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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 26 Jul 2019

posted by eucentresg


Tensions with Iran rise with seizure of British Oil Tanker in Strait of Hormuz – Tentative plans for European-led naval mission for Hormuz
France, Germany and the United Kingdom (UK) have urged Iran to release the British-flagged Stena Impero, after it was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Strait of Hormuz last Friday (19 July). A second tanker which was Liberian-flagged but British operated was seized briefly before being released. The German foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the seizure of the two tankers, calling it “an unjustifiable intervention in civilian shipping that further exacerbates what is already a tense situation”. The French foreign ministry echoed the condemnation and called upon Iranian authorities to “respect the principles of free navigation in the Gulf.” Iran maintained that the tanker had violated international maritime rules. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the UK “must cease being an accessory to economic terrorism of the US”.

The seizure of the ship occurred amid escalating tensions between Iran and the West. Earlier this month (3 July), an Iranian oil tanker, Grace 1, was detained by the British Royal Marines in the Strait of Gibraltar. Authorities suspected the tanker was carrying crude oil to the Banyas Refinery in Syria in violation of EU sanctions.

Subsequently, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt outlined plans to parliament on Monday (22 July) for a European-led naval mission “to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in (the) vital region”. According to the Euractiv report, Hunt clarified that the proposed maritime mission would not “be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran because (they) remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement”.

The UK subsequently brought the plan to senior EU diplomats at a meeting in Brussels on Tuesday (23 July), emphasising that the plan would not involve the EU, NATO or the US directly. France, Italy and Denmark gave initial support for the plan – a cautious backing that stood in strong juxtaposition to the reluctance shown by European allies to a similar call by the US in June. The EU’s reticence was rooted in fears of ratcheting tensions in the gulf.

Separately, the French foreign ministry urged Iran to return to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA), and take steps to de-escalate tensions in the gulf.

The EU confronts tensions with US and China and issues and challenges arising from tech giants from Facebook, Amazon to Huawei
European privacy investigators expect to conclude an extensive investigation into potential violations of EU data protection laws by Facebook by the end of this year, according to the Irish official leading the probe. Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Facebook could face a fine of up to $2.2 billion, or 4% of its annual global turnover. The international headquarters of tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Apple are based in Dublin. According to Dale Sunderland, the deputy commissioner at Ireland’s privacy watchdog who is overseeing the investigations, “Facebook is likely to be one of the first tech companies to be hit with a decision from the country’s data protection commissioner”. The watchdog began a probe last December into the legality of Facebook-owned Whatsapp sharing data on its users with its parent company. Ireland has often been criticised by privacy campaigners and other EU data protection organisations for its slow efforts in clamping down on poor data practices by big tech companies.

In addition to investigations in Europe, Facebook faces a record-breaking $5 billion (€4,486 billion) penalty by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC imposed the fine after it determined that Facebook violated rules about “deceptive practices” when it used phone numbers obtained for security functions for advertising. In addition to the fine, Facebook had to accept “news restrictions and a modified corporate structure that (would) hold the company accountable for decisions it makes about users’ privacy”.

Earlier this month, the EU also opened a probe into Amazon over its use of sensitive data. The European Commission opened a formal inquiry to determine whether Amazon’s use of sensitive data from the independent retailers selling on its site breached EU competition rules. Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the Commission would be taking “a very close look at Amazon’s business practices and its dual role as marketplace and retailer, to assess its compliance with EU competition rules.”

Separately, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei said it was “very likely Huawei products will be deployed in the UK’s core networks in the future”. He made this claim to a close-door group of journalists at the company’s Shenzhen headquarters last week, in spite of the stance articulated by the UK cabinet. On Monday (22 July), UK digital secretary attempted to clarify the UK’s position on Huawei in Parliament. Wright said that “the government is not yet in a position to decide what involvement Huawei should have in the provision of the UK’s 5G network”. The UK had previously articulated a stance of excluding Huawei from “core” aspects of the 5G network.

Huawei has come under fire for alleged backdoors installed in their products which could facilitate “Chinese-state-led espionage”, a claim refuted by the company. Recently, a representative from Huawei’s Cybersecurity Lab in Shenzhen said that over a hundred products have been blocked for release over security quality standards since cybersecurity Chief John Suffolk took up the post. Once a product has been vetoed, Suffolk said it would be “sent back to the product line for remedial action”.

Last Friday (19 July), EU Commissioner for Security Julian King said that the EU needed to take China’s national intelligence law into account when making decisions over the construction of 5G networks in Europe. He referred to China’s National Intelligence Law, which dictates Chinese “organisations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work”. This law had fueled the West’s suspicions that Huawei-manufactured equipment could be used for espionage, which has prompted greater scrutiny from countries such as US, Australia and the UK.

A leading Hong Kong activist has called on Europe for support amid increasingly violent clashes in the city. Joshua Wong, pro-democracy campaigner and secretary general of the Demosisto party, called on Europe’s support to “urge Beijing to accept requests from the Hong Kong people”. The comment came after assaults occurred at a train station in the Yuen Long region, where masked assailants attacked those they believed to be pro-democracy protesters, leaving at least 45 people injured. Earlier in the day, police discharged tear gas and rubber bullets at pro-democracy protesters and arrested demonstrators.

The demonstrations were a response to attempts at passing an extradition bill that would allow authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau to demand the extradition of suspected criminals in Hong Kong. The concern is that the bill would allow China to order the deportation of pro-democracy campaigners. Last week, the European Parliament supported a motion calling on the Hong Kong government to release and drop charges against detained peaceful protesters, and calling for an investigation into the use of force by Hong Kong police against demonstrators.

Lastly, the EU is bracing for a trade war with the US, according to a report by POLITICO Europe. EU trade Chief Cecilia Malmstrom has cautioned that the US would likely impose retaliatory tariffs on up to $25 billion of European products in a dispute over airline subsidies. Seven European Commission officials and EU diplomats expressed concern that the US would carry out its threat of imposing punitive auto tariffs as early as November.

In an official visit to Washington, European Commission director general of trade Sabine Weyand expressed the EU’s willingness to work with the US to reform the WTO and cooperate on common trade challenges, along with the EU’s interest in avoiding “a spiral of escalating tariffs on cars, aircraft and other goods”. However, she firmly stated that the EU would not be cowed by the threat of sanctions that was illegal under WTO regulations. If the US were to proceed with its threat to hike auto tariffs to 25%, Brussels would retaliate with its own tariffs.

Boris Johnson’s appointment as the new Prime Minister ruffles feathers within UK and the EU
Boris Johnson was confirmed as the new Conservative Party leader on Tuesday (23 July) and took over as Prime Minister of the UK on Wednesday (24 July). Johnson beat his rival Jeremy Hunt by 66% to 33% in ballots casted by 159,320 Conservative party members. The new PM has vowed to bring the divided nation together and to take Britain out of the UK by 31st October, deal or no deal. However, perhaps as a sign that it is not going to be easy for him to bring the nation together, a series of resignations followed the announcement of his premiership, the most prominent being finance minister, Philip Hammond.

On his first day in office, Johnson also made significant changes to the government replacing Theresa May’s administration with a new team consisting largely of Brexiteers including ex-Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, The mastermind of the Vote Leave campaign Dominic Cummings and former environment secretary Michael Gove were given top posts in the new government. Priti Patel will take over as the home secretary and Sajid Javid will be the new chancellor. Stephen Barclay will remain as Brexit secretary. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hunt was relegated to the back benches and his supporters like Trade Secretary Liam Fox and Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt were fired. He could perhaps now face even more opposition from the Tory back benches when he tries to push through Brexit.

On Brexit, Johnson is expected to force through a no deal Brexit through Parliament and told his Cabinet that they would have to be reconciled to this prospect. During his campaign, he promised to renegotiate Theresa May’s deal with the EU despite having little to no chance of success and replace the physical Irish border provision with technological solution for checks on goods.

Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon said she has “profound concerns” about Johnson’s premiership and the implications of his willingness to push through a no deal Brexit on Scotland. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that Johnson has not “won the support of our country” and called for a general election.

In the EU, there was a restrained reaction to Johnson’s new appointment. The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, sent out a tweet that removed the option of renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. French President Emmanual Macron and the European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen stood side by side to congratulate Johnson but said cautiously that they are looking forward to working with him on Brexit, as well as European and international issues citing Iran, and “international security”.

The reactions from the EU to the new PM were mixed with humor rather than fear as they seem to distrust his credibility but not see him as a threat to the economy or security. However, POLITICO warns that EU leaders should be cautious to not underestimate his willingness to drive Britain off the Brexit cliff, which could set off a “catastrophic” chain reaction.

European commissioner for health Vytenis Andriukaitis compared Johnson to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin for “many unrealistic promises, ignoring economic rationales and rational decisions”

Von der Leyen and Macron team up for climate and economy amidst changing face of EU Parliament politics
On Tuesday (23 July), Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen (VDL) made an official visit to Paris to thank French President Emmanuel Macron for her nomination. They cemented their alliance and shared their common goal to “regenerate Europe”. France is expected to work closely with the new Commission President on building its climate and economic agenda.

Macron showed his support on the issues VDL champions such as climate, social, and border protection, as well as European defense by saying “on all the issues you raised during your speech, France is fully united”. Another issue they champion in common is gender parity and although only five female candidates have been put forward to take on Commissioner positions, this is seen as an improvement from 2014.

VDL’s “green deal” for Europe proposed before her election involves amping up climate goals to reach net zero emissions by 2050 in addition to unlocking €1 trillion of investment over the next decade by converting parts of the European Investment Bank (EIB) into a climate bank. In line with the French proposal, she also wants to introduce a carbon border tariff on products that are particularly CO2-intensive and ensure companies can remain competitive instead of moving to third countries to escape carbon costs. While Macron seems to be the influence behind these proposals, they are what the Greens have been fighting for.

Meanwhile, European Parliament’s 22 committee chair positions have all been filled as MEPs gear up for the first week of intense work. The only far right candidate that was given a seat as committee chair is Mazaly Aguilar from the Spanish far-right Vox party. She is from the European Conservatives & Reformist group and will be chairing the committee on Agriculture.

It is clear that the balance of power is no longer stable. The two major groups, the conservative European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, need to better cooperate with other political groups. While the liberal group Renew Europe (RE) will likely be decisive in forming majorities, German MEPs are set to be the most influential for their experience and reputation as compromise builders.

As the party grouping that gained the most number of seats in this election, the Greens will be more influential and able to push forward centre-left issues such as “climate protection, rescue at sea and the rule of law”. As the successor of the Liberals in Parliament, RE is expected to push for market liberalisation but will be less in favour of economic deregulation due to the French influence in the group. Besides the French, Spanish MEPs are another considerable part of RE that are building their influence.

To revitalise European democracy, it is essential that citizen’s voices are heard between elections and not only through voting. An opinion piece published in EURACTIV, has it that “there needs to be a game-changing development that comes from within the EU institutions themselves”. This could take the form of an #EUCitizenCommissioner, demanded for by pro-European civil society platforms such as Alliance4Europe and Europe’s Peoples’ Forum. Given that 51% of Europeans came out to vote, the new #EUCitizenCommissioner would tap into the huge potential of European civil society. The argument goes that EU policy proposals would be strengthened by citizen participation.

EU “coalition of the willing” agrees to migration ‘mechanism’; migrant rescue missions resume
On Monday (22 July), French president Emmanuel Macron said that 14 EU member states have signed up to a “solidarity mechanism” for the allocation of asylum-seekers across the bloc. The announcement follows a meeting between EU foreign affairs and interior ministers in Paris on distributing migrants across the EU, after Italy pressed the EU to tackle the issue. The mechanism, proposed by Germany and France, would be “quick” and “automatic” according to Macron.

According to Reuters, Finland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Lithuania, Croatia and Ireland signalled a willingness to move forward with the proposed system. The remaining six member states in the coalition of the willing were not disclosed. In spite of calls for the EU to address the issue, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini did not participate in the meeting. In a letter to French interior minister Christopher Castaner, Salvini warned of effects of decisions solely determined by France and Germany.

In response to the announcement, David Starke, CEO of humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée Germany, appealed to the “coalition of the willing” to support sea rescue operations. He stressed the strong support offered by civil society and expressed hope that this would pressure the EU to find solutions quickly.

Separately, the SOS Méditerranée announced on Sunday (21 July) that it had resumed rescue efforts off Libya seven months after it had abandoned operations. The Norwegian-flagged Ocean Viking would “conduct search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean” for the group and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders. SOS Méditerranée ceased operations in December 2018 after almost three years of operations due to alleged “obstruction by some European countries”. In a statement, MSF criticised the EU for failing to take responsibility for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, a gap currently filled by NGOs. MSF said the “return to search and rescue (was) a duty, fuelled by the humanitarian need to prevent people from drowning while they seek safety from Libya”.

Turkey has also announced that it would suspend the readmission agreement struck with the EU in 2016, also known as the ‘EU-Turkey deal’. The move was a response to EU sanctions on Turkey following controversial gas drilling operations off the coast of Cyprus. Under the readmission agreement, Turkey agreed to “readmit Syrian refugees arriving on Greek islands from its shores in exchange for €6 billion in European aid and the speeding up of negotiations to eliminate EU visas for Turkish citizens in June 2016”. The Turkish foreign ministry claimed the decision was not solely due to EU sanctions but also the failure of the EU to introduce the promised “visa-free” regime for Turkish citizens.

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