Commission to present EU defence proposal

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Sunday, 18th February 2024

The European Commission will present a defence industrial strategy proposal in three weeks, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Saturday. It will also open a defence innovation office in Ukraine. Reuters quote her as telling a panel at the Munich Security Conference that “Europe has to step up its industrial base … I’m a convinced transatlantic and at the same time we have to build a strong Europe and that goes hand in hand.”  She said the proposal aimed to increase defence spending, “spend better” with joint procurement and agreements to provide predictability to industry and better inter-operability between Europe’s armed forces, and focus spending in Europe to keep “good jobs” for taxpayers footing the bill. She added Ukraine must be integrated into Europe’s defence programmes as Russia was “outmassing Ukraine” with soldiers and by “throwing quick and dirty weapons produced in North Korea and Iran”.

On the financial aid side, von der Leyen said it was in the US’ interest to pass a bill – currently stalled in Congress – to provide more aid to Ukraine, as the measure was symbolic of democracies standing up to autocrats. “It is not only about Russia’s war in Ukraine and Putin’s attempts to destabilise democracies but all the other autocratic adversaries that we are watching very closely – whether the democracies stand united, are determined, show resolve.” She also said that, if re-elected as head of the European Union’s executive, she would create the new post of Defence Commissioner.

Belgian PM for special EU bonds for defence investment

Joint European Union borrowing could help fund higher defence spending but governments would still have to make tough political choices to sustain it, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Reuters in an interview.  Many European governments have committed to increasing military spending in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and doubts about the US commitment to European security through NATO, called into question again in recent days by Donald Trump. With many national budgets under strain, leaders including Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel have floated the idea of special EU bonds for defence investment. “I think that’s a sound idea and it’s something that could help us in speeding things up,” De Croo said.

Orbán predicts Europe will shift further to right

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said his government would emerge stronger from the child sexual abuse pardoning scandal, focusing on the economy and on June’s European Parliament elections, which he predicted should boost rightwing political forces in Europe and “bring change in Brussels”. In his annual state of the nation address Saturday, Orbán said the resignation of Hungary’s president over the scandal was “correct, but a big loss” for the country, adding that 2024 “could not have begun any worse” and that President Katalin Novak’s resignation was a “nightmare” for the country. Orbán, a longstanding Trump supporter, said, “We would really like Donald Trump to return as President and … make peace here in the eastern half of Europe.”  He also borrowed from one of Trump’s popular slogans to describe his plans for Hungary’s role as rotating presidency of the European Council, which begins in July: “Make Europe Great Again!” he said. “MAGA there, MEGA here.”

Orbán’s government has been accused by the European Union of rolling back democracy by curbing media freedom, the judiciary and LGBTQ rights. The EU has withheld billions in aid to Hungary. Earlier this month, Orbán – arguably the EU and NATO leader with the closest ties to Russia – U-turned on a threat to block €50 billion in EU financial support to Ukraine, in a sign that ties between Brussels and Budapest were warming. As his speech continued, Orbán said that Hungary’s parliament was now in a position to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership when it convenes for its new spring session later this month.

Russia accused of hiding Navalny’s body to ‘cover traces of murder’

Alexei Navalny’s team have accused Russian authorities of deliberately hiding the opposition figure’s body to “cover traces” of what they claim is a clear act of murder. Navalny, a 47-year-old former lawyer, fell unconscious and died on Friday after a walk at the “Polar Wolf” Arctic penal colony in Kharp, about 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow, where he was serving a three-decade sentence, Russian authorities said. They told Nalavny’s mother and his lawyer when they arrived at the colony Saturday morning that his body had been moved to a morgue in Salekhard, a town a two-hour drive from the colony. But when they visited the only morgue in Salekhard, they were told that they did not have the body. “They are trying to cover traces, this is why they are not giving the body to his family and this is why they are just hiding him from them,” Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s spokesperson, told the BBC. “We know for sure that it wasn’t just a death, it was a murder.” A note handed to Navalny’s mother stated that he died local time at 2:17pm (10:17am in Malta) on February 16, according to Navalny spokesperson Kira Yarmysh. Prison officials told his mother when she arrived at the penal colony Saturday that her son had perished from “sudden death syndrome,” Ivan Zhdanov, the director of Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, wrote on X.

“400 people detained in Russia at events in memory of Navalny”

Some 400 people have been detained at events across 30 Russian cities since the death of Alexey Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s most formidable domestic opponent, according to rights group OVD-Info. It is the largest wave of arrests at political events in Russia since September 2022, when more than 1,300 were arrested at demonstrations against a “partial mobilisation” of reservists for the military campaign in Ukraine. OVD-Info, which reports on freedom of assembly in Russia, said the largest numbers of arrests on Saturday occurred in St Petersburg and Moscow, where Navalny’s movement had traditionally been strong. Footage filmed by Reuters on Saturday in St Petersburg showed dozens gathering by a monument to the victims of repression. Protesters laid flowers and candles, while some sang hymns and others hugged each other, shedding tears. A Reuters reporter at the scene said some 30 people were arrested shortly after the singing finished. OVD-Info also reported individual arrests in smaller cities across Russia, from the border city of Belgorod, where seven were killed in a Ukrainian missile strike on Thursday, to Vorkuta, an Arctic mining outpost once a centre of the Stalin-era gulag labour camps. Footage filmed by Reuters in Moscow showed law enforcement bundling people to the ground in the snow, close to a spot where mourners had left flowers and messages in support of the dead opposition leader.

“Enough repression in Russia” – G7

G7 Foreign Ministers have expressed “their indignation” at the death in detention of Alexei Navalny, “unjustly convicted for legitimate political activities and for his fight against corruption”. In a statement at the end of the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in Monaco, they called on the Russian authorities to fully clarify the circumstances of Navalny’s death and “called on Russia to end the unacceptable persecution of political dissent, as well as the systematic repression of freedom of expression and undue restriction of civil rights”.

Croatia Opposition protesters call for early elections

Thousands of Croatians took to the streets on Saturday, answering the Opposition’s call for protests to demand this year’s parliamentary elections be held as soon as possible. Some 11 centre and left-wing Opposition parties organised the protest, prompted by parliament’s appointment of former judge Ivan Turudic as the new attorney general. Opposition groups argue Turudic has ties to people involved in corruption, which he denies. Croatia is due to hold parliamentary and presidential elections this year, though an exact date has yet to be set.

UN court to weigh consequences of Israel occupation

The UN’s top court will from Monday hold hearings on the legal consequences of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967, with an unprecedented 52 countries expected to give evidence. Nations including the United States, Russia, and China will address judges in a week-long session at the Peace Palace in The Hague, seat of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In December 2022, the UN General Assembly asked the ICJ for a non-binding “advisory opinion” on the “legal consequences arising from the policies and practices of Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem”. While any ICJ opinion would be non-binding, it comes amid mounting international legal pressure on Israel over the war in Gaza sparked by the October 7 Hamas attacks. The hearings are separate from a high-profile case brought by South Africa alleging that Israel is committing genocidal acts during the current Gaza offensive.

US will not vote on Algeria resolution on Gaza

“The United States do not support action on a draft Algerian UN resolution on the situation in the Middle East, and if it were to be put to the vote as it is drafted, it will not be adopted,” said the US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in a statement. “For months, the United States has worked tirelessly towards a goal to which we should all aspire: a sustainable resolution to the Gaza conflict so that Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side and enjoy equal security, dignity and freedom. In an effort to build toward that future, the United States is working on a hostage agreement between Israel and Hamas, which would bring an immediate and sustained period of calm to Gaza for at least six weeks, and from which we could then take the time and steps to build a more lasting peace. Over the past week, President Biden has received numerous calls from Prime Minister Netanyahu, as well as the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, to move this agreement forward. While gaps remain, key elements are on the table. All in all, we believe this deal represents the best opportunity. The resolution presented by the Security Council, on the contrary, would not achieve these results and, indeed, could counteract them.” The Council has an obligation to ensure, she continues, that any action taken in the coming days increases the pressure on Hamas to accept the proposal on the table.

Mediator says Gaza truce “not promising”

Mediator Qatar acknowledged yesterday that prospects for a new pause in Israel’s war with Hamas were “not really promising” as Israel rejected appeals to hold off on a threatened assault on the Gaza city of Rafah. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that foreign countries calling on Israel to spare the city, where 1.4 million Palestinians have sought refuge, were effectively telling the country to “lose the war” against Hamas. Truce efforts had intensified this week as Qatar and fellow mediators Egypt and the United States scrambled to secure a ceasefire before Israeli troops entered Rafah. But despite a direct appeal from US President Joe Biden earlier this week, Netanyahu insisted the operation would go ahead regardless of whether further releases of Israeli hostages were agreed with Hamas. “Even if we achieve it, we will enter Rafah,” he told a televised news conference Saturday.

Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, who has met with negotiators from both Israel and Hamas this week, said efforts for a ceasefire had been complicated by the insistence of “a lot of countries” that any new truce involve further releases of hostages. “The pattern in the last few days is not really very promising,” he told the Munich Security Conference. His bleak assessment came as Hamas threatened to suspend its involvement in truce talks unless relief supplies are brought into the north of the Gaza Strip, where aid agencies have warned of a looming famine. “Negotiations cannot be held while hunger is ravaging the Palestinian people,” a senior source in the Palestinian militant group told AFP.

Earlier, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh reiterated the group’s demands, which Netanyahu dismissed as “ludicrous”. They include a complete pause in fighting, the release of Hamas prisoners and the withdrawal of Israeli troops, with Qatar-based Haniyeh saying Hamas would “not agree to anything less”. Netanyahu also rejected moves by some Western governments towards unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, without waiting for a negotiated peace deal between the two sides. The hawkish premier was speaking as thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv, accusing his government of abandoning Israeli hostages. They chanted that the government had “blood on its hands”.

Israeli airstrikes across Gaza, arrests at hospital

Israeli forces carried out arrests in Gaza’s largest functioning hospital, health officials and the military said on Saturday, as airstrikes hit across the enclave and rain battered Palestinians taking shelter in Rafah. Israeli forces raided the Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis on Thursday as they pressed their war on Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that rules the enclave. “Occupation forces detained a large number of medical staff members inside Nasser Medical Complex, which they (Israel) turned into a military base,” said Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra. The Israeli military said it was hunting for militants in Nasser and had so far arrested 100 suspects on the premises, killed gunmen near the hospital and found weapons inside it. Hamas has denied allegations that its fighters use medical facilities for cover.

“I helped rig Pakistan’s general elections” – senior bureaucrat

A senior bureaucrat said on Saturday he helped rig Pakistan’s elections, a week after polls marred by allegations of manipulation returned no clear winner. Liaqat Ali Chattha, commissioner of the garrison city of Rawalpindi, where the country’s powerful military has its headquarters, said he would hand himself over to police. Chattha said he personally supervised rigging of votes in Rawalpindi, before stepping down from his post. There have been widespread allegations of rigging after authorities switched off the country’s mobile phone network on election day and the count took more than 24 hours. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), short of a majority, has announced a partnership with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and a handful of smaller parties to form the next government. Speaking to reporters in Rawalpindi, he said there was “pressure” on him to the extent that he contemplated suicide today but then resolved to present matters before the public instead of meeting ‘haram’ death. “I should be punished for the injustice I have done and others who were involved in this injustice should also be punished.” He said independent candidates (belonging to the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf or PTI) who were winning were made to lose.

Trump booed as he launches own-brand shoes

Former US President Donald Trump has launched his own line of Trump-branded shoes at Sneaker Con – a convention for sneaker fans in Philadelphia. His appearance was met with heavy boos as well as cheers after he presented a pair of the gold-coloured shoes being sold online for $399 (€370). His move comes a day after a judge ordered him to pay nearly $355m (€329.5m) to New York state for lying about the values of his properties.

Football: Mbappe is the most sought-after free agent

Kylian Mbappe is set to be the most sought-after free agent this summer after confirming his intention not to sign a new deal with PSG. The France star told the club he will leave the club when his contract expires this summer, signally a race by Europe’s top clubs to try and sign him. Mbappe has scored 243 goals in 209 games for the Parisians since joining in 2017, the club’s record goal-scorer.

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