Von der Leyen under fire for releasing Hungary funds

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Thursday, 18th January 2024

Many EU lawmakers have accused the European Commission of giving in to “blackmail” by Budapest as billions of euros in once-frozen EU funds are flowing to Hungary again after the Commission said the central European state satisfactorily reformed its judicial system.

Though billions more remain blocked over alleged violations of LGBTQ and migrant rights, together with concerns about academic freedom, many EU lawmakers are furious over last month’s funding release and have threatened legal action against the EU’s executive. According to Deutsche Welle, the timing of the Commission’s move raised eyebrows – just before a crucial summit next Monday as EU states sought to get Budapest on board with plans to open membership talks with Ukraine and offer the country long-term financial aid. Hungary eventually got out of the way for progress on Kiev’s membership aspirations by leaving the room when the issue came to a vote, but Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government continues to block agreement on long-term aid. Orbán broke rank with the bloc over the past year by criticising EU moves to sanction Russia. He has called for Ukrainians to lay down arms in a ceasefire and was also photographed shaking hands with Russian President Putin last year, drawing criticism from some EU counterparts.

In a debate with EU lawmakers yesterday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said around €20 billion in EU funds remain out of Budapest’s reach. Hungary called this unjust and claimed it was the victim of a political ‘witch hunt’. Von der Leyen said the frozen cash “will remain blocked until Hungary fulfills all the necessary conditions”. “These are the rules,” she said. “We have all agreed to them, and we will follow them. This is what makes the rule of law stand out from arbitrary power.”

Biden urges Congress to approve aid for Kiev

President Joe Biden hosted top congressional leaders at the White House to underscore Ukraine’s security needs as it continues to fight Russia’s nearly two-year-old invasion, hoping to add momentum to efforts to pass $110 billion in stalled aid to Ukraine, Israel and other US allies. The White House said President Biden urged the US Congress to “rapidly approve” his request for additional funds for Ukraine and to “send a strong signal of US determination”, warning that failure to act “puts security of the United States, NATO and the rest of the free world at risk.”

Photo: Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

Brussels audits EU states’ arms supplies to Ukraine

Brussels is conducting an audit of how much weaponry EU member-states have provided to Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, in response to claims that some capitals have failed to send as much as they could. Western military and financial aid to Ukraine has dwindled in recent months, restricting Kiev’s ability to defend against Russia’s attacks and launch counter-offensive operations and sparking concern that willingness to help Ukraine is ebbing after almost two years of war. The audit comes as Brussels and Washington are struggling to find political consensus that would allow them to sign off on new financial aid packages to Kiev together worth about $110bn.

60 mercenaries killed in raids in Ukraine

“Over 60 foreign mercenaries”, including many “French”, were killed in a bombing carried out by Russian forces in Kharkiv, Ukraine, according to the Moscow Ministry of Defence. “On the evening of 16th January, the Russian armed forces carried out a precision bombing of a temporary assembly point of foreign fighters in the city of Kharkiv, most of whom were French mercenaries,” the ministry said. Ria Novosti agency quoted it saying, “Over 20 were taken to medical facilities; the building was “completely destroyed”.

Photo: Sergey Bobok, AFP

US again attacks Houthi-controlled sites in Yemen

The United States Central Command (Centcom) says that a latest raid by American forces carried out tonight on Yemen hit “14 Houthi missiles that were loaded for launch from areas controlled by rebels” supported by Iran. “These missiles on the launch pads posed an imminent threat to merchant and US Navy vessels in the region and could have been launched at any time, prompting American forces to exercise their inherent right and obligation to defend themselves,” the command explains. And a US-owned ship in the Gulf of Aden came under attack Wednesday from a bomb-carrying drone launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, officials said. The drone smashed into the vessel, the Genco Picardy, and the ship’s captain reported a fire onboard which had been extinguished. “Vessel and crew are safe and proceeding to next port of call”, he said. The bulk carrier flies the Marshall Islands’ flag.

A Houthi official told local broadcaster al-Masirah they would continue “to target ships heading to ports in occupied Palestine, regardless of US-British aggression to try to stop us”. It is an open war and our enemies will have to endure shocking, powerful and overwhelming attacks and responses, Houthi official Ali al-Qahoum wrote on X, calling tonight’s attacks a “clear insistence on hostile and criminal behavior against Yemen”.

Photo: AP

Italy pushes for quick decision on EU maritime Red Sea force

Italy would like a political decision made to create an EU maritime security mission for the Red Sea by next week so that it can become operational as soon as possible, its foreign minister said on Wednesday. Reuters reports European Union member states gave initial backing on Tuesday to the mission to protect ships from attacks by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi militia in the Red Sea on concern that disruption in one of the world’s top trading arteries could hit the global economy.

File photo: Suez Canal Authority/Handout via REUTERS

Ecuadorean prosecutor assassinated

An Ecuadorean prosecutor, who was reportedly leading an investigation into an attack on a local TV network, was assassinated on Wednesday in Guayaquil, Ecuador’s Attorney General Diana Salazar annunced. According to CNN affiliate Ecuavisa, Cesar Suarez was killed in the northern part of the city, known for being one of the most violent cities in the country. He focused on organised trans-national crime, Salazar said. Suarez was leading the investigation into the storming of local network TC Television by armed men while it was broadcasting live on January 9. The storming of the TV network came as the country was rocked by explosions, police kidnappings, and prison disturbances after Ecuador President Daniel Noboa declared a state of emergency last Monday after notorious gang leader Adolfo “Fito” Macias – the leader of Los Choneros, one of Ecuador’s most feared gangs – escaped from prison.

Photo: CHRISTIAN VINUEZA / AFP

‘Sex is a gift from God and lust devastates relationships’ – Pope

“Sexual pleasure, which is a gift from God, is undermined by pornography – satisfaction without a relationship that can generate forms of addiction,” Pope Francis said during the general audience, underlining: “We must defend love. Winning the battle against lust, against the ‘thingification’ of the other, can be a lifelong undertaking”, added the Pope in the catechesis dedicated to the vice of lust. The Pope also spoke about chastity which “should not be confused with sexual abstinence”. It is “the will to never possess the other. Loving means respecting the other, seeking his happiness, cultivating empathy for his feelings, placing oneself in the knowledge of a body, a psychology and a soul that are not ours, and which must be contemplated for the beauty they bring. Loving is beautiful”, underlined Pope Francis. But sometimes falling in love “is disfigured by the demon of lust, and this vice is particularly hateful: first of all because it devastates relationships between people. Unfortunately, everyday news is sufficient to document such a reality. How many have relationships that started in the best way then changed into toxic relationships, ones of possession of the other, devoid of respect and a sense of limits?”. Finally, the Pontiff cited the Song of Songs, a book of the Bible, to reiterate that “in Christianity there is no condemnation of the sexual instinct”.

Photo: Vatican Media/Getty Images Europe

UK passes bill to send migrants to Rwanda

A majority of British lawmakers voted Wednesday to back a controversial Bill that would allow the government to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. Despite some threats from “Conservative rebels” to bring the Bill down, it passed the third reading in the House of Commons with 320 votes in favour and 276 against. The “Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill,” the flagship asylum policy of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, aims to address the concerns of the UK Supreme Court, which ruled that the government’s original plan to send asylum seekers to the East African country was unlawful. It compels judges to regard Rwanda as a safe country and gives ministers the power to disregard parts of the Human Rights Act. Sunak’s Bill had also drawn criticism from inside his party, but the majority of “rebels” decided to back it ahead of the vote. Reportedly, only 11 Conservative lawmakers voted against it. On Tuesday, two deputy Conservative party chairmen resigned in rebellion over the Bill.

Photo: James Manning/AP/picture alliance

‘Hepatitis A in Gaza refugee camps

Israeli newspaper Haaretz quotes Gaza’s health ministry, controlled by Hamas, saying that type A hepatitis virus was “spreading” in displaced persons’ camps. This was due to “overcrowding and lack of hygiene”. According to the Hamas-run Palestinian Ministry of Health, the death toll in the Gaza Strip since the start of the Israeli offensive on October 7 is at least 24,450 dead with 61,500 wounded.

Photo: Abed Sabah/Reuters

UK: Kate in hospital as King to get prostate treatment

The Princess of Wales is recovering in hospital after undergoing surgery, and King Charles is set to undergo a medical procedure next week. Catherine will step back from royal duties for months after surgery for an unspecified but non-cancer-related abdominal condition. The King’s benign prostate condition will be treated next week. The BBC says the unexpected health announcements were made within two hours of each other on Wednesday afternoon. The Prince of Wales will also step back from royal duties in the coming weeks to be with his wife and Prince George, 10, Princess Charlotte, eight, and Prince Louis, five. Less than 90 minutes later, a separate statement was published by Buckingham Palace revealing the King requires a “corrective procedure” next week for an enlarged prostate. The condition is common in older men and is not cancerous. The King turned 75 in November. Princess Anne may take matters in her hands as King Charles and Kate Middleton focus on their health, claimed a royal insider.

Judge threatens to boot Trump from courtroom as E. Jean Carroll testifies

Donald Trump was threatened with expulsion from his Manhattan civil trial Wednesday after he repeatedly ignored a warning to keep quiet while writer E. Jean Carroll testified that he shattered her reputation after she accused him of sexual abuse. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan told the former president that his right to be present at the trial would be revoked if he remains disruptive. After an initial warning, Carroll’s lawyer said Trump could still be heard making remarks to his lawyers, including “it is a witch hunt” and “it really is a con job”. “Mr. Trump, I hope I don’t have to consider excluding you from the trial,” Kaplan said in an exchange after the jury was excused for lunch, adding: “I understand you’re probably eager for me to do that.” “I would love it,” Trump shot back, shrugging as he sat between lawyers at the defence table.

Courtroom sketch: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

ABC, CNN cancel New Hamphire Republican debate

ABC News nd CNN have canceled the Republican primary debate scheduled for this evening in New Hampshire, citing a lack of candidate participation. ABC said candidates Donald Trump and Nikki Haley did not respond to their invitations to the debate by the Tuesday afternoon deadline the network had set. Four candidates had qualified for the debate under previously-announced criteria. In addition to Trump and Haley, Florida Governor. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie also qualified and had previously confirmed participation. Christie announced his exit from the 2024 Republican race last week.

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