EP plenary to outline expectations for EU summit

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 12th March 2024

At a plenary debate in Strasbourg today, MEPs will share their expectations for the next European Council Summit, due later in March, and hear from the Belgian presidency of the Council of the EU and from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.  EU Observer reports that, although the agenda for the next EU summit is yet to be defined, the war in the Middle East, the EU’s support to Ukraine, enlargement, and defence are set to dominate the talks.

Today’s debate will be the first address by von der Leyen to the European Parliament since she was confirmed last week as the European People’s Party (EPP) lead candidate. Her nomination has sparked questions from the European Commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton (of French president Emmanuel Macron’s liberal party) about whether the Commission should be led again by a centre-right EPP politician – a sentiment expected to be echoed by some MEPs. With the EU election campaign now taking shape, Breton could emerge as a Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate) for Renew Europe to challenge von der Leyen – but the liberal party will only make an official announcement on its lead candidate(s) later this month.

The Socialists, for their part, have nominated European Commissioner for employment, Nicolas Schmit, as their lead candidate for the EU elections. In the meantime, leading up to June’s elections, all three are still expected to come together every week and work as a team delivering proposals under the principle of collegiality, despite evident tensions posing a significant challenge.

Also on Tuesday, the European Commission is expected to outline the reforms the EU needs to undertake to enlarge to a bloc of more than 30 states. EU leaders 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 today, the Commission is expected to unveil a plan focused on climate resilience, following the publication of a report by the European Environment Agency about the main climate risks currently facing the continent.

EC ordered to bring Microsoft 365 use in line with EU data rules

The European Commission has been ordered to bring its use of Microsoft 365 office programmes in line with EU protection rules, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) said on Monday following an investigation. The EDPS, the watchdog for data protection issues at EU institutions, said the Commission breached EU rules including those on transfers of personal data outside the EU or European Economic Area (EEA). In its contract with Microsoft, the Commission did not sufficiently specify what types of personal data are to be collected and for which purposes. The Commission now needs to suspend all data flows resulting from its use of Microsoft 365 to Microsoft and to its affiliates and sub-processors located in countries outside the EU/EEA that are not covered by a data transfer agreement. The Commission will have to demonstrate compliance with the orders by 9 December 2024.

US, EU top arms sales to Middle East and Israel

The US and EU are supplying the most weapons to the Middle East, including to Israel, as the Gaza war threatens to ignite a regional conflict. The US, France, Italy, and Germany together supplied 81% of Middle East arms imports in the 2019-2023 period, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), a Swedish think-tank, on Monday. The US supplied the lion’s share (52 per cent). The West’s biggest buyers were its allies Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Qatar boosted imports 396 per cent in the past four years, becoming the world’s third-largest arms buyer. Israel was the world’s 15th-biggest importer. “The US accounted for 69 per cent and Germany for 30 per cent of arms imports by Israel,” Sipri said. The fresh data came out amid Israel’s mass-killing of Palestinians in the Gaza war, which saw calls for an Israel arms-embargo by humanitarian groups, activists, and protesters in several EU states. The US supplies ammunition and combat aircraft being used by Israel in Gaza. And if the Gaza war escalated, dragging Lebanon and Iran into fighting with Israel and the US, Sweden’s Sipri indicated that Iran would be out-gunned.

Meanwhile, according to the latest EU figures on the subject consulted by ‘Euobserver’, France, Romania, the Czech Republic, Italy, and the Netherlands were also top exporters to Israel. The Czechs, Germany, and Slovakia granted export licences for over €10m of “ammunition” to Israel in 2022, the EU report said. Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal granted Israel-export licences for €23m of “bombs, torpedoes, rockets, missiles”, the EU said. Israel also came out as the world’s ninth-biggest arms exporter,  showing another facet of EU-Israeli defence ties. Israel’s order books for deliveries after 2023 included dozens of air-defence systems, armoured vehicles, artillery, and combat aircraft, Sipri said on Monday. “Germany ordered a single but particularly high-value [air-defence] system from Israel [in 2023]”, Sipri said. Finland and Slovakia also ordered Israeli air-defence systems in 2022-2023, the think-tank said.

‘67 killed by Israeli strikes during first day of Ramadan’

With no end to fighting sight, Palestinians in Gaza began fasting Monday for the holy month of Ramadan as hunger worsens across the strip and pressure grows on Israel over the growing humanitarian crisis. Gaza’s Health Ministry said the bodies of 67 people killed by Israeli strikes were brought to hospitals over the past 24 hours, bringing the Palestinian death toll to more than 31,112 since the war began. The ministry says that women and children make up two-thirds of the dead. (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disputes the death toll issued by the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza, saying their figure includes “at least 13,000 terrorist fighters” killed by Israeli forces.) Five months of war have forced around 80 per cent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people from their homes and pushed hundreds of thousands to the brink of famine.

Netanyahu is in a ‘crisis of consensus’

“The Israeli public has been losing faith in Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership abilities since the war in Gaza began,” according to the annual US intelligence report on threats to US security. American agencies also warn that they expect “large protests calling for his resignation and new elections in the coming weeks. And a different, more moderate government is a possibility.” The US intelligence report finds that for the most part Israelis “support the destruction of Hamas” but the increase in civilian casualties from hunger and disease in Gaza has increased the skepticism towards Netanyahu. American agencies also warn that “Israel will face stiff armed resistance from Hamas in the years to come” and that “it will struggle to destroy the terrorist organisation”.

Desperate families wait on news of kidnapped Nigerian students

Families of more than 250 Nigerian students kidnapped from a school last week waited desperately yesterday for news about their welfare and the progress in rescue efforts four days after the attack. Gunmen on motorbikes stormed the school in Kuriga, northwestern Kaduna state on Thursday, rounding up the pupils and forcing them into the bush before their panicked families. It was one of the largest mass abductions carried out by criminal gangs known locally as ‘bandits’ who target schools, villages and highways in their hunt for victims to squeeze out ransom payments. The government said it has sent troops into the forests that carpet northwestern states to rescue the students who number about 280, but little detail has emerged after the kidnapping.

Leaders of the Argentina penitentiary system removed

In the context of a serious security crisis in the city of Rosario and a new plan to fight organised crime, the Argentine government of Javier Milei has removed from office the leaders of the federal penitentiary service. This was announced by the Minister of Security, Patricia Bullrich, who had previously identified the prison network as ‘one of the most critical systems’. The outgoing leaders are accused of having recently ‘allowed’ the escape of the head of the hitmen of one of the main factions competing for drug trafficking in Rosario from the maximum security prison of Ezeiza. The current government is determined to adopt a harsher prison regime with the bosses of criminal groups and to no longer allow the management of illicit affairs from inside penitentiaries.

French government hit with ‘unprecedented’ wave of cyberattacks

The French government said Monday that several of its services have been targeted by cyberattacks of “unprecedented intensity” and a special crisis centre was activated to restore online services. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s office said in a statement that the attacks started Sunday night and hit multiple government ministries, without providing details. By Monday afternoon, it said, “the impact of the attacks has been reduced for most services and access to government sites restored”. A group of hackers called Anonymous Sudan, which is considered by cybersecurity experts as pro-Russia, claimed responsibility for the attacks in online posts. The French prime minister’s office and digital safety agency wouldn’t comment on the claim, or provide details of what was targeted or what damage might have been caused. The French government has accused Russia of operating a long-running online manipulation campaign against Ukraine’s Western backers, including by mirroring the French Foreign Ministry website among other methods. President Emmanuel Macron has taken an increasingly tough line against Moscow and the war that Russian President Vladimir Putin started in Ukraine.

Ukraine summons Vatican envoy over Pope remarks

Ukraine has summoned the Vatican’s envoy after the Pope said the country should “have the courage to raise the white flag” against Russia. Apostolic Nuncio Visvaldas Kulbokas was told Kiev was “disappointed” by the remarks, the foreign ministry said. Meanwhile, President Zelensky has said Ukraine’s position on the battlefield was “stabilising” following recent setbacks. That was despite aid from its allies remaining “significantly limited”. The Pope caused anger in Ukraine when a transcript of an interview with Swiss broadcaster RSI, which is due to be broadcast next week, was released. According to a transcript quoted by Reuters news agency, the Pope said: “The strongest one is the one who looks at the situation, thinks about the people and has the courage of the white flag, and negotiates.” White flags are traditionally a symbol of surrender on the battlefield. A Vatican spokesman later said the Pope was speaking of stopping the fighting through negotiation, not capitulation. Nevertheless, Ukraine has sought to make its displeasure known. In a statement about the summoning of Archbishop Kulbokas, the foreign ministry “noted that instead of appeals that legalise the right of the strong and encourage them [Russia] to further disregard the norms of international law, the head of the Holy See would be expected to send signals to the world community about the need to immediately join forces to ensure the victory of good over evil, as well as appeals to the attacker, not to the victim.” Earlier in the day, the president told French broadcaster BFM TV that Ukraine had “stopped the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine”. Zelensky also said that Ukraine was building defensive fortifications stretching 2,000km  in an attempt to “meet the threats” posed by Russia. This included “shoring up the existing fortifications and creating new ones”. His comments come as intelligence experts told US senators on Monday that the momentum in the war had swung in Russia’s favour and that without further assistance, Kiev would likely lose “significant ground” in 2024. Last month, Ukraine’s defence minister said half of all Western aid for Ukraine has been delayed, costing lives and territory.

Boeing whistleblower found dead in US

A former Boeing employee known for raising concerns about the firm’s production standards has been found dead in the US. John Barnett had worked for Boeing for 32 years, until his retirement in 2017. In the days before his death, he had been giving evidence in a whistleblower lawsuit against the company. Boeing said it was saddened to hear of Mr Barnett’s passing. The Charleston County coroner confirmed his death to the BBC on Monday. It said the 62-year-old had died from a “self-inflicted” wound on  March 9 and police were investigating. Mr Barnett had worked for the US plane giant for 32 years, until his retirement in 2017 on health grounds.

Macron assisted-dying plan riles opponents

President Emmanuel Macron faced criticism Monday from French medical workers, political opponents and the Catholic Church over a draft Bill, slated for debate in May, that would allow assisted dying for certain terminally-ill patients. He said Sunday the Bill would include “strict conditions” on allowing people to self-administer a lethal substance, or call on a relative or medical worker if they are incapable. The move comes after France’s parliament last week enshrined the right to abortion in the constitution, a widely-popular move championed by the president and a world first. “There are cases we can’t humanly accept,” Macron told Catholic newspaper ‘La Croix’ and left-wing ‘Liberation’, saying the “brotherly” law “looks death in the face”. Prime Minister Gabriel Attal wrote on X that the bill would be presented to the French parliament on May 27. “Death can no longer be a taboo issue and subject to silence,” he added. But several health workers’ groups declared their “consternation, anger and sadness” at the plan. Macron “has with great violence announced a system far removed from patients’ needs and health workers’ daily reality, which could have grave consequences on the care relationship,” the associations for palliative care, cancer support and specialist nurses said in a joint statement.

Trump says children would ‘go crazy’ if they didn’t have TikTok

Former US President Donald Trump detailed why he had changed his position on banning TikTok, despite widespread support for a ban from members of Congress. The former president outlined his thoughts about the social media company  on CNBC on Monday morning, days after he publicly opposed a ban. ‘Frankly, there are a lot of people on TikTok that love it,’ he said during an interview on CNBC. ‘There are a lot of young kids on TikTok who will go crazy without it. There are a lot of users, there’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of bad with TikTok.’ Trump reiterated his concerns that a TikTok ban would only make social media platforms like Facebook more powerful. ‘The thing I don’t like is that without TikTok you’re going to make Facebook bigger and I consider Facebook to be an enemy of the people along with a lot of the media,’ Trump said. He said that he still had national security and privacy concerns about TikTok but that he also had the same concerns about American companies. Trump argued that Facebook and other American social media platforms also shared data with China.

Kate Middleton apologises for altering family photo

Kate, Princess of Wales, apologised on Monday for “confusion” caused by her altering of a family photo released by the Palace – an image of Kate and her children that was intended to calm concern and speculation about the British royal’s health, but had the opposite effect. Several news agencies that initially published the photo, including The Associated Press, withdrew the image over concerns about digital manipulation. Issued by the couple’s Kensington Palace office on Sunday to mark Mother’s Day in Britain, it was the first official photo of 42-year-old Kate since she had abdominal surgery nearly two months ago.

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