Von der Leyen to seek 2nd term as EU Commission chief

This morning's top world news, in a nutshell - Tuesday, 20th February 2024

Ursula von der Leyen will seek a second term as president of the European Commission, her centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party announced on Monday. CDU leader Friedrich Merz told a Berlin news conference von der Leyen was unanimously nominated. Her nomination is expected to become official when the CDU’s European umbrella, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), meets in Bucharest early next month.

The 65-year-old politician told CDU colleagues on Monday she looked forward to a joint campaign ahead of elections for the European Parliament, scheduled for June. “I am taking a very conscious and well-considered decision. I would like to run for a second term in office and I am very grateful to the CDU for nominating me as the top candidate for the EPP today,” von der Leyen said at a news conference following the party meeting in Berlin. The EU must make its democracy “safe and secure” by increasing investments in defence, fighting disinformation and protecting its economy, von der Leyen told Euronews after announcing her re-election bid.

Von der Leyen has held the post of European Commission chief since 2019 – the first woman to run the EU’s executive body. To become EU Commission chief for the second time, von der Leyen will need a majority vote in the newly elected European Parliament. Von der Leyen’s bid for a second term comes as the far-right is growing in popularity among European voters ahead of the European Parliament elections.

EU launches mission to protect vessels from Houthi attacks

The European Union on Monday formally launched a bespoke naval mission to protect commercial vessels in the Red Sea from attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Mission ‘Aspides’ – Greek for ‘Shield’ – will aim to preserve freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden – a region plagued with instability since October when Houthi rebels began targeting vessels with drone and rocket attacks. The Houthis, an Iran-backed rebel group that controls a part of Yemen, say their attacks are in retaliation for Israel’s war in Gaza. With 12 per cent of global trade and as much as 30 per cent of global container traffic passing through the vital waterway, their strikes have threatened to severely disrupt trade flows into Europe.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s Houthi militants said yesterday they had attacked the ‘Rubymar’ cargo vessel in the Gulf of Aden which was at risk of sinking, raising the stakes in their campaign to disrupt global shipping in solidarity with Palestinians in the Gaza war. Houthi military spokesperson Yahya Sarea said Rubymar’s crew was safe but that the ship was badly damaged and at risk of sinking. The Belize-flagged, British-registered and Lebanese-managed vessel was attacked on Sunday. The Houthis had also shot down a US drone over the Yemeni port Hodeidah, Sarea added.

EU mulls fresh sanctions over Navalny death

European Union’s foreign ministers held talks with Alexei Navany’s widow Yulia Navalnaya in Brussels on Monday, pledging their support after she accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of causing her husband’s death behind bars. “Mr Navalny’s unexpected and shocking death is yet another sign of the accelerating and systematic repression in Russia,” the bloc said in a statement. “The EU will spare no effort to hold Russia’s political leadership and authorities to account, in close coordination with our partners; and impose further costs for their actions, including through sanctions.” EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell gave no timeline or details on possible sanctions, which will likely include asset freezes and travel bans against people or entities suspected of involvement in Navalny’s death. Any potential sanctions over the death of Alexei Navalny would come on top of what the EU calls its “massive and unprecedented sanctions’’ against Moscow over its attacks on Ukraine. Despite clear pressure on its economy, Russia often boasts of its resilience in the face of sanctions.

“Putin killed my husband” – Navalny’s widow

Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of the late Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, released a video message Monday accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of killing her husband. “Three days ago, Vladimir Putin killed my husband, Alexei Navalny,” she said in the message released ahead of her attendance of an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels. She accused Russian authorities of hiding Navalny’s body, which his family and lawyers have not been allowed to access. Navalnaya said she believes her husband was killed with Novichok nerve agent, and said Russian authorities were holding his body until traces of the agent disappear. She did not provide evidence, but said that “we know exactly why Putin killed Alexei three days ago…We will tell you about it soon. We will definitely find out who exactly carried out this crime and how exactly. We will name the names and show the faces.” When Navalny’s death was announced on Friday, Navalnaya said “I want Putin and all his entourage, Putin’s friends and his government to know: they will bear responsibility for what they did to our country, to my family, to my husband.”

A host of European governments yesterday summoned Russian diplomats following the prison death of Alexei Navalny. These included France, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, Norway, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. Western countries have unanimously pointed blame at the Russian authorities for his death, three years into his sentence, which deprives the opposition of its most prominent figure a month ahead of presidential elections that are expected to enhance Putin’s firm grip on power.

Trump talks of his own legal problems when speaking about Navalny

More than 72 hours after Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death, former US President Donald Trump mentioned him by name for the first time in a post on his social media site that focused not on Navalny, but his own legal problems. Trump made no mention of Putin or Navalny’s family in the post Monday that instead cast himself as a victim and continued to paint the US as a nation in decline. “The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our country,” he wrote. “It is a slow, steady progression, with crooked, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction. Open Borders, Rigged Elections, and Grossly Unfair Courtroom Decisions are destroying America. we are a nation in decline, a failing nation! MAGA2024.” A New York judge on Friday ordered Trump to pay $355 million in penalties in a civil fraud trial, finding the former president had inflated his wealth for years, scheming to dupe banks, insurers and others. Trump has also been criminally charged in four separate investigations, the first of which is scheduled to go to trial next month.

Trump’s post drew immediate denunciation from his rivals, including Nikki Haley, his last remaining challenger in the Republican nominating contest, who has been stepping up her criticism of the former president heading into Saturday’s South Carolina primary. “Donald Trump could have condemned Vladimir Putin for being a murderous thug,” she wrote. “Trump could have praised Navalny’s courage.” Instead, “he stole a page from liberals’ playbook, denouncing America and comparing our country to Russia.” Biden’s campaign posted on X, that after days of silence, Trump finally responded by comparing Navalny to himself in a “deranged social media post”. Trump has been criticised for nearly a decade now for his refusal to denounce the Russian leader and his frequent complimentary statements. This month he again caused an uproar when he said he once warned a NATO ally that he “would encourage” Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to countries in the alliance that don’t spend enough on defence.

26 EU countries call for a humanitarian pause in Gaza

Twenty-six members of the EU foreign affairs council agreed Monday on “the need for an immediate humanitarian pause in Gaza leading to a sustainable truce and call for there to be no military operation in Rafah.” EU High Representative Josep Borrell said, “The ministers also asked Israel to respect human rights and respect the ruling of the Court of Justice in The Hague. Israel must do more for humanitarian aid and assist the population.”

US to ask UN to force temporary ceasefire on Israel

The United States has proposed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution on Gaza calling for a temporary ceasefire in Israel’s war against Hamas and warning against an Israeli ground incursion into Rafah, where hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians have fled over the course of the conflict. The US draft comes after it had vowed to veto an Algerian draft proposal calling for an immediate ceasefire. The Council will vote on the Algerian draft this morning. According to the text of the US-proposed draft, the US is calling for a “temporary ceasefire in Gaza as soon as practicable”, which falls short of the wishes of most other Security Council members who want an immediate ceasefire. “We do not plan to rush to a vote,” a senior Biden administration official told Fox News, adding that the administration does “not believe the Council has to take urgent action” with a deadline for a vote.

Palestinians ask ICJ to end to Israeli occupation

Palestinian representatives yesterday asked judges at the UN’s highest court to declare Israel’s occupation of their territory illegal, saying their advisory opinion could contribute to a two-state solution and a lasting peace. The requests came at the opening of a week of hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The UN General Assembly sought an advisory, or non-binding, opinion on the occupation in 2022. More than 50 states will present arguments until February 26. “We call on you to confirm that Israel’s presence in the occupied Palestinian territory is illegal,” said Riad Mansour, the Palestinian representative to the United Nations.

The ICJ’s 15-judge panel has been asked to review Israel’s “occupation, settlement and annexation – including measures aimed at altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and from its adoption of related discriminatory legislation and measures.” Israel is not attending the hearings but sent a five-page written statement published by the Court yesterday in which it said an advisory opinion would be “harmful” to attempts to resolve the conflict because the questions posed by the UN General Assembly were prejudiced.

Israel building road to divide Gaza Strip

Israel is building a road in the centre of the Gaza Strip that divides the north from the south of Palestinian territory.  Al Jazeera quotes a report by the US think tank, Institute for War Studies (ISW) and Critical Threats Project (CTP), saying the road would facilitate Israeli military raids and control the movement of the local population.

… and sets deadline for Rafah offensive

A member of Israel’s War Cabinet has vowed to invade Rafah if the remaining Israeli hostages are not freed by the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts on March 10. “If by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue to the Rafah area,” Benny Gantz –  part of the Israeli three-member War Cabinet, who is an influential voice – told a conference of Jewish American leaders. Ramadan is historically a tense time in the region. Announced by Prime Minister Netanyahu earlier this month, Israel’s plan to invade Rafah has sparked concern around the world, even from some of the country’s staunchest allies and in the Jewish state itself. On Sunday, however, Netanyahu brushed off growing calls to halt the looming offensive, vowing to “finish the job” in Gaza as he wants Israel to achieve “total victory” over Hamas. So far the Israeli government has not publically discussed a timeline of a ground offensive in Rafah.

Palestinian death toll reaches 29,000

Israel’s assault in Gaza has killed more than 29,092 and injured more than 69,000 Palestinians – marking another grim milestone in one of the deadliest and most destructive military campaigns in recent history as Netanyahu vowed to continue the offensive until “total victory” against Hamas. He and the military have said troops will move soon into the southernmost town of Rafah on the Egyptian border, where over half of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.

Israel says 12,000 Hamas fighters killed in Gaza war

The Israel Defense Forces said Monday that its troops have killed some 12,000 Hamas operatives in the Gaza Strip since war erupted on October 7, after Qatar-based official for the terror group claimed it had lost half that amount – some 6,000 fighters – during the four-month-old conflict. Hamas, which has some 30,000 fighters, is also believed to have thousands of operatives who are seriously wounded and unable to fight. Numbers released Monday by the Israeli military also revealed that Israeli aircraft had carried out over 31,000 strikes since October 7, including over 1,000 in Lebanon and dozens in the West Bank.

Brazil recalls ambassador to Israel

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry has recalled its ambassador to Israel, Fred Meyer, for consultations. The move comes after Tel Aviv’s decision to declare Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva ‘persona non grata’ for accusing the Jewish State of having carried out genocide in Gaza, comparing it to the actions of Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Monday told Brazil’s Ambassador Federico Mayer, after summoning him for reprimand, “In my name and in the name of the citizens of the State of Israel, inform President Lula that he is an unwanted personality in Israel until he does not retract.” Katz said Israel “will not forget and we will not forgive”. Prime Minister Netanyahu said the Brazilian president “crossed a red line”.

20 million EU children at risk of poverty

Twenty million children in EU member-states are at risk of poverty or social exclusion – an increase of nearly a million since 2019,  according to the Unicef report “The State of Children in the European Union 2024” published today. More than 11 million children and young people in the EU suffer from mental health problems. Adolescents are more likely to be exposed to mental health issues, which affect a fifth of young people aged 15 to 19. Increased poverty, deterioration of mental health, online sexual abuse and exposure to pollution are among the challenges faced by millions of children across the world. Ahead of the European Parliament elections, Unicef urges the European Union to safeguard and strengthen children’s rights.  Although there is a serious lack of data on mental health at EU level, the report finds that in several countries there has been an increase in mental health problems among young Europeans during and after Covid-19.

Assange begins last-ditch effort to block US extradition

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange begins what could be his last chance to stop his extradition from Britain to the United States today after more than 13 years battling the authorities in the English courts. US prosecutors are seeking to put Assange, 52, on trial on 18 counts relating to WikiLeaks’ high-profile release of vast troves of confidential US military records and diplomatic cables. They argue the leaks imperilled the lives of their agents and there is no excuse for his criminality. Assange’s many supporters hail him as an anti-establishment hero and a journalist, who is being persecuted for exposing US wrongdoing and committing alleged war crimes. Assange’s legal battles began in 2010, and he subsequently spent seven years holed up in Ecuador’s embassy in London before he was taken out and jailed in 2019 for breaching bail conditions.

Photo: Jean-Francois Badias/AP/DPA

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