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Posts tagged ‘Decline of the European Union’

Top EU officials rally behind Spanish PM over Catalan poll

October 04, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — Senior European Union officials and lawmakers rallied Wednesday behind embattled Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, condemning the authorities in Catalonia for holding an illegal referendum on independence that has plunged Spain into political crisis.

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans led a chorus of criticism of Sunday’s violence-marred vote in the northern Spanish region. He made no mention of the almost 900 people hurt in the police action to stop the poll.

Wary of interfering in Spain’s domestic affairs, the EU representatives called for talks between the government in Madrid and Catalan authorities, but shied away from suggesting that the bloc could play a peacemaking role, despite appeals from Catalonia for European mediation.

“There is a general consensus that the regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law,” Timmermans told the lawmakers at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “Respect for the rule of law is not optional, it is fundamental,” he said. “You cannot ignore the law.”

Not all of the lawmakers backed the senior officials’ position, however. A Catalan flag was removed from the plenary at the demand of a Spanish lawmaker, while some parliamentarians displayed signs supporting the referendum or calling for Rajoy to resign.

Urging the pro-European region’s representatives and Rajoy’s government to come to the negotiating table, Timmermans said: “All lines of communication must stay open. It’s time to talk, to find a way out of the impasse.”

The head of the biggest political group in the parliament, Manfred Weber — a Rajoy ally — said he was “very sorry for all those who were hurt,”Catalan citizens and police alike, but warned that demonstrations cannot replace democratic processes.

He saw no European mediation role, saying “the EU has neither the will nor the right to intervene in a true liberal democracy such as Spain.” Weber also had another warning for pro-European Catalonia: “Please keep in mind; who leaves Spain, leaves the European Union.”

Greens group leader Ska Keller was one of the few to condemn the police crackdown against what was, in the main, passive resistance. “This was massive police violence against people and that was beyond any proportionality. Violence so disproportionate cannot be justified. No buts and no excuses, whatever you think about the referendum,” she said.

She said that Rajoy’s strategy of using justice and police means to thwart the poll rather than dialogue has failed. Keller also accused the EU Commission of sitting on the fence and failing in its duty as the enforcer of EU laws.

Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.

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Catalan official calls for EU support ahead of referendum

September 28, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief has appealed for support from the European Union before a disputed referendum calling for independence from Spain. Raul Romeva, speaking to journalists Thursday in Brussels, said that EU institutions need to “understand that this is a big issue.” Romeva spoke a day after Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont accused the EU, in an interview with The Associated Press , of “turning its back” on Catalonia in its conflict with Spain’s central government.

Romeva accused the Spanish government of a “brutal crackdown” on Catalan officials to try to prevent Sunday’s referendum, which Spain considers to be illegal, and that it’s “generated an unprecedented level of shock.”

He said that he doesn’t expect violence, because “it’s not in the Catalan DNA to use violence to solve political problems.”

EU moves ahead faster on new future than on Brexit talks

September 29, 2017

TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Twenty-seven European Union nations, excluding Britain, will be coming up with clear options on a more tightly knit future for themselves even before they will allow divorce negotiations with the U.K. to move toward brokering a new relationship.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said Friday he would be presenting “a political agenda in two weeks’ time,” after EU vision statements in recent weeks from French President Emmanuel Macron, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and others on how to the reform the bloc.

That will be just days before the next EU summit, which is expected to reject for now British demands to start negotiating on the country’s future links with the bloc alongside the current talks on how to make the cleanest Brexit possible.

Officials said Tusk will be given the job of reconciling Macron’s vision of how the EU should embrace a joint budget, a shared military and harmonized taxes to stay globally relevant with those ideas of EU nations that might not want to grow too closer too quickly.

Tusk said he would seek “real solutions to real problems” and stressed the need to make progress “step-by-step, issue-by-issue.” Macron said the EU had to seize the moment of having an improved economy and increased confidence in the bloc to push through reforms before European elections in 2019.

“2018 is a year of opportunity for Europeans,” he said. “In 5 or 10 years, it will be too late.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned, however, not to set the bar too high, since changes in the bloc of half a billion people have always been tough to achieve.

“Under-promise and over-deliver,” Rutte said. “Don’t promise an elephant and see a mouse show up.” The collegial atmosphere was bolstered by a non-confrontational dinner Thursday night for EU leaders, where few of the usual east-west or north-south fissures spoiled the mood, officials said.

The goodwill has not extended to the issue of Brexit over the past months. EU leaders at their Oct. 19-20 summit have to say whether “sufficient progress” has been achieved on divorce issues with Britain — citizens’ rights, the Irish border and a financial settlement — to grant the U.K. its wish to start talking about a new trade deal with the EU.

Juncker said it will take “a miracle” for there to be sufficient progress by then, despite a round of negotiations in Brussels this week that ended with some progress. Other EU leaders sounded a similar tone. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said despite “a better vibe and a better mood coming out of the negotiations” he questioned whether the time was right to move on to trade issues with Britain.

“It’s still very evident that there’s more work to be done,” he said. For the past week, though, British Prime Minister Theresa May has sounded more conciliatory. In Estonia, she guaranteed her country’s commitment to security even though the nation is leaving the bloc.

May visited troops in Estonia close to the Russian border on Friday and said “the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining Europe’s security.” “We will continue to offer aid and assistance to EU member states that are the victims of armed aggression, terrorism and natural or man-made disasters,” she vowed.

She also proposed a “new security partnership” to weather the divorce when her country leaves the bloc in March 2019.

Britain hopes for Brexit progress; EU leaders cautious

September 23, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Britain and the European Union are preparing to head back to the Brexit negotiating table after a speech by Prime Minister Theresa May that received a cautious welcome from the bloc’s leaders.

May stressed in her Friday speech that Britain wants to keep closes ties with the bloc and offered to keep paying the EU and following its rules during a two-year transition period after the U.K.’s formal departure in March 2019.

EU leaders welcomed the constructive tone of May’s speech, but called for more detail. French President Emmanuel Macron said clarity still is needed on three big issues: the rights of European citizens affected by Brexit, the amount Britain must pay to settle its obligations to the EU, and the status of the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

“If those three points are not clarified, then we cannot move forward on the rest,” Macron said. Negotiators are due to start a fourth round of Brexit talks in Brussels on Monday. In a blow for May’s government, credit rating agency Moody’s downgraded Britain a notch to Aa2, the third-highest level, citing the country’s debt burden and uncertainty about Brexit.

The agency said it was not confident Britain “will be able to secure a replacement free trade agreement with the EU which substantially mitigates the negative economic impact of Brexit.” The downgrade decision was made before May’s speech. But Alastair Wilson, head of sovereign ratings at Moody’s, said Saturday that nothing in the speech would have changed the decision.

Merkel: Hungary can’t ignore EU refugee ruling

September 12, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel says it’s unacceptable for Hungary to ignore a ruling by the European Union’s top court that it must accept refugees under an EU-wide plan. But she’s not specifying any consequences.

Hungary’s prime minister has said that while he “took note” of the European Court of Justice’s ruling last week, he’d continue to oppose the plans. Merkel told Tuesday’s edition of the daily Berliner Zeitung: “That one government says it isn’t interested in a verdict by the European Court of Justice cannot be accepted.”

Asked whether that means Hungary must leave the EU, she replied: “It means that a very fundamental European question is affected, because for me Europe is a place governed by laws.” Merkel said an EU summit in October must discuss the issue.

UK universities face EU student exodus due to Brexit

September 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Growing up in a small Italian farming town, Andrea Guerini Rocco dreamed of pursuing a career in economics in a big, bustling city. Three years ago, he thought that city would be London. He did his undergraduate studies at the London School of Economics, earning good grades and working analyst internships he was passionate about. He was able to afford the lowered tuition for European Union students – half what other international students pay – and he didn’t need a visa to work and live in Britain.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union changed all that. When the country leaves the bloc in 2019, there’s no promise that the financial and immigration perks for incoming European students and workers will remain.

So after the Brexit vote, when Rocco was preparing to enroll in a master’s degree, he decided to move to Columbia University in New York instead. Tuition is pricy and he’ll need more paperwork – but at least there’s clarity. He knows what he’s signing up for and can plan ahead.

“If Brexit was not happening I would have stayed in London,” the 22-year-old said. “The university is great. I love LSE.” He isn’t alone in having to reassess his plans. More than 60,000 EU students attend British universities, bringing brain power for employers, diversity and more than 400 million pounds ($518 million) of tuition money with them each year, on top of the 500 million pounds these universities receive in EU funding annually.

This year, EU applications to U.K. schools dropped for the first time in at least five years, by 5 percent. More than 2,500 young, bright Europeans took their talents elsewhere, rather than face the uncertainties of Brexit. The British government has promised that EU students starting before Brexit will pay reduced tuition prices and that they’ll stay visa-free until 2019 – and that’s about all they’ve promised.

If the British government doesn’t provide clarity for EU nationals and EU education funding, U.K. universities could lose over 1 billion pounds a year and some of their top students. That’s fewer bright minds staying and contributing to the British economy after graduation, innovating and producing – and paying taxes – in Britain. Until the government tells young EU nationals what they can expect post-Brexit, Britain’s education, financial and other crucial sectors may find themselves struggling to attract and retain the talent needed to stay competitive.

The Russell Group, which represents 24 U.K. universities, including LSE, Cambridge and Oxford, has repeatedly asked the British government to provide clarity for EU students, including assurances that they will be able to stay and work in Britain after graduation.

Some of the damage to Britain’s image as a welcoming environment seems to have already been done. Adrian Thomas, the director of communications at LSE, says that some of the applicants he’s spoken to were spooked by the focus on immigration in the Brexit debate.

Felix Heilmann, who is starting his second year at Oxford, was at home in Germany last year as he watched the Brexit referendum votes rolling in. He was prepping for his first year and had been excited to start studying at one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world.

But that excitement turned to anxiety about how the referendum would affect his tuition, immigration status and social experience. “There was a very big feeling of, ‘Am I still welcome?'” Heilmann said.

While he hasn’t noticed any blatant discrimination at Oxford, he says EU students on campus are weighed down by the insecurity of their future options. He’s not sure if he’ll stay in the U.K. for graduate school, something he once took as certain.

If EU students no longer get the discounted tuition rates after Brexit, Heilmann and others like him will likely further their education at schools outside the U.K. Stefano Caselli, Dean for International Affairs at Bocconi, one of Italy’s top schools for business, says their applicant numbers have been on the rise since last year. He says Italian students who once flocked to the U.K. for a good education are now looking to earn a high quality degree at home, a trend that could rise faster if the prices of a school like LSE nearly doubles from 9,250 pounds ($12,062) to 18,408 pounds ($24,005). That jump is a huge difference for European students, in a culture where higher education is often virtually free or relatively inexpensive and families don’t save up for college funds.

“Today, many schools in Europe are offering programs in English. The faculty is diversified, with an incredible placement rate,” Caselli said. “And when you have all these parameters you start saying ‘Why would I move to the U.K.?'”

If Europe’s best and brightest choose continental schools like Bocconi, it’s not just British universities that suffer but also companies that will find it more difficult to recruit new talent. The finance industry, London’s economic backbone, is particularly vulnerable. Reza Moghadam, the vice-chairman for capital markets at investment bank Morgan Stanley, notes that around 80 percent of the finance industry’s recruits came from U.K. universities, but only 20 percent are British-born.

“We do need global talent,” he told a conference this summer. “The global diversity is important in terms of delivering global services.” Financial recruiters will have two options if European students head elsewhere for university – accept lower talent from a smaller pool, or build pipelines that extend beyond British schools.

But their tendency to rely on British-educated recruits is partially what makes finance-focused schools like LSE and London Business School so popular. If top talent goes elsewhere, and recruiters follow them, it erodes the schools’ brand name power.

Thomas says his LSE’s reputation is strong enough to combat the Brexit uncertainty working against it. Unlike many other U.K. schools, he says, LSE’s applicant numbers didn’t decrease post-referendum “because LSE on your CV is a read-through to a great job at the end of the day.”

David Kurten, the education spokesman for the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigned in favor of Brexit, also believes the appeal of schools like LSE and Oxford will endure. He notes that applications from international students outside of Europe, particularly East Asia, are on the rise, despite their higher tuition fee. “For every one EU student that doesn’t want to come, there’s two or three from China and the Far East who do,” Kurten said.

Such optimism is cold comfort for Rocco, who can’t risk his financial future and resident status on a brand. “If you need to pay the international student fees, you’re basically forced to go elsewhere,” Rocco said. “Most (Italian) students at LSE are middle class, so that tuition change is quite relevant. If this changes in the future, we expect Italian students at LSE to basically disappear.”

Hungary asks EU to help pay for anti-migrant border fence

September 01, 2017

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Hungary’s prime minister has asked the European Union to pay for half of the cost of anti-migrant fences it built on its southern borders, or about 440 million euros ($523 million).

In a letter dated Thursday to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the fences erected in 2015 on the borders with Serbia and Croatia have practically eliminated the migrant flow through Hungary, guarding more than just his country.

The move comes days before Europe’s top court is expected to reject an appeal by Hungary and Slovakia against an EU agreement obliging them to take in refugees from Greece and Italy. “With the construction of the fence, training and placing 3,000 border hunters into active service, our country is protecting not only itself but entire Europe against the flood of illegal migrants,” Orban said in the letter. “I hope that, in the spirit of European solidarity, we can rightly expect that the European Commission … will reimburse half of our extraordinary border protection expenses in the foreseeable future.”

But European Commission spokesman Alexander Winterstein encouraged Hungary to put in a formal application to use funds already earmarked in the 2014-2020 EU budget. “We are not financing the construction of fences or barriers at external borders. We do support border management measures at external borders. This can be surveillance measures. This can be border control equipment. But fences, we do not finance,” Winterstein said Friday. “We won’t change” our stance on that.

The border hunter corps was set up within the police force a year ago and its officers dedicated to border protection duties and guarding the fence. Hungarian soldiers have also been aiding police in the tasks.

Orban said Europe needed to show solidarity with Hungary’s border protection efforts, not just with Greece and Italy, the countries which have received the brunt of the migration influx. EU leaders have criticized Hungary for failing to show solidarity because it refuses to take in any asylum-seekers sought to be relocated from Greece and Italy until their asylum requests are decided.

“Solidarity is a two-way street and all member states should be ready to contribute. This is not some sort of a la carte menu where you pick one dish, for example border management, while refusing another dish, like compliance with relocation decisions,” Winterstein said.

Orban’s demand comes less than a week before the European Court of Justice is scheduled to rule on a legal challenge to the relocation scheme by his government and Slovakia. A top legal adviser recommended in July that the appeal by Hungary and Slovakia be rejected next Wednesday.

The European Commission has also launched its own legal action against Hungary, plus the Czech Republic and Poland, for failing to respect their commitment to take in refugees. Orban’s government has promoted a “Let’s Stop Brussels” billboard and publicity campaign rejecting the EU’s migration policies. Last year, over 98 percent of participating voters said the EU shouldn’t settle anyone in Hungary without the consent of the Hungarian parliament, but the referendum was invalid because of low voter turnout.

As Orban and other government officials earlier made it a point of pride that Hungary had paid for nearly all the costs of the fences and their maintenance with local funds, the change of heart could also let Orban generate another conflict with the EU, should it reject the “reasonable” request for reimbursement.

Lorne Cook contributed to this report from Brussels.

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