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Posts tagged ‘Decline of the European Union’

Japan, EU to sign trade deal eliminating nearly all tariffs

July 17, 2018

TOKYO (AP) — The European Union and Japan are signing a widespread trade deal Tuesday that will eliminate nearly all tariffs, seemingly defying the worries about trade tensions set off by President Donald Trump’s policies.

The signing in Tokyo for the deal, largely reached late last year, is ceremonial. It was delayed from earlier this month because Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe canceled going to Brussels over a disaster in southwestern Japan, caused by extremely heavy rainfall. More than 200 people died from flooding and landslides.

European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who arrived Monday, will also attend a gala dinner at the prime minister’s official residence. Both sides are heralding the deal, which covers a third of the global economy and more than 600 million people.

Prices of European wine and pork will fall for Japanese consumers. Japanese machinery parts, tea and fish will get cheaper for Europe. The deal eliminates about 99 percent of the tariffs on Japanese goods to the EU, but remaining at around 94 percent for European imports into Japan for now and rising to 99 percent over the years. The difference is due to exceptions such as rice, a product that’s culturally and politically sensitive and has been protected for decades in Japan.

The major step toward liberalizing trade was discussed in talks since 2013 but is striking in the timing of the signing, as China and the U.S. are embroiled in trade conflicts. The U.S. is proposing 10 percent tariffs on a $200 billion list of Chinese goods. That follows an earlier move by Washington to impose 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese goods. Beijing has responded by imposing identical penalties on a similar amount of American imports.

Besides the latest deal with the EU, Japan is working on other trade agreements, including a far-reaching trans-Pacific deal. The partnership includes Australia, Mexico, Vietnam and other nations, although the U.S. has withdrawn.

Japan praised the deal with the EU as coming from Abe’s “Abenomics” policies, designed to wrest the economy out of stagnation despite a shrinking population and cautious spending. Japan’s growth continues to be heavily dependent on exports.

By strengthening ties with the EU, Japan hopes to vitalize mutual direct investment, fight other global trends toward protectionism and enhance the stature of Japanese brands, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The EU said the trade liberalization will lead to the region’s export growth in chemicals, clothing, cosmetics and beer to Japan, leading to job security for Europe. Japanese will get cheaper cheese, such as Parmesan, gouda and cheddar, as well as chocolate and biscuits.

Japanese consumers have historically coveted European products, and a drop in prices is likely to boost spending.

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Food sent to migrants off Sicily as Italy awaits EU offers

July 15, 2018

ROME (AP) — Another day’s worth of food and beverages was sent Sunday to a pair of military ships off Sicily as Italy waited for more European nations to pledge to take a share of the hundreds of migrants on board before allowing the asylum-seekers to step off onto Italian soil.

Germany agreed to accept 50 of the migrants, following similar offers by fellow European Union members France and Malta extended Saturday. The prime minister of the Czech Republic rebuffed the appeal, calling the distribution plan a “road to hell.”

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has vowed to prohibit further disembarking in Italy of migrants who were rescued while crossing the Mediterranean Sea unless the burden is shared by other EU countries.

Salvini, who leads the right-wing League party in Italy’s populist coalition government, told reporters Sunday the “aim was for brotherly re-distribution” of the 450 rescued passengers on the two military ships.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte contacted fellow EU nation leaders Saturday, asking them to take some of the rescued migrants. But Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis tweeted that his country “won’t take any migrants,” dismissing Italy’s approach as a “road to hell” that would encourage more migrant smuggling.

While campaigning for Italy’s March election, Salvini praised the hard-line stance on immigration taken by several eastern European countries, among them the Czech Republic. The same intransigence is being experienced by the Italian government.

Italy’s Conte insisted the “solidarity” strategy was working, citing the offers from France, Malta and Germany. “This is the solidarity and responsibility that we have always sought from Europe,” the premier said on Facebook. He added that Italy would “continue on this path, with firmness and in respect of human rights.”

More than 600,000 migrants were rescued in the central Mediterranean and brought to Italian territory in the last few years. Many were economic migrants ineligible for asylum. Since their home countries often don’t facilitate repatriation, Italy has been left to shelter many of them, although thousands have slipped out of Italy to seek work or relatives in northern Europe.

Finding takers for all of the asylum-seekers on the military ships waiting off Sicily, in the grips of a heat wave, could be a long process. Baby food, milk and juice were among the provisions being delivered Sunday so the people aboard will have necessities for another 24 hours.

A fishing boat, launched Friday from Libya by human traffickers and crowded with some 450 migrants, sailed to tiny Linosa island off Sicily, passing through both Libya’s and Malta’s search-and-rescue areas.

Off sparsely populated Linosa, a vessel for European border agency Frontex and an Italian border police boat took aboard the migrants and brought them to waters outside the Sicilian port of Pozzallo. By late Sunday afternoon, passengers suffering from dehydration, pregnant women and some babies, including a newborn a few days old, had been taken ashore in Pozzallo. Italian media said a woman weighing 35 kilos (77 pounds) after months of malnourishment in Libya was among them.

Sky TG24 TV reported that many of the rescued passengers originally are from Eritrea. In offering to take in 50 migrants, the German government cited the context of “ongoing talks about greater bilateral cooperation on asylum.”

According to EU figures, Germany received almost 1 million asylum applications in 2016 and 2017, the most of any bloc members. Italy came in second with about 250,000. The number of migrants arriving in Italy so far this year is down about 80 percent compared to 2017. Salvini has vowed to stop all arrivals except for war refugees and people in a few other select categories, such as pregnant women or young children.

Frank Jordans from Berlin and Karel Janicek from Prague contributed.

European Union moves against Poland for its new court law

July 02, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union opened another rule-of-law procedure Monday against Poland over what it sees as flaws in the country’s Supreme Court law, intensifying a standoff that could threaten Poland’s EU voting rights and funding.

The move comes a day before legislation takes effect that will force the early retirement of 27 of 72 justices of the Supreme Court, or more than a third of them. The law is the culmination of the ruling populist Law and Justice party’s efforts to put Poland’s entire court system under its control, a plan it began nearly three years ago. Party leaders claim they are reforming an inefficient and corrupt court system in the grip of an unaccountable caste of judges and insist their changes are in line with European standards.

Critics see the law on Poland’s Supreme Court as the most dramatic step in the party’s takeover of the courts, giving the ruling party the power to stack them with loyalists. One of the court’s jobs is to verify election results, and critics say the new law marks a serious reversal for democracy.

In announcing its procedure, the European Commission, which polices EU law, said the measures “undermine the principle of judiciary independence.” Since “there was no step from the Polish side to reverse them, we made the decision to launch the infringement procedure as a matter of urgency to defend the independence of the Polish judiciary,” EU spokesman Margaritis Schinas said.

Poland now has a month to respond, but if it does not reverse course, a future step would involve the Commission suing Poland at the EU Court of Justice. If Poland were to lose, it could face heavy fines.

Poland has insisted that how it organizes its judiciary is an internal matter that the EU has no right to interfere in. But EU officials have sharply disagreed, saying Poland willingly signed on to EU rules when it joined the community, and that the courts must be counted on to also uphold EU contracts and law.

Mass protests erupted in Poland last summer over new judicial laws, with many of the same Poles who opposed communism three decades ago taking to the streets. The domestic upheaval as well as concerns by the European Commission prompted authorities to concede to some changes, though the main thrust of the legislation has remained the same.

Government spokeswoman Joanna Kopcinska said Monday that the government of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki is fulfilling its promise to voters to clean up a broken justice system — changes she said previous governments should have made but didn’t.

“Maybe we would not have had this discussion (with the EU) had they been done earlier,” Kopcinska said. On the eve of the changes, Supreme Court spokesman, judge Michal Laskowski, said it was not yet clear if the president would use his power to immediately force the retirement of the judges, including the court president Malgorzata Gersdorf. They have vowed to show up to work as usual.

“We can expect all sorts of reactions, from nothing happening in the coming days, to a lot happening, including the use of force,” Laskowski said. The European Commission has also launched a separate procedure against Poland known as Article 7, which opens the way for possible sanctions and a suspension of voting rights. Hungary, however, has vowed to use its veto to prevent that step against Poland.

With few effective tools left, the EU earlier this year vowed to tie future subsidies to the rule of law, something that could cause Poland to lose some of its future funding — money that has helped fuel 14 years of fast economic development.

Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.

Austria takes over EU presidency with pledge for security

June 30, 2018

BERLIN (AP) — Austria has taken over the rotating presidency of the European Union with a pledge to better secure the 28-nation bloc’s external borders. At a ceremony Saturday outside the Alpine town of Schladming, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the six-month presidency is “an honor for us, but also a great responsibility.”

Kurz says “we know that the international environment is difficult right now.” Kurz came to power last year as the head of a right-wing coalition government with a pledge to restrict migration to Austria.

He supports setting up landing points for migrants outside the EU and strengthening the bloc’s Frontex border agency. EU Council President Donald Tusk praised the Austrian motto for its presidency, “a Europe that protects.”

EU moves on migrant plans, while 100 reported missing at sea

June 29, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders Friday drew up new plans to screen migrants in North Africa for eligibility to enter Europe, saying they set aside major differences over stemming the flow of people seeking sanctuary or better lives. But the show of unity did little to hide the fact that the hardest work still lies ahead.

Even as they met in Brussels for a second day, Libya’s coast guard said about 100 people were missing and feared dead after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean. The leaders agreed on a “new approach” to manage those rescued at sea, just as bickering over who should take responsibility for them undermines unity and threatens cross-border business and travel in Europe.

Italy, Greece and Spain bear responsibility for accepting most of the migrants and have felt abandoned by their EU partners. Italy, with a new anti-European government, has refused to take charge of people rescued at sea in recent weeks, sparking a diplomatic row with France and Malta. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner is demanding she take a tougher line on migrants, undermining her leadership.

The new plan is to receive people from rescue ships in EU nations that agree to share responsibility for handing migration with the EU’s main point-of-entry countries like Spain, Italy and Greece. But they also will receive them in centers in North Africa and possibly the Balkans.

“A complete approach was adopted,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters after a night of haggling and delays to address demands from Italy that its views be incorporated in the final summit statement.

“We are protecting better. We are cooperating more. And we are reaffirming our principles. All hastily made solutions, be they solely national ones or a betrayal of our values that consists in pushing people off to third countries, were clearly set aside,” Macron said.

Even new Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, whose populist government has rocked the EU’s political landscape, said: “On the whole, we can say we are satisfied.” “Italy is no longer alone, as we requested,” he said.

That said, the Czech Republic and Austria have no intention of basing migrant centers on their territory. “Why should there be centers? Center should be outside of Europe. Ellis Island, yes? And the Australian model, very simple. We have to execute this,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.

The “disembarkation platforms” are a logical extension of the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey. The government in Ankara was paid more than 3 billion euros in refugee aid to stop people leaving for the Greek islands. The bottom line is that numbers have dropped by about 96 percent, compared with 2015 when well over 1 million people entered Europe, most of them fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq.

Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia are touted as possible locations, even though details of the plans are sketchy. Morocco already has refused and none of those listed has volunteered to take part. The EU’s executive Commission now must draft something more concrete in coordination with the U.N.’s refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration, which would prefer to operate in European migration centers only.

Libya is a major transit point to Europe for those fleeing poverty and violence in Africa and the Middle East. Traffickers have exploited Libya’s chaos following the 2011 uprising that toppled and later killed dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

How much the plans will cost remains a mystery, but it won’t be cheap. The UNHCR cautiously welcomed the plan but warned that it must be fleshed out and that African involvement via the African Union regional bloc is “indispensable.”

IOM spokesman Leonard Doyle said his agency was “very pleased at the solidarity and consensus” that emerged in Brussels, in particular with front-line states such as Italy. Doyle said he believed most of the “disembarkation centers” would be in Europe, although he said it was up to the EU to determine which countries would host them.

UNHCR spokesman Charlie Yaxley said the refugee agency is “still awaiting the legal analysis” of the new plan but would certainly welcome greater EU collaboration on handling asylum claims. He noted that for the fifth year in a row, the “grim milestone” of 1,000 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has been passed already, just halfway through 2018.

But even as migrant arrival numbers drop, the situation has been heating up. Anti-migrant parties have been fomenting public fear of foreigners, winning votes in Italy, Austria, Slovenia and elsewhere.

The UNHCR said about 40,000 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea this year, almost six times fewer than over the same period in 2016. Many who entered in 2015 and 2016 were fleeing conflict and thus eligible for asylum. Most arriving now seek better lives and probably would not qualify, which means that more people face the prospect of being sent back.

“It is far too early to talk about a success,” EU Council President Donald Tusk told reporters after a compromise was found. “This is in fact the easiest part of the task, compared to what awaits us on the ground, when we start implementing it.”

Experts and humanitarian aid groups fear the show of unity is a political smoke screen to address the concerns about resurgent anti-migrant parties that will only leave vulnerable people once again at risk.

“European heads of state and government continue to try to offload their responsibilities onto poorer countries outside the EU,” said Oxfam migration policy adviser Raphael Shilhav. He said it looks as if the EU is planning more “de facto detention centers,” warning that “this approach to migration is a recipe for failure, and directly threatens the rights of women, men and children on the move.”

Imogen Sudbery at the International Rescue Committee said the “disembarkation platforms” raise more questions. “Would this approach be compatible with international law? Would those apprehended be transferred to the nearest safe port? Crucially, under which country’s law would claims be assessed? Who would be responsible for those whose claims are upheld? We need clarity on this,” she said.

There also was skepticism at sea. The captain of the Astral, a ship operated by the Spanish Proactiva humanitarian group, worries the EU-funded and trained Libyan coast guard might now be recognized as part of the Mediterranean rescue apparatus.

“For months now, they have been presented as an official body, formal, very well trained and legal. And these are the same people who have shot at us, who have kidnapped us,” said Capt. Riccardo Gatti. “All of this is theater.”

In the latest reported capsizing in which about 100 people were missing, Libyan coast guard spokesman Ayoub Gassim said 16 were rescued from the water east of the capital, Tripoli, and the bodies of three children were recovered. He quoted a Yemeni survivor as saying the boat carried about 125 people.

The Astral’s crew said Italian officials had told it to let the Libyan coast guard respond to a distress call from the boat, only to hear reports shortly afterward that the 100 migrants were missing and feared dead in the same area.

Gassim added that the Libyan coast guard had intercepted three other smuggling boats carrying about 345 people east of Tripoli. Spanish maritime rescue services, meanwhile, brought ashore 90 people pulled from boats as they tried to cross the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco.

Zaki reported from Cairo. Jamey Keaten in Geneva, Jill Lawless and Raf Casert in Brussels, and Renata Brito aboard the Astral contributed.

Italy populists win Senate confidence vote, put EU on notice

June 05, 2018

ROME (AP) — Italy’s new populist government won the first of two votes of confidence needed to start governing after its leader denounced Europe’s “failed” immigration policy and warned Tuesday that his Cabinet would renegotiate Italy’s fiscal obligations so it can help struggling Italians.

The 5-Star-League alliance secured 171 votes in favor from Parliament’s upper chamber, well beyond the minimum needed to pass. Another 116 senators voted against the coalition government and 25 abstained.

Lawmakers in the lower Chamber of Deputies, where the two parties also have a majority, are set to cast confidence votes Wednesday that would launch western Europe’s first populist government. In his inaugural policy address ahead of the Senate vote, Premier Giuseppe Conte readily acknowledged that the 5-Star-League partnership marks a radical shift from the Italian status quo.

“If ‘populism’ is the attitude of leaders to listen to the people … and if ‘anti-system’ means introducing a new system that removes the old privileges of power, then this government deserves both these descriptions,” said the premier, who was sworn into his first political office Friday.

Conte, who until last week was still teaching law classes at the University of Florence, was interrupted with applause nearly three dozen times during his 75-minute speech. But during the debate that followed, opposition senators from left to right ridiculed the government’s proposed agenda as contradictory, superficial and fiscally unrealistic.

The heavy-spending plan calls for a two-tiered flat tax, a basic income for poor Italians, reforms to the pension system and a “dignified” minimum wage for workers. “You’re deceiving the good faith of Italians if you’re trying to make us believe that it’s enough just to list these things, without saying how you’ll do it or how you’ll convince Europe,” said Sen. Annamaria Bernini of the center-right Forza Italia, which campaigned in an alliance with the League before the March parliamentary election but voted against the new government.

“Mr. President, you need heavy doses of reality, not just good intentions,” she said. Conte sought to assuage fears in Europe about his fiscal program, but he offered no details on financing Tuesday and limited his comments to responding to concerns that Italy at some point might leave the eurozone.

“Do we have to repeat it? Leaving the euro was never up for discussion. It is not up for discussion,” he said. “The issue is another: Is it legitimate or not for a government of a country to re-negotiate economic policy?”

Fears of a possible exit strategy were stoked when an early draft of the government’s policy agenda leaked, showing plans to delineate rules to leave the euro and for the European Central Bank to cancel 250 million euros in debt. Those points were dropped in the final policy document.

Conte also said Italy was a “convinced” member of NATO and reaffirmed its “traditionally privileged” alliance with the United States. However, he also called for the lifting of European Union sanctions on Russia, citing Moscow’s strategic role internationally and the risk that sanctions will crush Russian civil society.

Conte responded to concerns about the xenophobic League’s rhetoric, insisting that Italy “isn’t racist” and accepts its responsibilities to welcome and integrate legitimate refugees. But he said the rest of the EU must take on a greater burden of accepting refugees as well as negotiating with migrants’ home countries and helping send back those who don’t qualify for asylum.

“It’s obvious to everyone that the way migrant flows have been managed has been a failure,” he said. “We will put an end to the business of immigration that grew disproportionately under the cloak of a pretend solidarity.”

Conte gave his speech standing between his two political masters: 5-Star Leader Luigi Di Maio and League leader Matteo Salvini, who both gave up their own ambitions to be premier to find a compromise candidate to head a previously unthinkable alliance.

The 5-Star-League’s financial platform has worried economists and EU policymakers who warn it will increase Italy’s debt burden, already Europe’s heaviest after Greece. Conte said Italy was committed to reducing its public debt, but said it wouldn’t do so through austerity measures. He said the government plans to grow the economy through environmentally sustainable development, reduction in bureaucracy and a more business-friendly administrative climate for the small and medium-sized companies which are the backbone of the economy.

Leading the opposition in the Senate on Tuesday, Democratic Party Sen. Franco Mirabelli said it was fine to call for decent salaries and a speeding-up of public works contracts. He said the Democrats could support some of the new government’s policy proposals.

“But the point is: How do you do it? With what resources?” Mirabelli said.

Leaders of Italy, France to pursue migration changes at EU

June 15, 2018

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte agreed Friday to work together to pursue changes to the European Union’s migration rules, finding common ground after the issue created a rift between their countries.

The two leaders said during a joint news conference that EU regulations requiring asylum-seekers to apply in the first country they enter and remain there while their cases are processed were not working.

Macron said the policy and others have left Italy, usually the first European country reached on the busy migration route across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, without the support that is supposed to be a benefit of a united Europe.

“The proper response is European, but the existing European response has not adapted,” said the French leader, who is seen as strongly pro-EU. Conte, who heads the populist, anti-EU government that took over running Italy on June 1, echoed the politician he called “my friend Emmanuel.”

“The concept itself of the ‘state of first entry’ must be rethought. He who puts his feet in Italy puts his feet in Europe,” said Conte, who was a law professor before he became premier. They also both called for steps to beef up Europe’s borders to prevent illegal immigration.

Macron cited an initiative of his government last year to establish “protection missions” that pre-screen asylum-seekers in Chad and Niger to prevent citizens of the two west African countries from risking the dangerous sea journey.

Conte said Italy is working on a proposal for a “radical paradigm change” in Europe’s approach to managing mass migration that includes creating “hotspots” in the most common countries of origin and departure to identify asylum candidates.

These “centers of European protection” would “anticipate and speedup identification and requests for asylum,” he said. The meeting between Macron and Conte at the Elysee Palace in Paris almost did not take place after the president offered a harsh assessment of Italy’s refusal to accept a private rescue ship carrying 629 migrants. Macron accused the new Italian government of “cynicism” and “irresponsible” behavior.

The migrants who were rescued last Saturday remained at sea Friday. Italy denied the Aquarius a place to dock, insisting it was Malta’s responsibility. After Malta also refused and pointed the ship toward Italy, Spain’s new Socialist prime minister offered the passengers safe harbor Monday. The Aquarius is currently en route to Valencia, where it is expected to arrive on Sunday.

Standing alongside Macron, Conte said it was “time to turn the page” on the diplomatic tensions over the ship and to tackle the larger migration quagmire. As Conte and Macron mended fences in Paris, Italy’s foreign minister met with his Maltese counterpart in Rome to discuss the clash. They expressed “the shared desire to work together in tight coordination, especially in European capitals, about migration in terms of revising” the EU asylum regulations, according to an Italian foreign ministry statement.

Pope Francis referred to this week’s standoff for the second time in as many days Friday, saying the Gospel teaches that it’s wrong to leave migrants “at the mercy of the waves.”

Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.

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