Belgium sets ambitious goals for EU Presidency

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Sunday, 31st December 2023

Belgium, which assumes the Presidency of the Council of the European Union tomorrow, 1st January, has an ambitious agenda fleshed out before Europe as the country also switches to pre-election campaign mode. Belgium is set to hold simultaneous elections for the European Parliament and the federal government on 9th June. Asked what makes Belgium especially suited to take over the Presidency of the Council of the EU, a smiling liberal Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib told DW that “compromis à la belge [Belgian compromise], that is our secret”.

It is up to the Belgian Presidency to finalise over 100 outstanding legislative projects in the EU together with the European Parliament until the end of April. Among them are efforts to reform asylum processing in the bloc and regulate artificial intelligence. At the end of April, the European Parliament will meet for its last plenary session before the European elections are held in the first week of June. Any legislative projects that have not been completed by then will have to be tackled by the next European Parliament and a newly formed European Commission in autumn.

Liberal Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, who hails from Belgium’s Dutch-speaking Flanders region, wants to push through laws that will facilitate a green restructuring of the economy and increase Europe’s global competitiveness. De Croo says Europeans expect the EU to deliver results ahead of the European elections. At a special summit on 1st February, the Belgian government must try to work out a long-term EU budget that includes €50 billion in aid for war-torn Ukraine. At the last December summit, Hungary blocked this with a veto.

Some Belgian journalists, however, doubt the Belgian government has the strength to push through its ambitious agenda, in view of the local, regional, and federal elections being held alongside June’s European elections. It is far from clear whether Belgium’s seven-party coalition government can stay in power. The alliance comprises the Socialists, the Greens, the Liberals, and the Christian Democrats but is falling behind in the polls. Right-wing parties and radical right-wing separatists in Flanders, on the other hand, are making gains. Their rise could make forming a government even more complicated. After the last election, it took almost 500 days for the current coalition to form.

Bulgaria, Romania in Schengen area on 31st March

Bulgaria and Romania will partially integrate into the EU’s Schengen area of free movement from 31st March, the 27 Member States announced last night. A statement from Brussels explains that European countries have unanimously decided to eliminate controls at the air and sea borders of these two states starting from the date corresponding to the transition from winter to summer schedules foreseen by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The 27 will have to take a new decision to choose the date on which to abolish controls at the internal EU land borders of Romania and Bulgaria, adds the European Council note. The European Commission welcomed this decision, which comes after 12 years of negotiations.

UN Security Council holds emergency meeting on Ukraine

Russia has accused Ukraine at the UN Security Council of carrying out a “terrorist attack” on the Russian provincial capital of Belgorod in which at least 20 people were killed. Saturday’s meeting in New York came a day after at least 40 people were killed in what Ukraine says is Russia’s biggest missile bombardment of the war so far.

Assistant Secretary-General in the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, Khaled Khiairi, said protecting civilians had to be a priority. “The fighting and bloodshed must cease; the war must come to an end.” But even as the Security Council was meeting, another attack on the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv was reported. Russia launched a fresh bombardment on Kharkiv, in Ukraine’s northeast, late on Saturday night, officials said. Twin missile strikes by Russia hit the city and injured at least 26 people. Several structures, including a residential building in the city centre, were hit in the attack, Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on Telegram. Drones were also used in the attack, according to the Ukrainian air force, and air defenses were active during the night in other regions including Kyiv. “For every drone, for every Russian missile, there will be a fair responsibility of the terrorist state,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening address.

Photo: Pavel Kolyadin/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

Bellows targeted in swatting incident, police say

In the US, Maine State police responded to a swatting call at the home of Secretary of State Shenna Bellows on Friday night – a day after she removed former President Donald Trump from the state’s 2024 primary ballot. Police say no residents were at the Manchester home when the incident occurred around 8.25pm. Maine State Police officers “conducted an exterior check of the residence and an interior sweep” of Bellows’ home at her request but did not locate anything suspicious, according to a statement released Saturday.

Swatting is a prank call made to authorities with the purpose of luring them to a location – usually a home – where they are led to believe a crime has been committed or is in progress. This results in a forceful response from local police or SWAT teams, which have no way of knowing the call is a hoax. Bellows, a Democrat, on Thursday removed Trump from Maine’s 2024 primary ballot, in a decision based on the 14th Amendment’s “insurrectionist ban”. She later put her decision on hold until Maine’s Superior Court issues a ruling. State law lays out timelines for that court and, if the decision is appealed, the state Supreme Court needs to act by the end of January. Bellows told CNN on Friday that her office has received threats since her decision.

Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/AP

Gaza to remain major concern during 2024, UN warns

In a stark warning on Saturday, the United Nations underscored the protracted nature of the Gaza crisis, asserting that it could remain a major cause of concern in 2024 as well. The statement, released from the UN’s New York headquarters, delineated the pivotal issues anticipated to dominate global attention in the coming year, with the situation in Gaza taking a prominent position.

Commending the Security Council’s December 22 resolution as “a step in the right direction,” the United Nations urged heightened aid delivery to the embattled Gaza Strip, as the resolution emphasised. Despite diplomatic strides, the UN highlighted the dire circumstances confronting the civilian population in Gaza and the West Bank, characterising the situation as “desperate”. The global body expressed deep concern, designating Sigrid Kaag, the newly-appointed UN Senior Humanitarian Coordinator for Gaza, with the immediate responsibility of overseeing aid flow and spearheading post-conflict reconstruction efforts in the territory.

Photo: Saher Alghorra/AFP/Middle East Images/AFP/Getty Images

Missile strikes merchant vessel in Red Sea

A US destroyer patrolling in the Red Sea Saturday shot down two ballistic missiles fired from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen while it was responding to a report that a commercial vessel was itself struck by a missile. According to US Central Command, the container ship Maersk Hangzhou – which is Danish-owned but sails under a Singaporean flag – reported it had been struck by a missile in the Southern Red Sea. No one was hurt and the ship remained seaworthy. However, while responding to assist the Maersk Hangzhou, the USS Gravely shot down two anti-ship missiles which had been fired from Yemen. The missiles appeared to have been directed at the USS Gravely and the USS Laboon, which was also responding to the Maersk Hangzhou.

“Gaza-Egypt border zone should be under Israeli control”

The border zone between the Gaza Strip and Egypt should be under Israel’s control, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, as he predicted the war in the Palestinian enclave and on other regional fronts would last many months. Al Jazeera reports that, as Israel entered the 13th week of its war in Gaza on Saturday, Netanyahu held a news conference where he renewed his promise to eliminate Hamas and bring home all Israelis held captive in Gaza.

“The Philadelphi Corridor – or, to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point [of Gaza] – must be in our hands. It must be shut. It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarisation that we seek,” he said. Israel has said it intends to destroy Hamas in Gaza and demilitarise the territory to prevent any repeat of the 7th October cross-border killing and kidnapping spree by the armed group. “The war is at its height. We are fighting on all of the fronts. Achieving victory will require time. As the [Israeli army] chief of staff has said, the war will continue for many more months,” Netanyahu said. He also added a rare threat to attack Iran directly over the near-daily exchanges of fire across the Israel-Lebanon border. “If [the Iran-backed Lebanese armed group] Hezbollah expands the warfare, it will suffer blows that it has not dreamed of – and so too Iran,” Netanyahu said without elaborating.

Photo: Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS

Netanyahu held the news conference without Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet member Benny Gantz, who reportedly rejected Netanyahu’s request to join him, according to media reports. Channel 13 News attributed their refusal to their anger at Netanyahu for preventing the war cabinet from deliberating the issue of “the day after” in Gaza, along with concerns the premier will again make political statements at the upcoming conference.

Meanwhile, fierce fighting was underway across Gaza on Saturday between the Israeli army and Hamas, the Israeli Air Force reports on X. The fighting, writes the Times of Israel, is taking place throughout the Strip. The Israel Defence Force announced that it destroyed two Hamas military buildings in the northern city of Beit Lahia. Several Hamas targets were attacked in the north and centre of Gaza. Hours earlier, Israeli air force and ground troops attacked targets in the southern city of Khan Yunis.

The Israeli army intensified its operations the south of the Gaza Strip, with the aviation forces carrying out about 50 attacks against objectives in the area, including tunnels and other infrastructures used by Hamas to attack the Israeli divisions. The army has published videos of the Givati battalion in action while fighting with “angry” Hamas militiamen.

Al Jazeera says at least 12 people died yesterday in an Israeli bombardment of a residential building in Zawaida, in the centre of the Gaza Strip.

Wisconsin university rector fired after porn videos with wife

The rector of the University of Wisconsin-crosse was fired due to porn videos he shot with his wife – a decision the couple did not accept, quoting the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Joe Gow and Carmen Wilson criticised the decision of the University by calling it a meaningless “punishment” since the videos portrayed a married couple and had not incited ‘couple violence’ or ‘violence to exploitation’. The board of the University of Wisconsin has unanimously decided to remove Gow, who has been rector since 2007 and considered one of the best rectors and professors. “We are alarmed and disgusted by his actions,” said the board in a note without explicitly mentioning videos. Many students, however, have shown their solidarity on campus.

Paula Abdul sues American Idol producer

Award-winning American recording artist and television star Paula Abdul has accused a producer of the singing competition ‘American Idol’ of sexual assault, according to a California lawsuit. The 61-year-old singer, whose 1988 album ‘Forever your girl’ was the most successful debut in history at the time, has filed a complaint against Nigel Lythgoe over two incidents of violence. The 74-year-old Englishman denied the allegations, US media reported. Abdul said in her lawsuit that she was harassed by Lythgoe and other executives at American Idol, where she was a judge from 2002 to 2009. She added that she had been discriminated against in terms of pay and that she “was the target of constant taunts, bullying, humiliation, and harassment from several agents and employees” of the show.

Photo: Getty Images

Main photo: Belga

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