Left’s Baier slams von der Leyen for overtures to far right

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Friday, 17th May 2024.

Walter Baier, the lead candidate for The Left, has called on Ursula von der Leyen – the outgoing European Commission president who’s tipped to secure a second term – to bear in mind the “huge responsibility” she carries in her overtures to hard-right parties. Speaking in an interview with Euronews on Thursday, Baier censured von der Leyen for what he described as a fear-driven willingness to partner with hard-line right-wing parties following June’s European elections. Far-right parties are on the march across Europe and tipped to win the vote in around seven member states.

“Come on, this is a matter of principle. Having given up on this idea of a cordon sanitaire, that is a huge responsibility,” Baier said, referring to the firewall that has traditionally stopped mainstream parties from cosying up to far-right partners. He pinpointed the “fear” of mainstream parties to “confront” extremists as the main reason for the surge in support for far-right parties ahead of June’s crunch vote. Far-right parties are on the march across Europe and tipped to win the vote in around seven member states.

Last month, von der Leyen opened herself to future collaboration between her centre-right EPP group and the nationalist, right-wing ECR group – which includes Spain’s Vox, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia – but specified that a partnership “depends very much on how the composition of the Parliament is, and who is in what group”. The outgoing president and sources in her inner circle say they would only build bridges with pro-Ukraine and pro-EU partners within the ECR group, such as Fratelli d’Italia and Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s ODS party.

It has prompted the parliament’s centrist and left-leaning groups, including Baier’s far-left faction, to sign a declaration vowing to “never cooperate nor form a coalition with the far right and radical parties at any level”. But on Wednesday, Geert Wilders’ far-right party struck a four-way coalition government deal in the Netherlands with liberals who belong to the Renew Europe group, controversially just days after the group signed the pledge to isolate such far-right partners.

Baier, who hails from the Austrian Communist Party and who was picked to lead the Left’s European lists despite being unknown on the EU stage and not running himself for a seat, says that the migration agenda is a prime example of how von der Leyen’s centre-right is normalising the far-right and allowing it to march into the mainstream.

Von der Leyen and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola had also damaged the EU’s reputation on the world stage with their unwavering stance of solidarity with Israel during its war in Gaza, Baier said. “Von der Leyen’s behaviour is typical of the double standards,” he explained. “It’s inadequate, and it’s also not honest. To accuse everybody who is critical of the current Israeli government of being an anti-Semite, it’s wrong, it’s unjust, it’s unfair, it’s against history and it’s against reason. So generally speaking, she dealt with it very badly. These kinds of double standards discredit the European Union in the Global South,” he added.

Whilst von der Leyen has been harshly criticised for her reluctance to urge Israeli restraint in Gaza, she has made it clear that an assault on the southern Gazan town of Rafah – where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering from war –  would be a red line and come with consequences. But Baier says empty words are not “credible” without concrete measures.

Call on European lawmakers for prioritising democracy

Nearly 300 signatories have signed an open 10-point letter before next month’s European Parliament election, saying lawmakers should be putting democracy at the top of their agenda in an increasingly-authoritarian world. The letter, which was released on Thursday, calls for widening powers to uphold the rule of law, ensuring new digital technologies safeguard human rights, and to place democracy at the heart of the European Union’s security, migration, energy, and trade agendas.

Titled “A Call to Defend Democracy: 10 Priorities for the EU,” it was signed by pro-democracy institutions, and political and civic leaders. Signatories also included Nobel Peace Prize laureates, the former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, and several former prime ministers, including Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain and Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine. It comes before the European Parliament election of June 6-9 vote in the 27-member bloc of 450 million people who will be picking 720 lawmakers for the next five years.

Putin thanks Xi for China’s initiatives on Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday told his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that Russia was advancing “on all fronts” in Ukraine. Still, Putin said he was “grateful” to China for trying to find a solution to the war in Ukraine. “We are grateful to our Chinese friends and colleagues for the initiatives they are putting forward to resolve this problem,” Putin said, speaking along side Xi. The EU and the US had recently called on Xi to use his influence to pressure Putin to end the war in Ukraine.

The Russian president made the remarks during a two-day state visit to China – his first trip abroad since the latest elections in Russia. Putin was welcomed by Chinese officials as well as a military guard of honour when he touched down, before he was greeted by Xi at a grand welcoming ceremony outside central Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.

Slovakia’s Fico able to speak, ‘lone wolf’ suspect charged

Slovakia’s president-elect Peter Pellegrini visited Prime Minister Robert Fico in hospital, saying he was able to speak but not easily. Fico, who was shot several times in an attack that is believed to have had a political motive, remained in a serious condition on Thursday after doctors managed to stabilise him following an assassination attempt a day earlier. Outside the hospital in the central city of Banska Bystrica, Pellegrini said, “He is able to speak but only a few sentences and then he is really, really tired. The situation is very critical. The doctors asked me to make a really very short visit,” he said, warning that “very difficult hours and days” still lay ahead.

The suspected shooter, who was detained at the scene, is a 71-year-old man from the town of Levice, according to Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok. The man was charged with the shooting on Thursday, with Estok saying investigators believed he was a “lone wolf” who is “not a memeber of a radicalised political group, either right- or left-wing.” The attack happened after a Cabinet meeting as Fico went outside to shake hands with members of the public, with one of the shots hitting him in the chest.

Georgia’s president says she will veto ‘Russian law’

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has said she will veto a controversial Bill passed by her country’s parliament, calling the law “unacceptable” and reaffirming her opposition to a measure that critics describe as “a dire threat to free speech and democracy”. In an interview with The Associated Press, Zourabichvili harshly criticised the ruling Georgian Dream Party for pushing the Bill, which is widely seen as a setback for Georgia’s aspirations to join the European Union. The Bill requires media, non-governmental organisations and other non-profit groups to register as “pursuing the interests of a foreign power” if they receive more than 20 per cent of their funding from abroad. The government claims the Bill – nicknamed the “Russian law” because of its resemblance to legislation enforced by the Kremlin – is needed to stem what it deems to be harmful foreign actors trying to destabilise the nation of 3.7 million people. But critics say it will have an extreme chilling effect on pro-democracy NGOs and other organisations.

US House passes Bill to force Biden to send weapons to Israel

The Republican-led US House of Representatives passed a Bill on Thursday that would force President Joe Biden to send weapons to Israel, seeking to rebuke the Democrat for delaying bomb shipments as he urges Israel to do more to protect civilians during its war with Hamas. The Israel Security Assistance Support Act was approved by 224 votes to 187, largely along party lines. Sixteen Democrats joined most Republicans in voting yes, and three Republicans joined most Democrats in opposing the measure. Analysts say the Act is not expected to become law, but its passage underscored the deep US election-year divide over Israel policy as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government seeks to wipe out militants who attacked Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies. Palestinian authorities say at least 35,272 civilians have been killed during Israel’s campaign in Gaza. Malnutrition is widespread and much of the population of the coastal enclave has been left homeless, with infrastructure destroyed.

Spain denies port of call to ship carrying arms to Israel

Spain has refused permission for a ship carrying arms to Israel to dock at a Spanish port, Foreign Minister Josè Manuel Albares said on Thursday. “This is the first time we have done this because it is the first time we have detected a ship carrying a shipment of arms to Israel that wants to call at a Spanish port,” he told reporters in Brussels. Transport Minister Oscar Puente said it was the ‘Marianne Danica’ which had requested permission to call at the southeastern port of Cartagena on May 21. El Pais newspaper said the Danish-flagged ship is carrying 27 tonnes of explosive material from Madras in India to the port of Haifa in Israel.

US military says aid pier anchored to Gaza beach

US troops on Thursday anchored a long-awaited temporary pier aimed at ramping up emergency aid to a beach in the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, the US military and Israel said. The US Central Command said the pier was “successfully affixed to the beach in Gaza” with around 500 tonnes of aid expected to enter the Palestinian territory in the coming days. “It’s a pretty substantial amount, and it’s spread out over multiple ships right now,” Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, deputy CentCom commander, told reporters in Washington. Israel’s military also said in a statement that the connection was “successfully completed”.

Pope says US Catholic conservatives have ‘suicidal attitude’

Pope Francis has told CBS that his conservative critics within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States are trapped in a “suicidal attitude”. During the interview with ‘60 Minutes’ that will air this Sunday, Pope Francis was asked his thoughts on the conservative backlash against his papacy, with many of his critics being American clergy members. Pope Francis responded by saying a conservative is someone who “clings to something and does not want to see beyond that. It is a suicidal attitude,” the pontiff said, according to a brief transcript excerpt made available by CBS on Thursday. “Because one thing is to take tradition into account, to consider situations from the past, but quite another is to be closed up inside a dogmatic box.” Pope Francis has clashed with the conservative wing almost since he was elected as head of the church in 2013. Moves conservatives have opposed include papal attempts to make the church more welcoming to the LGBT community and to give lay people more responsibility in the church.

Germany: Far-right AfD lawmaker’s Bundestag offices searched

The Munich Public Prosecutor’s Office on Thursday said it was investigating money laundering activities by a far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) lawmaker. The office did not confirm the name of the individual. Separately, officials for Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, said the legislature had lifted the parliamentary immunity of AfD member Petr Bystron.

Bystron, who is the second candidate on his party’s election ticket for the 2024 European elections, is under scrutiny for alleged connections with pro-Russian networks. The party’s top contender Maximilian Krah is the subject of a preliminary investigation by German prosecutors over potential payments from Russia and China. German police arrested Krah’s former aide Jian G. in April on suspicion of espionage. Krah fired him following the allegations that the parliamentary aide was spying for China.

EU probes Facebook, Instagram over child protection concerns

European Union regulators have opened a formal investigation into Facebook and Instagram over child protection concerns, the European Commission said on Thursday. The Commission said in a statement that systems of both Facebook and Instagram, including the algorithms, may “exploit the weaknesses and inexperience of minors and cause addictive behaviour, and/or reinforce so-called ‘rabbit hole’ effect”. The rabbit hole effects “draw you in to more and more disturbing content,” according to the statement. The European Commissioner for Internal Market, Thierry Breton, said the bloc was not convinced Meta had done enough to comply with the Digital Services Act.

14% of Italy’s workers are poor

Italy’s Statisrical Agency, Istat, says Italy’s working poor are growing. Income from work has seen its ability to protect individuals and families from economic hardship weaken. The agency underlined that between 2014 and 2023 the incidence of absolute individual poverty among employed people increased by 2.7 percentage points, going from 4.9 per cent in 2014 to 7.6  per cent in 2023. For workers, the increase was faster, going from just under nine per cent in 2014 to 14.6 per cent in 2023, when 8.2 per cent of employees were in absolute poverty compared to 5.1 per cent of self-employed workers .

Italy to have 3 million fewer young people in 20 years

Over three million fewer young people in 20 years is what Italy’s Statistical Agency envisages would be the result of fewer babies. In 2023, Italy recorded just 10.33 million people between 18 and 34 years old – a decrease of 22.9 per cent compared to 2022 when there were 13.39 million. Istat reports in its annual report, that compared to the peak of 1994, when the baby boomers fell into the range, the drop is almost five million (-32.3 per cent). Over the last 30 years there has been a mirror increase in people aged 65 and older – from just over nine million in 1994 to over 14 million in 2023 (+54.4 per cent)

Boxing: Tyson ready for a good fight

Tyson Fury refused to engage in the face off with Oleksandr Usyk in a muted final news conference ahead of Saturday’s undisputed world heavyweight showdown in Riyadh. While Usyk stood staring at his rival in the customary ritual 48 hours out from the fight, Fury turned to the crowd and folded his arms. The British WBC champion, wearing a flame suit in a nod to the event’s ‘Ring of Fire’ billing, began flexing his muscles and mouthing the words of Rocky IV theme music ‘Hearts on Fire’. Tyson said on Monday his decision to step back into the ring at the age of 57 was a “no-brainer”, brushing off recent criticism that he was too old to make a comeback. But the boxer who terrorised the heavyweight division in the 1980s and 1990s, insisted he had no reservations about lacing up his gloves again, nearly two decades after his last professional fight in 2005.

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