party on Wednesday (20 March) amidst concerns over the rule of law in Hungary. The controversial anti-migrant billboards and anti-EU rhetoric poster campaigns put up by the Hungarian government targeting the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker provided further fuel towards the decision to suspend Fidesz .
“Fidesz will be suspended with immediate effect and until further notice following today’s vote of EPP members (190 in favour, 3 against),” EPP President Joseph Daul said on Twitter. Daul was Orbán’s political patron, having previously defended Orbán from facing sanctions over rule-of-law concerns. However, Daul has since viewed Orbán as a liability. POLITICO Europe, a news organization that reports on the European Union, reported Wednesday that Daul threatened to resign if EPP delegates did not get to vote on Orbán’s fate. Hungary’s pro-government Magyar Nemzet daily had previously advocated for Fidesz to quit the EPP. The paper called for a stop to the “humiliating haggling with the European People’s Party” in an editorial published two weeks ago (7 March).
An expulsion comes with high stakes for both parties. Membership in the EPP gives Orbán and Fidesz access to the continent’s “power brokers.” Losing Fidesz’s legislators could cost the EPP the status of being the largest party in the European Parliament, and risks tipping Fidesz into joining Eurosceptic groupings. This is what the pro-government Hungarian news media want. In their editorial, Magyar Nemzet argued that “there is only one path forward for Fidesz: the path of the new alliance,” adding that “Viktor Orban and Fidesz should leave the European People’s Party and form an alliance with Italy’s Matteo Salvini, the Freedom Party of Austria and the Polish ruling party.”
Orbán said Thursday (21 March) in a Reuters’ report that he agreed to a voluntary stop to Fidesz’s participation in EPP matters in order to stave off an expulsion.. This comes a week after he issued letters of apology on 14 March to Wouter Beke, the president of the Christian Democratic and Flemish Party and other EPP members calling for Fidesz’s expulsion from the EPP. Orbán had called them “useful idiots.” He said that he was quoting Lenin and had “intended to criticize a certain policy and not certain politicians.”
Fidesz’s suspension means that party members will be denied attendance at EPP meetings. They will also lose their voting rights, and the right to recommend candidates for positions.
Germany and Belgium on Tuesday (19 March) sent forth a joint proposal to the General Affairs Council meeting calling for an annual rule of law peer review in all EU member states. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and German State Secretary Michael Roth called for the creation of an annual monitoring mechanism similar to the control of EU budgets. They contend that a sound legal system in all member states is “crucial to the freedom and well-being of the European citizens, to the well-functioning of the European legal order.” Their proposal came amidst growing frustrations with the lack of EU-level tools to discipline member states that infringe judicial independence and democratic values.
The proposed mechanism is meant to parallel the existing Article 7 procedure enshrined in the treaties. Article 7 was designed to discourage member states from propagating policies that threaten democratic institutions. It is activated when there is a “clear risk” of a member state breaching fundamental founding values of the Union. These values include human dignity, democracy, respect for human rights, and equality, amongst others. Currently, Article 7 has been triggered against Poland and Hungary. The new mechanism will not replace Article 7, and the two will act as independent mechanisms. Participation in the mechanism will also be voluntary for member states, and does not carry sanctions.
Addressing criticism that Article 7 is a blackmailing instrument used by the West against the East, Roth argued that the new proposed mechanism will be more inclusive, and will accord objective, non-discriminatory, and equal treatment to everyone. Reynders also told reporters in Brussels that over 20 countries have supported the proposal.
The EPP’s lead candidate Manfred Weber has also put forth his proposals for an “independent body” to protect the rule of law in an op-ed with news outlet EUobserver. Weber wrote that he is “convinced that the only way for Europe to establish itself for the future as a community of law, to establish its authority and credibility, is to have effective instruments to ensure and protect the rule of law.”
Weber proposes a new nine-judge panel composed of independent experts who will “regularly review the state of play of the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press.” The panel will also “investigate potential political, judicial and administrative corruption” in all EU member states. The panel will have their own resources for investigation, and will propose viable solutions to the problems identified.
With two months left to go before the European Parliament elections, Europe’s liberals on Tuesday (19 March) finally chose their lead candidates for the election, presenting to the Union a whole “Team Europe.”
Party officials told POLITICO that European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager of Denmark, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and ex-commissioner Emma Bonino of Italy are among the seven-member slate of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The other four members are Nicola Beer, the lead candidate for the German liberal FDP party; Luis Garicano from the Spanish center-right Ciudadanos; Violeta Bulc of Slovenia, the European commissioner for transport; and Katalin Cseh, founder and lead candidate of the liberal Momentum party in Hungary.
ALDE is set to be the third largest group in the new European Parliament with a predicted winning of 72 seats. They might become allies for the EPP and center-left Socialists & Democrats against their Eurosceptic opponents.
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