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Posts tagged ‘Decline of the European Union’

EU prepares new Myanmar sanctions over Rohingya crackdown

February 26, 2018

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union foreign ministers have tasked the EU’s top diplomat with drawing up a list of sanctions to slap on senior Myanmar military officers over rights abuses against the Rohingya minority.

The ministers on Monday also ordered EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to propose ways to toughen an EU embargo blocking the provision of arms and equipment that could be used for internal repression.

They said the measures are needed “in light of the disproportionate use of force and widespread and systematic grave human rights violations committed by the military and security forces.” About 700,000 Rohingya have fled towns and villages in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine state since August to escape a military crackdown.

Negotiations for their return are underway but many fear their safety and well-being are not guaranteed.


EU and Russia vie for influence in volatile Balkans region

February 24, 2018

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — For years, Russia has worked to gain influence in Southeast Europe, using Serbia as a foothold to establish a friendly pocket on a hostile continent. The European Union finally is pushing back. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker is embarking on a seven-nation Balkans tour Sunday to promote the EU’s new eastward expansion strategy.

Russia mainly wants to discourage the Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia — from joining NATO. But Moscow also is trying to deter them from joining the EU.

The EU sees the prospect of membership as an incentive for reform in the volatile Balkans region, which was torn apart by war in the 1990s. Its expansion strategy puts Serbia and Montenegro in position to join should the bloc open its doors to more members, tentatively by 2025.

Serbia is a major target of Moscow’s anti-Western activities in Europe because the two Slavic and predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian nations share deep cultural and historical ties. Their bonds also have experienced lows and highs, especially since the former Yugoslavia refused to join the Soviet bloc in 1948.

The Kremlin is so concerned about losing its ally that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov repeatedly argued while in Serbia last week that EU membership isn’t all it’s cut out to be. Lavrov also gave a warning; the EU’s repeated calls for Serbia to align its foreign policies with the bloc as a precursor to membership and to impose sanctions on Russia, he said, are the same “mistake” the West made by pressuring war-torn Ukraine to choose between it and Russia.

Lavrov told Russia’s Rossiya 1 TV on Saturday that both Serbia and Russia are “the object of the West’s overt pressure” to turn Serbia against Russia. “We love our countries, and the Serbs love Russia, and the Russians love Serbia,” he said.

Serbian political analyst Bosko Jaksic thinks the “Russians are getting increasingly nervous as they lose allies one by one in the Balkans.” “It’s not clear how far they are willing to go to preserve their interests here, but judging from what they did in Ukraine, they are willing to go far,” Jaksic said, referring to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Lavrov also said that “Europe is facing an unhealthy situation” because of NATO’s eastward expansion. Montenegro joined the Western military organization last year despite Moscow’s strong opposition. He praised Belgrade for maintaining military neutrality and refusing to join NATO.

“We are convinced that this status is one of the main factors ensuring stability in the Balkans and the European continent in general,” Lavrov said. There have been mounting fears in the West that Russia is using Serbia to foment tensions in the Balkans by arming its ally with warplanes and tanks while working to destabilize neighboring Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

The European Union’s foreign and security policies grew out of Europe’s failure to respond to the wars in the Balkans that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia. The bloc remains wary that some of the ethnic cleavages that sparked the conflicts of the 1990s persist.

Three countries have become EU members: Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013. The rest either are candidates for membership of potential candidates. Although Serbia formally has declared its interest in joining the EU, the right-leaning leadership now running the country repeatedly has expressed anti-Western sentiments.

“Investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our Union,” Juncker said ahead of the trip. Juncker’s tour of the Balkans, which starts in Macedonia on Sunday and ends with an EU summit in Bulgaria on March 1, is seen as the EU’s belated attempt to counter Russia’s reach.

“Paradoxically, the Russians and their policies in the Balkans have triggered alarm bells that woke up the European Union into action,” Jaksic, the analyst, said.

AP Writer Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels.

New Austrian leader rejects talk of eastern EU alliance

January 05, 2018

SEGGAUBERG, Austria (AP) — Austria’s new chancellor on Friday rejected suggestions that his government will align broadly with eastern nations that have clashed with the European Union over migrants and other issues.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz leads a coalition with the traditionally euroskeptic Freedom Party that took office just before Christmas. Both Kurz’ conservative People’s Party and the Freedom Party have taken a hard line against migration.

The position has generated speculation that Austria could move closer to the Visegrad group of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia than its western EU allies. Kurz, who at 31 is Europe’s youngest leader, warned Friday against “over-interpreting things.”

“There are measures and initiatives where we have goodwill in western European countries,” he told reporters after a meeting of the new Cabinet. “There are others where we will perhaps get applause from the Visegrad countries, and still others where we agree with all other 27 EU member states.”

Kurz plans to visit Paris and Berlin in coming weeks. He said he expects a “good exchange” with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stressing that “Germany is our biggest neighbor, our most important economic partner.”

Of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has championed efforts to reform the EU, Kurz said: “It is clearly positive for all of us in the European Union that there is a French president who aspires to change something in the European Union.”

Kurz called for an EU that is strong on “big questions” such as border security but leaves many policy decisions to countries and regions. Austria will hold the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of this year, when the bloc should be finalizing terms of Britain’s departure.

“I very much hope that we succeed in organizing an orderly departure by the British,” Kurz said, arguing that a failure to do so would hurt both sides.


Polish president signs laws that led to EU sanction threat

December 20, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland’s president signed two laws Wednesday that complete a sweeping government overhaul of the country’s justice system, ignoring a warning from the European Union that the legislation breached fundamental democratic principles and could lead to unprecedented sanctions.

President Andrzej Duda’s approval of the laws he had a hand in drafting was not unexpected, but his announcement came hours after the EU’s executive body triggered proceedings over a series of legal changes that give the Polish government more control over the judiciary and courts.

Duda emphatically defended the legislation in a television interview on Wednesday night. He accused the EU of hypocrisy” and some of its leaders of “lying” with the suggestion that Poland is acting with disregard for basic European values.

The developments reflect a dramatic historical reversal for Poland, the birthplace of an anti-communist movement in the 1980s that inspired people across Eastern Europe and has been held up as a model of democratic transition for more than a quarter century.

The right-wing Law and Justice party that has ruled Poland for two years has enacted several laws that critics say erode the separation of powers between the executive and judicial branches and could interfere with defendants receiving fair trials.

The European Commission announced Wednesday that it was invoking what is known as Article 7 — essentially putting Poland on notice that it is at risk of contravening EU law — in response. Though the step was historic — no EU state has ever been censured in this way — for now it is largely symbolic and reflects the escalating tensions between Poland’s populist government and its EU partners.

The final step in the process would involve sanctions, including the loss by Poland of its voting rights in the Council. This step, however, is considered unlikely to happen because it requires unanimity of EU countries, and Hungary’s government has vowed to block any such move.

“We are doing this for Poland, for Polish citizens,” so they can rely on a fully independent judiciary in their nation, EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans said in announcing the decision. Timmermans said the decision was taken with a “heavy heart” but had become unavoidable because Poland’s authorities could not be persuaded to abandon laws that have been condemned not only by the EU but also by the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body.

Poland’s government, which has defiantly gone forward with its changes to the legal system despite repeated warnings from the EU, took the decision in its stride. In announcing his decision to sign the laws, Duda passionately defended them against unnamed critics. He argued that putting courts and judges under greater political control will make them more accountable to regular Poles, ending an unaccountable oligarchy of judges.

“I really believe that extremely democratic solutions are being introduced in Poland with these legal changes,” Duda said. “The idea that they are violating democratic rules — it’s actually the exact opposite. I am convinced that this deepens democracy in the judicial system.”

He suggested it was unfair to judge Poland for making judges more accountable to politicians, noting that the appointment of judges to the U.S. Supreme Court is also a political process. The Polish president accused Timmermans during the interview with Polsat News TV of rejecting every argument from Poland and of applying a “dictate” that the country “will not accept.”

The European Commission must now submit a request to the EU member states to declare “a clear risk of serious breach of the rule of law” in Poland. That is essentially a warning, or in EU lingo, a “preventative” measure, that will require that acceptance of 22 EU countries.

The procedure carries a number of risks. Targeting Poland could increase anti-EU sentiment in one of member countries where support for the bloc is highest, with more than 80 percent approval. The move also could expose the EU as largely impotent at a time when it is struggling with other blows to its rationale for existing, including Britain’s withdrawal and the huge numbers of migrants stuck in Italy and Greece that the bloc is struggling to relocate.

Even some of the government’s staunchest critics have opposed the step, fearing it will create a sense among some Poles — particularly those who do not understand the complexities of the judicial laws — that they are being targeted unfairly by the EU.

Ryszard Czarnecki, a member of Law and Justice and the vice president of the European Parliament, called the step an “anti-Polish” move that is really meant to punish Poland for not taking migrants in a mandatory EU resettlement plan.

As expected, Hungary came to Poland’s defense. Zsolt Semjen, the deputy prime minister, described the EU decision as “unprecedented and astounding” and reiterated the intention of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to block any sanctions.

“The decision seriously damages Poland’s sovereignty,” Semjen told state news wire MTI. “It is unacceptable that Brussels is putting pressure on sovereign member states and arbitrarily punishing democratically elected governments.”

Raf Casert in Brussels and Pablo Gorondi in Budapest contributed.


EU leaders set to launch new phase in Brexit talks

December 15, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders are set to authorize a new phase in Britain’s departure from the bloc. The expected clearance Friday to trade discussions will provide a welcome boost to British Prime Minister Theresa May, who earlier this week lost a key parliamentary vote over giving lawmakers the final say on the Brexit deal.

May received a round of applause from EU leaders Thursday night after giving her assessment of progress in the talks. Britain is due to leave in March 2019. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Friday that “some of us thought, including me, that she did make big efforts and this has to be recognized.”

Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat, said “there was appreciation from everyone,” despite concerns in the EU of developments in London.


New Austrian government pledges pro-EU approach, more police

December 16, 2017

BERLIN (AP) — The new Austrian government led by a conservative and a nationalist party is pledging to tighten the country’s asylum and immigration regulations while maintaining a firm commitment to the European Union, according to their coalition agreement released Saturday.

Under the deal reached late Friday night, Sebastian Kurz, head of the Austrian People’s Party, will become chancellor, which will make him Europe’s youngest leader when he is sworn in on Monday at age 31. Right-wing Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache will be vice chancellor and minister for sports and public servants.

“This can be the basis for real change in Austria,” Kurz told reporters, introducing the government program that runs more than 180 pages. The document begins with a statement reinforcing Austria’s commitment to the EU and other international organizations, saying that no Brexit-like referendums would be allowed.

“Only in a strong Europe can there also be a strong Austria, in which we are able to take advantage of the opportunities of the 21st century,” the document reads. At the same time, the People’s Party-Freedom Party partnership is expected to move the country to the right. Both campaigned on the need for tougher immigration controls, quick deportations of asylum-seekers whose requests are denied and a crackdown on radical Islam.

The coalition agreement calls for bolstering the country’s police forces with another 2,100 officers, as well as immigration policies that “can be sustained by the population.” It also says asylum should only be offered to people “for the duration of their persecution, who really need Austria’s help”

Other points include ending illegal migration, cutting government bureaucracy, reducing taxes and creating a new national climate and energy strategy. Kurz’s party finished first in the country’s Oct. 15 election and then embarked on coalition talks with the Freedom Party, which came in third after the center-left Social Democrats.

In the new government, the Freedom Party will have another five ministers in addition to Strache and a deputy minister, including leadership of the important Interior, Defense and Foreign Ministries, the Austria Press Agency reported.

Along with Kurz as chancellor, the People’s Party will have seven ministers and one deputy, with responsibilities including the Finance, Economy and Justice Ministries. Kurz is the foreign minister in the outgoing government under Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat. He has stressed the importance of a pro-European direction and is expected to continue to take the lead on European issues even though the Freedom Party, which has traditionally been strongly euroskeptic, will have the Foreign Ministry.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said after he was presented with the coalition agreement and minister choices earlier Saturday that he saw no issues preventing the new government from being sworn in.

Following meetings with Kurz and Strache, Van der Bellen said he’d been assured a “pro-European” focus was central to that of the new government. “In these talks, among other things, we agreed it is in the national interest of Austria to remain at the center of a strong European Union and to actively participate in the future development of the European Union,” he said.


Britain, EU in Brexit breakthrough; eye talks on future ties

December 08, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — Britain and the European Union made a significant step forward Friday in Brexit talks, officials said, after a flurry of overnight diplomacy by phone bridged differences over the Irish border.

“I believe that we have now made the breakthrough that we needed,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters during a joint news conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

But the agreement doesn’t give details of how the thorny border issue will be solved, noting that much depends on the outcome of trade talks between Britain and the EU. Its crucial passages promise that whatever happens, the U.K. will maintain “full regulatory alignment” with the bloc on issues affecting Ireland.

Exactly what that means will be fought over by politicians and negotiators in the months to come. Juncker said that he would recommend to European Union leaders that “sufficient progress has been achieved” on the terms of the divorce to starting talking about issues like future relations and trade.

EU leaders meet in Brussels on Dec. 14 and are likely to endorse the assessment that enough progress has been made on the terms of Britain’s financial settlement, the status of Irish borders and the rights of citizens hit by Brexit.

“I am hopeful, sure, confident, sure, that they will share our appraisal and allow us to move on the next phase of the negotiations,” Juncker said. May said: “I very much welcome the prospect of moving ahead to the next phase, to talk about trade and security and to discuss the positive and ambitious future relationship that is in all of our interests,”

“I hope and expect we will be able to get the endorsement of the 27,” she said, referring to the other EU countries. Juncker repeated that he didn’t want Britain to leave the EU — the first time a member country has ever done so — saying “I will always be sad about this development but now we must start looking for the future.”

Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, but negotiations must be wrapped up within a year to leave time for parliaments to endorse any deal. Business leaders warn further delays will hurt companies as they plan for the future.

Existing rules allow people and goods to pass freely between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland with no border checks. Ireland wants to preserve the current arrangement, which has eased tensions along the border. May is struggling to balance those demands against the concerns of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which she relies on to support her government in Parliament.

May said that Northern Ireland has “a set of unique circumstances” because it has the U.K.’s only land border with an EU country. The border issue has been threatening to derail the divorce talks. Earlier this week, the DUP scuttled a deal between the U.K and the bloc, prompting the frantic diplomacy.

May said Friday that the agreement would maintain an open border while preserving the constitutional and economic integrity of the U.K. DUP leader Arlene Foster appeared satisfied Friday, saying that the agreement gave “very clear confirmation that the entirety of the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union.”

May also met with European Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair next Thursday’s summit, and Tusk said the EU and London must now start negotiating a transition period to ease Britain’s way out of the bloc during a time of legal uncertainty after in 2019.

Tusk noted that Britain has asked for a two-year bridging period, he laid out conditions for that to happen. “I propose that during this period the U.K. will respect the whole of EU law, including new law, it will respect budget commitments, it will respect judicial oversight and of course all related obligations,” he told reporters.

Tusk also said he has sent guidelines to EU leaders on how he thinks phase two of the Brexit talks should be handled. Meanwhile, British business groups were expressing relief that Brexit talks finally look set to start discussing the future shape of trade and economic relations.

Stephen Martin, who heads U.K. business group the Institute of Directors, said “it went right down to the wire, but businesses will be breathing a huge sigh of relief.” Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said that “after the noise and political brinksmanship of recent days, news of a breakthrough in the negotiations will be warmly welcomed by companies across the U.K.”

Jill Lawless reported from London.


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