Von der Leyen’s envoy quits, casting shade on appointment process

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

Markus Pieper’s renouncement of the post of European Commission small-business envoy after his recruitment drew censure from the European Parliament, has cast doubt over the process by which he was appointed in von der Leyen’s Commission. Pieper, currently an MEP, had been appointed to the lucrative position in January, and was due to start work yesterday. But the recruitment to the supposedly impartial executive drew accusations of cronyism, as Pieper belongs to the same German political party as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Christian Democrat Union. “The President both respects and regrets Markus Pieper’s decision not to take up his post as SME [small and medium-sized enterprise] Envoy on  April 16 as planned,” said a statement published late Monday by Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer. Pieper, who has been an EU lawmaker since 2004, was a “proven expert” on small and medium-sized businesses, Mamer said, adding that selection procedures will be reopened after EU elections due in June. Official guidance says senior Commission appointments should be proposed in agreement with portfolio Commissioners – though in this case the EU’s SME Commissioner Breton clearly had reservations.

A Commission spokesperson told Euronews that, irrespective of the published guidance, it was “established practice” to submit lead candidates for senior jobs merely after consulting the relevant Commissioner “with a view to agreement”, implying Breton wouldn’t need to have consented. Pieper, who did not immediately reply to Euronews’ request for comment, reportedly did not perform well in early stages of the internal assessment. In a statement made to German newspaper Handelsblatt on Monday, Pieper said he wouldn’t be able to carry out his tasks as Breton had “boycotted my taking office within the Commission in advance”, which Pieper said was “poor form and motivated only by party politics”. Sources close to Breton said accusations of boycotting or party politics on his part were “ludicrous at best”. Breton himself highlighted the importance of “transparency and collegiality” in Commission appointments, in a post on social media network X.

In a landslide 382-144 vote last week, largely made on party lines, MEPs asked von der Leyen to rescind the hire and restart the process. The hiring also drew criticism from some of her own senior lieutenants, and from activists such as Transparency International. “Markus Pieper made the right choice,” Transparency International EU’s Director Nick Aiossa told Euronews in a statement. “For an appointment that smacked of political cronyism it should have been President von der Leyen who came to this conclusion weeks ago.” Mamer has previously said that Commission rules were fully complied with during the hiring procedure, and that the EU executive retains independence over recruitment.

Italy’s Democratic Party launches EU elections manifesto

Italy’s opposition Democratic Party has launched its European elections manifesto, committing itself to social and climate justice. Held at the Foreign Press Headquarters in Rome, the launch of the manifesto – titled “The Europe We Want” – kicked off the party campaign for the upcoming European elections. The Democratic Party sees itself as an obstacle to Europe’s right-wing surge, in which the governing Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) and La Lega (League) parties are both major players. “We are the only existing obstacle to limit the advance of right-wing parties in Europe,” party secretary Elly Schlein said at the launch. “I ask the EPP: How far do they want to go when they flirt with nationalist parties? They betray their political tradition.” Schlein also referenced the need for greater inclusion of non-traditional families, and called to continue the battle against gender-based violence.

Spain’s housing problem used as political tool ahead of elections

Spain’s two main parties, the ruling centre-left PSOE (S&D) and the centre-right Popular Party (PP/EPP) are both using the housing crisis as a way to gain votes ahead of the European elections, as housing and rental prices have risen by up to 70 per cent in the last decade. The first to start the conversation was Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who announced the approval in the Council of Ministers of a new Housing Law to help young people with less purchasing power to rent or buy a home at affordable prices. In Sánchez’s words, the aim is to make housing – “un problemón” (a “huge problem”) for young people – a true constitutional right and not simply a market product to favour big tenants. In big cities, such as Madrid or Barcelona, many landlords ask for monthly rents of €1,000 (or more) for small studios or tiny flats. Many young single people or couples spend well over 30 per cent of their salaries on rent and prospects are bleak as the percentage of people under 30 living with their parents will reach 47.5 per cent by 2030, a recent report by NGO ‘Ayuda en Acción’ revealed. Nor are Spain’s figures on youth unemployment very positive: the Iberian country holds the sad record for the highest youth unemployment, 29.3 per cent, according to Eurostat data from 2022. And Spain is the OECD country with the highest overall unemployment rate: 12.8 per cent (compared with a six per cent EU average). The conversation was continued by the President of the PP,  Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who criticised the new law approved by the PSOE and its coalition ally, Unidas Podemos (European Left), and instead proposed a “State Pact” on housing, with specific measures to boost the emancipation of young people. Adding fuel to the fire, Sánchez announced that Spain’s progressive executive would finance the construction of 43,000 new homes for rent at affordable prices, whether newly built or refurbished, which would be added to the 50,000 announced a week befoere. In a speech before parliament, Sánchez detailed that these new homes will be financed through a new public aid line of €4 billion from the EU Next Generation Funds.

Belgian PM denounces bid to ban right-wing political conference

Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo last night waded into a furious row over a local mayor’s bid to ban a right-wing political conference attended by Nigel Farage and Suella Braverman. De Croo slammed as ‘unconstitutional’ the attempt to shut down the ‘National Conservatism’ event in Brussels on Tuesday. It came as the two-day gathering in the Belgian capital descended into chaos on its first morning as local authorities attempted to enforce a ban. “What happened at Claridge’s today is unacceptable,” De Croo said, adding that “Municipal autonomy is a cornerstone of our democracy, but it can never nullify the Belgian Constitution which has guaranteed freedom of speech and peaceful assembly since 1830.” Police barricaded the entrance and were claimed to have barred some attendees from entering the venue, while event organisers complained at being held ‘hostage’ inside. As well as Farage, the ex-UKIP leader, and Braverman, the former UK home secretary, other keynote speakers were due to include Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But the future of the conference was thrown into jeopardy following an order issued by Emir Kir, the mayor of Brussels district Saint-Josse-ten-Noode. He said he was banning the event from taking place in the Belgian capital ‘to guarantee public safety’. ‘In Etterbeek, in Brussels City and in Saint-Josse, the far-right is not welcome,’ Mr Kir added.

UN’s Libya envoy resigns citing no hope for political progress

The UN’s special envoy for Libya says he is his resigning as the world body cannot successfully support the country’s political transition when its leaders put their own interests above finding a solution. “I tendered my resignation to the secretary-general,” Senegalese diplomat Abdoulaye Bathily told reporters on Tuesday after briefing the Security Council on the situation in the North African country. The UN support mission in Libya (UNSMIL) “made a lot of efforts under my leadership over the last 18 months”, but the situation has deteriorated, Bathily said, condemning a “lack of political will and good faith” by Libyan leaders. “Under the circumstances, there is no way the UN can operate successfully,” he concluded. “There is no room for a solution in the future.” Bathily also announced the delay of a national reconciliation conference, originally scheduled for April 28. A new date has not been set. Libya is still driven by conflict and civil war more than a decade after the 2011 NATO-backed overthrow of longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi. The country is divided between a UN-recognised government based in Tripoli and a rival administration in the country’s east. Although relative calm has returned to the oil-rich country in the past four years, clashes periodically occur between armed groups. “The selfish resolve of current leaders to maintain the status quo through delaying tactics and manoeuvres at the expense of the Libyan people must stop,” Bathily said. He had been named to his position in September 2022, after the abrupt resignation of his predecessor Jan Kubis in November, 2021. Kubis, of Slovakia, quit less than a year after taking on the role, giving no precise reason for the decision.

Trump rebuked by judge for speaking during jury selection

On Tuesday, the second day of former US President Donald Trump’s hush money trial, Judge Juan Merchan rebuked defence lawyers after Trump was heard muttering his disapproval of an answer given by a potential juror in the case. “I won’t tolerate that,” Merchan told Trump lawyer Todd Blanche. “I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom.” The proceedings moved swiftly, however, with seven jurors being sworn in and Merchan signaling that opening arguments could begin on Monday. After he left the courtroom, Trump called Merchan a “conflicted judge” and added, “We’re having a hard time with the New York state system.”

Prosecutor Joshua Steinglass told the jurors who had made it through a preliminary round of questioning that the trial was “not a referendum on President Trump. This case is about whether this man broke the law,” he continued. “Did he falsify business records to cover up an agreement to unlawfully influence the 2016 presidential election?”

Todd Blanche, one of Trump’s lawyers, said the trial was “extraordinarily serious” and that it was important that Trump “get a fair shake”. He sought to disqualify several jurors because of their activity on social media. The judge ruled that posting a video did not disqualify them from serving on the jury, to which Trump reacted with gestures and commentary. That earned Trump his rebuke from the judge, who told Blanche to speak to his client. “Yes, your honour,” Balance responded, while Trump looked on angrily.

However, Merchan did dismiss some jurors based on their social media activity. In all, Trump’s lawyers used six of the 10 challenges they were allowed to dismiss prospective jurors without giving a reason. Prosecutors also used six of theirs. The Court does not meet on Wednesdays, so jury selection continues on Thursday, with five more jurors and six alternates needing to be sworn in before opening arguments in the historic trial can get underway.

EU to consider more sanctions against Iran – Borrell

“Some member states have called for expanding the sanctions regime applied to Iran for its support of drones to Russia, to also include missiles and the possibility that it also be applied to Iranian proxies in the region,” EU High Representative Josep Borrell said at the end of the video conference with the 27 EU Foreign Ministers. “I have forwarded the request to the External Action Service to begin the work,” he underlined.

Moscow pledges air defenses to Iran amid conflict

Russian military officials have quietly been supporting Iran with weapons and information as the crisis in the Middle East escalates, it has emerged. A strategic alliance between the two hostile nations, reports The Washington Post, has seen Russia supply an array of artillery to Iran, including prized anti-aircraft launchers and drones. The reported deals are evidence of a concerning dynamic between the two nations, which experts warn show Iran is growing in strength and negotiating power as it barrels towards war. “It’s no longer the patron-client dynamic, where Russia holds all the leverage,” said Hanna Notte, director of the Eurasia Non-proliferation Programme at the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies. “The Iranians are accruing benefits from this change. The nature of their relationship has gone beyond just getting things. There’s knowledge transfer, there’s intangible gains.” Russia has reportedly been pushing to sell an array of weapons and information to Iran as it heads into war, including its prized S-400 anti-aircraft launchers. Experts warned that the growing relationship between Russia and Iran took a large step forward in 2022, when Iran agreed to help bolster the invasion of Ukraine. This agreement saw Iran supply thousands of battlefield drones and missiles – a move that the Kremlin has reportedly been interested in reciprocating. Russia has vowed to support Iran with air defense technology and advanced fighter jets, particularly as it is facing the possibility of counter strikes from Israel in the wake of its halted attack on Tel-Aviv last week.

San Suu Kyi transferred to house arrest

Former Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi has left prison and was transferred to house arrest, an official source told AFP. At the same time, a spokesperson for the country’s military authorities said that older prisoners are provided “the necessary care” during periods of heat and it is therefore unclear whether this is a temporary measure or a real reduction of the sentence the prisoner is serving. Aung San Suu Kyi, who is 78 year old, is Nobel Prize winner.

Dubai gets 2 years’ worth of rain in 24 hours

Dubai was hit with severe flooding on Tuesday after two years’ worth of rain fell in just 24 hours, records show. ABC News says 6.26 inches of rain were recorded in the United Arab Emirates city between 10 p.m. local time Monday and 10 p.m. local time Tuesday, according to the Dubai Meteorological Office. Dubai receives 3.12 inches of rain per year on average, according to the World Meteorological Organization, meaning two years’ worth of rain fell in 24 hours. The Dubai International Airport temporarily diverted inbound flights that arrived Tuesday evening local time due to “exceptional weather”, the airport said in an alert. Departures were unaffected. All Dubai government entities and private schools were instructed to work remotely on Tuesday due to the weather conditions. The city receives nearly all of its annual rain (over 92 per cent) between the months of November and March. On average, Dubai typically receives just 0.13 inches of rain during the month of April.

Champions League: PSG punish Barca to reach semis against Borussia

Kylian Mbappe struck twice as Paris Saint-Germain battled back to beat 10-man Barcelona 4-1 and book a place in the Champions League semi-finals with a 6-4 aggregate triumph yesterday. Raphinha fired Barcelona ahead early on but Ronald Araujo’s 29th-minute red card turned the tide in PSG’s favour, despite the Spanish champions leading by two goals following a 3-2 quarter-final first-leg win. Ousmane Dembele and Vitinha levelled the tie for PSG and the deadly Mbappe hit a brace to put them into the final four for the first time since 2021. The French champions have never won the trophy.

Borussia Dortmund beat Atletico Madrid 4-2 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate to set up a mouth-watering Champions League semi-final with Paris Saint-Germain. Trailing 2-1 from the first leg, the hosts needed to score first at a rocking Westfalenstadion and that is exactly what they did, taking the lead thanks to Julian Brandt’s well-taken 34th-minute strike.  Chelsea loanee Ian Maatsen doubled Dortmund’s lead just five minutes later after a lovely flowing move, only for Atletico to hit back in the second half as Diego Simeone’s three half-time changes had an immediate effect. Mats Hummels’s own goal four minutes after the interval gave the visitors the impetus they needed, with substitute Angel Correa pulling them level on the night – and ahead on aggregate – just past the hour mark.

The two other quarter finals will be played this evening: Bayern Munich v. Arsenal (2-2 in first leg) and Manchester City vs Real Madrid (3-3). Winners will face each other in the semi-finals.

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