Radical leaders meet to form far-right EU supergroup

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Thursday, 13th June 2024.

The leaders of Europe’s most radical right-wing parties gathered in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss how to unite the EU’s fractured right wing after it made gains in major national battlegrounds in the European elections.

France’s Marine Le Pen – whose National Rally (RN) party is now the country’s biggest delegation in the European Parliament after clinching 30 seats in last week’s ballot – met the leader of Italy’s far-right League party Matteo Salvini ahead of a gathering of leaders belonging to the Identity and Democracy (ID) group.

Geert Wilders, whose far-right PVV party recently struck a coalition deal to co-govern in the Netherland; Tom Van Grieken, the leader of Belgium’s Vlaams Belang; and André Ventura, the leader of Portugal’s Enough (Chega), were expected to join the talks, with Czech, Austrian, and Danish far-right parties also represented.

In a statement, the League said that Salvini and Le Pen had discussed uniting Europe’s “centre right”, despite their parties being seen as some of the most radical in Europe.

Speaking to reporters ahead of the meeting, André Ventura – whose Enough (“Chega”) party erupted onto the Portuguese political scene in March’s snap legislative elections – said that whilst ID was integrated and aligned as a group, it was also actively looking to expand. “ID is in broader negotiations in order to form a big right-wing bloc to fight against corruption, against illegal immigration, and to control our borders,” Ventura said. “If these conversations lead to a successful outcome, we will be ready to participate in it. If they don’t, we would also be very happy in the (ID) group,” he added.

The far-right parties in the European Parliament are currently split into two camps: ID and the hard-right European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which harbour the likes of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) and Spain’s Vox. Whilst they didn’t emerge as bolstered as expected in last week’s European elections, they could become the third or even second biggest political force in the European Parliament if they were to merge.

Days ahead of the European ballot, Marine Le Pen told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera she was seeking Italian premier Giorgia Meloni’s backing to unite her own ID group with Meloni’s ECR into a far-right supergroup. The move is considered risky for Meloni, who has forged a close relationship with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and could lose out on an opportunity to cement her influence on the EU stage if she opens up to more radical forces.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to call snap legislative elections has also radically changed the stakes, as Marine Le Pen eyes her opportunity to take control of the National Assembly and install her 28-year-old protégé Jordan Bardella as France’s prime minister. It could give Le Pen’s RN even more pull factor in attempts to form a far-right supergroup.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is also politically homeless in the European Parliament and could potentially bolster such a supergroup by 11 seats.

Deep rifts over Ukraine, pro-Russia sentiment

But analysts say uniting the right wing radical forces is more complex that meets the eye. One issue in particular, the conflict in Ukraine, has uncovered a deep schism running down Europe’s right wing. Some parties within the ID group, notably the Austrian Party for Freedom (FPÖ), are considered pro-Russian and opposed to the EU’s military and financial support to Kyiv.

Alternative for Germany (AfD) was also kicked out of the group last month in the aftermath of a raft of scandals, including allegations members had been paid by a Russian influence operation to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda in Europe. Parties within the ID group have recently made calculated attempts to soften their stance on key dividing issues such as support to Ukraine and anti-European sentiment.

In an interview with Euronews last month, the face of ID’s European campaign, Anders Vistisen, sharply criticised the European Union for what he called its failure to “step up to the plate” when providing Kyiv with the military aid and equipment it needs to withstand Russia’s invasion.

Leaders such as Le Pen and Wilders have also rowed back on previous suggestions they would leave the 27-country bloc if they came to power in their country. In the run-up to the snap legislative election in France, Le Pen’s party has even distanced itself from radical right-wing counterparts such as Éric Zemmour’s Reconquête, while trying to secure the allegiance of centre-right partners.

Centrist and left-leaning forces have warned Europe’s traditional centre-right forces from being wooed by radical partners, saying it could have devastating consequences for Ukraine and for Europe’s own geopolitical stability.

G7 leaders gather in Italy with Gaza, Ukraine high on agenda

Security was high in southern Italy Wednesday morning ahead of the landing of US President Joe Biden for the annual G7 leaders’ three-day summit, which kicks off in Puglia today. Leaders of the seven wealthy democratic nations are expected to discuss the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas wars, the energy transition, artificial intelligence, migration and collaboration with Africa.

Biden and his counterparts from Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan meet annually to collaborate on shared goals.

Pope Francis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are joining the gathering at the Borgo Egnazia resort in the Puglia region of southern Italy.

Roadblocks surrounded the luxury resort Wednesday morning, while police helicopters were flying above the venue.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hosts this week’s summit as the most stable of the alliance’s European Union leaders, after her German and French counterparts were shaken by European parliamentary elections.

Arguably the most anticipated outcome of the summit may be a decision on using frozen Russian assets to help Ukraine.

Last month, G7 finance ministers said they had moved toward agreement on a US proposal to squeeze more money for Ukraine out of Russian assets frozen in their countries.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is pushing for an approach that would borrow against the future interest income from the frozen assets. It could give Ukraine as much as $50 billion immediately. But the ministers left a final deal to be worked out ahead of the June summit of national leaders.

NATO’s eastern flank countries gather in Riga

NATO’s eastern flank countries, also knows as the Bucharest Nine (B9), have gathered in Latvia’s capital Riga ahead of the crucial July NATO summit in Washington. The B9 event features officials and leaders from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, plus NATO’s newcomers Sweden and Finland, as well as its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who will leave his post in October and has been increasing calls to support Ukraine in the past few months. On Wednesday he paid a surprise visit to Hungary to meet Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has so far denied any military assistance to Ukraine.

Countering Russia’s threats to NATO took precedence on the agenda. In addition to military concerns, participants highlighted the dangers posed by hybrid warfare.

Russian bombing kills nine in Ukraine

Russian forces launched new deadly attacks on Ukraine, killing at least nine people on Wednesday – the day before the leaders of countries that are some of Ukraine’s biggest backers were to discuss how to slow Moscow’s offensive. Ukrainian authorities said that along with the nine killed, 29 others, including five children, were wounded when Russian missiles hit an apartment block in Kryvyi Rih, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s hometown. Zelenskyy sent his “deepest condolences” to the families of those killed, in a post on X, and said the attack proves that Ukraine and its partners need to strengthen the country’s air defences. “Modern air defence systems can ensure maximum protection for our people, cities, and positions,” he wrote. “We need them urgently.”

Meanwhile, six people were injured and 13 residential buildings were damaged by a 500kg guided bomb dropped by Russian forces on a residential area of Kostiantynivka, a city of 67,000 people in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region. Monday’s air strike damaged at least 13 high-rise residential buildings, breaking windows and shattering balconies. One building collapsed altogether.

Biden approves dispatch of second missile system to Ukraine

President Biden has reportedly approved the dispatch of a second Patriot missile system to the Ukrainian armed forces, according to reports in American media. President Zelensky pleaded for the additional Patriot system late last month, arguing that it will help his forces fight back against the 3,000-odd bombs that he said Russia launches into the country every month.

Zelenskyy said Ukraine needs two of the systems to protect Kharkiv, where Russia launched a cross-border offensive on May 10 that left Ukrainian troops reeling.Russia has been striking Ukraine’s power grid and civilian areas as well as military targets, often using devastating glide bombs.

Hamas said to demand China, Russia, Turkey serve as guarantors

Among the alterations to the proposed ceasefire and hostage release deal that Hamas has demanded is a stipulation that China, Russia and Turkey would serve as guarantors for any agreement it reaches with Israel, the Kan public broadcaster reports. The demand, which Kan says was rejected by both the US and Israel, is said to be one of several changes made by Hamas to the proposal put forward by Israel last month and publicised by President Biden.

Other amendments included an updated timeline for the permanent ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza – including from Rafah and the Philadelphi corridor along the Egypt-Gaza border – according to an official from one of the mediating countries who requested anonymity.

‘It’s time for the haggling to stop’ – Blinken

Hamas’ “numerous changes” to the US-backed proposal for a ceasefire and release of hostages in Gaza, caused frustration for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As the US hopes the deal will bring “an enduring end” to the war, the development casts further doubt on how quickly it will be secured.

“Some of the changes are workable. Some are not,” Blinken said at a news conference in Doha, describing some of those changes as going “beyond positions (Hamas) had previously taken”. Blinken did not go as far as to describe the response by Hamas as a rejection of the proposal, and said he believed that the “gaps” were “bridgeable”.

However, the top US diplomat made clear his exasperation at both the changes Hamas proposed and the length of time it took to reply – 12 days. He did not go into specific details about the changes, but he continued to cast exclusive blame for the stalling of the deal – and the prolonging of the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza – on Hamas, not on Israel. “Israel accepted the proposal as it was,” he reiterated, despite repeated public statements from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeming to cast doubt on his approval of the proposal.

“At some point in a negotiation – and this has gone back and forth for a long time – you get to a point where if one side continues to change its demands, including making demands and insisting on changes for things that it had already accepted, you have to question whether they’re proceeding in good faith or not,” Blinken said in reference to Hamas. “It’s time for the haggling to stop and a ceasefire to start. It’s as simple as that,” he said.

Blinken’s trip to Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Qatar also focused on developing plans for when a ceasefire is put into place. “In the coming weeks, we will put forward proposals for key elements of the ‘day after’ plan, including concrete ideas for how to manage governance, security, reconstruction,” the top US diplomat said, without providing further details.

The fighting in Gaza has claimed the lives of more than 37,200 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, and left the strip in what aid officials have described as an “unprecedented” humanitarian catastrophe.

“In the days ahead, we are going to continue to push on an urgent basis with our partners, with Qatar, with Egypt, to try to close this deal,” said Blinken.

Storms bring ‘life-threatening flooding’ to South Florida

The US National Weather Service has warned “life-threatening flooding” was drenching South Florida Wednesday evening as the onslaught shut down a swath of critical Interstate-95 by Fort Lauderdale. “High water vehicles are deployed strategically around the city and ready to respond as needed,” Fort Lauderdale officials said in a post on X. “Avoid driving if possible. Never drive through high water.”

The deluge has caused hundreds of flights bound to and from South Florida airports to be grounded: 153 flights leaving Miami International were cancelled, according to FlightAware, a plane tracking website; 149 flights headed for Fort Lauderdale International were cancelled, equivalent to 34 per cent of arrivals; and hundreds of flights were delayed out of the two airports.

Forecasts expect Southwest and South Florida to bear the brunt of the storm. Some areas have seen more than seven inches of rain, with more expected through Friday

Indian workers killed in Kuwait building fire

Dozens of Indian workers were killed and many more injured in a residential building fire in Kuwait Wednesday. The blaze broke out early in the morning in the building housing about 200 mostly Indian workers in the Mangaf area, south of Kuwait City, according to Kuwaiti media reports.

At least 43 of the injured were treated at different hospitals, according to one Kuwaiti report. Kuwait’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sheikh Fahd Al Yousef and other officials visited the site.

Pope urges priests not to bore worshippers with long sermons

Pope Francis has called on Catholic priests to keep their homilies short – “no longer than eight minutes” – so that their audiences would not “fall asleep”.

 A homily, he said, was meant to transfer the word of God from the book to life”. “But for this, the homily must be brief: an image, a thought and a sentiment,” he told the crowd at his weekly general audience.

“The homily must not go beyond eight minutes, because after that time, attention is lost and people go to sleep, they fall asleep and they are right to do so,” the 87-year-old pontiff added. “And I want to say this to priests, who talk a lot, very often, and one does not understand what they are talking about,” he continued in a light-hearted tone.

This is not the first time the head of the Catholic Church has offered such advice. In 2023, he described long homilies as a “disaster”.

Photo: ANP/HH

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