EU leaders at odds over von der Leyen’s presence at key job talks

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Wednesday, 12th June 2024.

Should Ursula von der Leyen take part in an EU leaders’ meeting where they will discuss her possible reappointment as Commission president? That’s the latest conundrum seemingly tearing the European Council and Commission apart.

EU leaders are scheduled to meet for an informal dinner on 17th June to discuss the next five-year institutional cycle and crucially, who should get coveted EU top jobs such as the next presidents of the European Council, Parliament and Commission as well as the next High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security policy.

Ursula von der Leyen, the current Commission chief and lead candidate for the centre-right EPP party that claimed a comfortable first place in last week’s European elections, believes she should take part. “We understand that this is an informal dinner of the members of the European Council of which the president of the Commission is a member and therefore we expect her to be there,” a Commission spokesperson told reporters on Monday.

EU leaders, who make up the rest of the European Council, however are not so certain. According to an EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity most of the 23 heads of state or government European Council President Charles Michel has had discussions with over the past week to organise the dinner would rather she did not attend. “A large majority of leaders have a strong preference that they have a behind-closed-doors debate, with no candidates present so to allow for frank exchanges,” the diplomat said. A second, smaller group has expressed no preference while a “very small group” is in favour of von der Leyen attending, according to the diplomat.

This is only the third time such an informal meeting will be held for leaders to hash out who should helm the EU’s most high-profile jobs. Former Commission presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and José Manuel Barroso attended the ones in 2019 and 2014 respectively but both had already ruled themselves out of the race.

EU, Germany to help Ukraine repair, rebuild energy infrastructure

The EU and Germany have promised to help Ukraine repair and rebuild its energy infrastructure, EU Chief Ursula von der Leyen and Chancellor Scholz assured Ukrainian leader in Berlin on Tuesday.

Ukraine has lost half of its electricity generating capacity as a result of the Russian attacks. Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky said nine gigawatts capacity had already been destroyed in missile and drone attacks. The energy consumption last winter was around 18 gigawatts.

Scholz said the focus would be on renewable energy and hydrogen potential, and added that efforts would be “rebuilding a future member state of the EU”. Von der Leyen pledged €1.9 billion in aid for Kyiv, some of which has been generated from interest derived from Russian assets the West froze.

Zelensky spoke in the German Bundestag for the first time on Tuesday. Politicians from Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Sahra Wagenknecht alliance were noticeably absent. Both parties demand an end to weapons deliveries in Ukraine.

Israeli source: Hamas response includes new timetable for cease-fire, IDF withdrawal from Gaza

Hamas responded to a US-backed proposal for a Gaza ceasefire and hostage release, with some “remarks” on the deal, Qatari and Egyptian mediators said on Tuesday. A source familiar with the negotiations told Haaretz that, “Hamas’ response include amendments to the Israeli proposal, including a timetable for a permanent cease-fire and a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip, including Rafah.”

The United States was “evaluating” the response, White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group said they were ready to “deal positively to arrive at an agreement” and that their priority was to bring a “complete stop” to the war. A senior Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen television that the group had “submitted some remarks on the proposal to the mediators.” He did not give any details.

The foreign ministries of Qatar and Egypt said in joint statement that they were examining the response and that they would continue their mediation efforts along with the US “until an agreement is reached”.

The news comes as the UN quotes possible war crimes committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups following the Nuseirat raid that freed four Israeli hostages. A spokesman for the human rights office, Jeremy Laurence, expressed concerns about potential violations of rules of proportionality, distinction and precaution by Israeli forces during the raid. He also said Palestinian armed groups who held hostages in densely-populated areas were putting the lives of civilians and hostages at added risk of hostilities.

Earlier on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the UN Security Council’s vote in favour of the Gaza ceasefire plan made it “as clear as it possibly could be” that the world supports the proposal, and called on Hamas to accept it.

While at an international conference in Jordan on the humanitarian response for Gaza, Blinken also announced “an additional $404 million in new aid to Palestinians”. He also mentioned how Israel has taken what he described as “important steps” in opening crossings to deliver assistance, though “it can and must do more”. Blinken said Israel must take further steps to reduce civilian casualties.

The same day, he met with family members of American hostages in Gaza. “We’re working every minute to bring everyone home,” he told families. “For me, all of the hostages, but especially our eight American families who have loved ones in Gaza, we are determined to bring them home,” said Blinken, “The proposal that President Biden put forth is the best way to do that.”

UN chief deems Gaza conditions ‘deplorable’

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres today called for all parties to the Israel-Hamas conflict to reach an agreement on a ceasefire plan outlined by US President Joe Biden. Reuters quotes him saying, “I welcome the peace initiative recently outlined by President Biden and urge all parties to seize this opportunity and come to an agreement.” He was delivring remarks to an emergency aid conference in Jordan a day after the UN Security Council backed the proposal.

Guterres described conditions in Gaza as “deplorable”, saying the speed and scale of the carnage and killing there was the worst he had seen since his tenure as UN chief began in 2017.

UN ‘shocked’ at deaths during hostage rescue

The United Nations said Tuesday it was “profoundly shocked at the impact on civilians” at the Nuseirat refugee camp after Israel’s moves to secure the release of four hostages over the weekend. Spokesman Jeremy Laurence also said the UN was “deeply distressed that Palestinian armed groups continue to hold many hostages, most of them civilians”.

Israeli forces stormed the refugee camp while rescuing Almog Meir Jan, Noa Argamani, Andrey Kozlov and Shlomi Ziv, who Hamas kidnapped from the Nova music festival in southern Israel on October 7. Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry said at least 274 Palestinians were killed as part of the Israel military’s weekend operation, which also wounded a further 698 people.

“Hundreds of Palestinians, many of them civilians, were reportedly killed and injured,” Laurence added. “The manner in which the raid was conducted, in such a densely-populated area, seriously calls into question whether the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution, as set out under the laws of war, were respected by the Israeli forces.”

8 dead in Israel’s raids on the Strip

Palestinian news agency Wafa says seven people died and several others were injured in an Israeli airstrike that hit a house in the Shujaiya neighborhood in eastern Gaza city this morning. A few hours earlier, Wafa had announced that a child had been killed in another raid in Rafah, in the south of the Strip. The death toll in the Palestinian enclave since October 7 is at least 37,164 dead and 84,832 injured, according to the local Health Ministry run by the Islamist movement Hamas.

Meanwhile, an important Hezbollah commander was killed in an Israeli attack in Lebanon, local military sources and the Shiite movement allied with Hamas have announced. The raid took place in the city of Juaiyya and also caused the death of three other people. The commander “is the most important member of Hezbollah killed so far since the beginning of the war”, the sources said without specifying the identity of the fighter.

UN puts Sudan’s army on children’s shame list

The UN has added Sudan’s army and Rapid Support Forces paramilitaries to the UN’s “list of shame” for violations of children’s rights in conflict, according to the UN secretary general’s annual report which will be officially published on Thursday. The dossier notes a “staggering 480 per cent increase” in the number of serious violations against children in the country between 2022 and 2023.

Sunak unveils Conservative Party manifesto

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to cut taxes and reduce immigration if his Conservative Party is re-elected in the general election on July 4. Sunak held the manifesto launch at Silverstone motor racing circuit in central England, home of the British Grand Prix, and it could be one of his last big chances to get his spluttering campaign back on track.

His central pitch was the claim that a government led by Labour’s Keir Starmer would raise taxes, while a Conservative one would lower them. In its manifesto, the party pledged £17billion (€20billion) in tax cuts by 2030, to be paid for largely by slashing welfare costs. The main tax cut is a two percentage point reduction in National Insurance. The Conservative government has already cut it twice, from 12 to the current eight per cent.

Sunak also pledged to raise defence investment to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030, and vowed that flights removing illegal migrants would depart in July.

Hunter Biden found guilty on all counts in gun case

A federal jury found US President’s son Hunter Biden guilty Tuesday on all three federal felony gun charges he faced, concluding that he violated laws meant to prevent drug addicts from owning firearms.

The conviction marks the first time a president’s immediate family member has been found guilty of a crime during their father’s term in office, though his crimes predate Joe Biden’s tenure as president.

In a statement, Hunter Biden said he was “disappointed” by the guilty verdict but “grateful” for his family’s love. President Biden expressed support for his son in a statement and said he would “respect the judicial process.”

Hunter Biden could face up to 25 years in prison and a fine of up to $750,000 at sentencing, though he likely will receive far less than the maximum as a first-time offender. The judge said sentencing is usually set for 120 days following a verdict, which means it is likely to happen before Election Day.

‘Women refugees embracing gender equality can qualify for asylum’

Women refugees adopting the European Union’s principle of gender equality can be considered deserving of asylum status, the European Court of Justice ruled Monday. The decision requires such women, including minors, to show they “genuinely” hold that principle dear after lengthy stays in an EU country, and that adhering to it clashes with norms in their country of origin. That would make them “a particular social group” with grounds to fear or suffer persecution in that country, the court said.

Animal rights activists deface King Charles portrait

Animal rights activists Monday targeted the first official portrait of Britain’s King Charles since he became monarch, pasting a large image of the well-known animated character ‘Wallace’ over his face, in a protest about welfare on farms.

Footage from campaign group Animal Rising showed two of its supporters approach the portrait in London’s Philip Mould gallery, and overlay the king’s face with a big cartoon image of Wallace from the Wallace and Gromit animated comedy franchise. They also pasted a large speech bubble, saying: “No cheese, Gromit. Look at all this cruelty on RSPCA farms!”

The aim of the supporters’ actions, Animal Rising said, was to highlight cruelty on farms granted “Assured” status, a guarantee of higher welfare standards, by the RSPCA animal charity, of which Charles is the patron.

Female teachers resign ‘after asking student if he’d like a foursome’

Two US female high school teachers have been forced to resign after being accused of trying to set up a foursome with students. Alexsia Saldaris quit Joseph Craig High School in Janesville, Wisconsin, on April 22 and Jennifer Larson on May 14 after a probe by the school district. Both teachers were on a school trip with a male student from April 7 to 9 and the investigation found incriminating Snapchat messages they sent him.

Saldaris admitted to sending the student five photos of herself in lingerie and kissing the student during the trip, the district’s report summary read. Larson admitted to exchanging messages with the student ‘involving cuddling, flirting, and the implication of alcohol’. The messages both teachers sent told the student they wanted to cuddle and ‘have fun’ with him, and asked if another student could join in.

Saldaris then met the student on April 9 and gave him the keys to a school district van used on the trip so he could ‘take laps’ of the car park. While she was changing her shoes in the back of the van, the pair kissed, according to the report summary.

That evening is when she sent the racy photos to the student, and made plans in Snapchat messages to meet the next weekend.

Erik ten Hag to stay as Manchester United manager

Erik ten Hag is to stay as Manchester United manager following the club’s performance review. A poor second season in charge at Old Trafford ended on a high as the Dutchman led the Red Devils to an FA Cup final win against rivals Manchester City. United have spent the past fortnight reviewing the 2023-24 campaign and overall first-team operation, leading questions to mount over Ten Hag’s position. United have decided that the 54-year-old will remain in his post after considering all eventualities. Ten Hag is said to be aligned with the club and negotiations over a contract extension have begun. His current deal is due to expire next summer.

Photo: Vadim Ghirda/AP

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