EU leaders agree to start accession talks with Ukraine

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 15th December 2023

EU leaders agreed to open accession talks with Ukraine at a charged Summit on Thursday, after Hungary’s prime minister relented in his opposition to the historic step for the war-torn country. The Financial Times says the decision marks an important milestone on Kiev’s determined path to join the union once the war with Russia is over and represents an endorsement by Brussels of the country’s western trajectory. It is part of the EU’s proposed support package for Ukraine being discussed at the summit in Brussels, alongside a four-year, €50-billion fund from the bloc’s shared budget. The leaders failed to strike a deal on the funding after discussions ended in the early hours of Friday, but they plan to resume talks later in the day. The EU’s resolve to continue supporting Ukraine has become critical given the failure by the US Congress to agree on a $60-billion package for Kiev proposed by the White House.

“The European Council has decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova,” said the President of the European Council, Charles Michel. “A clear signal of hope for their people and for our continent.” He added to reporters: “It was important that no Member states opposed this decision”. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, called it “a strategic decision”. The decision came after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán chose to leave the room during the debate to allow agreement, according to people briefed on the talks. “Hungary’s position is clear,” Orbán said on Facebook. “Ukraine is ill-prepared … It is a completely senseless, irrational, and incorrect decision to start negotiations with Ukraine under these circumstances.” But, he said, “Hungary decided that, if the 26 decide to do so, they should go their own way. Hungary does not want to share in this bad decision, and therefore Hungary has stayed away from the decision today.”

In response to the EU move, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on social media platform X: “This is a victory for Ukraine. A victory for all of Europe. A victory that motivates, inspires, and strengthens.”

In addition to Ukraine and Moldova, EU leaders also agreed to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina pending a March review by the Commission of its compliance with membership criteria. Georgia was also granted EU candidate status.

Aside from the debate on support for Ukraine, EU leaders are also sparring over a proposed top-up to their shared budget. A sizeable bloc of richer members, led by the Netherlands and Sweden, have said they will agree to increase the budget only in order to help Ukraine, while others – such as Italy and Greece – want capitals to contribute a larger amount of fresh cash to spend on managing migration and other priorities. “The discussions are tough, but constructive,” said an EU diplomat briefed on the debate.

EU: Budget and aid negotiations for Kiev postponed to 2024

“The agreement on the revision of the EU budget was supported by 26 leaders but another leader did not, so we will return to the issue at the beginning of next year and try to find unanimity,” President of the European Council Charles Michel said at the end of the first day of the EU summit. “But today we are sending a powerful message on enlargement: it is a historic day. And tomorrow (today, Friday) we will continue work on the other points on the agenda such as the Middle East, migration, and the fight against anti-Semitism.”

On the other end of the stick, in a post on X at the end of the first day of work at the summit of European leaders, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban summerised the work of what he called “the night shift” as follows: “veto for more money for Ukraine, veto for the revision of the Multi-annual Financial Framework. We will return to this issue next year.”

Photo: REUTERS/Yves Herman

Maltese PM calls for peace

Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela, at the end of the first day of the Summit, renewed Malta’s call for peace when he posted on X: “The first day of the #EUCO summit focused on #EU’s assistance to #Ukraine, its possible accession, enlargement & the Mid-Term review of the MFF. We must not only support Ukraine but also the Middle East, a region where atrocities continue to take place. Malta’s call for peace is consistent & applies for all conflicts.”

Four arrested in Europe over alleged terrorism plot

Four alleged Hamas members suspected of plotting terror attacks on European soil have been arrested by German and Dutch authorities, Germany’s federal prosecutor said in a statement on Thursday. Three people were arrested in Germany and one in the Netherlands on suspicion of planning attacks on Jewish institutions in Europe, the prosecutor said. Hamas is classified by the United States, the European Union, and other nations as a terrorist organisation. The news came as Denmark and the Netherlands arrested four other people suspected of terrorism offenses, though the Danish Intelligence Intelligence Agency told CNN those cases had “no direct connection” to the arrests of suspected Hamas members.

Israel offers bounty on 4 Hamas leaders in Gaza

The Israeli army has distributed leaflets in Arabic in Gaza offering rewards to anyone who provides information useful in locating four local Hamas leaders. The military radio said the promised reward for information on the hideout of the leader Yihia Sinwar is $400,000 and for his brother Muhammad Sinwar is $300,000. For the military commander of Khan Yunis, Rafa Salameh, $200,000 are offered and $100,000 for Mohammed Deif, the commander of the military wing of Hamas. “Confidentiality is ensured,” says the army, which also publishes a special telephone number.

Screenshot from X

“Sinwar’s days are numbered”

A senior Biden administration official briefing reporters on US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s meetings in Israel says it’s “safe to say” that Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar’s “days are numbered”, Times of Israel reports. While Israeli leaders have voiced such threats against the terror leader this appears to be the first time that a senior US official is talking about Sinwar in this manner. “I also think it’s safe to say it doesn’t matter how long it takes … justice will be served,” the senior administration official adds, noting that Sinwar has “American blood on his hands”. Thirty-eight Americans were killed during Hamas’s terror onslaught on 7th October, and eight US citizens and permanent residents are among the roughly 135 currently being held hostage in Gaza.

Photo: ATIA MOHAMMED/FLASH90

Israelis flood first tunnel north of Gaza

The Israeli armed forces have made a first attempt to flood a Hamas military tunnel in the northern sector of the Gaza Strip with seawater. Anncouncing this, public television station Kan said the attempt was a success. To carry out this project, the broadcaster specified, Israel has installed large pumps in the northern sector of the Strip. “We operate in a variety of ways below ground level,” military spokesman Daniel Hagari said in response to questions.

Photo: Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel

“China’s modernisation also benefits US companies” – Xi

China’s modernisation will also benefit US companies, Chinese President Xi Jinping, wrote in a letter to mark 50 years of the Committee on China-US Trade. He said Beijing “will vigorously promote high-level opening up to the outside world and create a market-oriented economic environment based on rule of law”. China uses “unfair economic practices” that include “non-market tools, entry barriers for foreign companies, and enforcement actions against American companies, stated US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, encouraging Beijing to abandon its “unjust dirigiste economic policies” which penalise the Chinese economy and US companies. “Too strong a role for state-owned companies can stifle growth,” adds Yellen.

Photo: AFP / Luong Thai Linh / Pool

Measles cases in Europe, Central Asia up by more than 3,000%

Between January and 5th December this year, 30,601 cases of measles were confirmed in Europe and Central Asia, compared to 909 in 2022 – an increase of 3,266%. The statistic was made known by UNICEF, which is calling for urgent public health measures due to the possible devastating effects. The highest rate was detected in Kazakhstan, with 13,254 cases, followed by Kyrgyzstan, with 3,811 cases. Romania, which announced a nationwide measles epidemic last week, has 1,855 cases.

Venezuela, Guyana to continue talks on the Esequibo

Venezuela and Guyana will continue to engage in dialogue over the dispute between them over the oil, gas, and mineral-rich border region of Esequibo, currently administered by the Guyanese government but which Caracas claims. The agreement took place during a summit organised in the international airport of Kingston, capital of the Caribbean state of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which allowed the presidents of the two countries, Nicolás Maduro and Irfaan Ali, to discuss the issue face to face, after months of intertwined tensions and threats of military breakthroughs.

Four Japanese ministers quit over corruption scandal

Four cabinet ministers in Japan quit on Thursday over a fundraising scandal involving the ruling party’s most powerful faction. More than 500 million yen (€2.8m) are alleged to have ended up in slush funds over a five-year period through 2022. It is the latest blow to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s increasingly unpopular government, whose approval ratings have plunged. Public support for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power almost continuously since 1955, fell below 30% for the first time since 2012, an NHK survey on Tuesday showed. Voters have been angered by inflation, as well as by Mr Kishida’s handling of earlier scandals.

Photo: Kyodo

Main photo: AFP

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