EU seeks closer ties with Western Balkans, reform is key

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Thursday, 14th December 2023

European Union leaders met with hopeful counterparts from six Western Balkan countries in Brussels Wednesday to discuss their accession into the bloc. Speaking before the EU-Western Balkans summit began, European Council President Charles Michel said, “We are expecting more reforms from them, especially in the field of rule of law, in the field of the independence of justice.” Michel emphasised “strong political determination” by regional leaders to see such reforms through. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, called the potential expansion of the bloc to include Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia the EU’s “most important security guarantee”, urging member states to move quickly to bring that expansion about. The EU has also proposed a €6 billion Western Balkans economic fund, but this has been caught up in EU budget negotiations.

EU Commission releases 10 billion for Budapest

The European Commission has decided to release the €10.2 billion of structural funds to Hungary, blocked due to non-compliance with the rules on the rule of law. Annuncing this in a note, the EU executive said, the Commission considers Hungary had adopted the measures it committed to adopt, indicating that Budapest will now be able to “start requesting reimbursements” of the cohesion funds “up to approximately €10.2 billion”. However, another €21 billion remain frozen, including installments of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan.

Orban against Ukraine’s rapid entry into the EU

Ukraine’s rapid accession to the European Union would have devastating consequences for European farmers, the EU budget and European security, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote on X on the eve of the European Council. He added, “It is not in the interest of either Hungary or the European Union, so we cannot support it!”

Israeli envoy to UK: ‘Absolutely no’ chance of a Palestinian state

Israel’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom Tzipi Hotovely explicitly rejected the idea of a Palestinian state, doubling down on messaging from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who in recent weeks has butted heads with the Biden administration by ruling out the idea of the Palestinian Authority returning to govern Gaza after the war. In an interview with Sky News, Hotovely was repeatedly asked whether a peace scenario with Israel can include a Palestinian state. “The answer is absolutely no,” says Hotovely. When the interviewer pushes Hotovely again on why she won’t support a two-state solution, the ambassador shoots back: “Why are you obsessed with a formula that never worked, that created these radical people on the other side?” The Israeli envoy goes on to argue that Gazans need to be “re-educated”.

Forward despite international pressure’ says Netanyahu

Israel will continue its war against Hamas “despite international pressure”. During a visit to a military base in the south of the country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We will go all the way, there is no doubt. I affirm this despite the enormous pain, but also despite the international pressure. Nothing will stop us, we will go all the way, until we are victorious, and nothing less.” Netanyahu was echoing Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who earlier had declared, “Israel will continue the war against Hamas with or without international support.” According to Israeli media reports, Cohen, commenting a day after the overwhelming vote at the UN General Assembly in favour of a truce in Gaza, said, “A ceasefire at this stage is a gift to the terrorist organisation Hamas and will allow it to return and threaten the residents of Israel.”

‘Agreement on Gaza without Hamas is an illusion’ – Haniyeh

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, in a televised speech stressed that any agreement in Gaza without Hamas is an “illusion”. Quoting Reuters, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Haniyeh saying:  “We are open to discussing any ideas or initiatives that can end the aggression and open the door to putting the Palestinian house in order in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”

‘Soaring Palestinian support for Hamas’ – poll

A wartime opinion poll among Palestinians published Wednesday shows a dramatic rise in support for Hamas in the West Bank, with backing appearing to have ticked up as well even in the devastated Gaza Strip, and an overwhelming rejection of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, with nearly 90 per cent saying he must resign. The poll found that 72 per cent of respondents believe Hamas was “correct” to launch its October 7 onslaught, with 82 per cent in the West Bank and 57 per cent in Gaza backing it. The findings by a Palestinian pollster signal more difficulties ahead for the Biden administration’s postwar vision for Gaza and raise questions about Israel’s stated goal of eradicating Hamas. Washington has called for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, currently led by Abbas, to eventually assume control of Gaza and run both territories as a precursor to statehood. The PA administers pockets of the West Bank and governed Gaza until a violent coup by Hamas in 2007. The Palestinians have not held elections since 2006 when Hamas won a parliamentary majority.

US stops sale of rifles to Israel

The Biden administration is delaying the sale of US-made rifles to Israel in the wake of fears over settler attacks on Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. Axios quotes sources saying the decision was taken as the US administration is concerned that the Israeli government is not doing enough to reduce civilian victims. Meanwhile, US National Security Council co-ordinator John Kirby, pressed every day by reporters on the apparent ineffectiveness of Washington’s warnings to its Isreal, said, “We have had concerns, and we have expressed them to Israel, regarding the continuation of this military campaign, while recognising that it was Hamas that started all this.”

US security agency turning ‘blind eye’ to Gaza suffering

More than a hundred staff members from the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have signed an open letter to Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas denouncing the department’s handling of the war in Gaza. The letter, exclusively obtained by Al Jazeera, expresses frustration with the “palpable, glaring absence in the Department’s messaging” of “recognition, support, and mourning” for the more than 18,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza since the start of the war on October 7. “The grave humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the conditions in the West Bank are circumstances that the Department would generally respond to in various ways,” the letter said. “Yet DHS leadership has seemingly turned a blind eye to the bombing of refugee camps, hospitals, ambulances, and civilians.” DHS did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment by the time of publication.

Swiss parliament votes to cut funding for UNRWA

The lower house of the Swiss parliament has voted to cancel the funding it provides the UN agency for Palestinian refugees amid persistent accusations that the organisation glorifies terror against Israel. The decision sees Switzerland move to cut some $21 million in annual funding from the United Nations Relief Works Agency. Switzerland was the ninth-biggest donor. UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini bemoaned the move, tweeting that he hoped the Swiss Senate would overrule the decision.

COP28 decides to transition away from fossil fuels

As reported by yesterday’s edition of the Journal, all-night negotations in Dubai have resulted in a historic agreement to transition away from fossil fuels. Scientists say it is the last best hope to stave off climate disaster. Delegates agreed that fossil fuels have got to go, to keep up efforts to get to no more than one and a half degrees of global warming by the middle of this century. Fossil fuels are by far the biggest driver of human-induced climate change. Sultan al-Jaber, COP28 President, said, ‘‘We have given it a robust action plan to keep 1.5 within reach. It is a plan that is led by science. It is a balanced plan that tackles emissions.’’ Many world leaders present at the summit see it as a milestone. The agreement came after hours of overtime negotiations at the Dubai summit. Some climate activists feel it is “too little, too late”.

US House votes to authorise Biden impeachment inquiry

The US House of Representatives voted to formalise its impeachment inquiry into President Biden on Wednesday, taking a critical step that Republican leaders have argued is necessary to force the White House into complying with their investigation. The measure passed 221 to 212, with every Republican voting in favour of it and all present Democrats voting against. Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer, said, “The White House is seeking to block key testimony from current and former White House staff. It is also withholding thousands of records from Joe Biden’s time as Vice-President. President Biden must be held accountable for his lies, corruption, and obstruction. We have a duty to provide the accountability and transparency that Americans demand and deserve.”

Hunter Biden defies congressional subpoena

Meanwhile, Hunter Biden on Wednesday defied a congressional subpoena to appear privately for a deposition before Republican investigators who have been digging into his business dealings. He insisted he would only testify in public. The Democratic president’s son slammed the Republican-issued subpoena for the closed-door testimony, arguing that information from those interviews can be selectively leaked and manipulated. “Republicans do not want an open process where Americans can see their tactics, expose their baseless inquiry, or hear what I have to say,” Biden said outside the Capitol in a rare public statement. “What are they afraid of? I am here.”

US Senate passes $886 billion Defence Bill

The US Senate passed an $886 billion defence spending plan, supported by President Joe Biden, that includes funding for Ukraine and annual pay raises for troops in a last-minute rush to authorise spending before the end of the year. The National Defence Authorization Act provides funding each year for Pentagon priorities such as training and equipment. The Senate passed the legislation by a bipartisan vote of 87-13. The Bill now heads to the House, where some ultraconservative Republicans have threatened to tank it.

Judge pauses January 6 case against Trump

The judge presiding over the case against former President Donald Trump and his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election acknowledged she does not have jurisdiction over the matter while it is pending before the Supreme Court. Judge Tanya Chutkan, therefore, put a pause on the case against the Republican 2024 frontrunner until the high court determines its involvement. Special Counsel Jack Smith on Monday asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether Trump can be prosecuted on charges relating to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. A federal judge ruled the case could go forward, but Trump said he would ask the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to reverse that outcome. Smith is attempting to bypass the appeals court – the usual next step in the process – and have the Supreme Court take up the matter directly.

Main photo: European Union

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