EU leaders to press Hungary on Ukraine funding deal

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Thursday, 1st February 2024

EU leaders gathering in Brussels will press Hungary to unblock the funds on long-term EU aid for Ukraine. According to a report by Deutsche Welle, they will try and hash out a deal today as “the level of nervousness is quite high”, a senior EU official said ahead of the meeting, noting there was mounting “frustration” toward Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán from many of the bloc’s 26 other member states.

As Russian attacks continue, Ukraine is running out of funds to keep its economy afloat and deliver key services such as running hospitals or keeping schools open. The last round of European Union financial aid for Kiev was disbursed in December, and there is no guaranteed EU funding on the horizon. A plan to secure €50 billion to tide Ukraine over until 2027 through EU budget support remains deadlocked after Hungary vetoed the agreement in December.

EU has “fallen short” of its goals to help Ukraine

In a letter published in the Financial Times on Wednesday, five European leaders admitted “the hard truth” that the European Union had “fallen short” of its goal to supply Ukraine with one million artillery rounds before the end of March 2024.

In the document, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Czechia’s Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, and the Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote that the EU “can’t just give up on our promise”. “If Ukrainian soldiers are to keep up the fight, the need for ammunition is overwhelming,” the letter reads. “And the EU member states’ delivery of arms and ammunition to Ukraine is more important than ever.”

The leaders called for the EU to redouble its efforts to support Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion and provide Kiev “the ammunition and weapon systems, including howitzers, tanks, UAVs, and air defence” it urgently needs.

Meanwhile, EU Industry Commissioner Thierry Breton announced that the production capacity in Europe for 155mm ammunition is currently a million pieces per year. “It is a goal that we reached two months ahead of the commitment made a year ago and without counting the benefits of the ASAP programme, which means an increase of 50 per cent,” he said. Last May, the European Commission adopted the ‘Act in Support of Ammunition Production (ASAP)’, a proposal for a regulation to support the EU’s industry in ramping-up its production capacities in ammunition and missiles. “Thanks to ASAP, at the end of 2024 we will rise to 1.4 million pieces and in 2025 we will increase further, reaching two million pieces per year,” Breton specified.

While other EU leaders have stressed the need to shore up Ukraine’s financial security to send a message to Russia that the bloc will stay the course with Kiev, Orbán has publicly opposed long-term funding. “We do not know what’s going to happen in Ukraine in the next three or four months,” he told the French weekly news magazine Le Point. “Their proposition goes in the direction of a military solution – something I do not subscribe to. Hungarians don’t like that either,” he added. In a bid to secure an agreement, EU leaders are likely to offer Hungary an annual debate to review the implementation of the funding model for Kiev. While Orban has signaled some openness to striking a deal, he told Le Point that he wanted a regular opportunity to veto funding. “It has to be unanimous,” he said.

EU officials have reportedly been exploring other methods to put pressure on Budapest. Earlier this week, the Financial Times published an article quoting a leaked EU document the newspaper said “outlined a strategy to explicitly target Hungary’s economic weaknesses, imperil its currency, and drive a collapse in investor confidence”. Asked about the reports, a senior EU official said this was merely a “background document” describing the Hungarian economy: “We have no plans whatsoever of putting pressure in one way or the other.”

Should EU leaders fail to convince Orbán, they have designed a back-up plan: banding together as 26 countries and offering support for Ukraine outside the bloc’s official structures. But the optics of this disunited plan B make it a less-than-desirable option in Brussels.  Given the ongoing debate among US lawmakers over their future financing for Ukraine, the EU is at pains to show Washington its willingness to step up and offer long-term support to Ukraine.

Macron- Orbán meeting

Talks between French President Emmanuel Macron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán were held last night in Brussels. The meeting between the two leaders took place in the lobby of the Amigo Hotel. Shortly before, Orbán had a bilateral meeting of about an hour with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. The meetings took place a few hours before the EU summit.

Photo: IPP/Zumapress

UN court rejects most of Ukraine’s ‘terror’ case against Russia

The United Nations’ top court yesterday mostly rejected Ukraine’s claims that Russia was financing “terrorism” in eastern Ukraine, saying only that Moscow had failed to investigate alleged breaches. Kiev had accused Moscow of being a “terrorist state” whose support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine was a harbinger of the full-fledged 2022 invasion. It wanted Russia to compensate all civilians caught up in the conflict, as well as victims from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine’s top lawyer in the case, Anton Korynevych, said the verdict nonetheless had “big value”. “For us it is a very important day because this is a judgement that says the Russian Federation violated international law,” he told reporters after the verdict. “This is the very first time that Russia is called a violator of international law.”

Photo: Peter Dejong, AP

Russia and Ukraine complete major prisoner-of-war exchange

Russia and Ukraine conducted their first major prisoner-of-war exchange since a previous swap failed a week ago after a Russian Il-76 transport plane was shot down and crashed in the Belgorod region. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that 207 Ukrainian soldiers were returned to the country. Russia’s Defence Ministry said in a statement that “exactly 195 Ukrainian armed forces prisoners of war” were handed over to Kiev in exchange for the release and return of 195 captured Russian soldiers.

Photo: AP Photo/Danylo Pavlov

US considers possible recognition of Palestinian statehood

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has asked the State Department to present policy options on the possible recognition by the United States of a Palestinian state after the end of the conflict in Gaza. This was revealed by Axios, which quotes two US officials, one of whom speaks of how the work to find a “diplomatic way out” for the conflict in Gaza has “opened the way to a rethinking of many old paradigms and US policies”. According to the Axios source, there are those in the Biden administration who think that recognition of a Palestinian state should be the first step, not the last, in negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Gaza Strip has become uninhabitable – UN

Half of the buildings in the Gaza Strip are damaged and the Palestinian territory is “uninhabitable” after four months of war waged by Israel against the Islamic movement Hamas, the UN estimates. It will take tens of billions of dollars to make the narrow strip of land livable again, underlines a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

Meanwhile, the Unicef says its biggest concern about Gaza is about 19,000 children left orphaned or alone without any adult to care for them, according to the BBC. Jonathan Crick, head of communications for Unicef Palestine, said that “many of these children were found under the rubble or lost their parents in the bombing of their home”. Others were found at Israeli checkpoints, in hospitals, and on the streets. “The little ones very often cannot say their name and even the older ones are usually in shock.”


Gaza children in Italy say “we left hell”

The president of Rome’s Vatican-owned Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital, Tiziano Onesti, and Father Ibrahim Faltas, a Franciscan from the Custody of the Holy Land, said children from Gaza told them they had “left hell” in the Strip after meeting them in the wards in the Rome. The two men reported that “eyes welled up with tears, but also contentment, curiosity, and surprise at being in a foreign country that has welcomed them. The children, being treated at the Bambino Gesù paediatric hospital, told them they had “left hell behind”. Four injured kids from the Strip are being treated in Rome, three in Florence, and three in Genoa, where doctors said they had clearly been operated on without anaesthetic in Gaza amid the Israeli bombardment. They are the first 10 of an estimated 100 children Italy has agreed to treat.

“I won’t OK deal that harms security” – Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday told families of those held hostage by Hamas in the Gaza Strip that he would not agree to a deal to release the captives if it posed a threat to Israel’s security. However, he also reassured them that political considerations would not stand in the way of a possible agreement.

The Times of Israel reports the meeting took place amid a flurry of reports on a potential deal being examined by Israel and Hamas to free the hostages. As of last night, Hamas had not responded to an outline of a deal reportedly formulated and agreed to by Israeli, American, Egyptian, and Qatari representatives in Paris on Sunday. Hamas is expected to convey its response through Qatar. Hamas is reviewing plans for a three-stage truce with Israel which foresee a weeks-long halt to the Gaza war, a source in the Palestinian militant group told AFP yesterday.


UNRWA is “totally infiltrated” by Hamas, must be replaced – Netanyahu

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Wednesday that the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) had been “totally infiltrated” by Hamas, after several countries suspended funding after Israeli accused its staffers of having participated in the 7th October massacre. Netanyahu told a meeting of UN ambassadors in Jerusalem that “we need to get other UN agencies and other aid agencies replacing UNRWA. We need such a body today in Gaza, but UNRWA is not that body.”

Of the 12 workers accused of participating in the 7th October 7 attack, seven were reportedly teachers, two were educational consultants, and others were humanitarian aid warehouse managers. UN agencies issued a joint statement on Wednesday, warning of “catastrophic consequences for the people of Gaza” if key donor countries don’t resume funding for UNRWA.

Photo: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

Biden opens up lead on Trump

US President Joe Biden has opened up a six-point lead in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up with former President Donald Trump, new polling shows, amid signs of a growing gender gap in support for the two party front-runners. A new Quinnipiac University national poll found Biden with 50 per cent support among registered voters, ahead of Trump’s 44 per cent. That’s a shift in the incumbent’s favour from December, when Quinnipiac found the same Biden-Trump hypothetical “too close to call”, with Biden at 47 per cent support and Trump at 46 per cent. Biden also scored majority support among independents in the latest findings, with 52 pecent support to Trump’s 40 pecent. The poll additionally found a growing gender gap when it comes to support for the current and former presidents as they each run for a second White House term. Fifty-eight percent of women say they support Biden, up from 53 per cent in December. At the same time, 53 per cent of men say they support Trump, “largely unchanged” from 51 per cent in December.

Infographic: Daily Mail

US House passes sprawling Bill that expands child tax credits

The US House passed a sprawling tax Bill on Wednesday evening in a rare showing of bipartisanship. The $78 billion package would expand the child tax credit and bring back popular research and development business tax deductions. It also includes low-income housing tax credits and tax benefits for Taiwan – and offsets costs by rolling back payroll tax breaks. The Bill will come up under suspension of the rules due to some GOP opposition. Some hard right Republicans are against the tax credit portion of the Bill.

Photo: Getty Images

Le Pen leads Figaro Magazine’s political poll

Marine Le Pen ranks first in the top 10 of French political personalities created by the Verian-Epoka institute for Le Figaro Magazine for the first time. Forty per cent of French people point to the leader of the Rassemblement National (RN) – a strong progress compared to 2010, when she was at 14 per cent. Former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe follows in second place in the ranking (39 per cent) and in third place is the secretary of the RN, Jordan Bardella (37 per cent). The recent appointment of the young Gabriel Attal at the helm of the government does not seem to benefit Macron’s confidence index, stable at 24 per cent. Attal himself collects 33 per cent.

Photo: Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt / AFP – Getty Images

US shoots down 3 Iranian drones and Houthi missile

A US destroyer shot down three Iranian drones and a ballistic missile in the Gulf of Aden last night, the US military’s Middle East Command (Centcom) announced. “Iran-backed Houthi rebels launched an anti-ship ballistic missile which was shot down by the USS Carney,” Centcom said in a statement. Shortly afterwards the same destroyer “shot down three Iranian drones” that were “nearby”, it added, without specifying whether the drones were armed or not.

Meanwhile, a European Union naval mission to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea from missile attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen is expected to be launched on 19th February, the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell announced on Wednesday after an informal meeting of defence ministers in Brussels. So far only five member states have publicly indicated they will participate in the mission: Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, and Italy.

Photo: EPA/U.S. NAVY

IMF releases $4.7 billion for Argentina

The International Monetary Fund has released $4.7 billion for Argentina. The payments are part of a refinanced $44 billion programme, the lender’s largest, that was beset by uncertainty for months during the election campaign that saw Javier Milei oust the Peronist government of Alberto Fernandez. The board’s decision on Wednesday follows a staff-level agreement reached in Buenos Aires earlier this month. “The new administration is taking bold actions to restore macro-economic stability and begin to address long-standing impediments to growth,” IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said in the statement.

Cancers now affect over 20% of Europeans

A study published in the journal Lancet Oncology reveals direct experience of cancer affects more than one person in 20 in Europe, or 23.7 million people (12.8 million women and 10.9 million men) who have been diagnosed with cancer. Numbers are increasing by 3.5 per cent per year and by 41 per cent in total between 2010 and 2020 (from 16.8 to 23.7 million), as a result of the increasingly elderly population. The increase was more marked among men (+46 per cent, from 7.47 million in 2010 to 10.9 million in 2020) than among women (+37% per cent, from 9.34 to 12.8 million). The data was released in view of next Sunday’s World Cancer Day.

Meanwhile, a group of experts from the magazine Nature ask for a reflection on the name of cancer. They said, “Forget lung, breast, or prostate cancer: the name should change.” And it’s not a question of ‘toponymy’. According to the authors, specialists and researchers of the French Gustave Roussy Institute, in the era of target therapy and molecular profiling of tumours, the conventional way of classifying them, when metastatic, based on their organ of origin, risks denying people the access to drugs that could help them. Roberto Burioni, professor of virology at San Raffaele, said, “Today we fight cancer with very effective weapons. Victory is near.”

Main photo: AP

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