EU leaders gather in Brussels to decide on key roles

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Monday, 17th June 2024.

Ursula von der Leyen, the incumbent President of the European Commission who is aiming to secure a second term, will recuse herself from the room as leaders today gather for an informal discussion about the European Union’s top jobs.

These negotiations are the immediate next chapter after the elections to the European Parliament and will decide the bloc’s political leadership for the next five years. The jobs up for grabs are President of the European Commission, President of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The distribution needs to be done – at least, in theory – according to the results of the elections, taking into account political, geographical and gender balance.

With the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) securing a comfortable victory of 190 seats, its lead candidate, Ursula von der Leyen, is in pole position to secure the necessary backing of the 27 leaders and cement her re-appointment.

But will heads of state and government decide her future in her presence?

Not exactly. von der Leyen will only attend the exchange of views with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, which traditionally kicks off every summit, and a discussion on the bloc’s strategic agenda, an in-the-works declaration of the political priorities for the next five years.

After that, she will leave the room.

“This will be followed by a dinner, which will be leaders’ only (where) the topic of discussion will be top jobs in the European Union and, there, the President will not be present. It’s leaders only,” a Commission spokesperson said.

The presence, or absence, of von der Leyen during the informal summit attracted speculation in the last few days, particularly due to her long-standing rivalry with European Council President Charles Michel, who, as host, sets the agenda. Their frosty working relationship deteriorated after the so-called Sofagate, a protocol fiasco in April 2021, where von der Leyen was left without a chair during a meeting with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Michel. The video of the incident went viral, leading to discussions and criticism over the treatment of von der Leyen, with some interpreting the event as being rooted in sexism. Since then, relations between von der Leyen and Michel never recovered. Michel, whose term, unlike von der Leyen’s, is limited by terms, has been accused of trying to sabotage her re-election, something denied by Michel’s spokesperson.

Von der Leyen is well-liked among members of the European Council so her selection is nearly guaranteed to happen, if not on today then on 27th June, when EU leaders next gather for a formal summit. After that, her nomination will be subject to a hearing in the European Parliament, where she will need 361 votes in favour. This second phase is trickier and will involve intense talks with the main pro-European parties: the Socialists, the Liberals and, possibly, the Greens.

The presidency of the European Council is expected to be given to the Socialists while the Liberals, who suffered painful losses in the elections, will take the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. Picking a name for the foreign affairs position could prove awkward during the leaders’ dinner, as two of its current members, Estonia’s Kaja Kallas and Belgium’s Alexander De Croo, are considered credible candidates.

Coincidentally, Kallas and De Croo have been designated by the liberal family to lead the political negotiations on their behalf. Poland’s Donald Tusk and Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis will represent the EPP, while Germany’s Olaf Scholz and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez will speak for the Socialists.

Early this morning, reports said a consensus has emerged faster than many had anticipated: Ursula von der Leyen for the Commission, Portugal’s António Costa for the Council, and Estonia’s Kaja Kallas for High Representative.

Ukraine’s Swiss peace summit wraps up

World leaders on Sunday backed Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity, and the need for eventual talks with Russia on ending the war – but left the key questions of how and when unresolved.

More than two years after Russia invaded, leaders and top officials from more than 90 states spent the weekend at a Swiss mountainside resort for a two-day summit dedicated to resolving the largest European conflict since World War II.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the diplomatic “success” of the event, which took place without Russia, and said the path was open for a second peace summit, with a view to ending the war with a just and lasting settlement. But he told a closing news conference that “Russia and their leadership are not ready for a just peace”. “Russia can start negotiations with us even tomorrow without waiting for anything, ony if they leave our legal territories,” he said.

“Reaching peace requires the involvement of and dialogue between all parties,” said the summit’s final communique, supported by the vast majority of countries that attended the summit at the Burgenstock complex overlooking Lake Lucerne. The document also reaffirmed a commitment to the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all states, including Ukraine, within their internationally-recognised borders”. It said any threat or use of nuclear weapons in the war was “inadmissible”, and food security “must not be weaponised”.

The declaration also urged a full exchange of prisoners of war and the return to Ukraine of “all deported and unlawfully displaced children”, and other unlawfully detained Ukrainian civilians.

But not all attendees backed the joint communique, with India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates among those who did not appear on a list of states backing it. Though the declaration committed countries to taking “concrete steps” in future to “further engagement of the representatives of all parties”, the way to bring Russia into the process remained unclear. Swiss President Viola Amherd, hosting the summit, admitted “the road ahead is long and challenging”.

On Friday, Putin demanded Kyiv’s effective surrender as a basis for peace talks, but his call for Ukraine to withdraw its troops from the south and east of the country, which Russia claims to have annexed, was widely dismissed at the summit. The Kremlin nonetheless insisted Sunday that Ukraine should “reflect” on Putin’s demands, citing the military situation on the ground. Zelensky called for Beijing, which refused to send a delegation to the summit due to Russia’s absence, to engage seriously with the developing peace proposals. He  told reporters that though it has close ties with the Kremlin, “Ukraine never said that China is our enemy. I always say that Ukraine has only one enemy: Putin.”

“Kiev frees criminals to fight on the front” – WP

Troop-strapped Ukraine is releasing criminals from prisons to fight on the front lines, The Washington Post reports. Since the law was adopted in May, Kiev has freed more than 2,750 prisoners, including drug dealers and murderers. The Post said the use of criminals was yet another confirmation of Ukraine’s difficulties in recruiting new forces. Convicts can only fight in shock brigades, which can mean coming face to face with Russian soldiers, and can only serve in divisions made up of former convicts and led by a soldier.

Netanyahu denounces tactical pauses in Gaza fighting to get in aid

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticised plans announced by the military on Sunday to hold daily tactical pauses in fighting along one of the main roads into Gaza to facilitate aid delivery into the Palestinian enclave.

The military had announced the daily pauses between 0500 GMT and 1600 GMT in the area from the Kerem Shalom Crossing to the Salah al-Din Road and then northwards. “When the prime minister heard the reports of an 11-hour-humanitarian pause in the morning, he turned to his military secretary and made it clear that this was unacceptable to him,” an Israeli official said.

Sources close to Yoav Gallant told Haaretz that the Israeli Defence Minister was not aware of the army’s decision. According to sources, the government did not approve the decision.

The military clarified that normal operations would continue in Rafah, the main focus of its operation in southern Gaza, where eight soldiers were killed on Saturday and three more troops died elsewhere.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who leads one of the nationalist religious parties in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, denounced the idea of a tactical pause, saying whoever decided it was a “fool” who should lose their job.

6 dead in Israeli raid on central Gaza – Wafa

Six Palestinians, including a newborn, were killed in Israeli airstrikes on al-Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza, according to the Palestinian news agency Wafa, quoting sources in the Strip according to which “dozens of people” were injured in the raids. The planes reportedly targeted a house, belonging to the al-Khatib family in the refugee camp, killing four people, including the infant, and wounding others. Another raid hit the home of the an-Najjar family, killing two more people and wounding others.

Egypt pressuring Hamas to accept hostage, ceasefire deal

Cairo is pressuring Hamas to accept the first phase of the Gaza hostage and ceasefire deal without amendments, an Egyptian source tells the Qatar-owned Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper. Last week, Hamas submitted its formal response to the hostage release/ceasefire proposal that US President Biden said had been proposed by Israel, and declared that it had made “amendments” to the offer, which Israel deemed to be drastic changes that made the deal unacceptable. Mediators Egypt and Qatar have pledged to continue their efforts until a deal is reached. According to the Egyptian source quoted by Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, Cairo and Washington have been exerting intensive pressure on the Hamas leadership over the past days to agree to the first phase of the deal.

In addition, Hezbollah urges Hamas to “deal flexibly” with the proposal and to “be patient” and not close the door to ongoing negotiations, diplomatic sources told the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat daily. The report, first cited by the Kan public broadcaster, says the Hezbollah position is based on the assumption that Prime Minister Netanyahu does not really stand behind the offer.

While the ceasefire proposal was put forward by Jerusalem, Netanyahu has insisted that there were gaps between Biden’s presentation of the offer and Israel’s stance, which insists that there will be no permanent ceasefire in Gaza until all the goals of the war are met.

Hollywood elite help Biden raise $45m at a star-studded gala

Some of Hollywood’s brightest stars headlined a fundraiser for US President Joe Biden that took in a record $45 million for the Democratic candidate, according to his campaign, in hopes of energising would-be supporters for a White House contest they said “may rank among the most consequential in US history”.

George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Barbra Streisand were among those who took the stage at the 7,100-seat Peacock Theatre in Los Angeles. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel interviewed Biden and former president Barack Obama, who both stressed the need to defeat former President Donald Trump in a race that’s expected to be exceedingly close.

During more than half an hour of discussion, Kimmel asked if the country was suffering from amnesia about the presumptive Republican nominee, to which Biden responded, “all we gotta do is remember what it was like” when Trump was in the White House.

Trump sees Pope and Biden “freaking out”

Former President Trump has claimed Pope Francis was “freaking out” when he met President Joe Biden on Friday. Video showed Francis greeting Biden and other world leaders warmly on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Italy. The Pope could be seen smiling as Biden bent down to speak to him, with their foreheads touching at one point.

But Trump took to social media to suggest that Francis was not comfortable with Biden getting so close to him. “Look at the Pope – he’s freaking out! This can’t be normal, can it?” Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform, alongside of a photo of the two men with their foreheads close together.

Trump’s comments come after he suggested Biden, who is 81, should have to take a cognitive test in a speech on Saturday night, moments before confusing the name of the doctor who administered the test to him during his presidency. “He doesn’t even know what the word ‘inflation’ means. I think he should take a cognitive test like I did,” Trump said of Biden while speaking at the Turning Point Action convention in Detroit.

Italians respond to Pope’s slur by taking Francis to Pride

At Rome’s Pride celebration, bare-chested men in pink angel wings danced to Abba songs, women wrapped in rainbow flags kissed, and shimmering drag queens waved from parade floats. And then there was Pope Francis.

The pontiff’s image was everywhere: on cardboard cutouts adorned with flower necklaces, on glittery banners, on stickers. Romans came to the Pride parade dressed like Francis, wearing papal hats and T-shirts that read, “There is never too much frociaggine,” a reference to an offensive slur against gay men that the pope has been accused of using twice in recent weeks. The slur “is the slogan of the 2024 Pride,” said Martina Lorina, 28, an actress who was holding up a banner bearing the word.

After Italian media reported that Pope Francis used the slur at a meeting with priests to complain that there was too much “gayness” in the church, the Vatican apologised.

But Rome’s Pride attendees took a different tack to respond to the insult: they made it their own. Pride participants symbolically invited the pope and his slur to the party, using a longtime tactic of the LGBTQ community to turn insults into words of pride.

Axe-wielding man shot by German police before Euro 2024 Hamburg game

German police said Sunday they shot and wounded a man who was threatening them with a pick hammer and a Molotov cocktail in the northern city of Hamburg, hours before it hosted a match in the UEFA Euro2024 tournament. Police officers opened fire after the man, a 39-year-old German, refused to put down the hammer and the Molotov cocktail, hitting him in the leg, Hamburg police said in a statement. The man was hospitalised. No one else was hurt.

The incident happened in the St Pauli area of the northern port city, which thronged with fans before Sunday’s Group D match between the Netherlands and Poland. Police said the man may have been suffering from mental illness.

UEFA Euro2024 – Sunday’s results: Group D: Poland v Netherlands 1-2;  Group C: Slovenia v Denmark 1-1 and Serbia v England 0-1. Today’s programme: Group E: Romania v. Ukraine (3pm) and Belgium v Slovakia (6pm). Group D: Austria v France (9pm).

Illustration: POLITICO/Source images by Getty Images

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