EU seals €50bn aid package for Ukraine

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 2nd February 2024

Leaders of the 27 European Union member states have sealed a deal to provide Ukraine with €50 billion in support for its war-ravaged economy after Hungary dropped weeks of threats to veto the measure.

European Council President Charles Michel said the agreement “locks in steadfast, long-term, predictable funding for Ukraine” and shows the EU’s determination “to support their future, to support freedom”. Michel said the EU’s move would also send “a signal to the American taxpayers”, which could help the Biden administration in its efforts to get a Ukraine support package through Congress.

The aid package – about two-thirds loans and one-third grants – is also aimed at setting Ukraine up for future EU membership. Political infighting in the EU and the US has held up funding, with a combined total of more than €99.5 billion at stake. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the assistance, saying that continued financial help from the EU would strengthen Ukraine’s long-term economic stability, “which is no less important than military assistance and sanctions pressure on Russia”. His country could receive the first tranche of money as soon as March, once the European Parliament has endorsed the deal.

The aid package was part of a review of the EU’s continuing seven-year budget, which required unanimous approval. To help assuage Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the leaders agreed that the European Commission would review the budget in two years, if deemed necessary, but such a review would not include an opportunity for a future veto.

Orban cast the decision as a victory, tweeting: “Mission accomplished. Hungary’s funds will not end up in Ukraine and we have a control mechanism at the end of the first and the second year. Our position on the war in Ukraine remains unchanged: we need a ceasefire and peace talks.”

Angry farmers on tractors create chaos in EU summit protest

Farmers burned bales of hay, threw eggs and fireworks at police, and wrested some promises of relief from European leaders, at the culmination of weeks of protests across the continent over red tape and competition from cheap imports. Eager to reassure a key part of the electorate and end disruption in several cities, leaders at the European Union summit in Brussels showered the farmers with compliments and compassion – if few concrete proposals. But ahead of EU parliamentary elections in June, most leaders at the summit were keen to win over farmers, especially as populist and hard-right politicians latched on to their plight in recent weeks.

Leaders welcomed the plan of the European Commission to shield farmers from cheap imports from Ukraine during wartime and allow farmers to use some land that had been forced to lie fallow for environmental reasons. EC chief Ursula von der Leyen also promised to prepare, by the end of the month, new plans to cut reams of bureaucratic rules to make sure farmers can spend more time in their fields, not in their offices.

On Thursday, as thick smoke from burning bales of hay and tyres hung over parts of the Belgian capital, security forces used water cannons to douse fires and keep a farmer from felling a tree on the steps of the European Parliament. However, they could not prevent one bronze statue being pulled off its pedestal and scorched.

Photo: DIRK WAEM/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

In France, the government did make significant concessions – enough that two major farming unions promised to suspend the blockade their tractors have placed on Paris for days. For weeks, farmers have complained that it was becoming harder than ever to make a decent living as energy and fertiliser costs surge because of Russia’s war in Ukraine, more and cheaper farm imports enter the bloc, and climate change-fuelled droughts, floods, or fires destroy crops. Their protests jammed traffic in cities, preventing millions of European citizens from getting to work or school, while blockades of ports and major traffic routes meant supermarket shelves were left empty.

In Greece, farmers rallied outside an agricultural fair, while others drove their tractors into Milan.

Hamas has given “initial positive confirmation” to hostage-truce deal

Qatar’s Foreign Ministry announces that Hamas has given its “initial positive confirmation” to a proposed deal that would see hostages freed and fighting in Gaza stop for a period of time. It says Israel has agreed to the proposal, confirming reports that Jerusalem okayed the deal at negotiations in Paris on Sunday.

“The meeting in Paris succeeded in consolidating the proposals… That proposal has been approved by the Israeli side and now we have an initial positive confirmation from the Hamas side,” Majed al-Ansari said, referring to meetings between Qatari, US, Israeli, and Egyptian officials in the French capital.

Israel’s War Cabinet started an emercency meeting a few minutes after the Qatari announcement. Channel 13 News quotes a senior Israeli official denying that anything was approved by Jerusalem while Channel 12 says Israel has yet to receive any formal response from Qatar to the proposed deal. A source close to Hamas said, however, that there was still no consensus on the proposal.

Photo: ANAS BABA / AFP

UK could recognise Palestinian state at end of war

Britain could officially recognise a Palestinian state after a ceasefire in Gaza without waiting for the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which could last years, on a two-state solution, British Foreign Minister David Cameron said in an interview with the Associated Press reported on the US agency’s website.

Cameron specified that no recognition could come as long as Hamas remains in power in Gaza, but that it could happen while negotiations between Israelis and Palestinian leaders are underway. “What we need to do is give the Palestinian people a horizon towards a better future, the future of having their own state,” Cameron added. This perspective is “absolutely vital to the long-term peace and security of the region,” he later explained.

The AP recalls that Britain, the United States, and other Western countries support the idea of an independent Palestine alongside Israel as a solution to the conflict in the region, but say that Palestinian independence should come as part of a negotiated solution. There have been no substantive negotiations since 2009.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on his part, has publicly rejected the creation of an independent Palestinian state after the war. Recognition of a Palestinian state by its Western allies could isolate Israel and put pressure on it to come to the table.

Biden sanctions Israeli settlers who attacked Palestinians

US President Joe Biden has issued an executive order targeting Israeli settlers and peace activists in the West Bank who have been attacking Palestinians in the occupied territory, imposing financial sanctions and visa bans in an initial round against four individuals. The settlers were involved in acts of violence as well as threats and attempts to destroy or seize Palestinian property, according to the order. The penalties aim to block the four from using the US financial system and bar American citizens from dealing with them. US officials said they were evaluating whether to punish others involved in attacks which have intensified during the Israel-Hamas war. Palestinian authorities say some Palestinians have been killed, and rights groups say settlers have torched cars and attacked several small Bedouin communities, forcing evacuations.

Death toll in Gaza “passes 27,000”

More than 27,000 people have been killed and 66,000 wounded by Israel’s offensive in Gaza, the Hamas-controlled territory’s health ministry said on Thursday. South Africa’s foreign minister has accused Israel of ignoring last week’s ruling by the United Nations’ top court, which ordered Israel to do all it can to prevent deaths in Gaza. The number of deaths has grown by more than 1,100 since the International Criminal Court in the Hague told Israel to do its best to prevent acts of genocide against Palestinians in Gaza. Israel denies the genocide accusations brought against it at the court by South Africa.

The Gazan health ministry said 27,019 Palestinians have been killed and 66,139 wounded since the Israeli strikes on the Strip began in October. It does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths but says most of those killed were women and children.

Israel’s offensive was prompted by Hamas’ 7th October attack in southern Israel, which killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took about 250 people hostage, according to Israeli authorities.

US hints response to Iran-backed militias imminent

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has said it is time to further disable Iran-backed militias who have struck at American forces and ships in the Middle East and Washington is preparing to take significant action in response to the deaths of three service members in Jordan.

 For days the US has hinted strikes are imminent. While the threat of retaliation for Sunday’s deaths has driven some militant groups to say they were stopping hostilities, on Thursday Yemen’s Houthi rebels were still attacking vessels and fired a ballistic missile at a Liberian-flagged container ship in the Red Sea. “At this point, it’s time to take away even more capability than we’ve taken in the past,” Austin said on Thursday in his first news conference since he was admitted to hospital on 1st January due to complications from prostate cancer treatment.

In the Red Sea, the Houthis have fired on commercial and military ships almost 40 times since November. In the latest attack, they fired a ballistic missile at a Liberian-flagged container ship on Thursday, US defence officials said. The attack happened west of Hodeida, a port city in Yemen long held by the rebels, said UK Maritime Trade Operations, a British military group overseeing Middle East waterways. It said the crew and the vessel were safe and the blast came far off the vessel’s starboard side.

300 injured in Nairobi gas explosion, fire

At least 300 people were injured  last night in a huge fire caused by a gas explosion in Nairobi, according to the police in the Kenyan capital and the Red Cross. The accident occurred in Embakasi district. “A company was filling gas cylinders when a fire broke out and several people were injured and rushed to hospital. The building that houses the company is severly damaged,!” a Kenyan government spokesperson declared,” adding the Red Cross treated some 30 other people at the scene.

Photo Daniel Irungu/EPA-EFE

Argentinian deputies intervene in police-protesters clashes

Several left deputies and other sectors of the Opposition, including Maximo Kirchner, left the Argentinian chamber during a debate on the Omnibus Law to intervene between the police and protesters outside the Argentine Congress in Buenos Aires. Incidents between law enforcement and demonstrators protesting against the law began when police insisted on enforcing the anti-picketing protocol that prohibits the disruption of road traffic. There were clashes between the militants and the police, who used rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannons, and batons to force protesters to move onto the square or sidewalk. Shortly before, the progressive blocs had asked Congress to interrupt the discussion of the law until 9pm local time (1am in Malta) due to tensions. The break was not granted and many deputies had left the chamber, only to return a little later. The C5N television channel reported that police fired rubber bullets at journalists and that one of its newspersons was injured.

Photo: Reuters

‘Super Pope’ artist gets stamp of Vatican approval

Street artist Maupal, whose cartoon-like depictions of Pope Francis as a “Super Pope” have graced buildings around the Vatican for a decade, received an official stamp of approval on Thursday when he appeared at a Vatican news conference.

Maupal, in life Mauro Pallotta, designed a series of posters to illustrate Francis’ 2024 Lent message, which this year emphasises the need for the faithful to let go of hopelessness and bondage to find a path of inner freedom. The posters will be released weekly over the course of this Lent season leading up to Easter.

Maupal gained broad attention a year after Francis was elected in 2013, with the first graffiti art of the pope as a flying, white-caped “Super Pope”, a spinoff from Hollywood’s Superman, clutching his black satchel with the word ‘Values’ on it. In 2022 Francis met him, and Maupal started collaborating with the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano.

Photo: Gregorio Borgia/AP

Hamilton at the wheel of the Ferrari from 2025

Lewis Hamilton will drive Ferrari in the Formula 1 World Championship “from 2025, with a multi-year contract”. The Maranello made the announcement after Mercedes formalised its divorce proceedings from Lewis Hamilton at the end of 2024.

The Formula 1 Team explained Hamilton had activated the clause to free himself from the contract renewed until 2025. “The Mercedes team and Lewis Hamilton will part ways at the end of the 2024 season,” reads the note. “Lewis has activated a termination option in the contract announced last August and this season will therefore be his last drive for the Silver Arrows. The news brings to an end what is currently a 17-year F1 relationship with Mercedes-Benz and an 11-year partnership with the factory team.”

Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
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