Enlarge or face ‘new Iron Curtain’, Michel warns EU

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 30th April 2024.

“Enlargement is vital for the future of the EU because without enlargement [there is] a risk for a new Iron Curtain,” European Council president Charles Michel said in an interview with a select group of journalists. “It would be extremely dangerous if you would have an unstable neighbourhood with a lack of prosperity or lack of economic development. These are our common interests – of candidate countries and the EU – to make progress, to speed up,” he added.

His stark warning comes on the anniversary of the so-called ‘big bang enlargement of 2004’ when 10 countries – including seven former Soviet republics or satellite states (and Malta) – were granted EU membership. Had it not been for that historic expansion, the EU as it is today would be split by a “de facto Iron Curtain”, Michel said, meaning those countries on the eastern side would have been targeted by “political and ideological attempts by the Kremlin to occupy them”.

Nine countries from eastern Europe and the Western Balkans are currently waiting in the wings to become fully-fledged EU members. The process of joining the bloc is notoriously long and complex, with candidate countries required to meet tough EU demands, including significant judicial and constitutional reforms. Whilst Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has injected fresh impetus into the EU’s dormant enlargement policy, attempts to speed up the accession process risk being thwarted by more sceptical member states. Critics say long delays in integrating candidate countries are fomenting a sense of exasperation with Brussels.

Last December, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán – whose government will hold the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU from July – threatened to single-handedly halt the opening of accession talks with Ukraine by wielding his veto power. But Michel played down speculation that a Hungarian presidency combined with a more polarised post-election European Parliament could further scupper candidate countries’ paths to membership. “I’m very confident that the next institutional cycle will be the occasion to reaffirm our joint political will, to enlarge,’ Michel said.

EU candidates in ‘fiery and passionate, awkward and stilted’ debate

The Maastricht debate, co-hosted by Politico Europe and Studio Europa, in Maastricht, the Netherlands, kicked off on Monday and marked the first time the lead candidates, or Spitzenkandidaten, confronting each other’s projects ahead of the elections to the European Parliament in early June. It lasted 90 minutes and saw what Euronews called “a continued exchange of political ideas, which ranged from fiery and passionate to awkward and stilted”.

The night had one distinct leitmotiv: virtually all candidates on stage took turns to assail the main representative of the far right, Anders Vistisen. The gloves came off during the second segment, devoted to foreign and security policy, when Vistisen denounced mainstream parties for exploiting the war in Ukraine as a “camouflage” to change the EU treaties and abolish the right to veto. It was then that Bas Eickhout, from the Greens, snapped back, calling out the Identity and Democracy (ID) group for being ridden with allegations of Russian and Chinese influence. These cases have caused the alert of the European Parliament and are already subject to criminal investigations in Belgium and Germany, respectively. Vistisen tried to stand his ground, arguing the ID group had taken the accusations “seriously”, and took aim at von der Leyen for her scandal involving the undisclosed texts she sent to negotiate a mega-deal with Pfizer for Covid-19 vaccines. Von der Leyen did not take the bait and plundered on: “If you look at the electoral programme (of Alternative for Germany, an ID member party), you will see that it echoes the lies and the propaganda of the Kremlin. So clean up your house before you criticise us!”

There was tension over Ukraine and Gaza as the foreign-policy segment delivered another heated moment. Walter Baier, from the Party of the European Left, condemned the Russian aggression and said it was time for a “political solution”, which he did not specify. But he then abruptly shifted the conversation to the Israel-Hamas war, urging the EU to impose sanctions against Israel the same it did on Russia. Von der Leyen echoed the EU’s official line, saying that Israel has the right to defend itself “within the limits of humanitarian law and international law”, and called for a ceasefire, the release of hostages, the increase of humanitarian aid and work for a two-state solution.

Euronews’ Jorge Liboreiro opines that the clear winners of the night were Ursula von der Leyen, who used her eloquence and gravitas to strike back against accusations from the right and the left, and Bas Eickhout, who proved combative and compelling with his biting counter-arguments. By contrast, Anders Vistisen was roundly lambasted for his disruptive ideas and frequent references to Denmark, his home country, which prompted Eickhout to note that “this is a European debate”. Meanwhile, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann fell flat with a scripted, stiff performance that made her look lost and meandering.

Von der Leyen: “Alliance with ECR depends on who is in the group”

“Whether I open cooperation with the Conservatives and Reformists (the ECR group) will depend on what the composition of the European Chamber will be and who will be in that group,” Italian news agency Ansa quoted Ursula von der Leyen telling the electoral debate, answering a question from Green candidate Bas Eickhout. In recent weeks, Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have expressed their intention to join the ECR group. “But this means dialogue with the far right if necessary,” replied the Socialist candidate Nicolas Schmit, stating that any dialogue with “those who deny rights” must be excluded. “We must be clear, we will not accept Putin’s interference, even through his proxies in Europe. And we must say clearly that we will not allow them to destroy Europe”, underlined von der Leyen referring to the Identity and Democracy group, represented on stage by the Danish Ander Vistisen.

Netanyahu asks Biden to stop ICC arrest warrants

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked US President Biden to help prevent the International Criminal Court from issuing arrest warrants for senior Israeli officials in connection with the war in Gaza, two Israeli officials told Axios. In an exclusive, Axios says Israeli officials have grown increasingly concerned over the last two weeks that the ICC is preparing to issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Israel Defence Forces chief of staff Herzi Halevi. The officials said Netanyahu expressed his concern to Biden in a phone call on Sunday, where the two leaders also discussed hostage negotiations, Israel’s defence against Iran’s missile attack, and the need to increase humanitarian aid to Gaza, according to a White House readout.

The ICC, which is based in The Hague, has been investigating possible war crimes by both Israeli forces and Palestinian militants dating back to the 2014 Israel-Hamas war. US officials said they do not have a clear indication whether the ICC is going to issue arrest warrants, but said the prosecutor’s office is under pressure from NGOs and several ICC member states to do so. Netanyahu said in a statement on Friday, “Under my leadership, Israel will never accept any attempt by the ICC to undermine its inherent right of self-defence. While the ICC will not affect Israel’s actions, it would set a dangerous precedent that threatens the soldiers and officials of all democracies fighting savage terrorism and wanton aggression,” he added. A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told Axios: “As we have publicly said many times, the ICC has no jurisdiction in this situation and we do not support its investigation.” In March 2023, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin over his alleged involvement in the abduction of Ukrainian children and teenagers.

The International Court of Justice, a separate body also located in The Hague, is hearing a case brought by South Africa that alleges Israel is committing genocide with its military campaign in Gaza. Israel has denounced the case as “baseless” and US officials have defended Israel in proceedings at the ICJ.

Hamas leaves Cairo, will return with an answer on the truce offer

The Hamas delegation has left Cairo and will return with the response to the ceasefire proposal in Gaza, Egyptian television Al Qahera announced last night. The Palestinian faction will return with a written response, the broadcaster adds. Westerners and several Arab countries are pressing Hamas to accept the latest truce proposal.

Hamas offered 40-day cease-fire in Gaza, says UK’s Cameron

The deal Hamas has been offered involves a 40-day cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and the release of “potentially thousands” of Palestinian prisoners in return for freeing Israeli hostages, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said on Monday. Speaking at the Riyadh conference, Cameron joined in the chorus of other diplomats calling on the Palestinian militant-Islamist group to accept the Israeli proposal. “I hope Hamas do take this deal and frankly, all the pressure in the world and all the eyes of the world should be on them today saying take that deal,” Cameron said, adding the proposal would lead to a “stop in the fighting that we all want to see so badly”. Cameron called the deal “a very generous offer”, echoing comments made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier on Monday.

Several European member states are expected to recognise Palestinian statehood by the end of May, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at the sidelines of the World Economic Forum special meeting in Riyadh.

4 law enforcement officers killed, 4 others injured in US shooting

Four officers were killed in a shooting while attempting to serve a warrant at a home in Charlotte, North Carolina, including one deputy US Marshal and two local task force officers, authorities say. A total of eight law enforcement officers were shot during the incident, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Johnny Jennings said at a Monday evening news conference. He described the shooting as “the most tragic one” he had been involved with in his 32-year-long law enforcement career. The shooting unfolded in the block of Galway Drive as members of the US Marshals Fugitive Task Force were serving a warrant for possession of firearm by a convicted felon, Jennings said. The officers were met with gunfire from a “high-powered rifle” and returned fire, fatally shooting a suspect in the front yard of the house. Jennings said the US Marshals had been serving the warrant to that suspect. “As officers approached, they received additional gunfire from inside the residence,” the police chief said. Three members of the US Marshals task force were killed, Jennings said. In a statement to CNN, the US Marshals Service confirmed one of the dead was a deputy US Marshal. Four Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers were also shot, including one in critical condition, “fighting for his life” in the hospital, the police chief said. The other officers are in stable condition, he said. On Monday night, police said one of the wounded officers, Joshua Eyer, had died.

Columbia suspends students who did not vacate campus

Despite Columbia University’s Monday warnings to students to clear protest camps or be suspended, participants voted to stay put and early this morning CNN reported that the University authorities had started suspending pro-Gaza students who refused to vacate the campus.

Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, in her statement, had asked the protesters to voluntarily disperse, saying the demonstration had created “an unwelcoming environment for many of our Jewish students and faculty”, that “external actors” have contributed to a “hostile environment” around university gates, and that it had become a “noisy distraction” for students. Shafik had earlier said it would not divest from Israel – a demand that has sparked protests on college campuses across the country. The university told student demonstrators to vacate by 2 p.m. or else “be suspended pending further investigation” and barred from completing the spring semester. At the encampment, now in its second week, participants voted nearly unanimously to stay put. Shafik also cited the May 15 commencement, saying, “We also do not want to deprive thousands of students and their families and friends of a graduation celebration.” As pro-Palestinian protests erupted on campuses nationwide, protesters have been arrested on more than 20 campuses across at least 16 states.

Nato chief chides members over ‘slow arms deliveries’ to Ukraine

Nato countries have not delivered what they promised to Ukraine in time, the alliance’s chief said on Monday, allowing Russia to press its advantage while Kyiv’s depleted forces wait for military supplies to arrive from the US and Europe. “Serious delays in support have meant serious consequences on the battlefield” for Ukraine, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Zelensky. “The lack of ammunition has allowed the Russians to push forward along the front line. Lack of air defence has made it possible for more Russian missiles to hit their targets, and the lack of deep strike capabilities has made it possible for the Russians to concentrate more forces,” Stoltenberg said. Outgunned, Ukraine’s troops have struggled to fend off Russian advances on the battlefield. They were recently forced to make a tactical retreat from three villages in the east.

Ukraine: ‘We will be there if Moscow wants to negotiate’ – Blinken

If Russia shows a sincere desire to negotiate to end the war in Ukraine, the United States will certainly be present, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said this in a conversation with the President of the World Economic Forum, Borge Brende, in Riyadh , according to what Radio Liberty reports. Ending the war depends on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Blinken said: “As soon as Russia shows that it sincerely wants to negotiate, we will definitely be there, and I believe the Ukrainians will be there too,” he added.

Scotland’s first minister quits…

Scotland”s first minister Humza Yousaf resigned on Monday, a little over a year since taking office, as lawmakers were scheduled to vote on motions of no confidence this week. Yousaf said to ensure a smooth transition he would continue to be first minister until his successor is elected.  It comes days after the Glaswegian ditched a climate change initiative and subsequently axed a coalition partnership with Scottish Greens. The party announced they would support a no-confidence vote as a result.

… But Pedro Sánchez stays on

Pedro Sánchez has said he would stay on as Spain’s prime minister, following five days of speculation over his future. He had cancelled official engagements last week after a court opened an initial inquiry into his wife over corruption claims, which he denounced as a harassment campaign by right-wing media. “Expressions of solidarity from all sections of society” meant he decided to remain in office, he added. A series of demonstrations were held around Spain over the weekend, calling for him to continue in his post.

The accusations against Sánchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez, were brought against her by the organisation Manos Limpias (Clean Hands), led by a man linked to the far-right called Miguel Bernad. On Thursday, Madrid’s public prosecutor called for the probe to be shelved for lack of evidence. Manos Limpias also acknowledged the allegations might be incorrect because they were based on online newspaper stories – one of which has already proven to be false.

Photo: Dario Pignatelli

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