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Posts tagged ‘Decline of the European Union’

Low turnout expected in Albanian election key to EU bid

June 25, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians voted in what was expected to be low numbers Sunday in a general election that was aimed at giving the country’s two biggest political parties a chance to look past their bitter differences and work toward eventually joining the European Union.

The voting ended at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT) after the Central Election Commission decided to extend voting by one hour due to low turnout that was attributed to religious festivities and hot temperatures that reached 39 degrees (102 Fahrenheit.)

The decision caused chaos in some places as more people waited in line to cast ballots. When the polls closed, the preliminary turnout from the 19 percent of stations reporting participation figures was 43.9 percent, compared to 53.5 percent four years ago. Preliminary election results are not expected until Monday.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.

Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday’s vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.

An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama’s Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.

All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent. Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.

“We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign,” Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana. Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.

Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting. The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.

Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election. Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote. “Today, Albania needs God more than ever,” Rama said. The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.

Open conflict triggers concern Poland might leave EU next

August 05, 2017

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Since British voters endorsed leaving the European Union, politicians and pundits have ruminated on which of the bloc’s remaining 27 nations could be next. “Grexit” and “Frexit,” for Greece and France, were two subjects of speculation.

Now, months of open conflict between Poland’s conservative nationalist government and the rest of the EU has some Poles wondering if their leaders are putting the country on a path that could take it out of the union.

“There is a question mark over Poland’s European future today,” European Council President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister who is a critic of the ruling Law and Justice party, said Thursday.

The EU is widely popular in Poland, so the idea of the country abandoning the bloc strikes many people here as farfetched. Several surveys have shown public support for the EU standing at over 70 percent, approval stemming from the economic boom and freedom of travel that came with membership in 2004.

But members of the opposition in Poland increasingly are voicing fears that the conflicts between Warsaw and Brussels could eventually lead to a parting of ways. They point to the defiant stance Law and Justice and its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, adopted when the EU raised concerns about changes to Poland’s justice system and the extensive logging the government has ordered in a primeval forest that has been classified as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Government spokesman Rafal Bochenek insisted that Polish leaders intend to keep Poland in the bloc. “Poland is a member of EU and is going to be a leading partner to other member states within the structure,” Bochenek told The Associated Press on Friday. “We have got many ambitious projects and challenges to realize in the EU. We will cooperate with our European partners.”

Law and Justice has never publicly advocated leaving the bloc, but criticizes what it views as unnecessary EU bureaucracy and infringements on the authority of member countries to make their own decisions.

In that vein, Poland’s government aggressively pushed through legislation to put the court system under the ruling party’s control. The EU’s executive arm has said the moves violate democratic norms by reducing judicial independence.

With Warsaw refusing to give in to the bloc’s calls for it to respect the separation of powers, the European Commission is threatening steps that could lead to Poland losing its EU voting rights. The government also has continued logging in the Bialowieza Forest even though the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ordered it last week to stop felling trees immediately. If it continues, Poland could be hit with massive fines.

Katarzyna Lubnauer, a lawmaker with the opposition Modern party, said recently that because Poles are such “Euro-enthusiasts,” nobody in the ruling Law and Justice party would admit that leaving the bloc is their aim.

“But when we look at what is happening now, we have a deep sense that this departure is taking place,” Lubnauer said. “But it will happen in stages.” Tusk made a similar argument Thursday, saying he viewed the “arrogant” refusal to obey the EU court’s logging decision as an “attempt to put Poland in conflict with the European Union.”

“It seems to me like a prelude to an announcement that Poland does not need the European Union and that Poland is not needed for the EU,” he said. “I think such a moment would be one of the most dangerous in our history. I am afraid we are closer than further to that moment.”

Bochenek, the government spokesman, called Tusk’s statement one of the many “lies” the former prime minister has told about Poland. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sees the formal steps taken over Poland’s judiciary as a way to maintain dialogue with Warsaw and resolve the problems, spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said.

“We are working to keep this union together,” Andreeva said.

Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

Romania blocks Russian deputy PM from entering EU airspace

July 28, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin had to scrap a trip to Moldova on Friday after his plane was barred from entering Romanian and Hungarian airspace. Rogozin told Russian news agencies that he and other Russian officials were traveling on a commercial flight to the Moldovan capital of Chisinau when the plane was denied passage over Romania or Hungary, both European Union members. It had to land in the Belorussian capital of Minsk because it was running out of fuel.

The deputy prime minister is one of the most senior Russian officials slapped with an EU visa ban in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Rogozin told the Interfax news agency that he started using commercial flights after Romanian authorities closed their airspace to his chartered flight in 2014.

Romania’s foreign ministry confirmed on Friday that authorities had not allowed Rogozin to enter the country’s airspace. In a tweet later Friday, Rogozin said Romanian authorities “put lives of the passengers, women and children at risk” by forcing the plane to divert. He issued a warning for the Romanian government: “You wait for an answer, bastards!”

Moldova’s pro-Russian President Igor Dodon, who was to meet Rogozin on Friday in Chisinau, reacted angrily. “We are watching an unprecedented Russia-phobic show, which is designed to destroy Moldovan-Russian relations,” Dodon said.

Opposition activists had gathered at the Chisinau airport earlier Friday to protest Rogozin’s visit. Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday presented Romania’s envoy to Russia with a note of protest, urging an investigation into the incident and arguing that it put the lives of those onboard at risk.

“Moscow is treating the incident as a deliberate provocation, which seriously damages the bilateral relations,” the ministry said, urging Romania to investigate the incident.

Associated Press writer Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Romania contributed.

EU executive branch files complaint against Poland

July 29, 2017

BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union’s executive branch has launched a complaint alleging Poland has limited judicial independence in the country in violation of EU laws. The European Commission said Saturday it sent a “letter of formal notice” to Poland to raise concerns that the independence of Polish courts will be undermined by the new “discretionary” powers the overhaul gives the country’s justice minister.

The commission says it is especially concerned the justice minister now is entitled to extend the mandates of judges and to dismiss and appoint court presidents. Warsaw has one month to reply to the notice warning it is infringing on EU laws. The commission may then take further steps.

The Euroskeptic Polish government has said that reforming the justice system is an internal Polish matter.

UK Brexit chief sees EU-UK trade talks starting this fall

July 11, 2017

LONDON (AP) — U.K. and European Union negotiators should be able to move from talks about Britain’s divorce terms to negotiating future relations before the end of the year, the top U.K. Brexit official said Tuesday.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier hoped to “recommend going to the parallel negotiations October-November.” Britain triggered a two-year countdown to its departure from the bloc in March, and Davis and Barnier met for preliminary talks last month. They are due to meet again next week.

The EU insists that major progress must be made on the U.K.’s exit terms — including a hefty divorce bill — before negotiations can start on the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU. Britain wants the two strands to run in parallel.

Davis told the House of Lords Brexit committee that Barnier hoped to signal in the fall that sufficient progress had been made. Once that happens, talks could move on to “free-trade issues, customs issues, justice and home affairs issues,” he said.

Davis also struck an optimistic note on settling the status of 3 million EU citizens living in Britain, and more than 1 million U.K. nationals residing elsewhere in the bloc. The two sides have sparred over the issue, with EU lawmakers accusing Britain of planning to give Europeans in Britain “second-class status.”

Davis said he wanted the issue to be settled soon, because “I view it bluntly as a moral issue.” “We don’t want anybody to be a bargaining chip,” he said. Davis’ positive tone contrasted with comments earlier in the day made by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who said the EU could “go whistle” if it tried to impose an “extortionate” exit bill on the U.K.

Estimates of the amount Britain must pay to cover pension liabilities for EU staff and other commitments have ranged up to 100 billion euros ($114 billion.) “The sums that I have seen that they propose to demand from this country seem to me to be extortionate,” Johnson said.

“I think ‘go whistle’ is an entirely appropriate expression,” he told lawmakers in the House of Commons. Davis, more diplomatically, said Britain’s position on the divorce bill was “not to pay more than we need to.”

Albanian vote in election seen as key to moving toward EU

June 25, 2017

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians were voting Sunday in a general election that follows a landmark agreement between the country’s two biggest political parties to look past their bitter differences and back efforts for Albania to eventually join the European Union.

Holding a free and fair election is key to launching EU membership talks for the nation of 2.9 million, which is already a NATO member. After earning EU candidate status in 2014, Tirana has struggled to pass important reforms vital for its bid to advance to EU — namely deeply reforming its corrupted justice system.

Eighteen political parties are running for 140 seats in parliament in Sunday’s vote. The main contenders are Prime Minister Edi Rama’s Socialist Party and the opposition Democratic Party led by Lulzim Basha.

An agreement reached in May ended the three-month parliamentary boycott by the Democrats, who claimed that voting was open to manipulation. The election date was delayed a week and Rama’s Socialists promised greater oversight on election transparency.

All main parties campaigned on a reform agenda, pledging faster economic growth, pay hikes and lower unemployment, which stands at about 14 percent. Some 6,000 police officers were on duty for election security, while more 300 international observers came to monitor the vote.

“We expect a better Albania and leaders to work to do what they have pledged at the campaign,” Zenel Caka, 47, said at a polling station in Tirana. Luan Rama of the Socialist Party for Motivation, the third main political party, said one member was injured following a quarrel and a shooting incident outside a polling station in Shengjin, 60 kilometers (37 miles) northwest of the capital, Tirana.

Police investigating the incident said they found a cartridge but no injured person was taken to the hospital. They said it did not disrupt the voting. The Interior Ministry also reported hundreds of attempts to buy votes, a crime that may result in a jail term.

Central Election Commission said partial turnout at a quarter of polling stations by 10 a.m. was 12.6 percent, almost the same as in the previous election. Albanians also celebrated Eid al-Fitr on Sunday, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. In the early morning, thousands of Muslim believers said prayers at the recently-renovated Skanderbeg Square in Tirana.

All top leaders cast their ballots, congratulating Muslims on the holiday and urging citizens to vote. “Today, Albania needs God more than ever,” Rama said. The western city of Kavaja was also holding a mayoral election.

Preliminary results from the vote are expected Monday.

Migrant pressures grow; Italy presses EU nations to do more

June 29, 2017

ROME (AP) — Italy’s leader pressed his European Union allies Thursday to take in more migrants, saying the relentless arrival of tens of thousands on Italy’s shores is putting his country under enormous strain. He spoke after 10,000 migrants were pulled to safety from the Mediterranean Sea in the last few days alone and were heading to Italy.

With an election due in less than a year, political pressure is building on Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni’s center-left government to push for relief from fellow EU nations. Flanked by EU national leaders and EU officials at a news conference in Berlin, Gentiloni said the growing number of arrivals “puts our welcome capability to a tough test.”

Italy has already taken in hundreds of thousands of migrants in the last few years. Some estimates say 220,000 migrants could land in Italy by the end of 2017. In addition to those who arrive, over 2,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year, according to the U.N.

“It’s a country under pressure, and we ask the help of our European allies,” Gentiloni said, when asked about reports that Italy is considering blocking its ports to non-Italian NGO ships that pluck to safety migrants from distressed dinghies and other unseaworthy boats off the Libyan coast.

While acknowledging that European nations take part in patrols to deter smuggling in the central Mediterranean, Gentiloni said the job of caring for the migrants “remains in one country only” — Italy.

On Sunday, Italy’s anti-migrant Northern League Party teamed up with the center-right opposition forces led by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi and triumphed in several mayoral races. The Democrats, Italy’s main government party, took an embarrassing drubbing.

Many Italian towns say they just can’t handle hosting hundreds of migrants any more. Right-wing parties remind citizens that Italians themselves are suffering from high unemployment and a practically flat economy.

In one port alone Thursday, in Reggio Calabria, 1,066 migrants disembarked from the Save the Children rescue ship Vos Hestia. Among them were 241 unaccompanied minors. This ship’s rescued migrants came from Eritrea, Bangladesh, Somalia and several sub-Saharan nations of Africa and included a four-day-old boy. Six migrants had chicken pox and some 250 showed signs of scabies, so officials set up pressurized showers.

From 2015 to 2016, the number of unaccompanied minors doubled to more than 25,000, according to the Interior Ministry. Populist leader Beppe Grillo, founder of the opposition 5-Star Movement, slammed as a “suicide pact” the accord that lets the European sea patrol off Libya bring all the migrants they rescue to Italy.

There’s also concern that if Italy, a stalwart supporter of the EU, sours on Brussels because it feels abandoned on the migrant issue, the EU’s very survival itself could be compromised. “Either the Union can shake itself up, or the fear is that it can collapse definitively,” said Francesco Laforgia, a left-leaning lawmaker.

“The situation is no long sustainable,” Nicola Latorre, head of the Senate’s defense commission, told the Il Messaggero daily. “Obviously saving human lives remains a priority. But it’s unthinkable that Italy does it all by itself.”

That Italy is considering prohibiting some NGO ships from bringing migrants to southern Italian ports reflects growing frustration in the country toward others in the EU, said Elizabeth Collett, director of MPI Europe, an independent research institution studying migration in Europe.

“What they see is an insufficient willingness of other countries to step up and help out,” Collett said. One rescue group, SOS Mediterranee, expressed understanding, saying Italy has been “at the front line of this humanitarian tragedy for too long.”

Still, their statement said: “NGOs are not the cause, nor the solution, to this humanitarian crisis but a response to the failure of the European Union to find a common approach to the tragedy.” Earlier Thursday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini insisted that other EU countries share the burden of caring for migrants. But previous plans hatched in Brussels to make other EU countries take in a fixed number of migrants from Italy and Greece have largely stalled.

Several central and eastern European EU members — including large countries like Hungary and Poland — have flat out refused to take in a quota of the asylum-seekers. French President Emmanuel Macron, in Berlin along with Gentiloni, insisted that France would do its part as far as those deserving asylum. But Macron noted that more than 80 percent of the people flowing into Italy from across the sea have been described as economic migrants.

“How to explain to our fellow citizens, to our middle classes, that suddenly there is no limit anymore?” the French leader asked.

AP reporter Geir Moulson contributed from Berlin.

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