Defence, enlargement, migration on EU summit agenda

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Thursday, 21st March 2024

EU leaders come together in Brussels for their regular two-day summit today and tomorrow to discuss defence, enlargement, migration and foreign affairs. The EU heads of state and government will today have lunch with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who yesterday met with the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. He also held talks with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and together called for an “immediate humanitarian pause leading to a sustainable ceasefire” as hundreds of thousands of Gazans are on the brink of starvation. The two leaders also addressed the “catastrophic” humanitarian situation, highlighting “the imminent risk of famine” and the risk of regional escalation. EU leaders are also expected to urge Israel to refrain from its plans to invade Rafah in southern Gaza, where about 1.5 million people are sheltering. They will also condemn again the Hamas attacks on 7th October, calling for the release of hostages.

Ahead of the European Council, EU foreign ministers met on Tuesday to discuss draft conclusions of the European Council, the European Semester, and the future internal reforms for enlargement. Tuesday’s discussions touched on “the semantics when it comes to the qualification of a ceasefire,” an EU diplomat said.

After more than two years of war in Ukraine, EU leaders will be called upon to step up military support, either through the European Peace Facility or through bilateral deals between EU countries and Kyiv, which urgently needs air defence systems, ammunition, and missiles. EU countries agreed last week on the reform of the European Peace Facility, including an injection of €5bn extra military aid. As defence talks will focus on the need to reduce the EU’s dependence on the US, giving attention to the strategy and investment programme unveiled by the commission, EU leaders are expected to commit to “substantially” increasing defence expenditure and improving access to finance. However, a divisive issue is whether to use windfall profits from frozen Russian assets – initially foreseen for Ukraine’s reconstruction – to jointly purchase military equipment for Ukraine. While Germany is now in favour of using windfall profits and frozen assets to support Ukraine with arms and ammunition, some members – Malta and Ireland at the forefront – remain reluctant to support the idea.

EU leaders are also expected to revise the issue of offshoring migration, following the deal agreed with Egypt on Sunday, farmers’ protests, Alexei Navalny’s death, and the Commission’s proposal of opening EU accession negotiation with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Talks on economy and competitiveness are to be left for the informal summit in April.

The European Commission was on Wednesday expected to outline the reforms the EU needs to undertake to enlarge to a bloc of more than 30 states. EU leaders had previously agreed to adopt a roadmap for future enlargement reforms by this summer. Last year, a group of German-French experts proposed a list of institutional reforms to make the EU ready for enlargement by 2030 – including ending unanimity voting in the Council, securing the harmonisation of EU electoral laws, and reducing the size of the College of Commissioners. Also on Wednesday, MEPs on the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee (AFET) discussed EU-UK foreign policy cooperation after Brexit.

Free trade with Ukraine extended for a year, but with limits

The EU temporarily suspended all tariffs and quotas on Ukraine’s agricultural exports after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and subsequently renewed the suspension, which is now set to expire in June. The trade liberalisation measure will now be extended up to June 5 next year if EU ministers and the European Parliament now green light a compromise reached on Wednesday morning. The automatic safeguard mechanism intended to protect specific domestic sectors from increased imports arising as a result of the free trade scheme was a key contention in negotiations between MEPs and the Belgian presidency of the EU Council. Lawmakers agreed to extend safeguards beyond wheat, maize, rapeseed, sunflower seeds, sugar, poultry, and eggs – originally proposed by the commission in January – to also include honey, maize, oats, and hulled grains. In practice, the commission will be allowed to reintroduce tariff-rate quotas if imports of these commodities exceed the arithmetic mean of quantities imported in 2022 and 2023. The time frame required for the commission’s response to trigger the emergency brake was also shortened from three to two weeks in case imports surge.

Polish farmers block roads to protest Ukraine imports

Polish farmers on Wednesday staged tractor blockades on roads nationwide in their latest protest against farm imports from outside the European Union and the bloc’s environmental red tape. The farmers have been blocking border crossings with Ukraine since last month to protest at what they say is unfair competition from goods entering from neighbouring war-torn Ukraine. This week they expanded their protests to the western border with Germany. Earlier this month they held a demonstration in Warsaw attended by thousands that devolved into clashes with the police, with over two dozen people detained. “Throughout the country today more than 580 protests are planned, with nearly 70,000 people estimated to take part,” Polish police said in a statement. The farmers are notably blocking access roads to Warsaw and other big cities including Wroclaw, Poznan and Bydgoszcz. “We as farmers will not give up so long as our demands are not fully met,” protest organisers said in a statement ahead of the nationwide blockade. Ukraine has seen its agriculture sector crippled by Russia’s invasion in 2022. Many of its major export routes through the Black Sea have been blocked and its farmland rendered unusable by warfare. In a bid to help Kyiv economically, the European Union in 2022 scrapped tariffs on Ukrainian goods transiting the 27-nation bloc by road. But logistical problems mean a lot of the Ukrainian cereal exports destined for non-EU countries have accumulated in Poland, undercutting local producers. On Wednesday, EU member states and lawmakers reached a deal to cap duty-free imports of some Ukrainian grains. The border blockades and grain dispute have strained ties between the neighbours, even as Poland has shown staunch support since the Russian invasion. Farmers in several other European countries have also been protesting for weeks over conditions. The EU has come forward with propositions to revamp the bloc’s subsidy programme, known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), in a bid to assuage the farmers across the continent. The proposed changes to the CAP still need to be negotiated between EU member states and the European Parliament.

“Free world will not let Ukraine fail,” says US defence chief

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has vowed the US will continue to support Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, even funding for Kyiv stalls in Congress. “The United States will not let Ukraine fail,” said Austin. “This coalition will not let Ukraine fail. And the free world will not let Ukraine fail.” He made the comments during an address to more than 50 defence leaders from Europe and the world at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Leaders from other nations promised new aid for Ukraine at the event. German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius told reporters Germany will provide ammunition, plus armoured and transport vehicles worth around €500 million. “We are helping Ukraine with what it needs most in its defence against Russian aggression,” Pistorius said

Explosions, fires in the centre of Kyiv

Several explosions occurred this morning in the centre of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, following an air alert triggered by missiles and drones launched by Russia. Starting at 5am local time, dozens of loud explosions and air defence fire were heard. “Rocket fragments fell on a kindergarten in Sviatoshynskyi district,” Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram, adding that an apartment building and some cars in other areas were on fire. The last major Russian attacks on Kyiv took place at the end of January.

USA evaluates the possibility of declassifying Assange’s crimes – WSJ

The US Justice Department is considering whether to allow Julian Assange to plead guilty to the less serious charge of mishandling classified information, opening up the possibility of a deal that could lead to his release from a British prison, according to The Wall Street Journal. Assange, the 52-year-old controversial founder of WikiLeaks, is fighting a long legal battle with the UK government to avoid being extradited to the US and facing trial for publishing thousands of classified military documents and US diplomatic cables around 2010. A UK court is currently considering whether to allow a final appeal by Assange.  After US prosecutors charged him in 2019, British law enforcement arrested him and he has been held in a London prison ever since.

Former Mississippi officer gets 40 years in racially-charged torture cases

A fourth former Mississippi law enforcement officer who pleaded guilty to torturing two Afro-American men was sentenced to 40 years in prison Wednesday, as accounts of the horrifying brutality of a self-styled “Goon Squad” of deputies gripped a federal courtroom. A judge imposed the harshest sentence so far on former Rankin County sheriff’s deputy Christian Dedmon, saying he committed the most “shocking, brutal and cruel acts imaginable”. Details of a nightmare of racially-motivated beatings, torture, sexual assaults and even a mock execution in January 2023 unfolded for a second day as victims came face-to-face with their tormentors, and each of the rogue former officers was sentenced for what the FBI director described as “atrocious” acts of “pure hell”. Dedmon was part of a squad of White Mississippi law enforcement officers who raided a home in Braxton without a warrant, subjected the two Black men to racist vitriol, used Tasers on them after they had already been handcuffed, beat them with various objects and then shot Jenkins in the mouth.

New York AG urges appeals court to make Trump pay full bond

The New York attorney general’s office has urged a state appeals court to make former President Trump put up a full bond before pausing the multi-million-dollar judgment in his civil fraud case. The state’s filing follows claims by Trump’s legal team that the former president was unable to secure the full bond due, despite his “diligent efforts”. An insurance broker who testified for Trump during the fraud trial last year called the effort a “practical impossibility” in a sworn affidavit attached to the filing. “Defendants’ new factual allegations and legal arguments fail to support their extraordinary request for a stay based on a bond or deposit of less than one-fourth of the money-judgment amount,” Dennis Fan, senior assistant solicitor general in the attorney general’s office, said in a Wednesday court filing.

Irish Prime Minister quits unexpectedly

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar will step down as party leader immediately and will resign as taoiseach as soon as his Fine Gael successor is selected. Announcing his resignation, Varadkar described leading his country as “the most fulfilling time of my life”. He said he was stepping down for “personal and political” reasons and was “not the best person for the job anymore”. He was Ireland’s youngest PM when he became Fine Gael leader at 38 in 2017. He currently leads the coalition government in Dublin, along with Fianna Fáil and the Green Party.

32 jets, 5 Chinese warships around Taiwan

Taiwan’s Ministry of Defencehas  reported a surge in Chinese military activities around the island, the largest of 2024, after detecting a total of 32 planes and five warships of the People’s Liberation Army. In particular, 20 jets crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait and entered the Adiz air defence identification zone of the southwest, southeast and east of the island. Taipei’s military monitored the situation and mobilised aircraft, ships and missile systems in response to detected activities.

Netanyahu addresses US Republicans

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told US Republican senators on Wednesday (Mar 20) that Israel will continue its efforts to defeat the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, senators told reporters after he addressed a party lunch. The conservative Israeli leader spoke to Republicans via videolink nearly a week after the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Chuck Schumer, gave a speech in the Senate harshly criticising Netanyahu as an obstacle to peace and urging new elections in Israel. Wednesday’s meeting underscored the politicisation of Washington’s Israel policy. Netanyahu has long been aligned with Republicans, who accused Schumer of seeking to “overthrow” the Israeli leader. Earlier on Wednesday, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, told reporters he was thinking of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress, although such invitations to foreign leaders would normally be extended by both Johnson and Schumer as Senate majority leader.

$3 million found in Shifa hospital – Israel

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) say they have seized $3 million worth of cash, in US currency and Jordanian dinars, at the Shifa hospital in Gaza – money apparently intended for use by Hamas and other terrorist groups. In a post on their X account, the IDF adds that in the same operation around 3,700 Palestinian civilians were evacuated from the medical centre and headed towards the south of the Strip. During this phase, around 300 suspected terrorists were captured, including senior commanders of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, specifies the Israeli army. Finally, the IDF announced that it delivered 1,800 litres of water, 3.8 tons of food and a truckload of fuel to Shifa yesterday.

Global fertility rate to keep plummeting

The population of almost every country will be shrinking by the end of the century, a major study said on Wednesday, warning that baby booms in developing nations and busts in rich ones will drive massive social change. The fertility rate in half of all nations is already too low to maintain their population size, an international team of hundreds of researchers reported in The Lancet. By 2050, the population of three-quarters of all countries will be shrinking, according to the study. At the end of the century, that will be true for 97 per cent – or 198 out of 204 countries and territories, the researchers projected.

Paris Olympics to lift sex ban for athletes

A sex ban for Olympic athletes has been lifted for this year’s edition in Paris, with 300,000 free condoms set to be made available during the event. The ban was implemented at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in an attempt to prevent a Covid-19 outbreak during the event, which took place a year later than planned. Now that the pandemic is no longer a major threat, Olympic chiefs have lifted the ban for the 2024 edition in Paris, widely known as “the city of love”. Paris will welcome 9,000 athletes for the Summer Olympics, which will take place from July 26 to August 11. According to TMZ, the Olympic Village will stock 300,000 condoms, which will be given to the athletes for free. “It is very important that the conviviality here is something big,” Olympic Village director Lauren Michaud told The Sun. “Working with the athletes commission, we wanted to create some places where the athletes would feel very enthusiastic and comfortable.” Athletes will also get free food and drinks with various selections from around the world on the buffet table, except for one thing: “There will be no champagne in the village, but they can have all the champagne they want in the rest of Paris.” The 2024 Paris Olympics is expected to attract the largest number of spectators since the 2012 edition in London. It will be the second city to host three Summer Olympics after London.

Photo: António Guterres (UN Secretary-General) and Charles Michel (President of the European Council) in Brussels yesterday. European Union

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