Bosnia and Herzegovina to begin EU accession talks

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 22nd March 2024

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels have approve opening accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The decision comes eight years after the Western Balkan country first applied for EU membership, and just nine days after the European Commission said it had made sufficient progress in aligning with the bloc’s standards, values, and foreign policy to enter negotiations.

“Your place is in our European family,” European Council President Charles Michel, responsible for brokering the unanimous approval, said on social media platform X. The decision was immediately welcomed by Borjana Krišto, Chairwoman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who “sincerely” thanked EU leaders and Michel on X. While all EU member states support the country’s accession in principle, some – such as Denmark and the Netherlands – had expressed concerns that there were still loose ends in the constitutional and electoral reforms Bosnia was expected to complete before it was considered ready for accession talks.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of five Western Balkan countries recognised as official candidates to join the EU.

Visegrád Group still deeply divided on sending arms to Ukraine

Four Central European countries – the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia – known as the Visegrád Group, remain deeply divided over how to resolve Russia’s war against Ukraine, their foreign ministers said on Thursday. The countries’ foreign ministers discussed a Czech plan to acquire ammunition that Ukraine needs from third countries outside the European Union, at a meeting held on Thursday. “It’s necessary to boost support for Ukraine in all areas including military assistance,” Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky said. Under the plan, the Czechs seek to obtain 800,000 artillery shells for the war-torn country. Czech leaders previously said the first shells should be delivered to Ukraine no later than June. At least 18 countries have joined the initiative, Czech leaders had previously said. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski called the Czech plan an “excellent idea”.Sikorski added Poland would contribute funds as well as help deliver the ammunition to the front. But the foreign ministers of Hungary and Slovakia are not ready to change their strict refusal to provide arms to Ukraine. “Hungary has not and will not send any weapons to Ukraine,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said. Slovakia’s view has not changed because “the conflict doesn’t have a military solution,” according to its foreign minister, Juraj Blanar.

Biden administration backs using frozen assets to give to Ukraine

With Congress still deadlocked over providing more aid to desperate Ukrainian forces, the Biden administration is weighing ever more complicated and imaginative ways to funnel money and arms to the effort to repel the Russian invasion. The latest idea is to sell bonds to raise money for Ukraine, all backed with hundreds of millions of dollars in frozen Russian assets. The ‘freedom bonds’ could raise as much as $50 billion – almost as much as the stalled international security bill – to help Ukraine keep up its fight, while avoiding the thorny question of whether the $280 billion of frozen assets can be seized legally. The proposal emerged on Thursday, as Russia fired more than two dozen missiles at the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and European leaders met to decide how best to use the Russian assets. The European Commission this week proposed taking profits from the frozen assets for a fund to arm Kyiv.

EU leaders divided on Eurobonds for Ukraine

However, EU leaders are “divided” on the possibility of Eurobonds to support defence spending, said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, rotating president of the EU, at the end of the first day of work of the European Council. When asked which countries were against it – and whether Germany and the Netherlands were among them – De Croo replied that among the 27 there was a “classic contrast”, between the frugal and those who instead ask for solidarity. “I don’t have a crystal ball” to know how it will go, he observed, adding that “in the past, in relation to unavoidable needs, positions have changed”.

Orbán breaks ranks with the EU and congratulates Putin

In a new display of disregard to the European Union, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán personally congratulated Vladimir Putin on what analysts have called a self-proclamation, rather than a democratic election, as the authoritarian leader easily took over 87 per cent of all votes – the highest margin registered in the country’s post-Soviet era. Earlier this week, Brussels condemned the Russian presidential poll held over the weekend for taking place in an “ever-shrinking political space” amid an “alarming increase of violations of civil and political rights” that has strangled opposition voices and restricted access to accurate information. The bloc also denounced the Kremlin for organising “elections” in the occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, decried as a “manifest violation” of international law. “The shocking death of opposition politician Alexei Navalny in the run-up to the elections is yet another sign of the accelerating and systematic repression,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said then. Orbán’s celebratory message doubled down on Budapest’s intention to maintain close relations with Moscow despite the raft of sanctions that Western allies have slapped on the Kremlin with the aim of crippling its ability to wage war on Ukraine.

Statistical tool gauges voter fraud in Putin landslide

As many as half of all the votes reported for Vladimir Putin in Russia’s presidential election last week were fraudulent, according to Russian independent media reports using a statistical method devised by analyst Sergey Shpilkin to estimate the extent of voter manipulation. President   Putin claimed a landslide victory on Sunday that will keep him in power until at least 2030, following a three-day presidential election that Western critics dismissed as neither free nor fair. France 24 says the criticism is shared by Russia’s remaining independent media outlets, which have published their estimates of the extent of voter manipulation during the March 15-17 election that saw Putin clinch a fifth term in office with a record 87 per cent of ballots cast.

“Around 22 million ballots officially in favour of Vladimir Putin were falsified,” said the Russian investigative journalism website Meduza, which interviewed Russian electoral analyst Ivan Shukshin. Important Stories, another investigative news website, gave a similar number, estimating that 21.9 million false votes were cast for the incumbent president. The opposition media outlet Novaya Gazeta Europe came up with an even bigger number, claiming that 31.6 million ballots were falsified in Putin’s favour. That figure “corresponds to almost 50 per cent of all the votes cast in the president’s favour, according to the Central Election Commission [Putin received 64.7 million votes]”, said Jeff Hawn, a Russia expert at the London School of Economics. All three estimates suggest that “fraud on a scale unprecedented in Russian electoral history” was committed, added Matthew Wyman, a specialist in Russian politics at Keele University in the UK. The three news outlets all used the same algorithmic method to estimate the extent of voter fraud. It is named after Russian statistician Sergey Shpilkin, who developed it a decade ago. However, he has also made some powerful enemies by denouncing electoral fraud. In February 2023, Shpilkin was added to Russia’s list of “foreign agents”.

The EU calls for an immediate humanitarian pause in Gaza

“Strong and united statement from EU leaders on the Middle East at this evening’s European Council! The EU calls for an immediate humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire,” wrotes it on X the President of the European Council Charles Michel.

UN vote on the draft for the truce in Gaza today

Meanwhile, the US has announced it would bring a draft resolution to a vote in the Security Council this morning.  US spokesman at the UN, Nathan Evans has said in recent weeks, the United States has been working with members of the Security Council on a resolution that would “unequivocally” support ongoing diplomatic efforts to secure “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as part of a hostage deal”, which would allow for the release of hostages and would help lead to a surge in humanitarian aid. “This resolution,” he said, “is an opportunity for the Council to speak with one voice to support diplomacy.” The Guardian reports: “The primary focus for now is the hostage negotiations underway in Qatar, which are moving into high gear again, with the CIA and Mossad chiefs, William Burns and David Barnea, expected to fly into Doha on Friday.”

One in five Germans show apathy toward EU elections

One in five Germans showed low interest in the upcoming European elections in June, a survey published on Thursday showed. The data showed that interest in the elections was lower among voters on the right side of the political spectrum. Some 21 per cent of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) supporters and 22 per cent of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) voters showed little to moderate interest in the EU elections. Only three percent of the supporters of the Green Party are not interested in the upcoming elections while 16 per cent of the Socialist Left Party voters and 10 per cent of the responders from the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) camp said the same. The study was carried out by the research institute Civey on behalf of the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Progressive Centre Berlin.

The top issue for the next elections for about 75 per cent of the respondents was migration, followed by security and defence for 63 per cent of potential voters. Regarding ongoing farmer protests across the EU, agriculture ranked seventh at 30 per cent. Opinions of the respondents differed when it came to dealing with crisis situations – a key part of the survey. Just over half of them believe that current crises, such as Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, are best dealt with on a European level. Meanwhile, 40 per cent believe that they are best addressed at the national level. How to deal with crises varies massively among political affiliations. While 72 per cent of AfD supporters support national solutions, 88 per cent of Green Party voters want Europe-wide solutions. The survey involved some 5,000 participants.

Nordic voters buck trend in Europe’s social-democrat stronghold

Nordic nations are set to become the EU’s social-democrat stronghold in upcoming elections, according to exclusive polling produced by Ipsos for Euronews. In each of Denmark, Sweden and Finland, social democrats are set to send the largest delegation, making the region something of a rarity in Europe, where it’s normally right-wing parties predicted to top the polls. Meanwhile the rising support for the radical right seen across Europe won’t be reflected in the delegation of 51 MEPs sent by the three countries, according to the poll. The Nordic bloc is set to lose its one ID Group MEP, from the Danish People’s Party, though that seat may be taken up instead by the Danish Democrats – a newcomer populist party yet to confirm an affiliation. Slated to take place from 6-9 June 2024, upcoming elections to appoint 720 Members of the European Parliament are set to be one of the world’s biggest democratic exercises.

Euronews’ unprecedented survey interviewed 26,000 people in countries representing 96 per cent of the EU population, including 1,000 in each of the three Nordic states. Results show that – while those three nations may be the world’s happiest, according to a recent report from Gallup and Oxford University – its voters aren’t so content. Nordic voters are set to punish the pro-European Green and Liberal parties, whose MEP total is set to plunge from 20 to 13, according to the first-of-its-kind pan-European poll. Liberal coalition Renew is set to lose one MEP in Sweden, two in Denmark, and one in Finland, the poll said. Meanwhile Finland’s Green League could lose two lawmakers for the next five-year term, and its Swedish counterpart one. That echoes wider trends seen across Europe, where voters are set to abandon parties such as Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance Party, and the governing German Greens. Headline figures mask uncertainty: particularly over Denmark’s National Alliance, a longstanding party that currently has no MEPs, but is now predicted to claim two. Ipsos places it among the centre-right EPP, given reports of the preferences of its lead candidate Henrik Dahl, but it has previously been associated with Renew.  And the politics of all three countries are highly splintered. Denmark’s 15 MEPs are set to be distributed among a remarkable nine parties, and Sweden’s among eight, the poll suggested. In total, 10 Nordic parties could end up sending delegations consisting of just a single MEP.

ECJ upholds ruling on fingerprints for ID cards

The European Union’s highest court upheld a previous decision to have two fingerprints on identity cards after it was challenged at a German court. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) said the 2019 regulation was in line with fundamental rights to respect for private life and the protection of personal data. But the underlying legal basis for the 2019 regulation, which is directly applicable in all member states, was faulty, the court said. A German court in the western city of Wiesbaden asked ECJ to review the validity of an EU regulation calling for two fingerprints to be stored on an individual’s identity card after a German challenged the city’s decision to deny him a new identity card if he did not provide his fingerprints. The ECJ justified its decision saying fingerprints on IDs were important in the prevention of identity theft and the inter-operability of verification systems. The court ruled that the benefits of such a system made it compatible with the right to respect for private life and the protection of personal data. The court additionally said that a facial image can be inefficient, as a face can change due to illness, aging, lifestyle, and surgery. Some civil rights activists were disappointed with the court’s decision, arguing that other options could be explored to combat identity theft. Everyone in Germany must register two fingerprints when applying for identity cards. The ruling has been in place since August 2022.

Israeli diplomats pre-emptively attack findings of UNRWA inquiries

Israeli diplomats have pre-emptively attacked the findings of two inquires into the role of the United Nations Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, in Gaza, on the day that one of the inquiries submitted its interim finding to UN Secretary General António Guterres. UNRWA has come under heavy criticism since Israel accused 12 of its Gaza staff of 13,000 of being implicated in the  October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel. The agency denies the charge and says no solid evidence has been presented to support it. The UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) launched an investigation on  January 29 after the Israeli allegations. Parallel to the OIOS inquiry, a broader review of Unrwa’s activities and neutrality is under way, led by a former French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, and supported by three Nordic research organisations.

The Colonna review was commissioned by Guterres in January, before the Israeli allegations were made. The review group, which presented its interim findings on Tuesday, found that “UNRWA has in place a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principle of neutrality.” But investigators had “also identified critical areas that still need to be addressed”. The final report on UNRWA will be made public on  April 20.

Israeli diplomats in London hit out at both investigations, vowing that Israel would never let the agency back into Gaza regardless of the outcome. One Israeli diplomatic source said: “A double game has been played by Hamas and Unrwa, so much so that Unrwa is a Hamas strategic asset.” Israel also released new figures claiming its intelligence showed that 2,135 UNRWA staff were members of Hamas, representing 17 per cent of the total workforce in Gaza, of whom at least 400 were active fighters.


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