EU Parliament ready to lift immunity in Russiagate probe

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 23rd April 2024.

The European Parliament is waiting for national authorities to provide intelligence that could lead to stripping MEPs of their immunity in the so-called Russiagate probe, the institution’s President Roberta Metsola told Euronews in an interview to be screened on Thursday. Speaking in Strasbourg ahead of the final plenary of the mandate, Metsola touched upon allegations that members of her parliament received cash from a Kremlin-backed network to spread Russian propaganda in Europe. Authorities in Belgium have opened a judicial investigation into the claims after Czech authorities first foiled a suspected propaganda operation in March.

“We continue to wait for information to be received from national authorities, because this would require any waiver of immunity being adopted by this House,” Metsola explained. “Investigations that would need to take place like we had, like had happened in the past, that would require national authorities to ask. We’re waiting for that. And if that happens, we will do our job as we’ve always done,” she added.

It comes just over two months before EU voters head to the polls to elect 720 members to the European Parliament, and amid mounting fears Kremlin proxies could be using information manipulation to skew the democratic vote. Metsola, who belongs to the centre-right party expected to win those elections, the European People’s Party (EPP), is running again to represent constituents in Malta in a bid to retain her seat.

Dubbed Russiagate, the sprawling probe is the second cash-for-influence scandal to rock the parliament – the EU’s only democratically-elected institution – since Metsola took the reins half-way through the mandate. In December 2022, just nine months after she assumed the presidency, a handful of current and former MEPs were accused of receiving money from Qatari, Moroccan and Mauritanian officials to influence the hemicycle’s decisions on their behalf. Metsola was personally asked to authorise a raid on the home of the parliament’s vice-president Eva Kaili, where €150,000 in cash were recovered.

Metsola has spearheaded changes designed to close loopholes and crack down on undue interests. It means MEPs face stricter rules when accepting gifts, trips paid by third countries, and side-jobs, and a cooling-off period after leaving office. An agreement to establish an ethics body tasked with enforcing the new rules will be up for a plenary vote on Thursday. The deal is the result of negotiations between eight EU institutions and is based on a Commission proposal made at the request of the parliament.

EU sets TikTok ultimatum over ‘addictive’ new app feature

The European Commission on Monday gave TikTok a 24-hour deadline to submit an assessment of potential health risks related to its new app TikTok Lite or face daily fines. It comes after TikTok “failed to provide” information earlier this month. TikTok Lite, a slimmed down version of TikTok, launched in France and Spain in March, optimised for slower internet connections and uses less memory. It enables users over the age of 18 to earn points that can be redeemed for vouchers or gift cards. The Commission says it wants the Chinese-owned company “to show how it assessed the addictiveness and mental health risks of the scheme”. If TikTok fails to reply within the 24-hour deadline the company faces fines amounting to one percent of its annual revenue. The bloc’s, executive, also announced Monday it was launching a second probe to determine if TikTok breached the EU’s Digital Service Act, under which the video sharing platform was supposed to have submitted a “risk assessment” before launching TikTok Lite in Europe.

 ‘Global military spending up by over $2.44 trillion’

The latest update of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s database of military expenditure has found that global military spending grew by nearly seven per cent in 2023 – a year-on-year increase not seen since 2009 – to US$2.44 trillion. On Monday, SIPRI updated its Military Expenditure Database for 2023 as top spenders such as the United States, China and Russia ratcheted up their military budgets.

Imports of major arms by European states increased by 47 per cent between 2013and 2017 and between 2018 and 2022. Military spending is up in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and North and South America. It’s the first time since 2009 that annual spending was up in all geographical regions examined by SIPRI at once. The United States’ share of global arms exports increased from 33 to 40 per cent while Russia’s fell from 22 to 16 per cent, according to the new data on global arms transfers. Pieter D. Wezeman, Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Arms Transfers Programme, said: “Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European states want to import more arms, faster. Strategic competition also continues elsewhere: arms imports to East Asia have increased and those to the Middle East remain at a high level.”

US and French arms exports increase as Russian exports decline: Global arms exports have long been dominated by the USA and Russia (consistently the largest and second largest arms exporters for the past three decades). However, the gap between the two has been widening significantly, while that between Russia and the third largest supplier, France, has narrowed. US arms exports increased by 14 per cent between 2013 amnd 2017 and between 2018 and 2012, and the USA accounted for 40 per cent of global arms exports in the 2018–22 period. Russia’s arms exports fell by 31 per cent between 2013 and 2017 and between 2018 and 2022, and its share of global arms exports decreased from 22 per cent to 16 per cent, while France’s share increased from 7.1 per cent to 11 per cent.

Russian arms exports decreased to eight of its 10 biggest recipients. Exports to India, the largest recipient of Russian arms, fell by 37 per cent, while exports to the other seven decreased by an average of 59 per cent. However, Russian arms exports increased to China (+39 per cent) and Egypt (+44 per cent), and they became Russia’s second and third largest recipients.

France’s arms exports increased by 44 per cent, mostly to states in Asia and Oceania and the Middle East. India received 30 per cent of France’s arms exports in 2018–22, and France displaced the USA as the second largest supplier of arms to India after Russia. France is gaining a bigger share of the global arms market as Russian arms exports decline. This seems likely to continue, as by the end of 2022, France had far more outstanding orders for arms exports than Russia.

Ukraine became the world’s third largest arms importer in 2022. From 1991 until the end of 2021, Ukraine imported few major arms. As a result of military aid from the USA and many European states following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine became the third biggest importer of major arms during 2022 (after Qatar and India) and the fourteenth biggest for 2018–22. Ukraine accounted for two per cent of global arms imports in the five-year period. Due to concerns about how the supply of combat aircraft and long-range missiles could further escalate the war in Ukraine, NATO states declined Ukraine’s requests for them in 2022. At the same time, they supplied such arms to other states involved in conflict, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. European NATO states increased their arms imports by 65 per cent as they sought to strengthen their arsenals in response to a perceived heightened threat from Russia. Poland increased its military spending the most of all European countries, by 75 per cent from 2022, to $31.6 billion in total.

The Middle East received high-end US and European arms: Three of the top 10 importers between 2018 and 22 were in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second largest arms importer and received 9.6 per cent of all arms imports in the period. Qatar’s arms imports increased by 311 per cent, making it the world’s third biggest arms importer in 2018/2022. The great majority of arms imports to the Middle East came from the USA (54 per cent), followed by France (12 per cent), Russia (8.6 per cent) and Italy (8.4 per cent). They included more than 260 advanced combat aircraft, 516 new tanks and 13 frigates. Arab states in the Gulf region alone have placed orders for more than 180 combat aircraft, while 24 have been ordered from Russia by Iran (which received virtually no major arms during 2018/22). Iran is the fourth-biggest military spender, with a budget of $10.3 billion.

EU agrees to slap new sanctions on Iran

The European Union has reached a political agreement to tighten sanctions on Iran in retaliation for the recent barrage launched against Israel. The sanctions are designed to curtail the exports of EU-made components used in the production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, and ballistic missiles. The bloc had previously set up a dedicated regime to target Iranian-made drones, which the country has used to prop up Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The so-called “kamikaze” Shahed drones have been launched against critical infrastructure and residential buildings, killing dozens, and possibly hundreds, of Ukranians. The scheme has also blacklisted people and entities involved in Iran’s UAV programme through travel bans and asset-freezing measures.

Trump’s hush money trial starts

Former US president Donald Trump faced court in Manhattan on 34 felony counts of falsifying business records over payments he made to his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, that prosecutors say were reimbursements for money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels, in order to bury her claims of a sexual encounter. Prosecutor Matthew Colangelo told the court: “This was a planned, long-running conspiracy to influence the 2016 election, to help Donald Trump get elected through illegal expenditures to silence people who had something bad to say about his behaviour. It was election fraud, pure and simple.” Trump’s lawyers rejected the allegations during the hearing. “There’s nothing wrong with trying to influence an election,” attorney Todd Blanche said. “It’s called democracy.” Jurors also heard from the trial’s first witness: David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media Inc, which publishes the supermarket tabloid National Enquirer. Pecker has been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony. The trial could last up to two months and requires Trump – who is the favourite in the Republican presidential primaries – to spend his days in a courtroom rather than on the campaign trail.

Israel’s intel chief quits over October Hamas’ attack

The head of Israel’s military intelligence has requested termination of his position, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced on Monday. “Major General Aharon Haliva, in coordination with the chief of the general staff, has requested to end his position, following his leadership responsibility as the head of the intelligence directorate for the events of October 7,” the military said in a statement. Haliva was head of the intelligence corps during the October 7 terror attacks. Last year, Haliva said he accepted responsibility for the intelligence failures that allowed the Hamas-led attacks to take place. Around 1,200 people were killed when Hamas launched a large-scale terror attack on southern Israel. Some 250 people were taken hostage. Haliva is the most senior official to step down because of the attacks. He is the first senior Israeli official to resign.

Commons passes Rwanda bill

Tghe House of Commons passed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s flagship Rwanda bill, after a late-night sitting and months of wrangling. It designates Rwanda a safe country and is a key part of the government’s plans to send some asylum seekers there. The Bill has been fiercely criticised by opposition parties but after several debates the Lords dropped their objections to it late on Monday. Home Secretary James Cleverly called the passing of the Bill a “landmark moment in our plan to stop the boats”. But rights groups say the Bill “trashes international law” while “putting torture survivors and other refugees at risk”. Sunak says flights taking some asylum seekers to Rwanda will set off in “10-12 weeks”.

‘Having children is destroying the environment’

A new study has claimed that having children is the most destructive thing a person can do to the environment. The study, by researchers from Lund University in Sweden, says that having one less child can save an average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year. That is the same reduction as 684 teenagers adopting comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives. In comparison, living car-free saved about the equivalent of 2.4 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. The study also highlighted the inefficiency of government recycling schemes and using energy-efficient light bulbs. These methods were shown to be between four and eight times less effective than eating a plant-based diet.

Thousands in Milan’s Piazza Duomo celebrating Inter’s scudetto win

Inter won the scudetto and thousands of fans immediately poured into Piazza Duomo, outside the San Siro stadium, where, since it was a derby against AC Milan many were unable to enter. Fans blaring car horns continued driving along the city’s ring roads until the early hours of this morning, despite the rain and the cold. It was a big party almost everywhere with many flags and signs or banners with the double star drawn for the awarding of the twentieth Serie A championship. Thousands of people went to Piazza Duomo from the suburbs and from San Siro where Nerazzurri supporters had ‘surrounded’ the stadium waiting for the coveted victory. Smoke bombs and fireworks in the Cathedral, drums, flags and banners testified to a long-awaited goal. Yesterday, Inter beat Milan 2-1 with goals by Acerbi and Turam. Tomori scored for Milan.

Chelsea could dent Arsenal’s championship chances

Chelsea will be reeling following a disappointing FA Cup semi-final defeat to Manchester City on Saturday in which a few decisions could be deemed to have gone against them. They will be aiming to convert that frustration into passion as they head to the Emirates for a huge London derby this evening. Arsenal bounced back from their Champions League exit with a solid 2-0 win at Wolves and they will be looking to keep their momentum going as they remain in a three-way race for the Premier League title. Given they have won 10 of their last 12 Premier League home matches in a sequence which includes triumphs over title rivals Manchester City and Liverpool, Arteta’s men should be backed to get the job done in today’s derby. However, it is unlikely the hosts will have things all their own way, as the Blues have found their shooting boots in recent weeks, netting 19 goals in their last six league games. Nine of Chelsea’s last 10 league matches have seen both sides find the net while the same option has landed in 11 of their last 12 away games.

Photo: Frederick Florin, AFP

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